Words by Carolyn Hinds
Premiering at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, is an imaginative pilot project in the Independent TV Pilot Competition called A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone, by Canadian actor, comedian, Broadway performer, playwright, award-winning filmmaker (About A Short Film), and now showrunner Kevin Yee. In its 11-minute runtime, the show delves into the existential crisis of just-turned 40-year-old Ben, a queer Asian man who comes to on the bathroom floor of a local gay bar after suffering a severe panic attack.
Played by Yee himself, Ben questions the decisions he’s made in his life that lead up to this very moment. Realizing that his life won’t change, and the book he aspires to write won’t write itself unless he literally gets up and makes it happen, Ben is spurred on by a new determination and burgeoning friendship with Marie, a queer Black woman who herself is questioning her direction in life. These very realizations and moments of clarity are deeply relatable to anyone, whether or not they’re Asian, gay, or an immigrant, all three things that Ben and Yee (as a transplant in Los Angeles from his hometown of Vancouver, B.C.) are, which makes for a very realistic approach to the storytelling.
For the pilot’s premiere at the festival, I spoke to Yee about his own moments of clarity, what his personal guides have been throughout his life as a writer and actor, and how that and the show are tied into his own experiences with his father, and breaking cycles that prevent us from moving forward.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Carolyn Hinds: Kevin, what inspired you to create A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone?
Kevin Yee: I wrote this project about six years ago, originally. I turned 40 this year, so it was kind of when I was in my mid 30s. And I feel like in my 20s, I was really ambitious, and I knew what I wanted. And then something switched when I turned 30, when I started to look around, and I realized my ambition didn’t include family. It didn’t include friends, and it just included work. And I realized how alone and detached I was to society.
So I wanted to talk about that. Because I do feel like that’s something a lot of people go through in society, but also specifically through the queer Asian lens, which I think is not very often seen on television. So it’s specific, but it’s also kind of universal in that way.
I also don’t think there’s necessarily an answer to the question that I’m posing for it. I think loneliness and detachment is just something that we’re dealing with more and more with social media and with where we are, in a very divided…well in America, a very divided country, also in Canada, [which is] very divided, too.
But how we deal with the journey is more of the question that I’m asking, and so in the show, you get to watch this gay Asian character go through this in a way that he specifically would, but in a way that I think that no matter who you are, no matter what your background, you can pull from that as well.
CH: I think for a lot of people now, when we were teenagers we looked forward to becoming an adult. We looked forward to having autonomy and doing whatever we wanted. We didn’t realize that when you have autonomy, you have so many responsibilities, and so much pressure and so much stress.
I want you to talk a bit about when you yourself were having this kind of existential crisis. I think 40 is a significant milestone for you to be having this journey of not only as you yourself, Kevin, but as a queer Asian gay man and as a creative. I think it’s kind of serendipitous that that’s when your character has that same moment of clarity, you know. He’s taking the first step in his journey at 40 as well, and this is happening for you at 40 in 2023.
KY: Yeah, you know, I’ve had this question in my head I think, for a long time, even before my mid-30s, because I grew up being a very good boy. I was a very good person. I followed all the rules, I did everything that people told me that I should do. I took all the steps that people told me I should. But as my career went on, as I started as an actor, I was realizing that the world actually isn’t fair, and especially the entertainment industry isn’t fair.
The best and most talented person doesn’t always get the role. And now that I’m on the writer’s side, as well, and I’m writing for TV shows, I’m seeing who gets cast, and I’m seeing that it’s usually just the hair color. Or it’s somebody famous, you know? Like somebody who has a lot of followers on TikTok will book the role. But I didn’t know that when I was younger, and so I was trying to just follow the rules and be good.
I think once you question the system, you kind of can’t go back, because you have this other realization suddenly, that the world isn’t fair, and then it’s the question of how do you exist within the world?
And there was this pressure that I built upon me because I kept on going, “The reason why my career isn’t further is because of me. The reason why I’m alone is because of me. The reason why I’m not succeeding in the way that other people, predominantly cis straight men are succeeding is because of me,” so I have to work harder. And it burned me out very, very young.
