Breaking Baz: ‘Expats’ Star Ji-Young Yoo On Her Career And Being “Happy” To Be Thrown In “Deep End” Shooting With Lulu Wang & Nicole Kidman

EXCLUSIVE: Ji-young Yoo says she was thrown in at “the deep end of things“ when she shot Prime Video’s limited series Expats, playing the central figure of Mercy, a character around whom everyone else orbits.

“I was thrown in,” she says laughing. “But it’s really been a whole super swim,” she says of playing Mercy, a Columbia graduate, in the six-part series written and directed by Lulu Wang. Adapted from Janice Y.K Lee’s 2016 bestselling novel Expatriates, the series follows, from disparate points of view, the lives of three women who are part of the international community in Hong Kong, and who are drawn together following a heartbreaking tragedy.

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Yoo’s first day on set in Hong Kong, with no prior rehearsal, had her shooting a huge key scene opposite Nicole Kidman, who plays Margaret, a landscape gardener who comes to know Mercy through tumultuous circumstances.

“Very, very intimidating, not because of anything Nicole has ever done. She’s the sweetest and kindest, but she’s still Nicole Kidman,” says Yoo.

“I was freaking out most of the time, not that anyone made me feel like I couldn’t do it. If anything, everyone seemed to share this strong belief that I was going to be totally fine. I think there was a real sense as soon as I got the job that this was the biggest thing I had ever done in my life, and I was either going to go 110 percent or nothing,” she declares.

Yoo reckons that “maybe it was good that we started at one of the most important and pivotal scenes of the show,” noting that usually it would be a “very chill scene where you are walking and talking and sitting and saying ‘Hi,’ but Lulu goes hard, so we started off pretty strong.”

Indeed, that first moment she shot with Kidman, which takes place at night in a street market. was one she ended up shooting pieces of, on and off, over the course of nearly a year. The challenge for her was having to summon up those same emotional beats each time.

Due to all of the coordinating for everyone’s schedules, Yoo said she’s still astonished “how we did it as a production because it’s such a large ensemble,” and also in the midst of the Covid pandemic.

For Yoo, it was about ”working on keeping six and a half hours of a limited series in my brain all the time. And then we shot in Hong Kong for six months and then on and off for a year in L.A.,” during which time she did three other projects — a stage play and two movies.

Expats was a huge learning experience for Yoo in terms of improving her craft and from what she gained through working with the likes of Wong, Kidman and fellow castmates including Sarayu Blue, who plays Hilary, a neighbor of Margaret and who gets to know Mercy via her husband David (played by Jack Huston).

(L-R) Nicole Kidman, Lulu Wang, Ji-young Yoo and Sarayu Blue at the ‘Expats’ Prime Experience FYC event last month in Los Angeles
(L-R) Nicole Kidman, Lulu Wang, Ji-young Yoo and Sarayu Blue at the ‘Expats’ Prime Experience FYC event last month in Los Angeles

Yoo still remembers words of wisdom that Kidman shared. “We were all at one point hopping between shows and trying to finish Expats. She told me before she left early on to stand up for myself and stand in my power. And, despite being a young woman in the industry, to have confidence in myself and who I am as an artist and to trust my voice, which is such an incredibly thing to hear from her especially as someone who has been a pioneering woman for women and has opened the door for people like me to walk through and enter this industry.”

Every single person on set, she adds, “has taught me something about what it means to be a professional. I mean, our crew was so experienced and talented. Everyone taught me something about how to ask questions and how to approach the script or how to troubleshoot.”

“I’m so lucky; it’s cliché, but it was a master class every day.”

The irony of it all was that Yoo plays a young woman whose character is fated to suffer ill fortune.

A fortune-teller tells Mercy’s mother that her daughter will have bad luck and that things will always go topsy-turvy. Mercy leaves her family in Flushing, Queens, and travels to Hong Kong, where she hopes to find work and catch up with college friends from the U.S. who are residing in the province.

One of the drama’s most moving scenes shows Mercy walking through Hong Kong streets lost in a world of her own and so utterly alone.

