Saying no to Nicole Kidman ‘doesn’t work.’ Just ask ‘Expats’ boss Lulu Wang

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In this week’s episode of The Envelope video podcast, Cynthia Nixon stops by to discuss playing two prominent roles concurrently in “And Just Like That ...” and “The Gilded Age,” then Lulu Wang joins us to talk about making the leap to TV with “Expats.”

Yvonne Villarreal: Hi everyone. Welcome back to another episode of The Envelope podcast. My name is Yvonne Villarreal.

Mark Olsen: I’m Mark Olsen.

Shawn Finnie: I’m Shawn Finnie, and today we have — you all are doing both of the interviews today.

Villarreal: You’re slacking.

Finnie: Look I wanted to give you all space. Two powerhouse individuals, one who is no stranger to our TV.

Villarreal: I spoke with Cynthia Nixon and, you know, she’s been pulling double duty recently. Of course we’ve all seen her in “And Just Like That ...,” which is the sequel to “Sex and the City,” and we talk about reprising her role as Miranda, but we also talked about her role in “The Gilded Age.” Mark, I know you watched this show. And she plays a so-called spinster who is reliant on her proud and stubborn sister, who’s played by Christine Baranski — the great Christine Baranski. And, you know, they come from old-money New York, but this season, Ada finds herself with a new love interest and the tables have turned a little bit in her favor and we discuss more of that.


Mark, who did you speak with?

Olsen: I talked to Lulu Wang, the creator of “Expats.” Lulu wrote and directed the movie “The Farewell” a few years ago that was like a personal, sort of semi-autobiographical story. It was a small, independent film that got a lot of attention and acclaim. And now she’s adapting a popular novel, “The Expatriates,” that’s backed by a studio. It’s a much bigger production. It’s a multi-episode series. She directs all the episodes. She convened a writers room, so she has writer credits on some of them, but also other people, including the author of the novel, Janice Y.K. Lee, wrote on the show, which stars Nicole Kidman. So this is just such an exciting leap for for Lulu and something she was really excited to talk about. And it was a really terrific conversation.

Finnie: All right, let’s dive into the episode, where Yvonne interviews the Cynthia Nixon.

A woman in Gilded Age New York looks out the window of a carriage.
Cynthia Nixon in “The Gilded Age.”
(Barbra Nitke / HBO)

Yvonne Villarreal: Cynthia, thanks so much for being here with us.

Cynthia Nixon: Thank you for having me.

Villarreal: You’re in the unique position — you’re about to start “And Just Like That ...” and “The Gilded Age.” Production is going to overlap for the first time of doing both these series. How are you feeling about that?

Nixon: Well, yes, miraculously, for the first two seasons, they dovetailed almost perfectly. But now it’s double duty, so I don’t know. I mean, it’s not difficult for me. The people that it’s difficult for are our producers, and particularly our line producer, to figure out. I think they’re on the phone all the time. It’s like a checkerboard, you know?

Villarreal: Do you think coming off “The Seven Year Disappear,” where you played multiple parts at once, will help you navigate the switching?

Nixon: I suppose so. I don’t know if you know this weird little thing about me that, when I was 18, I was in two Broadway plays at the same time. It’s like two different locations, two very different worlds with people very firmly rooted in each universe. So it’s a little more like that.


Villarreal: When I learned that we were going to have you as a guest, I was sort of interested to get your perspective on awards season. I mean, it’s this complicated and nerve-wracking thing because in addition to talking about your characters, you’re sort of putting yourself out there, and you have this [other] particular experience of having run for governor and getting people to see you outside of the characters you play.

Nixon: Acting is not a competitive sport, right? But I have to say, there is something really wonderful about the awards season, whether you’re talking about awards on television or film or theater, which is that you’re part of a season and you’re hopeful for your own project and your own performance and stuff. But there are so many colleagues that maybe you’ve known for 40 years, or maybe you’ve known them for a long time but not personally, or they’re brand new and you’ve never seen them before, and the nice thing about an awards show, or particularly in a season where there are all these events connected with it, is you actually do get to kind of [connect]. Of course, you’re meeting your competition, but you’re also meeting your heroes and your she-roes. And so that’s really great. “The Gilded Age” got nominated for [a Screen Actors Guild Award for] best ensemble for the whole cast. And I think we were maybe the most number of people ever nominated because we’re such a sprawling cast. And I couldn’t go because I was doing a play in New York, and Carrie Coon couldn’t go because she was doing “White Lotus” and Christine Baranski was shooting in Berlin or Austria, but we were all talking to our fellow castmates and with them in spirit. There was one particular friend of mine, Ashlie Atkinson, who plays Mamie Fish, she hadn’t been before. And I was like, “This is the great thing — SAG Awards are film and TV and you’re a nominee. Just be bold and anybody you want to meet, go up and meet them.”

