Kimi Rutledge is a badass nerd in Netflix’s ‘Obliterated’

The "JoySauce Late Night" alum on her new show, playing characters beyond a trope and finding family on set

Kimi Rutledge and her camel costar in "Obliterated."

Courtesy of Netflix

Words by Vik Chopra

There are few times in life that one is lucky enough to actually get paid to sit and chat with one of their best friends, yet today I find myself one of the lucky ones.

Kimi Rutledge and I met on the set of JoySauce Late Night, where you may recognize her as a key member of the writers’ room and generally hilarious, charismatic badass. Today, we’re discussing her breakout role as Maya, the “tech chick” in a group of kickass operatives assigned to find a nuclear bomb, on one of Netflix’s top shows of the new year: Obliterated. Though Kimi’s been killing it as an actor in her native Seattle for years—national commercials, lead roles in short films, and guest starring on TV shows like Shrill with Aidy Bryant—I couldn’t be prouder to see her wowing audiences around the world now. Am I biased? Sure. But spend some time watching her and you’ll understand why.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Vik Chopra: I know this is your first big streaming network show. How does that feel to be on a show that has reached that kind of success?
Kimi Rutledge: It feels crazy. I think it feels both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time.

VC: Okay, explain a little bit. What do you mean by that?
KR: I think it's crazy because a lot of the stuff that's happening has been online. Nothing's really that different in my day-to-day life, but it feels like when I go on social media, it's like a completely different world. So in my day-to-day life, it feels pretty normal, doing the same thing that I would be doing before, but I think my online presence, and then probably more behind the scenes, things are different.

VC: You're still living in Seattle. Have you had any interactions or any encounters with fans of the show?
KR: Yeah actually, someone approached me and said that they love the show, and they love my character. And that made me really happy because I wasn't sure if anyone would recognize me. So it was cool that someone did.

VC: Has there been any talk or rumblings of a season two yet?
KR: Not yet. I think Netflix has until spring to decide. So there could be a season two announcement prior to that or not. But we're hoping that…we're manifesting.

VC: We are. We're manifesting another bomb. Maybe this time in New York City. Hey, what about Hawaii? Maya at the beach?
KR: [Laughing] Yeah, yeah, like Maya could be on her laptop and then have a Mai Thai or something.

VC: Right! The chemistry of the whole cast is undeniable. You guys seem like a family. Is that the case?
KR: Yeah, we are so family at this point. And we would feel the chemistry when we would just be on set, and we would comment on it all the time. We will just be astounded at how easily we all got along. And I love everyone so much. I feel like we actually genuinely have a good connection and we blow up the group chat and it feels really genuine off screen.

VC: That's awesome to hear. You always hear behind-the-scenes horror stories, so it's always great to hear when the chemistry is real. I think that's also a testament to you and the energy that you bring.

On the set of JoySauce Late Night, not only did we hit it off, but the whole set just really bonded. I remember all of us talking about it on set, that this doesn't happen very often. We became like a family.
KR: We did! We’ve had our family dinners and we have our group chat and yeah, I think I feel really lucky to have had two experiences back-to-back that were casts full of loving people and lifelong friends.

VC: And then speaking of chemistry, so on the show, Ava and Maya are really linked together because Maya is Ava's right-hand gal as far as providing all the tech and all the intel. You and Shelley [Hennig] on camera had a lot of chemistry. How is your relationship with Shelley in real life?
KR: Oh my god, I love Shelley. I view Shelley like a sister and a mentor in a lot of ways, and she's really taken me under her wing on set. And even off set, she let me stay at her house when I went to LA and she's just so accommodating, always looking out for me. I'll text her questions. She gives me advice, is really supportive, really encouraging and she is a lot of fun.

Actresses Kimi Rutledge in a red sweatshirt and glasses and Shelley Hennig in a white top embrace, with a blurred out blue truck in the background.

From left, Kimi Rutledge and Shelley Hennig on the set of "Obliterated."

Courtesy of Netflix

VC: I love that. Your character Maya, to me, is the heart and soul of the show. She really had the best character arc, really comes into her own and had the best one-liners. I really was just saying this, not even as your friend, but as a viewer.

So, I wanted to ask about your favorite Maya moments. My favorite is when she's in the strip club, and the stripper is putting the whipped cream on his dick. You burst out crying! In the reference to the whipped cream bikini. I died. Your performance in that scene was just so genuine. It's so ridiculous and so hilarious at the same time!
KR: That's awesome. That's gotta be one of mine, too. I think that whole episode, when I'm with Jeremy in the back room, was one of my favorites to shoot. And I'm glad you said that it came across genuine because I think that was something I really enjoyed about playing Maya was just how I'm genuinely emotional and how she could really just feel her feelings. So it was so fun to play her and there's all these fun moments.