“That’s the ironic thing,” says Yoo, ”because I think she knows so many people, but she’s not letting anyone actually know her. She’s not actually telling the truth about who she is, who she’d like to be … it’s just that she’s using all of her tools to punish herself and to try and compensate for the level of guilt that she’s feeling over everything that’s happened. The people that she loves the most, she’s not telling the truth to. And if they don’t know you, they can’t really love you.”

But, Yoo admits that she’s “very protective” of Mercy “because I think she’s deeply misunderstood, and I think most people tend not to like in other people what they don’t like in themselves.”

She spoke of having noticed that a lot of the reaction about Mercy “can be pretty unsympathetic.”

Ji-Young Yoo at Deadline’s Contenders Television 2024 Portrait Studio
Ji-Young Yoo at Deadline’s Contenders Television 2024 Portrait Studio

The actor understands people being angry with the woman she plays. “But I think that when you’re told your whole life that you’re not worthy of love and that you won’t amount to anything, why would anyone imagine a better life for themselves? And that was really the place from which I approached the character because I think we all know at least at least one person in our lives, and I think we could probably know multiple, who don’t believe that they deserve good things.”

My sense is that Yoo pulls off an unbelievably extraordinarily great performance.

No wonder Kidman, Wang and others wanted her to campaign as a lead.

It comes as no surprise that Yoo has studied the theatrical arts and knows the classical repertoire.

As an aside, I mention how Expats reminds me a lot of Chekhov and how these same characters could be transported to Moscow 100 years ago.

Instantly, Yoo asks whether that would make Mercy “like a Masha” from Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

“Actually, I feel love with a Chekhov play, I have to say,” she says, noting that her favorite is the aforementioned Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya.

The stage is where it all began for Yoo.

She did a lot of training at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, a lot with the very small Asian American community theater, and then at the Perry-Mansfield Performance Arts School and Camp in Steamboat Springs, located in northern Colorado’s Yampa Valley. Alumni who studied theater and dance there include Julie Harris, Lee Remick and Dustin Hoffman.

Her initial focus had been on dance and for an a while growing up she was convinced that “I was going to be a professional dancer,” but she had no idea that dancing could be a profession. Once she reached middle school her art options were pretty much band or drama, “and I didn’t want to lug a tuba home when I walk home from school,” so she signed up for drama.

Ever since those early days she has always loved the feeling of acting and being on stage. ”There’s something really electric about it, and it’s an adrenaline rush like nothing else when you’re being that present and you can feel everyone else in the room with you.”

Also, she used her dance training when she was  preparing to play Mercy, to “build the physicality of the character,” she says. “And I think it engages all parts of my brain, which is what I really like. I really like it when all cylinders are firing.”

She particularly zoned in on creating how Mercy walks. ”I think if you hold stress in your body, I felt like it would all be deep down in her shoulders and just slumping all the time,” she says. “If there was a way for her to make herself concave and totally collapse in herself, she would find a way to do it.”

There’s a marvelous moment in the first episode of Expats where Mercy’s on a bus in Hong Kong and a couple of elderly guys blithely talk over her because she doesn’t understand Cantonese. It’s such a soulful scene compounded by the misogyny of it all.

“I would say most women would say it’s a common experience to watch people speak over them or to just fully deny their experience,” she says.

And her experience of working in Hong Kong was sort of similar. “Something that actually happened to me pretty much every day, the Cantonese part, not the misogyny part, in Hong Kong, is that everyone just assumed I belonged there.”

Interestingly, she found that honesty “refreshing.”

She continues, “I feel like most people assume I don’t belong in America or assume I’m from somewhere else and I‘m coming to America rather than being born and raised here. So in Hong Kong, for everyone to assume that I was just a Hong Konger who belonged there and then were honestly bewildered when I wasn’t speaking Cantonese, was really refreshing and new.”

We joke about and share our experiences about how our identities are sometimes misunderstood.

