A black and white portrait of actor Karoline, with short black hair, in a white top and dark pants.

Karoline: ‘Death and Other Details’ has ‘murder, mystery and sex’

The actor on their new Hulu show, growing up with conservative Chinese parents and how actors are psychotic

Words by Quin Scott

It’s the morning of the release of Death and Other Details, Hulu’s latest glamorous whodunnit series, but it’s quiet at actor Karoline’s home. “I don't even know how the online premieres really work because we had all this press and stuff, but now it’s just waiting. It's really quiet,” they say over Google Meets from their New York home. At least there’s one guaranteed viewer: “My little brother is in Texas and he doesn't have school today because Texas is in a freeze,” they say. “The pipes in the school don't work. So they all went home and he's like, ‘I'm gonna watch it. First person in the world.’”

Karoline grew up in Texas as well, navigating a deeply conservative culture (“You’re taking on identities that you don’t really understand”) and attending a pre-med high school (“horrible”) before getting out the first chance they got. I sat down to talk with Karoline about their steady rise in the acting world from Harvard to Hollywood, their personal growth and healing along the way, and their new show.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Quin Scott: So, we’re talking about how you got to where you are, and you’re at Harvard…
Karoline: Yes, Harvard. Harvard is really tough, you know, socio-economically. When I got there I was like, “Oh, God, like I've never met people this rich in my life.” I was very much a scholarship kid and felt really confused because I wasn't that poor back home. But then when you get there, you're just poor. And then I went to do theater, and I’d never done that before, and there it’s all kind of fucked up, to be honest. I was very, very down, because I couldn’t get cast in anything—probably because I was shy, but also probably because, like, racism, so I took a year off in the middle of college to go to acting school.

[When I went back to Harvard], I started working professionally in Boston, because it was actually easier to book a real job than to work at Harvard. It’s a student-run theater and the students are mostly white, and they hire their friends, and they're making plays where they're saying they're colorblind casting, but really, they're not. It just wasn't interesting to play politically in that world anymore.

So I was sort of working in Boston halfway through college and would do things in the summer and then eventually, this program called Actors Theatre of Louisville, which was this apprenticeship in Kentucky. I knew I wanted more training, but I didn't want an MFA. So it was a nine-month program. You apprentice, you understudy, and then at the end, you get a showcase, and hopefully you get a job. I got very lucky, and I got a job out of that. I booked a show at Lincoln Center. And it was sort of weird to go to New York and get a job the second week. I felt intense shame and guilt for booking this. But that's how I started my career, I guess.

A black and white portrait of actor Karoline, with short black hair, in a white top and dark pants.

Acting has been a healing journey for Karoline.

Fujio Emura

QS: Was it hard for you to give yourself permission to pursue acting?
K: People always wonder that and actually no, because there's a really dark, deep answer for all the acting stuff, obviously, because actors are psychotic [laugh]. They’re just like, all so psychotic. To be someone else, for a living…I later realized that part of that was because I was unhappy with a part of myself, and also because I thought there were things I needed to change, or I thought that fiction could always be happier than life. And that comes from deep, dark places.

I mean, I really had a very difficult childhood. My parents are very conservative. They come from conservative parts of China. There’s a lot of family trauma. And you hear stories of people being like, “My parents really pushed me.” It was sort of not that—like it was mostly that they were very afraid of life. It's a sort of different mirror to what I think a lot of other Asian narratives are, and so I knew I needed to separate myself from my family or develop my individuality very early on. And this acting thing was something I wanted to do since I was young.

QS: Is that fear, being afraid of life, something that you had to work through?
K: I would say that I thought I had less fear than I do. But the fear actually turned into other things. I would be really jealous of people for no reason, or I would feel superior, feel shame, and something I realized in the last year is like, “Oh my God, I feel so much.” I'm deeply afraid of disappointing people, and I'm deeply afraid of disappointing my friends in particular. And I thought it was because I was not good at being friends with people, but it was actually that I thought those friendships are so fragile and I just couldn't touch them. I feel like things live in you and they either consume you, or you kind of work them and reshape the dagger.