Besides the strip club, [another favorite was] when Paul is hyping me up in the boathouse, and it's right before I take the gun. That was so unexpectedly fun to shoot, I think because Eugene Kim is an amazing actor. And I love working with him. He's Korean American. He was awesome to work with but we really bonded on set, too, being Asian actors. He had a lot of great advice and a lot of insight into, you know, being an Asian actor in the industry.

VC: That’s great because literally my next question was, was there a kinship developed between you and Eugene being the two lead Asian actors on the show?
KR: Literally! Yes, yes, there was. Him and his generation of Asian actors paved the way so that I could be on those sets. And so I really expressed my gratitude to him, and he expressed how excited he was to see young Asian talent get their flowers and get their opportunity to play crazy fun characters.

We were really happy that we could play characters that just got to be so much more. So multi-dimensional, and beyond just the archetype. I feel like historically [our Asian characters] would stay in their lane. I would just be the nerd…so we were just so excited the whole time that we got to do so much and to show so many different sides.

She's not just the nerd. She's had this badass in her the whole time. She just couldn't see it. She was always looking outward. And I feel like I could relate to that on a level of looking for external validation, looking to the white actors and looking up to the white people.

VC: Maya does start out as the “nerdy” Asian girl. How did it feel to play that archetype?
KR: That's a great question. Asians have historically played the nerds, or they've been kind of confined to certain tropes and a lot of other tropes have been inaccessible, like the badass or the leading lady. I have this acute awareness that I was playing a trope as an Asian woman, even though I do also really relate to Maya on the nerdy level. As we kept shooting, I was allowed to really collaborate with the directors, and I got to imbue myself and my own sense of humor into her.

It sort of expanded as the show went on, and I realized I wasn't just the nerd. The whole journey that Maya goes on is to realize that she's a badass. And she's actually hot. I mean, she's sexually curious. She's brave. She's weird. She's really funny. And she's really open, emotional, and so I think it felt like a trap to me to only view her as the nerd because as you go through the show, you realize, oh, there's so much more to her.

And her journey really is her realizing she's not just the nerd. She's had this badass in her the whole time. She just couldn't see it. She was always looking outward. And I feel like I could relate to that on a level of looking for external validation, looking to the white actors and looking up to the white people. How can I fit in, and I think that's my beginning. She's like, “Oh, I'm just a nerd. I'm awkward. I don't fit in. These are cool, badass people and I'm not like them.” And I think by the end, she realizes, “Oh, I belong. I am just as badass as Ava Winters is. I am here. I'm thriving in my lane.”

In an ideal world, Asians can play any role. Any trope, and that includes nerds. And it's unfortunate that I happened to be a nerd. But I really feel this kinship to her because I grew up so nerdy and had some of her lack of confidence. Maya and I are so different, too. And I wouldn't react in a lot of the same ways she would, but I really connected to her through my inner child. It felt like an authentic place for me.

Actress Kimi Rutledge in "Obliterated," in a light green top, shoots a machine gun while yelling, with a white building in the background.

Kimi Rutledge's character Maya in "Obliterated" starts out as a nerd who discovers her inner badass.

Courtesy of Netflix

VC: She is so much more than a nerd! And speaking of representation, there is a lot of queer representation on the show as well. Being an openly queer actor, is that something that was important to you seeing that in the script? What are your thoughts on it?
KR: It made me really happy that there were queer storylines. I thought it was really interesting the sort of difference between male queerness and female queerness. I thought that was interesting to have both and how different they're viewed in society. As a queer actor, I was really excited to have queer storylines just be a part of a massive story without it being [the focus].

VC: Exactly! These characters just happen to be queer, just like Maya happens to be Asian.
KR: Yeah, and I think it's really refreshing to have shows that have characters that are queer and that's not the main point. The main thing that was important wasn't the queerness, [but] the relationships between the characters. Some of them just happened to be queer.

VC: We love to see it. Obliterated comes from Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald, the team behind Cobra Kai, and one of my all-time favorites, Harold and Kumar. And I think that movie did a lot for Asian representation, even though it is this stoner buddy comedy. What was it like working with them?
KR: Oh, my gosh, I was raised on comedy, all kinds of comedy. And so the fact that I got to work with this team, Jon, Josh and Hayden…I was immensely grateful because I grew up watching their stuff. They really did do a lot with Harold and Kumar. They made a sort of space for Asians to be stars. [And that] changed a lot for Asian actors and comedy. So I'm really grateful for that. And I think it's really cool to continue.

A headshot of actress Kimi Rutledge in a white top, against a gray background.

Kimi Rutledge plays Maya in Netflix's "Obliterated."

Courtesy of Kimi Rutledge

VC: Can you talk about the casting process a bit? You auditioned and another actor was cast and let go, and then you were cast as Maya. What was that like for you? Because this is your first big Hollywood production!
KR: It started the way that any audition would. I sent in a self tape, and did not think I would get it. But I got a call back. That was over Zoom. And then had a series of callback screen tests. And eventually, after several weeks, it was narrowed down to me. Then they had to find someone to test me against. They did. And then they ended up going in a different direction, which I was kind of expecting because I didn't have any big credits, and I didn't have any following or fans. So I thought, okay, it would be pretty risky for Netflix.

