‘Expats’ Star Ji-young Yoo on the ‘Daunting’ Experience of Starring Opposite Nicole Kidman

Ji-young Yoo was only 21 years old when she booked one of the leading roles in Lulu Wang’s miniseries “Expats,” in which she would costar opposite Nicole Kidman, who optioned Janice Y.K. Lee’s 2016 novel “The Expatriates,” about a close-knit community of women and their families residing in Hong Kong. At the time, Yoo had only a handful of film and TV credits, all of them supporting or minor roles.

“Daunting is a very good way to describe it,” Yoo told TheWrap. “I think all of it would have been daunting even if I had more experience, but this was my first lead role for film and TV.”

In “Expats,” Yoo plays Mercy, a young Korean-American woman working as a cater waiter among the Hong Kong cultural elites who becomes close with Margaret (Kidman) and her family and embarks on an affair with a married man (John Huston). Mercy’s story takes a life-altering turn when (spoilers ahead) Margaret’s son disappears under her watch in a crowded market.

Nicole Kidman, Tiana Gowen, Bodhi del Rosario and Ji-young Yoo in “Expats” (Jupiter Wong/Prime Video)

When Yoo first read in the trades that Kidman would be exec-producing “Expats,” she knew she had to audition. And audition she did: four rounds over two to three months. Once she was cast, she got to work preparing to play Mercy; she understood who the character was immediately.

“The writing is phenomenal, so a lot of the answers are already there for you,” said Yoo, who grew up outside of Denver and worked in theater before moving to the screen. “You don’t have to do a whole lot of extra work, but I had a conversation about how we wanted her fashion to reflect what a 2014 Tumblr girl would have been. And I created two playlists for her, one of which included Capital Cities’ ‘Safe and Sound,’ which actually made it into the show. Lulu was, like, ‘Yeah, I like this.’”

Yoo did have a period of adjustment on “Expats.” “We shot it completely out of order, so we would be jumping from Episode 6 to 2 to 4 all on the same day. And I’ve never done anything like that before. So keeping six and a half hours of Mercy in my head is very complicated art, a huge challenge,” she said. “And then on top of that, it was also looking at the people I’m working alongside. Nicole’s just one of the best actors alive. And it was very intimidating.

“Luckily, Mercy is such a complex and interesting character. There was always
something to think about, so I had enough material, certainly, to work with that I didn’t have necessarily as much time to be distracted by how scary it all was.”

She eventually felt a certain charge working with such accomplished cast mates. “What’s so amazing is, you read something on the page and then you show up to work and Nicole starts talking and she’s saying the lines with emotions and subtext that you never would have guessed could come out of the scene,” Yoo said. “It completely reorients how you look at the work.”

The exploration of identity in “Expats” resonated deeply with Yoo — especially Mercy’s line that she “never felt more Korean than I do in Hong Kong.” “I grew up in the middle of America, in a very white neighborhood,” said Yoo, who is of Korean descent. “My experience with people assuming where I’m from has always been assuming that I don’t belong. So it was a very refreshing experience to go to Hong Kong and for people to assume I belonged there. I had spent one week in Korea when I was 17. And I hadn’t been to Asia outside of that. I think it really shaped how I looked at my own Asian-ness in some ways.”

Ji-young Yoo in “Expats” (Prime Video)
Ji-young Yoo in “Expats” (Prime Video)

An actor would have a banner year with “Expats” alone, but Yoo also has two other films on the way: the indie feature “Smoking Tigers” (which won her last year’s Best Performance award at the Tribeca Film Festival) and “Freaky Tales,” opposite Pedro Pascal, Normani and the late Angus Cloud, which premiered to positive reviews at Sundance in January. And there is an impressive stat in her filmography: Every live-action project Yoo has ever been a part of has had at least one female director, something only a small clutch of actors can claim.

“That’s a true stat,” Yoo said, noting that the only project she’s ever been in that was directed by a man (besides Anna Boden’s spouse Ryan Fleck on “Freaky Tales”) was her first theater production. “I wish I could say that it was on purpose. But it’s just been a natural byproduct of where I think where we are in this industry, where women and people of color are finally getting more opportunities to be in these roles. I think my career has absolutely been built by women.”

This story first ran in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Limited Series/Movies issue here.

Hoa Xuande The Sympathizer cover
Hoa Xuande photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap

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