“The crazy thing is that sometimes people in my life have made me feel embarrassed for not knowing Korean is actually my third language. I didn’t grow up speaking it at home at all,” she explains as she recalls when Psy’s rap “Gangnam Style” went viral way back when “and everyone at school was asking me to translate the lyrics, and I didn’t know Korean so I didn’t know how to translate. And I was so confused because Google existed, you could just look up the  translation. But they would just look at me and just demand to know why I couldn’t speak it. And it just made me feel guilty for no reason … I mean, it’s part of my cultural heritage, but I am American, so there was no real reason or need for me to know it unless I really wanted to. But that was a big issue for me growing up, feeling out of place, which is what Mercy feels when people ask her why she can’t speak Cantonese.”

After a while, when she was a junior in high school, Yoo began to tire of people “defining my relationship to my cultural heritage for me and I wanted to explore Korean culture. So it was a lot of trying lots of new food and watching a lot of Korean cinema and listening to Korean music and learning the language to decide what parts of American culture I want to take and what parts of Korean culture I’d take with me and what the blend is for me.”

Certainly a large chunk of her understanding and love of American culture comes from her mother, who she describes as a “phenomenal pianist”  but who became a banker. Her father studied engineering but then became a lawyer, but he’s also “a great dancer.”

(L-R) Margaret (Nicole Kidman) and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) in ‘Expats’
(L-R) Margaret (Nicole Kidman) and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) in ‘Expats’

She tells me that Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge, starring Kidman, “was on repeat in my house.”

“My mother loves that movie, and I also love that movie, and we both always cry at the end of the movie.”

Yoo says she watched a lot of Kidman’s work growing up. ”She’s one of those people where you say her first name alone and people will probably know who you’re talking about … I’m star-struck still,” she confesses.

I wondered how Kidman asked to be addressed. “She said, ‘Call me Nic.’ And I would love to, but I mean, I’m still adjusting to calling her Nicole, so maybe give me like a year and we’ll move slowly to Nic.”

That’s a tall order for someone who refuses to refer to her high school teachers by their first names. ”So I don’t know where that comes from,” she says, chuckling.

“But I think when I really respect people, I want to call people by their proper titles. And in my mind, Nicole’s proper title is Nicole Kidman and calling her Nic feels so privileged that I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.”

Her good manners stem from her parents and how they raised her, and goes to the reason she says she learned Korean. “They really took the parts of Korean culture they liked and the parts of American culture they liked and raised me with a mixture of both.”

Also, she says, her mother “didn’t really want me to grow up absorbing any kind of misogyny or chauvinism, so she really tried to raise me to be a really strong, independent young woman. But we also as a family really respect expertise. And I think there’s really a role for people who dedicate their lives to craft and knowledge. And I think sometimes in the U.S. we can, in our efforts to make everything a meritocracy. sometimes we can forget how important it is to acknowledge people’s years of experience. And that’s something that has always mattered to me.”

I love that her mother raised her on classic Hollywood movies, enabling her to become a huge fan of the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Anna May Wong and pioneering cinematographer James Wong Howe. Plus, there are many Korean actors and directors and writers she’s a fan of, though “there’s too many to name.”

She got to work with Korean American filmmaker So Young Shelly Yo on her directorial feature debut Smoking Tigers, which was highly praised coming out of last year’s Tribeca Festival.

Yoo credits Amazon for allowing her to join the cast of Smoking Tigers before she had fully wrapped on Expats.

In the film, she plays a student who lies about her family background. It took me a while before I realized that the character who was almost leaping out of the screen at me was Yoo, and I say that as high praise in the way that she’s a chameleon with her ability to simply just disappear into another character.

Same as when I watched her participate in a Deadline Contenders Television panel recently with Wong, Kidman and Blue. Took me a moment even though the moderator, Pete Hammond, had introduced her!

Can’t wait to see what Ji-young Yoo, to call her by her full name as a mark of respect, does next, whether it be on screens big and small or on a stage in the U.S., or over here in London — something which I highly encourage her to do because it will be a real treat to see an actor who’s the real deal command a British stage.

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