I just got really, really tired, and I started to question the system. I think once you question the system, you kind of can’t go back, because you have this other realization suddenly, that the world isn’t fair, and then it’s the question of how do you exist within the world? So within my 30s, too, I also saw a lot of people succeeding in huge ways. I saw a lot of people getting married, having long-term relationships, people that I never imagined would be married before me or be in relationships before me, were starting to compromise so that they could live the lives that they wanted. And I still struggle with that now, even six years later.
There’s a relevancy to the script that I think is more apparent now that I’m 40 than when I was in my mid-30s. Because the pandemic happened, and it exacerbated so many of the emotions that I’d already been feeling about myself and about my loneliness, and about wanting to go out and change my life, and the questions that I had of, like, “Is it even possible?” As the series goes on, if I’m ever given the opportunity to complete the series, I think a lot of it has to do with systemic issues within our society. Can we grow in this society? Can I grow as a queer Asian person, as I’m telling you now, I’m realizing it’s not fair that there are racial issues and sexuality issues that I know have held me back that people have told me have held me back.
I think there’s also generational trauma where a lot of it has to do with my Asian upbringing and the kind of the trauma that was passed down for me from my own family and from my own parents that I now have within my DNA. So, can you fight things that seem inevitable and a system that is already broken? And that’s why I say, I don’t think that this series is about giving an answer, but it’s about showing a journey. Right?
CH: I think it’s important that you don’t even try to answer any kind of particular questions. Because for one thing, everyone’s journey is different.
Even for you in your case, you’re speaking as a gay man in the entertainment industry, but your journey isn’t going to be the same as another gay Asian man in the industry. But we all can relate to having to come to a point where we decide “Who am I? Who am I right now, who am I going to be tomorrow, and who do I want to be?”
Using the analogy of your series being a guide, every guide is different as well, which is an analogy used by the character of Marie, played by Brittani Nichols (Abbott Elementary, Black Lady Sketch Show), she says that. She uses that as an example for Ben, that he has to take that first step, and it being the hardest.
When I’m writing an article or a review or anything I know what I want to say, but actually sitting down and putting that first word on that blank page is sometimes the hardest.
So for you, let’s talk about the bravery of Ben’s journey, because I think it’s kind of interesting that you started with him having a panic attack, and seeing an older Asian man staring back at him in the mirror. You wonder who this man is and if Ben is seeing his father or perhaps his future. As though he has moved past the point he’s at now. Talk about starting it there, because I thought it was an interesting place to start the story.
KY: For me, that is kind of the realization that sometimes if you hold things in so much, your physical body will force you to address it. You need to address these things; you can’t ignore them.
I wrote this before the pandemic. I had my first panic attack during the pandemic, and it was really when I was sitting there realizing how precious life is, how quick it is, and how I really hadn’t accomplished things in my life that I wanted, more career-wise, but also in relationships as well. And I think what I’m realizing, not just for myself, but for my friends around me and a lot of people that, you know, grew up to become actors. So I have a lot of friends that were quite successful younger, and then they’ve had to kind of reconfigure their lives, and I’m realizing that everyone has to have a moment of clarity when they realize that they’re on a path that is not going to make them happy. I mean, I think some people have it very young. But a lot of people around me are having that right now, and so that transition is something I find very important.
A lot of my own writing for my other scripts as well has to do with starting over because in my life, I’ve had to start over many, many times. I’ve always been in the entertainment industry, but I’ve been on TV, I’ve been on Broadway, I’ve been in the music industry, I’ve lived in Toronto, I’ve lived in New York.
I’ve lived many places, and I’ve had to start over. Coming to LA was also really starting over for me because, like, for the first five years when I moved here, and I moved here right when I turned 30, I didn’t work. And that’s also what exacerbated this story to come out of me, like, what is the purpose? And so within the story, and I feel like yes, it is kind of giving away the ending, but I will say that this is supposed to represent the father, and there’s another twist, obviously that I won’t say, but that the father is something that I also recognize, because it’s based off of my own father, who I’m also estranged from.
And when I talk about following rules, he was a Chinese immigrant that came to Canada, and he immediately started working in a way that you’re supposed to, and that his parents taught him, and their parents taught them of just like, you’re supposed to get a job, you’re supposed to stay there for your entire life, and then you retire. You get married, you have kids, then you retire. And that’s what he did. He worked for Canada Post.