Villarreal: Does it feel different — political press? Or even talking about issues versus yourself?

Nixon: It’s night and day. I worked with Glenda Jackson many years ago. I did “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with her and it was one of the last jobs she did before she became a member of Parliament, which she was for, I think, 25 years. After she left that, she went back and the first role she tried was “King Lear” in London. And that’s a hard part for anybody, particularly someone — I think she was maybe 80 at that point. But I think when you’re on the floor of the Parliament, you have to really [snaps fingers to imply the need for quick action]. It’s not so much speeches that have been written out and you read them. You have to be very quick on your feet. So her facility with language was still there. But from my friend, who played The Fool [in “King Lear”], he told me the thing that she had forgotten was that when you’re in an ensemble of actors, everyone is there to catch you when you fall or you slip. She had been so far out of that consciousness, because for 25 years she had been in a political body that everybody is waiting to stab you as soon as you misstep, so she had to learn to sort of trust again and know, “If I’m having a problem, if I can’t remember a line, if something happens, everyone will will step in and help,” rather than capitalize on your foibles.

Villarreal: That must take some getting used to — the diving back in. I know with “The Gilded Age,” you’ve talked about what attracted you to the show and to the character was you don’t always get to play the sort of gentle, loving —

Nixon: I used to! But it’s a very different world pre- and post-Miranda. I’m seen very differently.

Villarreal: Is Ada closer to you?

Nixon: I have both, definitely. I’ve played a lot of characters that were more waif-like more, more Ada-like when I was 30 or 31 and did “Sex and the City” for the first time.


Louisa Jacobson (as Marian Brook in “The Gilded Age”): You’re not coming to the wedding?
Christine Baranski (as Agnes van Rhijn) : No. And just in case there is any misunderstanding, Oscar will not be there either.
Blake Ritson (as Oscar van Rhijn): Mama...
Nixon (as Ada Brook): But I had hoped that Oscar would take me down the aisle.
Ritson (as Oscar): I’d be honored.
Baranski (as Agnes): My son will not participate in your tomfoolery.
Ritson (as Oscar): Mama, this is harsh, even for you.
Jacobson (as Marian): Well, I’ll be your maid of honor.
Baranski (as Agnes): Will you, indeed? You’re very calm and collected. Did you know what Ada was going to say?
Nixon (as Ada): Marian encouraged me to tell you.

Villarreal: Do you enjoy exploring that at this stage in life? I’m in my 30s. I feel like I’m very much like the Miranda, more cynical, sees everything a little bit more realistically ...

Nixon: I’m a very relational person. I’m a very domestic person. And certainly Ada is both of those things. I’m just a person with, I guess, tremendous excitement. Miranda is not so much [about] excitement. Miranda’s got a temper, but that’s very different than being hopeful — even though I’m 58, I feel like girlishness is a big part of who I am. I think Miranda came out of the womb un-girlish.

Villarreal: One of the great elements to this show is the dynamic between Ada and Agnes, who are sisters. There’s a deep love and history there that can be hard to sort of capture on screen. But you and Christine Baranski go way back. You played her daughter in a production in the ‘80s. Can you unpack for me how that sort of familiarity with this person sort of helps you access what it means when a sibling is triggering you?

Nixon: Christine and I worked together on a production, “The Real Thing” on Broadway, that we were both in for a long time, and she won a Tony Award for it. And it was a seminal moment in both of our lives. She had just gotten married. She came back from her honeymoon to start rehearsal, and she got pregnant during the run. So it was a very important moment in both of our lives for a bunch of reasons. But I had been a fan of hers for a number of years before that, from performances that I had seen — “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the Park, for which she won an Obie. What I didn’t realize when she was playing my mother is she’s only, I think, 13 or 14 years older. She’s not really old enough to be my mother. But she’s the right age to be my sister. Christine always says this thing: Intimacy is one of the hardest things to act if you don’t actually have an intimacy with that person. And I think that Ada and Agnes, in particular, because they’ve lived together so long, they’ve lived essentially as a couple. They’re like an old married couple that carp at each other all the time. And one is a pessimist and one is an optimist. One is left wing, one is right wing. And they both sort of bicker and take each other down, but also in a thousand other ways, they’re always looking to protect and soften blows for each other.

Villarreal: What is it like on set with you two? Is it like siblings at this point?

Nixon: We’re all so steeped in theater, it’s like being backstage. There’s a lot of singing of musical comedy. ... I’m not a musical comedy person, but I’m a musical comedy fan. And Christine is a musical comedy person, so there’s a lot of that. And then there’s a lot of just talking about past productions or theater lore, you know?

Villarreal: Do you guys ever go see stuff together?

