The Big Picture
- Quiz Lady is a heartfelt, star-studded comedy about a dysfunctional family, starring Awkwafina and Sandra Oh.
- The film follows estranged sisters, Anne and Jenny, as they embark on a cross-country adventure to get Anne on her favorite show, Can’t Stop the Quiz.
- Director Jessica Yu discusses her collaboration with Awkwafina and Oh, reveals which unforgettable plot point was suggested by Awkwafina, and loads more.
If you’re looking for a heartfelt, star-studded comedy about a dysfunctional family, Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu’s Quiz Lady is hitting Hulu just in time for the start of the holiday season. It’s the filmmaker’s first feature-length project in nearly 10 years, and in that time she’s been hard at work directing for television on series like Parenthood, This Is Us, and most recently, American Horror Story.
Yu’s film stars Awkwafina and Sandra Oh in a cross-country adventure that brings estranged sisters Anne (Awkwafina) and Jenny (Oh) back together when their mother goes missing from her nursing home. Shockingly, this is the least of their problems when they find out she may be on the run from gambling debts. Things escalate further when Anne’s beloved pug, Mr. Linguini, is dognapped as collateral. To get him back and clear their mother’s debt, the siblings are forced to come up with the money, which leads to Jenny’s realization that they can capitalize on Anne’s obsession with game shows.
In an interview with Collider’s Perri Nemiroff, Yu shares what she’s learned while navigating the ever-evolving landscape of television and what she brought with her to the set of Quiz Lady. They discuss the brainstorming session in London where Yu, Awkwafina, and Oh got together to talk about family dynamics and share their own experiences when approaching past traumas and memories, and how they can turn those into laugh-out-loud moments that still bear emotional weight. Yu also talks about how cast members Jason Schwartzman and Will Ferrell were ready for anything on set and why Holland Taylor would make a fun game show partner.
Check out all of this and more in the video above or in the interview transcript below with spoilers marked!
A gameshow-obsessed woman and her estranged sister work together to help cover their mother’s gambling debts.
- Release Date
- November 3, 2023
- Jessica Yu
- Awkwafina, Sandra Oh
- Main Genre
PERRI NEMIROFF: This is your first feature film in a little while so I was wondering, what inspired the choice to stick with the series format for so long? Is that a format that you find especially creatively fulfilling or is it more about the directions the industry winds blow you in?
JESSICA YU: I think it’s a little bit of both because one thing that’s nice about working on a series is that you can experience a lot of different types of storytelling, different genres, so I think for just filling your toolkit it’s great, and there have been so many good shows in the past few years. There’s ones where you’re just like, “Oh, I can’t pass up that,” or, “I can’t pass up that.” I feel like it’s almost like graduate school or something.
You’ve worked on quite a few very, very special ones. Of all the series you’ve worked on recently, which one did you find influencing your approach to the work on Quiz Lady the most?
YU: Oh, gosh! I have not really thought about that. I mean, I would say certainly anywhere where there’s comedy. So, for example, a little bit different [laughs], but some years ago I did an episode of Lady Dynamite with Maria Bamford who makes a cameo in Quiz Lady, and there’s something about the whimsical sort of goofy, yes-we-are-going-there nature of some of those jokes that I felt are akin to some of the humor in Quiz Lady where we just push things a little bit.
I’ll ask you the reverse of that. Is there any show that you’ve worked on in another genre that you would most like to make a feature film in?
YU: Actually, on American Horror Story, it was a really fun thing to go and watch Rosemary’s Baby and all those creepy movies of that era and try to figure out what creeps you out and how. I very much enjoyed that. I was like, “Oh, yeah! It’d be really fun to do a creepy dread movie.” [Laughs] So yeah, that might be one.
That was the right answer! I like that. Come join us in the horror genre, please.
I want to talk a little bit about your cast because I heard in another interview that you, Awkwafina, and Sandra got to collaborate for a year before filming, which is very unusual but also very, very exciting. What is something everyone can see in the finished film that you know you can attribute to having that extra time together?