VC: You had a decent TikTok following! Let's just be real [Laughing]! And you were getting big in Seattle.
KR: [Laughs] Yeah, but it felt almost too good to be true. After I initially didn't get it, I remember grieving it for the night. There was some feeling when I did the audition, and when I did the Zoom test, I remember just having this really good feeling. And it felt almost like, "I think I can do this." But my logical mind would always take over and be like, “Yeah, but you have no credits.”

But there was a gut feeling always that felt like it was mine. And I remember just thinking they made a mistake. Like, I actually really think I could have done this character. And I really connected with it. And I just had this feeling about it. And eventually once I said that, I thought, "All I can do is let it go." So I let it go. And I felt really good. I felt really grateful actually to just get that far. I tried to transmute that rejection into gratitude. And the day I got the call that I did end up getting it, I had actually just…I make playlists for all of my characters. That helps me get into the zone and the character. And so I saw the Maya playlist. [I thought] “Oh, I don't need this anymore.” And so I deleted it. Then I get a call [that I got the part]. So it felt like, cosmically, once I had really let it go, in the spiritual lens, it felt like I could receive it. It felt like I had to let it go. And the more attached I was, the more it was pushed away.

VC: That’s amazing. Speaking of spirituality, you and I are both very spiritual people, and that’s one of the cornerstones of our friendship. How important is your spirituality in your life and what aspects do you bring to set?
KR: I think it's so important. My spirituality is essential to me having a good, stable life. I think personally when I went on set, I was gratitude journaling every morning and every night. And meditating every morning, before we went to set. It was weird, because I think getting the job kind of kickstarted a very specific, proper spiritual practice. For me, that was really specific to shooting. At the risk of sounding sort of corny, when I first stepped on set, I felt this feeling that I think a lot of creatives and artists feel where it felt like, “Oh, this is something bigger than me. This is not about me, this is just creative energy that we're all tapping into.” And it almost felt like my ancestors were watching over me. And it was this really divine feeling. I think that was a really good omen for me when shooting, was the feeling of my ancestors. That's a very Japanese cultural thing, like the feeling of my ancestors, their spirits, blessing me on this journey. There was some connection I felt, and it felt spiritual, and it felt divine and ancestral. That made me feel like this is not an individual journey. This is a collective journey. And I felt really connected to everyone and I felt really present.

A south Asian man and mixed-Asian woman stand together and smile, with cars in the background.

Writer Vik Chopra and Kimi Rutledge in Los Angeles the day "Obliterated" premiered on Netflix.

Courtesy of Vik Chopra

VC: I love that. I do think there wasjust once again interjecting as your friendsomething divine here with you and this role. There's just something greater happening there. You know what I mean? I also think it's a testament to your power of manifestation too and just the spiritual work that you do.
KR: I love that. I love that you and I bonded over spirituality, and this lens on life, because I do feel like it's one that I haven't been asked about in terms of this journey. What you're saying really resonates with me, and it means a lot to hear it too. Because I do think there is something to say about some things falling into place, and they're beyond our control. And we can [also] influence it. We can. The timing is divine, but we can manifest. We can use our energy. And I think that's something we've always connected on.

VC: I love you. Our friendship just means the world to me. You’ve become one of the most important people in my life for multiple reasons, but the fact that a foundational post of our friendship is our spirituality and the fact that we can go to each other with these conversations, and talk about these things, and where we're at in life, and do these spiritual journeys together. We always end up talking about spirituality every time we're together. I think of you as my soul sister. I always sayfor everybody reading thisthat I am ride or die for Kimi Rutledge.
KR: I love you, too. It's so mutual. I wouldn't be here if people didn't support and believe in me, because that energy I always view as like a physical mass. I view it as an exchange, like a real thing. Not an ethereal fake thing. And so you giving me belief, gratitude, like real energy is actually changing my life. And that's why I think it's so important to have these connections with people you believe in because your belief in them can actually make you actually really make a physical impact in their life.

VC: And that my friends, is the force of nature that is Kimi Rutledge.

Obliterated is streaming now on Netflix.

Published on January 31, 2024

Words by Vik Chopra

Vik Chopra is a filmmaker, writer, on-screen personality, and all-around creative on a quest to change the world through storytelling, particularly through the lens of the queer community and those that have experienced the American carceral system. He has worked for PBS and KEXP, and today is the co-founder and director of production of Unincarcerated Productions. When he's not out fighting the system, he's usually spending too much time in the gym or listening to Britney Spears. He is also the first assistant director for the upcoming JoySauce Late Night, premiering later this year.