Nixon: We go to see each other in things. She came to see me in “The Seven Year Disappear,” the play that I just did. It was scary, but it was so heartwarming to me — years after we had done “The Real Thing” together, I did a production of it, also on Broadway, where I played her parts.


Villarreal: Oh, wow. I didn’t know.

Nixon: Yeah, and so she came to see that.

Villarreal: Oh, that must have been special.

Nixon: Yeah, it was special. But that was a little scary, right? When you’re doing someone else’s part.

Villarreal: In “The Gilded Age,” there’s a longing that you see in Ada and the female characters that’s not strictly about their relationship status or their class status. It’s about societal expectations and the limitations that they’re facing. I’m curious how you think Ada would navigate life in 2024.

Nixon: You know, Ada is a shy person. She’s like a home girl. She’s really a home girl. I don’t know what she would make [of] all the conflict and horror that is happening in our world right now. But she might have not had to wait so long in her life to get married if she was a person living now. But I do also think she’s a person of such interest. Without giving away too much about what’s happening in the coming season, I think there’s all sorts of business of the world that she would be busying herself with if she lived now, rather than walking in such a narrow, prescribed path for not just a woman, but a woman of her class and [being] an unmarried woman.

Villarreal: In the second season, Ada, who has grown used to being single and living with her sister, meets a man, Reverend Luke. And they eventually marry. What did you think of that development for her?

Nixon: I was sitting with Michael Engler, our showrunner, and he was helping me because I was about to direct on “And Just Like That ...” I spent a day with him, shadowing him and talking about things. And that’s when he let me in on the secret that [Ada] was going to fall in love and get married the following season. And my mind was completely blown. Obviously, I was thrilled to have her go through so many experiences. And I was so thrilled to get to do them with Robert Sean Leonard, who is such an amazing actor. That part fit him like a glove. He and I have known each other since I was 19 and he was 16, and I played his older sister in the very first professional play he ever did. We’ve remained close all these years. So that was a real treat for me.

Villarreal: Things end — it’s weird to say [in a] triumphant [way] now, considering how things happened to get there — but after her nephew loses the Van Rhijn money in a bad investment, we learn that Ada, after the death of her husband, comes into a lot of money.


Nixon: Arguably more money than there was even before Oscar lost it.

Villarreal: Yes. And so she’s able to save the family’s estate and the tables sort of turn. What are you interested in seeing in this shift in power dynamics between Ada and Agnes in season?

Nixon: I’m interested to see everything. I’m interested to see what she does with all this money, what she does now that she’s controlling the purse strings in the house. And as much as both of those things, how she navigates doing what she wants, acting on her thoughts and beliefs and whatever, but doing it in a way that doesn’t alter her course. But that doesn’t rub it too much in Agnes’ face, because Agnes is a very proud person who has had the upper hand. I think we could say, since Ada was born, Agnes has had the upper hand.

Villarreal: Do you think it’ll change her?

Nixon: I don’t know. We’ll see. I mean, I think Ada getting married shifted the power balance remarkably because not only was she now a married woman with her own home and her own power base, but hers was a love match. Whereas, what we’ve come to understand about Agnes’ husband and that marriage, was that it was not a happy one. It was completely a marriage of convenience, and she really had to grit her teeth and do it. Ada [was] a person that Agnes always, I don’t know about looked down on, but thought of as lesser. Then if you look at these two women, you’ve got to say that Ada is winning at this point.

Villarreal: You talked about your excitement of learning about this development for Ada, in terms of finding a match and finding love. Were you disappointed that it was so short-lived? As quickly as she got it, it left her.

Nixon: I was. I said to Michael Engler, when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, he was telling me different things that are going to be happening in this coming season. And I said, “a ghostly visitation perhaps?” He was like, “I don’t think so.”

Villarreal: “Grey’s Anatomy” did it, we can do it on “The Gilded Age.” Now with Ada and your character Miranda Hobbes, who you played on “Sex and the City,” and now in “And Just Like That ...,” they’re both at a stage in life where they’re wanting more than the status quo they’ve grown accustomed to. What has it been like playing that awakening in these characters in different periods?


Nixon: As I said, I’m 58 and I think it’s kind of an amazing period in a woman’s life. It has things in common with adolescence, but it doesn’t have the craziness of adolescence. But it is a time [where] there’s more behind you than ahead of you. And it’s really a time — if you’ve had a career, hopefully you’re in a place of some accomplishment or want to maybe try something else. It’s like, don’t wait any longer. If you’ve been raising children, those children are probably out of the house or on their way out. And it’s a time when women can really, I think, turn back to themselves. As women, we all do a lot for a lot of other people. And it’s a moment — in the way that adolescence you sort of separate from your parents, it’s kind of a moment of saying, “Who am I? Just me, myself. And what do I want? And what do I want to change?”

Villarreal: I imagine you’ve experienced that in your own life.

