‘Quiz Lady’ Director Jessica Yu On Working With Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, And Paul Reubens

The director talks about creating a comedy laced with genuine emotion, and the bittersweet experience of working with Reubens on one of his final projects.

Awkwafina and director Jessica Yu on the set of Quiz Lady. Michele K Short

Quiz Lady, the heartfelt family comedy starring Awkwafina and Sandra Oh, has a zany premise reminiscent of classic buddy comedies from the 1990s—but with a distinctly Asian American female twist.

Directed by Jessica Yu from a screenplay written by Jen D’Angelo (Hocus Pocus 2, Young Rock), the film, which premiered November 3rd on Hulu, tells the story of two estranged sisters—the brilliant but uptight Anne (Awkwafina) and her volatile, entrepreneurial older sister Jenny (Oh)—who must work together to pay off their emotionally distant mother’s gambling debt. But when Anne’s beloved pug, Mr. Linguini, is kidnapped by the creditors as collateral, Anne and Jenny embark on a cross-country road-trip to get the cash the only way they know how: by turning Anne into a champion of Quiz Show, the game show she has watched religiously every day since she was a child.

“I loved the journey the sisters took, but it wasn’t specifically written in terms of the Asian American part of their identity,” Yu tells Observer. “It seemed like there was a lot of opportunity to mine that, to bring our own personal experiences, and to make these sisters as specific as possible. I feel like there’s a lot of untapped humor when it comes to the Asian American experience, which sounds like I’m painting it with a very broad brush, but we know how varied it could be. So part of the real creative fun was diving into the script with Jen and with the actors.”

On a recent video call from Los Angeles, Yu—who won an Academy Award for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien and has worked on dozens of TV series, including The West Wing, Parenthood, Billions, and This Is Us—reflects on her latest collaboration with Awkwafina and Oh (with whom she worked on Grey’s Anatomy), the film’s use of physical comedy, and the “bittersweet” experience of working with the late Paul Reubens on one of his final projects.

Given that the Asian American experience is extremely personal, what were some of the lived experiences that you, Sandra, and Awkwafina created as backstory to help flesh out these two characters? What are some details that we may not see in the final film but that still informed their performances?

Jessica Yu: I was interested in how the sisters perceive themselves as outsiders or as losers. We know that East Coast Asians and West Coast Asians may have different experiences growing up. Being [from] the East Coast, we talked about ways that they might have felt a little like outsiders, but I was also interested in what could be going on within their own family. We talked about how maybe one parent is first-generation [American], one’s second-generation; maybe one’s Chinese American, the other one’s Korean American. So it was sort of setting up those structures and talking about our own family experiences. There were things that did not directly get into the script, but it was just building those layers of authenticity so that the relationship between the sisters felt grounded.

Awkwafina as Anne Yum and Sandra Oh as Jenny Yum in Quiz Lady. Michele K Short

There has been a lot of talk about Awkwafina and Sandra playing against type in Quiz Lady—the former is arguably known more for her comedic chops outside of The Farewell, while the latter has developed a knack for more dramatic roles—but you’ve also said that there was never any doubt in your mind that they were the right actors to play their respective characters. What do you think they bring out in each other as performers?

The way I see it is that their arcs in the film are almost reversed when you think of their physicality. You’ve got Awkwafina’s character who’s very contained—physically contained in the way that she walks, and there’s a lot of anger underneath the surface that Awkwafina had talked about, and I thought that was key to that character. You’re seeing it bubble up, especially when she’s around her sister, until it explodes. With Sandra’s character, she comes in like a whirlwind, and over the course of the film, you see her tap into this vulnerability, and you sort of earn the quieter moments. So, it’s not like they’re just playing one thing throughout the film. That’s when you know, “Hey, these actors have this range. They both can be funny. They both can really play into those more grounded, tender moments.” 

I thought it was quite striking, literally, to introduce Jenny’s character by having a car hit her in the parking lot of her mother’s nursing home. Sandra really plays up the physical comedy in this film, even falling from a bar top at one point.

Sandra was the one who was really pushing those moments. I think she had said that she liked the idea of playing someone who was very inappropriate and totally self-serving—unapologetically so. [Laughs.] I thought that rang true to Jenny, so it was a matter of trying to keep Jenny’s wild energy [throughout the film] and not betraying that because that is part of who she is. We liked the idea of making it kind of an iconic introduction. But the way that it was scripted, [Jenny] almost gets hit by a car. And then Sandra’s like, “I would love it if I got hit by the car. Can we do that? Can I get hit by the car?” [Laughs.] So we were like, “Okay!” She was the one who was just like, “Yeah, let’s just keep going there,” and I love that.

Sandra Oh in Quiz Lady. 20th Century Studios

You’ve directed episodes of over 30 shows, and you were responsible for helming some of the earliest episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, when the show was becoming a cultural phenomenon. What are some of your memories of working with Sandra on that show, and how did those early experiences compare to working with her at this stage of your respective careers?

