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Listen. Zoë Chao is iconic. You’ve seen her play powerful, irreverent women in movies and shows like Love Life on HBO, The Afterparty on Apple TV, and Senior Year on Netflix. And after starring alongside Ashton Kutcher and Reese Witherspoon in Netflix’s Your Place or Mine earlier this year, she has certainly earned her place in the Rom-Com Hall of Fame. I was so thrilled to talk to her about what makes the rom-com special in 2023, working with pop culture royalty Aline Brosh McKenna, and what kept her going early on in her career. She’s really freakin’ wise, y’all. Hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Erica Ito: I'm so excited to talk about Your Place or Mine. But first, what are the top three movies that made you growing up?
Zoë Chao: My favorite rom-com is Barefoot in the Park with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. That's been a movie I've returned to a lot. Then A League of Their Own was a big movie for me. It was just the first time I saw women being athletic and physically powerful, and then also so supportive of each other. That was really exciting as someone who was a little athlete growing up and kind of a tomboy.
Third movie? Let's see... Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was huge. I listened to that Yo-Yo Ma soundtrack for weeks and felt feelings I had never felt before when I was in middle school or whenever it came out. I just had never seen such a powerful female protagonist. But also the love story! And then the martial arts! It just was a feast for the eyes and the soul and the heart and the brain, and I've never recovered.
EI: Same. That’s wonderful. So you are a bit of a rom-com expert, I would say, at this point in your life and career, starring in Long Weekend and Love Life. You even worked on a piece that was created by your sister that recreated scenes from films—What Draws Us Together, What Drives Us Apart.
EI: In 2023, what is the value of a rom-com?
ZC: I think people falling in love is evergreen, you know? It's like the best part of being a human. Being a human is so hard for everyone. My dad always says everyone deserves an award for just being alive, and I agree.
I think one of the perks (you know, there's a lot of downsides to being a human being) but one of the big pros of being a human being is that we get to fall in love, and we also get to witness people falling in love. And obviously romantic comedies—that's the main event.
It never gets old seeing someone become so alive and so themselves and do crazy, weird, messy things in the name of love. And I think falling in love is superhuman. Weird, funny, surprising, confusing. And so endlessly entertaining. So I think that's why rom-com will always be with us.
EI: You're truly the perfect spokeswoman for the rom-com.Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote [and directed] Your Place or Mine is pretty much an icon of the film industry and also of the rom-com genre, having written 27 Dresses shortly after Devil Wears Prada, and co-creating Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with Rachel Bloom, who's also featured in the movie. What was it like working with Aline? Did her previous work influence how you approached the tone of this film?
ZC: She came OUT. She turned out the OUTFITS. The director outfits. Every day, she came in being like, "This is a movie with looks in it and I am a director with looks."
ZC: And it was so fun. I mean, she is a real girl’s girl, you know? She writes for women. She supports women. She is the most fun hang ever. And honestly? The directing got in the way. I wanted to be like, “Can we just freaking hang?” Because she's SO funny, SO smart, really self-deprecating in a hilarious way.
And yeah, when I read the script, it was one of the fastest reads. I instantly fell in love with Minka and was rooting for Debbie the entire time. And then I looked up Aline and I was like, “Oh, right. This makes sense. This person really knows the medium.”
EI: Your character Minka is a little over the top, a little bit of a confident, bad bitch. Did you have any archetypes or other characters from film and TV that you were like, “Ah, yes, I'm gonna pull bits of this to incorporate into her character?”
ZC: Yeah, that's a great question. I think she's just the ultimate wingwoman that every person needs in this life, and so I've pulled all the great wingwomen of cinema and in my life, too. I'm so lucky to have a lot of really intelligent, powerful, cool women in my life. My sister being one of them and my mom being another, my grandmother, and then all my friends from college, and that you collect over the years. They uplift me in such meaningful ways. That's why I can do what I do. There's nothing more fun than uplifting them.
But also Aline wrote the character on the page. And then the costumer—Sophie De Rakoff, who also did Devil Wears Prada and all of Reese’s movies, and is a legend in her own right—gave me the most incredible outfits to wear. So between pulling from personal experience of who's been really supportive in my life to then what was on the page and what I was wearing, Minka was born.
EI: Yes, absolutely. It's that internal and external character work.
ZC: Yes, totally. I read the script and I was like biting at the bit. Like, “Let's freaking audition and then let's shoot this because I'm so ready and she’s so fun.”