QS: I’ve seen you mention in other interviews that you’ve been on a healing journey. What has that looked like for you, and how has it impacted your life as an artist and actor?
K: I've been acting now for 10 years, and I think it's been a really good lesson in the capacity for change and allowing myself to change in my identity as an actor and my relationship to it. I love myself more honestly and sometimes I feel like, “Oh, what about that desperate drive I had before?” And it really was so desperate. Like, I would just read my textbooks out loud as monologues. I'd go to the basement in my dorm and do monologues by myself in a windowless room for two hours. And that's not really there anymore.

And so you're like, “Okay, so why does this still matter to me?” Because I always thought the consummate way of living was like becoming a ballerina or a nun—a craft where everything you do influences that moment when the camera turns on or whatever, which I really love. It's a rigorous and specific way of living. But if you're happier with yourself, you know, what does that mean? And that's so funny that that's the question, because I really feel for the first time that I'm very content, and the days are peaceful, and it's a really strange thing to be like, “Oh, I thought I was an unhappy person.” But I'm not—that was a created situation and I can change that for myself.

In Chinese, when you refer to somebody, it's just one non-gendered term. It's just “ta.” It's just like “that other person” and so maybe that's in the air somewhere...I always felt very non-binary, but obviously didn't feel like I knew how to express that. I just felt like I was bad at being a girl.

QS: You’ve recently come to identify solely by they/them pronouns. How has queerness and gender identity been part of your journey?
K: I've always felt non-binary and I really also believe that none of us have genders. Let's just think about that. I've always felt like that. And there was really no word for me, when I was growing up. But in Chinese, when you refer to somebody, it's just one non-gendered term. It's just “ta.” It's just like “that other person” and so maybe that's in the air somewhere. I don't know. I always felt very non-binary, but obviously didn't feel like I knew how to express that. I just felt like I was bad at being a girl.

And then, Gen Z coming out with their pronouns…I was like, “Oh my god, I have a choice and I don't have to be ashamed.” And so I was like, “Okay, cool, let me introduce this they and this she thing,” but thinking, of course I was going to disappoint people. The way it really converged with Death and Other Details is that the character is a she, and I still play a lot of female characters, and I remember before we were shooting, one of my co-stars Lauren Patten was like, “Oh, you use they, should we just be using that for you?” And I was like, “Oh, I don't know, like, my character is a she.” I just kind of used that as a cop-out because I was afraid honestly, that they were going to think that I was not right for the role.

And I felt uncomfortable the whole time. And then after that for the next project I went into, I told people I can't do that. I really had to be like, “Okay, I need to be able to hold all parts of myself.”

QS: Let’s talk a little about your new show, Death and Other Details. Tell us about your character, Eleanor Chun.
K: Eleanor Chun is rich. She's lesbian. She's kind of mean, but everything she says is true. That’s the vibe, and she comes from a big fashion empire family. They're from Shanghai and she went to boarding school in England, and it's like the dark side of Crazy Rich Asians. She's just really fun. And then she’s on a boat where murders are happening and it's possibly the first time in her life where she's trapped, and her money and privilege cannot save her.

QS: Death and Other Details joins a recent surge in mystery series and movies, such as The White Lotus and Only Murders in the Building. Why do you think these kinds of stories are so popular?
K: I've had so many people tell me,I don't even care what the show is about. You've touched on the three things I like: murder, mystery and sex.” It's an inherent, primal thing for people. They love to…people are just sluts [laughs]. People are just so horny! It’s like touching all the horny parts of you—the intellectual horniness, the emotional horniness and the actual you know, pelvic.