I remember I was blown away seeing Sandra in Sideways, so when I was asked to work on Grey’s, I said, “Yes! I want to work with her.” Sandra is the reason why I wanted to work on that show. Again, it was early days. I didn’t know anything about the show, and then of course, it turned into this phenomenon. What I remember about her is her preparation. I remember her script was just packed with different colored post-its and notes. The way that she approaches everything—her professionalism, her method, everything—she just goes as deep as she needs to be ready to go. And it doesn’t mean that everything on the day is all rehearsed. No, she’s in the zone, and she’s able to just go forward and be amazing. That really stuck with me. She’s also somebody who respects everybody else’s jobs. The difference now is that we, along with Awkwafina, became much closer, so it’s been just lovely to be friends with them—and that’s not something that comes out of every project. Now, I think I’m seeing other sides of her beyond just her work method.

So much of this film is built around Quiz Show, the game show Anne watches every day, and narratively, it had to create a source of conflict and then a sense of connection between the two sisters. What were some of the considerations that you and the creative team had in mind when using that plot device?

We knew we had to come up with our own game, and I was excited about the dramatic possibilities. If we could make the game with a twist where it’s not just about Anne getting the right answers, it takes her out of her comfort zone and maybe into a zone where she actually has to rely on somebody else. [We wanted] the climax of the film not to be one sister on the hot seat and the other one just watching. So when we were working on it together, there was a lot of talk about what that could be. We were leaning into the physical comedy and having the sisters connect. It’s not exactly a heavy film, but I think there’s some genuine emotion in it because there’s this idea that when you grow up with a sibling, you are connected to them throughout [your lives], no matter what. When you’re with them, it kind of brings you back to the childhood that you shared. And if it’s a traumatic childhood, you can tend to focus always on the negative. So I think in the film, [the question] was, how can they go through this journey together where they realize that there’s also strength in what they went through and feel appreciation for each other?

Will Ferrell as game show host Tery McTeer in Quiz Lady. Michele K Short

Will Ferrell originally signed on to Quiz Lady as a producer, but by a stroke of luck, he had enough time in his schedule to play Terry, the game show host.

We were so lucky. He’s hilarious; he’s an excellent actor. Originally the idea of Terry was more broadly comedic, more obviously comedic. And of course, Will could hit that out of the park, but he liked the idea of trying something a little bit different. Was there another approach to the character that was something that he hadn’t really played [before]? So that’s where Terry McTeer was born. I love that the mystery is, is he as good as he appears? Is he the person that Anne needs him to be? It was amazing to see how he could be so gently funny. It just comes out of him, but he can really connect in the more weighty moments. 

Working with Paul Reubens would be a career highlight for anyone, but it must be particularly bittersweet knowing that he was battling cancer when he decided to make a cameo in Quiz Lady. What did you want to accomplish with the introduction of his “character” in the film, and what are some of your fondest memories of working with him?

We really wanted to give some wish fulfillment to Francine, Awkwafina’s character’s grumpy neighbor played by Holland Taylor, because in the film, she kind of plays the ghost of Anne’s future. If Anne keeps going on her little isolationist path, she’ll end up in this hermit-like existence. [Laughs.] So that’s where the idea of trying to give Francine this moment came from. We were going through the idea of, “Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if she has an obsession with an actor that she’s got in her house, but it’s a doppelganger?” We had a list of celebrity doppelgangers, and of course, the one that we were all obsessed with was Paul Reubens. Sandra called him, and it just felt like our wish fulfillment when he said he would do it, and he was just so gracious and fun. He was there on the first day of shooting, so that was also something that felt quite magical and made it feel like, “Okay, everything’s going to come together.” We didn’t know that he was going through what he was going through, and he certainly didn’t let on [that he was sick]. He was just there enjoying working with Holland Taylor and seeing everybody. It’s bittersweet now for us. But in the film, it’s just pure joy.

One of the things I’ve noticed about your body of work is just how expansive it is in terms of scope and genre—you’ve worked on documentaries, narrative features, short films, and a ton of television, including procedural, political, and medical and family dramas. At this stage of your career, is there a guiding principle to the kinds of projects you choose to direct? What kinds of stories are you looking to tell going forward?

I’m pretty omnivorous in terms of genre, and of course, great writing is the thing that is the highest priority. But with this project, it was having that package of the script and then people that you want to work with. It’s almost like you’ll know it when you see it, but I do also like working in genres that I haven’t gotten to explore that much.

I would definitely say [I’m interested in] stories that we haven’t seen on screen before, characters that we haven’t seen or haven’t seen enough of. That’s definitely appealing. I just think there are more interesting stories, so when stuff comes through [from my team], they stand out on several levels. So it’s not like I rule something out or in because of the presence of female characters or characters of color, but I do think we’re in this period where there is an opportunity for those stories to get made. More creative minds are investing in bringing those stories forward, so it’s a mix of what’s out there and opportunity.

Quiz Lady is streaming now on Hulu. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

‘Quiz Lady’ Director Jessica Yu On Working With Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, And Paul Reubens