Academy Award-winning and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu is ready for audiences to fall in love with the characters and actors of her latest film, Quiz Lady, which premiered at TIFF, and will drop on Disney+ on November 3.
Leading the crop of talented comedians are Sandra Oh and Awkwafina, who play sisters Jenny and Anne. They are forced to pay off their mother’s gambling debts by concocting a scheme to go on a quiz show. The cast is rounded out by Will Ferrell as the game show host, Jason Schwartzman as the egotistical trivia champion, and Holland Taylor as Anne’s cranky neighbour.
I spoke with Yu about directing the comedic duo, how she balanced the comedy and drama and bringing together the ensemble.
How does it feel to have Quiz Lady premiere at TIFF?
The audiences at TIFF are always so genuine and love being in a theatre and you just felt it, the energy was already great. But then, especially with our comedy, hearing people laugh at things, you are wondering like, Oh, will they like this? Will they like that? And then feeling that they also were invested in the relationship with the sisters at the end, like having that payoff? It was really, really gratifying and exciting. The one bittersweet part of it is that we don’t have our actors and our writers. I was just trying to convey to them how special I felt.
Being able to toe the line between comedy and drama to get all those emotional moments is a testament to you as a director and to your actors. What was the key to balancing this?
I do love movies that have a successful tonal shift. If you watch something like Fleabag, there’s just kind of a mastery of tone there. In this, I think the key to it was actually fortifying and exploring the relationship between the sisters from the beginning, making sure that their characters made emotional sense, understanding what it was that they lived through together. So if you do that kind of groundwork, then you can go on these detours and you can go a little more absurd. You can have a surreal moment and you could still come back to reality. So I think it was, can we do that work so that we can really push it and still and still come back?
I’d imagine it’s a gift to have two actors like Sandra Oh and Awkwafina in the same room, and it never felt like one was overshadowing the other. They each have a moment to shine.
I think you’re absolutely right. And even though Awkwafina is playing the quieter sister and Sandra has a much bigger space to occupy in the beginning, you feel, like you said, that they’re equally occupying the film. And I think a lot of that has to do with the work that they did to establish the bond and it’s also in their performance with each other. It’s the way that they listen to each other…. they’re so in tune with each other. They’re actually reacting against each other. We tried to cross-shoot a lot to be able to preserve that.
How did you know that the two of them would have such chemistry as sisters to be able to play off with each other?
It starts with just that they’re both incredibly talented and experienced, and they have great respect for each other. So usually, that is something that can translate, but also, they’re just both such good, generous people. Both are very willing, they’ve just wanted to put everything into this. So I think their rapport came about very naturally, they were attached to the project before I came on. So they already had the starts of that bond. And then a year before we started shooting, we had a workshop in London because Sandra and I were both working there on separate things. And then Awkwafina and Jen came. So from there, we were just able to build and build and build.
Having been a fan of her, I haven’t seen Sandra in a role like this. So to be able to see her transition to this, what was the conversation as to what she wanted to deliver?
She wanted to push it as far as she could. She wanted to really push Jenny in terms of the way she looked and in terms of the humour. And I think Sandra is somebody who can do all that and still keep the emotional grounding of that character. There’s not a lot of people who can do that. But I think she just wanted to see how far she could go with this. And she was very invested in all the details like for Jenny, what was her golden time and how is that reflected in her coloured hair extensions and the slight Ariana Grande look… Sandra had a lot to say about the look and about the accessories and all the details. And then of course, with Awkwafina it was more like, Okay, what are the shades that will make her blend into the cubicle at work?
There were subtle nuances of race sprinkled in Quiz Lady that add to the film. Can you speak to that?
I think what we were excited about was the idea of the humour being a little bit subversive, and a little bit self-referential. Jenny pulls the Asian American card when it suits her and sometimes it’s not entirely inappropriate. So that was something we thought, Okay, we can tell these jokes. And also, it just felt a little bit naughty.
Quiz Lady is on Disney+ on November 3