Nixon: Sort of. I still have a 13-year-old at home, but, yeah, definitely. I have to say, also, there is a period in an actress’ life, from like 30 to 50 [years old], where you’re playing a lot of moms. And one of the kind of hallmarks of moms is they tend to be really banal. I think that we want, whether they’re fictional or real life, we want those women that are doing the child raising to be placid and dependable and not that interesting, frankly. But once you sort of start to emerge from that, there are a lot more villains you get to play. And there are a lot more [of] the female version of the Tony Soprano, the Nurse Jackie. The person who, we might not like them, but somehow we empathize with them because they’re complicated and they’re not getting an A-plus in behavior, necessarily.

Villarreal: Do you find that it’s hard not to have anxiety about it or freak out about it?

Nixon: Particularly when you’re really young and you’re sort of looking to adulthood and then you are technically an adult but you don’t feel like an adult yet, there is this sense of, “Oh, now I’m an adult and my life is settled and it’s just going to be like the way it is now, always.” And that’s never true for anybody. And I think that’s one of the great things about “And Just Like That ...” There is this sense for women, between 40 and 75, it’s just like Kansas. It’s just flat, right? But it’s not. And so it’s really fun to also be a part of a show that really explores what that’s like in every way, as a sexual being, as a professional being, as a friend, as a citizen. Somehow we think that that age is sort of staid and boring, and it isn’t.

Villarreal: Let’s talk about that. Since its release, “And Just Like That ...” has ignited passionate discussion, particularly the evolution that we’ve seen in Miranda. It’s sparked a lot of debates and discussion. Were you surprised by any of that, how people responded?

Nixon: I thought Miranda should start the new show already divorced or separated. But Michael Patrick King, our showrunner over there, was like, “No, this is a tremendous dramatic opportunity. We don’t want to miss the the breakup of Steve and Miranda,” which I can totally see. I think how people viewed Miranda and Che, or even Miranda exploring her sexuality, was very clouded by how much everybody loved Steve. And apart from that, love Miranda and Steve together. But that’s like real life. When people break up, there’s that moment of trauma and, “No, that couple that I love so much — don’t let them go away, don’t let them dissolve.”

Villarreal: Well, there’s the moment in Season 2 where Miranda sort of drops everything and goes out to L.A. to be with Che. And it’s very much something that the old Miranda would never do. How did you sort of explain to yourself, “What’s going on here with this?”


Nixon: I think that everyone from Carrie to Naya, particularly those two, felt like Miranda was making a mistake. And I think Miranda was probably making a mistake too. But it’s being able to try new things. And she had never been the girlfriend, right? She had always been kind of the alpha in her relationships. She had always been the person who put work first, always. And it was like, “I’m madly in love. Let me just sort of, for once in my life, really go with that and be the heroine of my own rom-com.” She found out it wasn’t really for her, but at least she tried. It’s like that thing they say: When you’re getting older, [in order] to keep your mind fresh, there are all these things that you should do, and they’re basically all things you’ve never done before, right? Learn a language that you don’t already speak. If you’re right handed, try and teach yourself to write with your left hand. Try walking backwards. I do think, as human beings, we just love comfort and security and being set in our ways and doing stuff that we know how it’s going to work out. So I think it’s brave to sort of try something that’s really outside the box — an instrument you’ve never played before. You’ve been playing the piano all your life, try the violin.

Villarreal: It was recently reported that Sara Ramirez [who plays Che] and Karen Pittman [who plays Naya] will not be back for Season 3. And that means that Miranda is losing two new but significant relationships in her life. Che and Naya really sparked growth or change or reflection in Miranda.

Nixon: Completely.

Villarreal: What are you interested in exploring as Miranda confronts those departures?

Nixon: I think Che and Miranda had really sort of parted ways and finally, amicably, they had kind of worked it out. So I think that will make less of an impact, just in terms of my own character. But Naya and Miranda were roommates and we had such fun stuff planned for this season. So I’m really disappointed. I wish Karen so well in her next project and we’re all excited to see it, but we are feeling definitely bereft.

Villarreal: Well, before we go, I know that you directed some episodes on “And Just Like That ...” Would you ever consider directing a show like “The Gilded Age”?

Nixon: I would, yes. I would love to direct on “The Gilded Age.” I don’t know. The thing that made [“And Just Like That ...”] such a wonderful point of entry — because I had directed stuff on stage but never on film before — was as immersed as I am in “The Gilded Age,” it’s still relatively new. Whereas, we’ve been connected to “And Just Like That ...” for 26 years, 27 years, something like that. So it seemed like a great place to start; such a soft landing and people that — I mean, Sarah Jessica [Parker] and I have known each other since we were pre-teens. So it was a wonderful way to start.

Villarreal: Well, best of luck to you as you pull double duty later in the coming months. It was great having you.