EI: Taking it back a bit, you have a degree in art history and then you later went on to get a graduate degree in acting. What sent you in that slightly different artistic direction? Has having that background in visual arts influenced your work as an actor?
ZC: My parents are both visual artists. My sister is a visual artist. I grew up in art galleries and museums, and it seemed like a natural path to pursue curation or working in that space in some way. So I interned during the summer while I was in college at not-for-profit galleries, and one of my jobs was scheduling this tour for this art project called Karaoke Ice, which was three female artists who transformed this vintage ice cream truck into a traveling karaoke mobile that was emceed by a mute squirrel cub that would drive the truck into social happenings all throughout L.A. The intent being to bring contemporary art into spaces that don't often interface with contemporary art specifically.
So I had to hold auditions for two weeks to find an actor that would play this mute squirrel cub and wear the helmet and the tail. And then they would have to lure participants into the back of the truck with an ice pop and get them to sing these pop songs that were turned into Tinkle Pop, which is what ice cream truck music supposedly is. So I held auditions for two weeks and at the end of the auditions I was like… “I could be the mute squirrel.” Like, “Put me in, coach. I wanna play.” But I couldn't because I had to go back to college and finish my senior year. So I went home and I said, mom and dad, change of plans. I'm gonna be an actor. That was the inciting incident.
But I grew up watching old movies with my mom and my granddad who loves movies. He used to go to the movie theater three to four times a week pre-pandemic. He has a whole weird ritual where he gives a clue for his ticket and then he takes his plastic Harkins refillable soda pop cup, throws it 20 feet away to the concession stand, and people catch it. Then he goes up and they say, "What are you gonna have today, Bruce?" And he goes, "I'll have nothing." And then they say, "Coke syrup coming up." And then we would go into the theater. We'd have to get there like 45 minutes before the movie.
EI: Those are two excellent anecdotes. Your grandpa sounds like an icon.
ZC: He’s an icon.
EI: At this point in your career, you’ve made it. You’re booming. You’re busy. You're in so many amazing projects. But what kept you going when you were at the start of your career? When you had gotten out of grad school and in that “is this going to work out” phase?
ZC: Oh, Erica. Whew. First and foremost, my family kept me going. Because my parents were artists, they were so supportive of me pursuing this crazy dream. I think that's huge. I give a lot of credit to them because it was dark. There were six years after grad school where it was really hard to book a gig and they believed in me so much and were the engine when I was losing steam. And I just wanna say, I really marvel at the people who do that without family support. There are a lot of people out there in any industry pursuing their love without that support and they really deserve all the accolades because it is not a glamorous ride.
I've had a lot of—this sounds cheesy—but angels who have looked out for me and mentors who have really invested in me at the moment I needed at most and said, “Keep going.”
I just think that if you have the privilege to pursue what you love, you gotta take it because there's so many people that don't have that privilege. And you gotta find a way to pay it forward too, which I'm always thinking about… how I fit into a much bigger story. I just think of all the women in my family who have come before me and have laid the groundwork for me to be actually walking into my trailer. That keeps orienting me and grounding me in a meaningful way.
EI: Wow, that's so beautiful. Speaking of young Zoë, what is one thing you would say to Zoë at the start of her acting career?
ZC: What's interesting is that this question has been asked before and I've said, “Trust yourself. Maybe don't sweat it so hard.” But that's all in hindsight, right? There's a part of me that's like, every little thing that happened—all the good, all the bad—has brought me to this moment right now talking to you, Erica.
And so all the mistakes? They had to happen. It all had to play out that way. Would I have loved to have been less stressed out? Would I have loved less self-doubt? Sure. But it's such a part of my process. The freak-outs and the existential crises, I could regret them, but they've been a part of a ride.
I honor them and I honor young Zoë who did it the only way she knew how to do it. So I guess looking back, I respect you, little Zoë.
EI: That is so wise. That was the best answer ever.
ZC: I mean, you caught me on a good day.
Published on April 23, 2023
Words by Erica Ito
Born and raised on the east side of O’ahu, Erica learned about improv comedy in seventh grade, and has been a public menace ever since. She holds a BFA in musical theater from the University of Michigan and can be found yelling about coming-of-age love stories, pop culture, and mythology with her genius co-host/best friend on their podcast Seaweed Brain. Check her out @SeaweedBrainPodcast and www.ericaito.com.