And it’s shot so beautifully, and with the makeup team and costume and design team, I've never felt so beautiful. Oh, it’s going to make me cry. There was this moment...with my parents, it was a lot of, “You're not pretty enough to be an actor,” and you take some of that in and you're like, “Okay, yeah, but I'll be really good anyway.” And I don't wear a lot of makeup in life, but the character does, and I'm on set and my make up artist Lindsey Pilkey took a picture of me and, and she showed me and I started crying. She was like, “Oh, you're so beautiful.” It was so many layers, of a camera seeing you and the person seeing you and then a photo of you being seen. I just felt so seen. And then to be called beautiful was really healing and unexpected.

People are just sluts [laughs]. People are just so horny! It’s like touching all the horny parts of you—the intellectual horniness, the emotional horniness and the actual you know, pelvic.

QS: This was your first role in a big TV series. What did you learn from the experience?
K: I learned a lot. I’ve never done 10 episodes of something. The sets were huge. We recreated the boat inside and shot on a boat for the pilot. Hundreds of people. I learned, “Who are you and what is the role you play in this machine?” Especially coming from theater. I learned a lot about gratitude and patience and work ethic. And there’s something very humbling about how the actor is who you see, but it’s because of all these other people waking up at four in the morning and turning on the lights. You just feel very grateful to have people want you to be there.

QS: How do you flesh out a character in that machine? There’s an ensemble, a massive production…How could you ground a character and perform them in this new kind of box?
K: That’s great, New Kind of Box, that’s the name of my band! [laughs] It was tricky, honestly. It’s a huge cast and the showrunners gave everyone arcs and scenes and that’s not always the case in big shows like this, so that’s really cool. We were encouraged to be the champions of our character. You’re also taking care of each other, and I learned from my fellow actors who had been on more shows, like advocating for yourself and what you need. Because sometimes it is very easy to get into a flow. People will tell you where to go, they’ll carry your shoes…But you need to continue to be your own person. And there’s so much going on, you also want to do so in a way that’s sensitive to what everyone else is going through.

QS: What was it like working with Lisa Lu, who plays your grandmother?
K: I actually wasn’t familiar with her filmography before, and when I watched all her clips, I was blown away. Because she’s literally 90 years old (Note: She’s 96). Incredible work ethic, tough, someone who has gone through a lot and still deeply wants to work all the time. I felt very fortunate to be shown this way of living. She’s very different from my grandmother and a lot of other people I know her age and she’s just really tough. In a good way, not like scolding me. It was cool to have a grandmother there who was just like, there to do the nice things, and had no stake in the other stuff.

QS: You have a history intertwining activism with your work as an actor, such as when you wrote an open letter to Santa Cruz Shakespeare holding them accountable for instances of racism and sexism.
K: After that letter, I had this crucial moment with this white male mentor. I had some offers to publish the letter, I had shown the organization Santa Cruz Shakespeare, everyone knew…the activism is always about transparency, and community building. It was a difficult moment, and this mentor asked, “Do you want to be an actor or an activist?” Because he was saying you can’t be both.

And it was really hard for a while because I did think, “Okay, it’s too thorny to be a full person in acting, and what they’re asking for is to be pretty and show up, and a lot of pedagogy says the same thing.” And it never sat right with me, and I’m also not the kind of person who’s able to do it.

What that looks like now is that when things are wrong, then I tell people who need to know about them, and I’ve learned a lot about how to do that. And the culture has changed where people are more receptive to that. It involves a lot of willingness to change and negotiate, and sometimes I really fuck up when I do it, so also learning from that.

QS: What are you working on, and where can folks see you next?
K: I’m in an A24 film that’s coming out with Sebastian Stan called A Different Man. It’s premiering at Sundance. And I’m developing a feature that I can’t say too much about, but I think it’ll illuminate a lot of the things we talked about today. It’s sort of a risky piece, but I think it’s very cool.

Published on January 30, 2024

Words by Quin Scott

Quin Scott is a writer, painter, and educator in the Pacific Northwest. They like reading, running, and making jokes with their friends.