Nixon: Great to talk to you.

Villarreal: After the break, Mark’s interview with Lulu Wang.

A woman in a crowd at a party.
Nicole Kidman in “Expats.”
(Jupiter Wong/Prime Video)

Mark Olsen: For the Los Angeles Times and The Envelope, I’m Mark Olsen and I’m here today with Lulu Wang, writer, director and creator of the show “Expats.” Lulu, thank you for joining us.

Lulu Wang: Thank you for having me.

Olsen: Now, you really kind of broke through with your film “The Farewell” in 2019, which you wrote and directed and was really based on, like, the story of your family. And now in adapting the novel “The Expatriates,” it seems like you really found a personal way into this. Was that a challenge for you? And was that important to you in beginning the project?

Wang: Yeah, it’s really important because, you know, obviously “The Farewell” was what it was, autobiographical. So it’s personal in a very obvious way. And then in working on other things, other stories — particularly things that I’m adapting from a novel — I have to figure out, “Yes, I love the themes, I love the characters, but what is personal for me here and what’s my” ... I guess I have a sense of responsibility too, because it’s set in Hong Kong with a lot of Westerners and explores that privilege and perspective. But I also relate to the local people there and what it feels like for them and for the working class and all of that. And so I’m trying to balance both worlds, who I am now and in the States as an American, but then who I still also am, which is this immigrant kid from China, and this home that my aunts and my grandmother worked so hard and just had very different lives than I have here.

Olsen: How do you sort of grapple with just the fact that you’re leaping from this small, independent feature film to a six-episode series funded by Amazon? How do you get over being intimidated by that?

Wang: I don’t think you really do. I guess in a way it’s like, I like those challenges, and I wanted to grow. I wanted to grow with my team, also. The same people that made “The Farewell.” I said to them, “What’s the best way for all of us to grow, as artists? And in a way that feels like we can still control it?” Because sometimes filmmakers will take a leap into this much bigger project where they’re not allowed to bring the people that they came up with, and they have to work with all new people or they can’t really have creative control. And so this felt right because with Nicole’s support and Amazon’s support, it felt like they really were giving us this sort of palette and a playground where we can do interesting things and take some creative risks. And Nicole’s always up for that. She really loves a strong creative vision that takes some risks. And so when I pitched her all of these sort of out-of-the-box ideas, like flipping the perspective where she’s not the main character in one episode and doing a 90-minute episode and the nonlinear structure, she was really excited by that. And that’s the kind of partnership that excites me.


Olsen: Also, you decided to direct all six episodes, but you also assembled a writers room in writing the scripts. I’m curious about that part of the process. In some ways, that seems almost like a managerial job. What was it like for you in assembling and working with the writers room?

Wang: I loved working with the writers room, and the only reason I ended up directing all of them is it was like, “Well, there’s so much new stuff here, let me just direct all of them so I don’t also have to learn how to direct other directors.” And plus, it’s my team, my [director of photography], my production designer, my editors. And so we all have a shorthand. But when it comes to the writers room, it felt really organic because this is a tapestry of so many characters and I can’t possibly represent all of those points of views. I’m going to have blind spots. In order to have a more interesting, varied world of different people from different experiences, it’s great having people who represent that or can also tell me sometimes, “I think that’s wrong. I think that’s a blind spot that you have, Lulu, and I think it’s important that we look at it through this lens.” Because that’s also what the characters are going through, right? They have disagreements and they have to work through them or they don’t work through them. And so it was really great. I mean, it was magical. It’s the best job in the world to show up, be given a lot of food, with people that are super-creative and come up with stories. ... It was therapy for all of us. We kind of all got to talk about our lives and our families and then translate that into these characters.

Olsen: Among those in the writers room was the author of the novel, Janice Y.K. Lee. That just feels like a whole minefield to have the author of the novel as part of a group of writers adapting the novel. Were there any challenges in having her part of the process?

Wang: The only challenge was she would be like, “Stop being so precious” and, like, “Go as far as you want away from the novel. We don’t have to protect it.” And all of us love the novel so much that we would quote it back to her and be like, “How do we get that feeling that you state here so beautifully in prose onto the screen?” And so it was the opposite of what people would think, that she might be overly protective. She wasn’t at all. And I think it also gave me a real freedom. Instead of being limiting, it was really freeing to be able to turn to the person who built this world, created these characters and say, “Well, what if we did a whole spinoff of these characters, what else do you know about them that you didn’t put in the book or what other ideas?”

Olsen: The fifth episode, “Central,” it’s essentially a movie unto itself. And then also it does sort of flip the focus of the characters you’re talking about to really hone in on the helpers, these sort of nanny/maid staff for the main characters. Where did that idea come from? It does expand on what’s in the novel?