YU: There’s a traumatic memory that the sisters have that involves digging a hole in the yard that is straight out of Awkwafina’s mind, and perhaps experience. I don’t want to out her on that if that’s not actually factual, but it was something where, you know, somebody blurts out something in the room and we’re all laughing, and then we’re all thinking, “But could it be that?” It’s that kind of moment.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Quiz Lady.]I have to follow up on that. Can you walk us through that day you were having that conversation where she just randomly suggested that of all things?
YU: Yes. Okay. So we’re in London. I was working there, Sandra was working there, Awkwafina came to join us, [and] Jen D’Angelo, our screenwriter. So we’re sitting around talking about the idea of childhood trauma, right? And how something that can seem small and absurd for everybody else is like the Titanic when you think about it in family terms. So Awkwafina was like, “Yeah, like being embarrassed by going to the bathroom and you dig a hole, and then someone finds it in the yard.” And we were like, “What? What was that?” [Laughs] Again, I cannot say for sure that is actually something that happened, but it was that idea that that could be the most humiliating and just third rail memory in this family so that when they argue about it, they’re not laughing about it even if we are because to them that’s horrible.
It plays so well in the movie. I couldn’t believe it. It came out of the blue and then I went, “Oh no, this actually works and serves the story quite well!” [Laughs]
YU: Yeah, there’s a ring of truth in there. Then, of course, we’re all sharing our humiliating memories and code-of-silence kind of thing.
It takes it to an 11 for sure, but I have to imagine that literally every person on this planet has had the fear of clogging a toilet in a strange home.
YU: Oh, yeah! Anyway, suffice it to say there was a challenge that Awkwafina, she had a goal of trying to, if I were to wet my pants because something was so funny on screen she was always trying to push that. But anyway, all of that came out of that kind of conversation.
You’re talking to someone who grew up on Billy Madison and walked around all the time saying, “It’s cool to pee in your pants!” So, all of this really registers very well for me right now. [Laughs]
[Editor’s note: Quiz Lady spoilers end here.]
Taking it in a somewhat more serious direction, clearly Awkwafina and Sandra work very, very well together, but can you tell us something unique about each of their approaches to their own work where maybe it even calls for something different from you as their actor’s director?
YU: Really great question! With Sandra, she prepares like no one else, and she has her own methods of inhabiting her character and movement work and all that. I wish she were here to talk about that. But I would say that it was really interesting to watch her go into detail about what is Jenny wearing, what does her makeup look like, how long are her lashes, what’s she doing with her nails – all those things. It’s like your armor; you put it on and then you go into battle. So, seeing her operate at that level and just enjoying it so much, that, I thought, was really useful trying to get it right. What are Jenny’s tattoos like? So she had an Asian fairy done. It was that kind of idea. So, that’s kind of part of how she works.
With Awkwafina, I think she tends to absorb and really think about all the conversations that we had and just absorbs everything, but wants to see what comes out on the day. So they both do their work, but the way that it comes out is a little bit different. I think Sandra’s more interested in rehearsal. They respect each other so much that, I don’t actually know [if it’d work] on another project if, say, Awkwafina works slightly differently, but here it just felt very simpatico the way that they approached things.
You can feel it.
YU: Yeah, and with Awkwafina, too, especially, just trying to allow her that room to just make jokes and order off the menu. [Laughs]
Is there any particular scene in this movie where you all found it most challenging to find the pitch-perfect balance between laugh-out-loud extreme comedy but also making sure that their experiences still feel just grounded enough?
YU: Actually, there’s one scene that I think is one of my favorites, which is when they’re in the emergency room and there’s a dislocated wrist involved, some very physical humor there. Sandra also wanted that wrist to really be flopping around. So, we start with this broader humor, and then it goes to a place that’s as serious as we’ve gotten in the film so far, and so it was navigating that. In that scene, there are just little bits of silence that we allow ourselves in that that’s not really elsewhere in the film, again, up to that point. I would say that that was one where [we were] just trying to see, “Are we getting these beats, but also allowing for the air where it doesn’t feel like two separate movies stuck together?” And I thought that they really pulled it off beautifully.