He was there until he was 65, and then he retired, and him and my mother separated when I was younger, and he holds a lot of resentment towards her because that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to be miserable together for the rest of your life. And so the question that I had within myself, when I was going through this, you know, within the past five, six years, is just, like, at some point, you have to acknowledge it.
In a way, I’m lucky that it was in my 30s. He was 65, he retired, and then it’s the question of realizing that no company cares about you. There has to be some kind of realization for most people that, you know, a job is just a job, and it shouldn’t define you. Something needs to change within you so that you can find your joy, because life is so short.
I’m trying to find my humanity and me as a person, but I’m also finding me as an artist...I’ve been a performer that has spoken other people’s words for my entire life...and now I’m kind of trying to take back myself and my voice so that I can create for Hollywood what I believe is authenticity.
So it’s a double thing that I’m doing because I’m trying to find my humanity and me as a person, but I’m also finding me as an artist because I’ve been a performer that has spoken other people’s words for my entire life and begged people to be part of their project, and now I’m kind of trying to take back myself and my voice so that I can create for Hollywood what I believe is authenticity. And I think that’s the switch within me that happened around my 30s when I was like “I cannot just be other people’s clay. I have to be my own voice.” I think that all that helps me as a human as well.
CH: Something that I picked up and saw in the narrative of Ben’s story is that it’s about breaking cycles, which coincides with what you’re saying about your father, and Ben’s father.
It’s about pursuing happiness, and breaking the cycle of unhappiness. So let’s talk a bit about that, because I thought that was very intriguing, especially because that’s something I need to work on with my parents too.
KY: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Within my own relationship with my father, like, as I’ve gotten older, I see myself in him, or I see him in myself now a lot, where I’m like “Oh, God, I’m turning into him!” and that’s my biggest fear. My father and I have been estranged for over 20 years now, so I’ve not had him in my life at all. But when I think about it, I believe that we will never have a relationship again, I think it is really too late. There’s so much divide between us. But his father also had a very tumultuous relationship with him, so I feel like a lot of what happened between myself and my father is because of what happened with him and his father, and so he’s just passing down the trauma to me, and I personally don’t think that I will ever have kids, so I have no trauma to pass down. So it kind of ends with me, but…you know, my brother does have kids and my brother is the good son, with a wife and a government job.
Now, my brother is very much like my father now, but my brother even is trying to break the cycle in many ways, and he’s trying to be the parent that he didn’t feel like he had. So it’s kind of like this passing down, of trying to break it. And I wonder if it is just the moment we’re living in with social media. We’re more aware now.
I think a lot of how [with the] older generation mental health wasn’t as important, and now with our generation, mental health is important. Going to therapy is important, like talking about these things is important, as opposed to the older generations which were more repressed. So it feels like for this generation, this moment is when we can break this cycle if we try. Or else it just keeps going. But yeah, that’s exactly what the story is.
Of course, I can only show 11 minutes for this pilot, and I do have a full 30-minute script, but the 11 minutes was all I could afford. But as it moves forward, like I said, it’s a more relatable story to everyone because it is about the themes of aging, dying alone, but it’s told very specifically through a gay Asian viewpoint, and things like Chinese culture, queer culture, the things that we pass down.
So that is something that is explored, just like cultural things like the Asian immigrant family is not just what you know…caring about mental health or understanding of mental health, the older generations and how the younger generations and how things are passed down into our DNA, that trauma and we have to like try and get out of that. So there’s a lot of themes going on but my goal with it was just the initial theme of this relatability of aging, dying alone, and then the series as it continues does have this very nuanced kind of arc of it being queer and Asian related.
CH: The show talks about being afraid of failing and being afraid of not pursuing our dreams. So I really do hope you’re able to get it produced and it gets picked up. Congratulations on even just doing this, because filmmaking and making a pilot is not easy.
KY: It’s not and it’s very expensive. So I hope everyone can see it one day.
Published on March 18, 2023
Words by Carolyn Hinds
Carolyn is a Tomatometer-Approved Critic, Journalist, Podcaster and YouTube. Her published work can be found on Observer, ButWhyTho?, Shondaland, Salon and many other. She’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), co-hosts So Here’s What Happened Podcast! and is the host of Carolyn Talks…, and Beyond The Romance Podcasts. You can find her regularly live tweeting her current Asian drama watches using #DramasWithCarrie, and the weekly Sci-Fi watch along with #SaturdayNightSciFi.