Wang: That was actually my entry point into the whole series, because I saw that in the novel there is the relationship between Margaret, played by Nicole Kidman, and Essie, who is her domestic worker, helper, as they call it, and she lives there and has basically helped raise this kid ... I thought that that was so interesting about women who raise other women’s children and the sense of bond that is created, but then the jealousy. And so I said, “I would love to do a whole episode where we break — in order to really examine the privilege and the bubble that is the expat world, we have to step outside of it.” And so the fifth episode we’re like thrown into, it’s raining, we see these Filipino women singing a Katy Perry song under a bridge and for the first like 30 minutes really we’re with these other women. And I just thought that was so exciting. And we’re hearing different languages. We’re hearing Tagalog and Cantonese and we’re not seeing our main expats. And so and then we get to meet our expats through the eyes of these other characters. And so I just thought that that was exciting, because you come in and you don’t know what to expect. You see something, you go, “Am I in the right show? But wait, I do recognize that character.”


Olsen: It also was so striking to me that with that episode, because it’s feature length, you were able to take it to some film festivals and it became, I don’t know if calling card is the way to put it, but it was an entry point for people into the series besides just watching the whole series. Was that part of your thinking and wanting to do it, or was it just sort of a happy accident of having done it?

Wang: I don’t know why, but that was part of always the thinking, because I think we’re challenging perspectives, right? And we’re also challenging this idea of like big screen, little screen, movie star, who gets to be on the big screen. I had made a film that I thought was this little independent film about my grandmother and my whole family was like, “Who’s going to find this interesting? Like, it’s just real life. It’s not a movie.” You know, my dad watches, like, “Die Hard” and things like that. So his idea of what a movie is and what goes on a big screen is so different. And then “The Farewell” did so well and was on big screens all around the world. And so making “Expats” with a movie star, but then we have all these non-actors and international actors. So flipping this idea of who gets to be on the big screen and since this is an episode that features the supporting [actors], now they’re in the lead roles, I thought, well, why not? Let’s shoot it in a wider aspect ratio. Let’s really shoot it like a film and let’s take it to some big screens.

Olsen: This project begins with Nicole Kidman having seen “The Farewell.” She reaches out to you [to ask] if you want to become involved in this project. That period when “The Farewell” was coming out, were you getting a lot of calls like that? That must have been a very heady moment.

Wang: I got a lot of calls and to be honest, I wasn’t totally sure which ones were real. I think I was just in a state of disbelief, and I had a lot of fear because I always feel like if somebody hits a lot of success early on, there’s all these expectations — “What are you gonna do next?” — and then you’re set up for disappointing people. And I felt like I was also really new in my career. And so I had a lot of impostor syndrome, like, “Am I really a director if I’ve only just been on set for 26 days?” And what I loved about doing “Expats” is I was on set for over 100 days, and it’s hard to still feel like an impostor when you are showing up every day with that kind of stamina and having to answer a million people’s questions. So it definitely gave me the confidence to make this bigger leap. But I had other offers and other conversations, and I just wasn’t sure how to find myself in those spaces. And I was also careful not to take this big leap, as I mentioned earlier, where I couldn’t bring my team and I couldn’t grow in I guess a sustainable, for lack of a better word, way. And I would just be thrust into this environment and I wouldn’t be able to control the ship that I had to run.

Olsen: But my understanding is you still were, like, initially reluctant to get involved in this project. How come?

Wang: For all of those reasons. It’s like you hear about it’s a movie star, it’s a huge studio, it’s a whole series. I worried that there would be a lot of excitement because I was coming off of “The Farewell,” but then once we were in the middle of the process I wouldn’t really actually have control, or that it would get taken away from me, or I would have to steer it into a more commercial direction that didn’t feel like my voice. And a lot of the filmmakers that I really respect, they have a body of work that really is in their voice regardless of how the world receives it, if it’s successful or not. I mean, look at Jonathan Glazer, just these tremendous filmmakers who have longevity in their career because they consistently make things that represent their voice regardless of its commercial viability or not. And so I just wanted to be sure that I wasn’t doing it the kind of American, Hollywood way of like going from A to Z in a very short period of time. And I had those conversations with Nicole, and she really guaranteed me that I would be able to build this in my own way, and that she would support me in having that vision.


Olsen: It’s funny, I have had the opportunity to speak to Nicole Kidman a couple times, and she is extremely charming but also very convincing.

Wang: She’s very convincing.

Olsen: And I would imagine that the prospect of trying to tell Nicole Kidman no would be very difficult.