That is such a good example, that particular scene.
Now I must ask everything about the moment when Anne auditions and she’s tripping the entire time because I was utterly delighted by that sequence. What would you say is the biggest difference between how you pictured that scene looking when you first read it compared to what we get in the finished film?
YU: That’s a thing about visual effects is that it’s amazing what can be done. Sometimes you’re thinking, “Oh, I just hope that they can do this,” and you describe it, and then as it comes along, you get something and you’re like, “Whoa! That’s even better.” I had the idea that I wanted to split-screen their experiences so we had both POVs in one shot. It’s not a classic split screen because they’re sitting in the same environment, so I had the idea that one side is really colorful, fluffy clouds, singing birds, and then on the other side, it’s the grim reality of the hotel conference room, and what our team came up with was this kind of bubble effect so it’s like she’s in a soap bubble, Anne is, in her happy world, and I just thought that was so cool.
I always love highlighting the unexpected magic one can find on set, so can you maybe give me an example of a day when things weren’t going to plan, you had to pivot, but in the process you wound up finding some of that unexpected magic and a scene came out better off for it?
YU: You know, we needed more misfortunes on set to answer this properly because actually we had a very – it was such a fun shoot, very, very smooth. But actually, on the game show, you know there’s that giant coin that is spun, and we loved the idea that it’s literally just a coin flip, but they turn it into the biggest deal imaginable. So that thing was heavy and constructed to give the weight to this moment and spinning of the coin, and it falls off, and we’re like, “Oh, crap!” The mechanism kind of got broken. So those were full days and we kind of had to pivot. I can’t remember exactly what we pivoted to. I just remember that everybody was so cool about it. That set with Jason Schwartzman and Will Ferrell, and everybody just bantering about, there wasn’t going to be a wasted moment, right? “Okay, can’t shoot the coin, we can jump into this. Everybody’s ready. Bring on the snoring pug!” All of that, we could pull it together.
Every movie with a pug is infinitely better than any other movie that exists. [Laughs]
YU: You know, pugs are perfect though, especially here because all Mr. Linguini needed to do was look asleep or half-dead, and pugs, they’re really method. They will sit there. The only problem is sometimes Crosby, who played Mr. Linguini, would just start snoring! [Laughs] Nothing you can do, you just gotta live with it.
It’s the sweetest sound in the world, though. I love it.
I’ll end with some silly game show questions now. I’m gonna name a couple of game shows that require contestants to have partners. I want you to tell me which member of the Quiz Lady cast you would want to be your partner on that particular show. First one on my list is The Amazing Race.
YU: Oh gosh [laughs], let’s see. I would probably say Sandra because I think she would be a really good partner. She’s got that energy and I think she could get that competitive drive going.
Okay, I would believe that. Next one up is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? So basically, your phone-a-friend person.
YU: Oh! Jason Schwartzman because he is a treasure trove of random information. Like, our first conversation was 45 minutes about the science of a fake smile, and he gave me a book about the study of facial expressions. So he would know some stuff.
Oh, now I want one example. What is one sign of a fake smile?
YU: Well, of course, not reaching the eyes. He was like, “What’s the prototype?” So we hung up and an hour later, I’m like, “Jason, I know who it is! It’s Mark Zuckerberg!” [Laughs] And if you Google it, I mean, it’s a little painful, but you can just see it. He’s trying.
Well, now we know what I’m gonna be doing after this! Alright, I have to end on this one – who would be your partner for Can’t Stop the Quiz’s Show It round?
YU: You know, I would say it would probably be – it depends on which side I would be on – but I do think it would be really funny if it were Holland Taylor doing the guessing because she would just be like, “I don’t know! What are you doing? Get off the floor!” We would lose, but we would win the audience’s hearts.
I would also come to watch that. So you have me to come watch your horror movie and to watch the two of you play Charades!
YU: Oh my gosh, we’ve done so much good work here.
And you’ve done great work with Quiz Lady. Huge congratulations. It is absolutely delightful. It put a big genuine smile on my face the entire time.