A week before the South by Southwest festival made its roaring return to Austin, Texas, following a COVID-induced two-year hiatus, I asked actress Stephanie Hsu what she hopes audiences will take away from watching her new film, A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once. “I hope that people truly have their minds blown, and I hope they ugly-cry and can’t even wrap their heads around why they are ugly-crying and think about the movie for days,” she said. The movie did indeed blow minds and bring about a few tears at the festival’s opening-night premiere, where the crowd at the Paramount Theatre emphatically cheered and laughed during the film’s two-and-a-half-hour run time. The showing ended with a boisterous standing ovation. But more than that and probably most importantly, the project reminded moviegoers of the joys of original filmmaking.
Nobody knows this better than Hsu. While working on the film—directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the creative duo collectively known as Daniels—she discovered something important: She loves movies. In the words of Keanu Reeves, she loves making them, and she loves watching them. And the more out-there they are, the better. “There is something about filmmaking that really resonates with me and the way I like to work and the way I like to get my hands dirty,” she said. In the Daniels, Hsu saw her artistic soulmates, going so far as to describe their first meeting as a love story when the three of them quickly bonded over their shared weirdness during a week of filming an episode of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. “It truly was a vortex moment of ‘we are just so artistically simpatico and love to laugh in the same weird way,’” she told us via Zoom. After wrapping up a Broadway show and season three of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Hsu packed her bags for Los Angeles with the hopes of creatively crossing paths with Daniels once again. A week later, they called with an out-of-this-world idea for their next film, a story about family and love complete with a multiverse, incredible costumes, and… hot-dog fingers.
In the press notes for Everything Everywhere All at Once, there is mention that Daniels still chuckle to each other about how to exactly describe what their movie is about. During a Q&A at their SXSW premiere, they said it could take hours to explain. When we put Hsu up to the task, she gave an answer she’s been holding in her back pocket for this very moment.
“The way that I would describe this movie is that it is a literal mind-blowing, heart-exploding never-before-seen kind of film about a broken family that is desperately trying to find each other through the chaos of not only life but also… the multiverse. And it’s a genre mashup of action, comedy, kung fu, sci-fi, and family drama where you could be a rock or you could be Elvis or you could be a woman with hot-dog fingers that’s in a romantic relationship with a giant Jamie Lee Curtis,” she said.
It’s a Marvel-level film on an indie budget. But that’s the genius of Daniels, whose previous work includes their feature film debut Swiss Army Man and music videos for the likes of DJ Snake, Tenacious D, and Foster the People. They have a scrappy nature that pushes their creativity and the entire team involved to another level, resulting in visually spectacular and thought-provoking art.
Despite the mind-boggling concept of Everything on paper, Hsu got the film’s tone and humor right away. “It was weird in a flavor that I really understood,” she laughed. Her love of philosophical, high-concept art helped, but it was the heart of the film and the larger theme of intergenerational gaps between millennials and their parents and first-generation Asian Americans versus second-generation Asian Americans that really hit home with the actress. Being a second-generation Asian American herself (her mother immigrated from Taiwan), Hsu deeply related to the complicated mother-daughter dynamic that plays out in unhinged fashion on-screen between her character Joy and her mother Evelyn (played by the magnificent Michelle Yeoh). The strained relationship takes on a whole new shape when Evelyn is plunged into a vertigo-inducing multiverse, where she must face all of her potential selves and defeat the villain Jobu Tupaki—an agent of chaos who takes on the appearance of Joy—in order to bring her family back together.
Working opposite Yeoh on such a creative project was a dream for Hsu. “I learned how potent the power of joy and play is,” she said of working with the screen legend. “She is clearly a master, clearly a household name, a literal star, and she is the silliest, most playful, and loving person. And especially when you are number one on a call sheet, how you [show up] is going to change the entire environment around you and determine the entire environment around you. Her willingness to do anything, I just saw how that brought everyone so much joy and made everyone feel so relieved. And she is truly so generous. She works her ass off, and even when she says she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she really does put so much trust in her collaborators that she just surrenders to the project. And I think she really surrendered to this one, even as crazy as it was.”
Everything leans heavily into the crazy—but in the best way possible. There’s an “emotional” scene in the film, in which Yeoh and Curtis have ketchup and mustard squirted all over their faces and into their mouths. There’s the temple of worshippers, and Hsu’s character is dressed in all white with Euphoria-esque pearl makeup and her hair braided into the shape of a bagel. And then of course, there’s the crowd-pleasing deserted canyon, where sentient rocks have heart-to-heart conversations. The latter is a personal favorite of Hsu, who loved the scene while reading the script and was quite pleased with how Daniels ultimately pulled it off.
There was a moment during filming when someone on set turned to Hsu and asked how she could ever do any other project again after getting the opportunity to literally do everything on this one. Indeed, these will be hard shoes to fill, but Hsu is paving an exciting path for herself in Hollywood. She has season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel out now and Everything Everywhere All at Once hitting theaters this month, and she recently finished an untitled Adele Lim feature that is coming soon. Her goal is simple: to find projects that have a lot of heart and are unlike anything we’ve seen before. “I want to keep doing a Rolodex of ‘first of its kind,’” she said.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is now in theaters.
Photographer: Jonny Marlow
Stylist: Amanda Lim
Hairstylist: Dallin James
Makeup Artist: Hinako