Wang: It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. I mean, I literally thought I was saying no because I said, “It would be impossible. I can’t do it. My vision is so far from what you guys are pitching.” And she’s like, “Well, what’s your vision?” And so I said, “Well, I have to really build it from scratch. It wouldn’t answer any of the questions. It wouldn’t be a crime drama at all. So I’m totally changing the genre. It was supposed to be an ongoing series. I would do it as a limited. It would only be six episodes, not 10. Like, everything would be different. I would have to cast it in this particular way. I would want to bring my own team. I’d want to do an episode that was 96 minutes and you’re not the main character, you’re a supporting character.” All of these things that you think would be like, “Well, of course we’re not going to do that.” And so after I told her all that, I thought I was passing and I was like, “Well, thank you so much.” And, you know, whatever. And she called me like a couple days later and was like, “OK, it’s done, it’s yours.” And like, what do you say to that? You’re like, “Wait, what do you mean? I’m sorry, what?” She’s like, “All the things that you said, you can have it.”

Olsen: And then tell me how you went about building up the rest of the cast. Jack Huston, who I know you’ve worked with before, but then also Sarayu Blue and Ji-young Yoo, how did you go about kind of building the rest of the the cast around Nicole?

Wang: First of all, the show centers on three women. And we knew that the character of Mercy was probably going to be a discovery because it’s somebody who’s very young. She’s Korean American, thinks she’s older than she actually is, and you get to see that she’s actually just a child, which I think speaks so much to young people today that they’re thrust into situations where they have to adult. And because of social media and everything, they act as if they are adults. And then you recognize that they actually don’t have a ton of life experience and are quite vulnerable. And so we did auditions for that. And when I saw Ji-young, she brought all of those elements. She was incredibly confident in some ways and then insecure in other ways. And you could see both of those things just in her eyes. And that vulnerability I thought was really beautiful. Compared to Margaret, who’s also vulnerable. But it’s also Nicole Kidman, she has a certain presence on screen. And I think so much of it is just thinking about energies and chemistry and the mystery between these two women. It’s set up that one woman’s done something terrible and the other woman is the victim and makes you think, “Who is this young Asian woman and what has she done to Nicole Kidman?” And that was the mystery. And then Sarayu, I’ve known her work for a long time through, she’s done comedy, she’s done television, and she was just such a breath of fresh air because she has such range in her performance. And I think she hasn’t had the opportunity to really show that range. She’s done a lot of great comedy work. But we talked a lot about where I needed her to go dramatically as well.

Olsen: There’s this sequence the last episode of the series. And even if people haven’t seen it, I don’t feel like there’s any kind of spoiler or anything, but the three main characters, the three women, have a series of lunches together, kind of paired off, and you shoot them in such a way that it’s facing the camera and as a viewer, you’re not quite sure who’s talking with who, who’s lunching with who. How did the idea for the visual presentation of that sequence come about?


Wang: I have to give credit to my incredible DP Anna Franquesa-Solano. In the script, initially it was just a conversation, two people sitting and then two other people sitting. And I thought we were going to find it more in the edit intercutting all of these conversations. And then Anna had this idea of doing them as portraitures. And I love that because it plays with abstraction. They are all each other, like any of them could be saying any of these things essentially to anyone. And the direct-to-camera address makes it feel like they’re also talking to the audience and that was something that I really wanted, to by the end be really intimate with these three women, whether you like them, whether you hate them, and also include the audience to say, “What wounds are you carrying that makes it hard for you to get up in the morning to go on with your life? What questions do you have that aren’t answered and may never be answered?” Because I think it’s not just trauma and grief that’s hard. It’s often the unknown, the uncertainties and the questions that we may never know and be able to answer. And so I wanted to leave on a note of hope and resilience. They’ve been through so much and they carry so much. And they get up every day and they make breakfast and they open the curtain, they go for a walk, all of those things. So it was really exciting because Anna and I thought the opportunity was there for each episode to have something visually different. For us it was like a master class, like a film school, where we could really explore all these different visual ideas. And so to introduce a new visual language that wasn’t in any of the other episodes, suddenly, and to make it feel like it still fits, but, oh, this is something really different even though we’re about to end, was really exciting.

Olsen: There’s one detail in the show — Nicole Kidman’s character has this kind of secret apartment that she rents just for herself, and there’s this purple plastic bathtub. And I don’t in a way even know what my question here is exactly, but it’s just such a striking element. It just brings up so many questions, like where can I get one of those? And then for you, having something like that, this small detail that comes to feel like it means a lot, why is that important for you?

Wang: I could hug you right now for saying that because it was the most expensive bathtub in the world. And my line producer was like, “Why are we doing this for a bathtub?” And I was like, “It’s so important.” When I read the book, this is what I pictured. I think it’s just something that is so Chinese, it’s beautiful, but it’s also like, why? ...It was just something that was really iconic, this empty, empty place with this purple bathtub. And it had to have the right level of translucence so you can see the water inside. And, so we had to get them custom-ordered, because Nicole is very tall and the bathtubs that exist she wouldn’t fit into. And then they had a minimum order of 200 bathtubs that you have to order. And so it was insane to get the tub. But I think those are the small things that early on you have those inspirations and you try to hold on to them as much as you can.

