When director Jessica Yu came aboard Quiz Lady, Sandra Oh and Awkwafina were already committed to playing their characters, Jenny and Anne, respectively. Jenny is the oldest self-absorbed sister who didn’t exactly have her life together, while Anne was the stable, introverted younger sister who routinely watched her favorite quiz show with her dog Mr. Linguini every night. While one may expect Oh to portray the conservative, quiet one against Awkwafina’s louder-than-life previous roles, the typecasting of the actors have been reversed.
“For some reason, for me, it didn’t seem like they were playing against type too much,” Yu tells The Nerds of Color. “Maybe because I didn’t think they were playing against their own abilities because they can do everything.”
Both actresses are talented enough to play all sorts of characters and Yu was excited to see Awkwafina combine her dramatic acting chops with her comedy, which she shares is a “combination we hadn’t seen so much.” Oh, who has done her fair share of comedy and a hilarious hosting stint on Saturday Night Live in 2019, got to flex her comedic range.
“We know she can be incredibly funny, but here, she just wanted to keep pushing it,” Yu explains. “She wanted to play a character that is borderline unlikeable and inappropriate and follow that journey to her becoming someone that you love.”
The script was written by Jen D’Angelo, who wrote it out with no specific ethnicity to the characters. It wasn’t until Oh and Awkwafina were attached to the initial project sold to Netflix. It was later acquired by 20th Century FOX, which then added Yu as director. D’Angelo, Yu, Oh, and Awkwafina sat down in London to hash out the script to reflect an Asian American family.
“We all worked on the script together for a series of days,” Yu shares. “It was great because we talked about all these things and trying to think of what was the specific experience of these sisters, not just an Asian American family.”
They worked out that the characters were first generation Chinese American and second generation Korean American — to reflect Awkwafina’s own ethnicity. It also helped clue in the specificity of the characters’ backgrounds.
“It’s that level of conversation and thinking of times when you felt like an outsider — thinking of the way that family trauma works where you can forget about [the trauma] until you’re with your sibling again,” Yu explains. “So it was those kinds of conversations, knowing that it’s not important that everything is shown in the film. But we all understand that that’s where it’s coming from.”
Yu is no stranger to writing about Asian American families and their distinct characteristics. In 2007, she wrote and directed Ping Pong Playa, a story about a Chinese American family who are dedicated to the sport of ping-pong, aside from their son, who struggles to fit into their lifestyle. Films like starring an Asian American family were few and far between back in the day and Yu sees the changes from then til now with Quiz Lady — and many other Asian-centered stories.
“One of the big differences I see is that a few years ago, there were not very many Asian-unrelated / Asian American-related projects out there,” Yu confesses. “They were sparse. I know they’re sending them to me because ‘here’s the shortlist of Asian American directors.’ Now, there’s a lot that’s out there and you could see the variety and the types of stories that are coming out where a character is Asian American — that’s not the whole [point] of their character. You have a character whose job onscreen is not to explain the Asian American experience to the audience. They can actually be a jerk. They can be and do something completely different.”
With Quiz Lady, Yu had fun subverting the idea of explaining the Asian American experience. In several scenes, Oh’s character pokes fun at it by saying, ‘do you know how hard it is to be an Asian woman?’ several times.
“We felt like if anyone could poke fun at that, we could,” Yu laughs. “So we went there.”
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Quiz Lady premieres on November 3 on Hulu.