Olsen: It’s interesting because in another interview, I heard you say, “What you declare to be important becomes important.” And I just found that so striking as far as you as a filmmaker and what will capture your attention.

Wang: It is the details. And it’s the moments in which people are not saying things. It’s the moments in between. And so often we are told what is important, like plot is important, action is important, agency is important. But it’s just not how I experience life. So often you’re going, going, going. And it’s when you stop that all of the emotions suddenly hit you. It comes out of the blue sometimes. We’re having a conversation. The camera turns off, you go to the bathroom, and I sit here and suddenly I see something. It’s those moments that are emotional. And we wanted to dramatize that in this show. And I think we did that in “The Farewell” also: What’s the monster in the room when everything feels normal. And without it being a horror film, but there are horrors every single day inside of our minds, sitting in a room, having a normal conversation. You don’t know what people are dealing with.

Olsen: You mentioned earlier how in some ways you were almost wanting to play with the idea of whether this was a television series or a movie, what those concepts even mean. Did you come to some kind of answer on that for yourself? Do you feel like in making “Expats” as a six-part series, did you learn anything or did your perspective change at all on what visual storytelling is or what the distinction is for you between like movies and TV?


Wang: I prefer watching things on a big screen, and it’s how I like to make things. But now our screens at home are getting bigger too. So I think it’s just about patience, it’s not necessarily about big screen, smaller screen, it’s the intention from the viewer. Are you going to sit down and watch this and turn your other distractions off and really give yourself and trust in the artist and in the process and the journey that you’re going to go on? Because you might feel frustrated in the first 15 minutes, but there is a payoff, right? And I have that experience. I’m an avid viewer of everything from films to television to reality shows. And I know the stuff that hooks me right away. And I know the stuff that’s harder, but there’s a bigger payoff. And so it’s just about how viewers choose to engage. And for me, as the person making it, what is my intention? I also have to let go of this expectation that I am going to hook somebody in the first 10 minutes. That’s not the goal. And sometimes that comes with consequences. Because in television people go, “That’s slow. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m going to turn it off.” And unfortunately, they’re choosing not to engage in that. But I think that there’s real value in things that take time to make, take time to watch and that linger and stay with you for a really long time rather than moving on to the next thing. What are the things, culturally, food-wise, everything in our society, that’s disposable versus not disposable? That applies to art, that applies to fashion, that applies to food, everything consumption-wise.

Olsen: And then your work seems so rooted in asking audiences to change their perspective, to open up where they’re coming from, to consider someone else’s point of view. And do you hope that movies, TV, do you think that it can change hearts and minds? At a moment when it feels like people are so dug in on their perspectives and their point of view, do you believe in in movies and TV to change people’s minds?

Wang: I hope so, otherwise what am I doing? But that’s a tough question because I have felt disillusioned a lot and it’s hard. Because sometimes you go, “Why am I doing this? People aren’t going to change.” And then you just do it again. So I think I do it again because I do have that hope and optimism. Because it’s important. We can’t just create characters who are like us. And empathy is not simply feeling sorry for someone. You can’t say, like, “That person’s a victim and I relate to that victimization and therefore I empathize.” That’s pity. That’s something else. True empathy is being able to put yourself in the shoes of someone who you may not like, who you may not agree with. And that’s really important to me. And that was actually how we approached writing the whole series. Every time we would write a character, we would come up with ways to like them and then immediately shift so that you don’t like them and then like them and then shift away. So rather than it being driven by a plot, we were like, “Who is this person who we can get the audience to love and then also judge them at the same time?”

Olsen: When you get disillusioned about this, what keeps you going? What keeps your head in the game?

Wang: Sense of humor. I make this joke all the time. I’m like, “What is ‘Expats’ about?” It’s about all of these things are going on in the world — there’s so much death, there’s there’s so much trauma and horrors — and are you allowed to be upset that your eggs are burnt? Like, that’s a legitimate question that I wake up and I ask myself. How much awareness of everything that’s going on are you supposed to have at every minute and what is right and what is wrong? If you are upset about your eggs to a certain degree, that’s OK. But you have to not be upset for too long because then you lack awareness and gratitude. But if you’re not upset at all, then you’re not human. What is the right amount of upset-ness over your eggs with all of the things that are going on in the world? And so I laugh about it, but I think that’s what keeps me going, is that we’re all human and we’re all ridiculous and we all make mistakes and sometimes we do good things. But most of the time we’re selfish and that’s what I’m here to explore, is the beauty and wonder of that.

Olsen: Lulu Wang, the show is “Expats.” Thank you so much for joining us today.

Wang: Thank you very much. Great talking to you.