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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Stephanie Hsu comes to AU

The award-winning actress shared insights into the power of the arts and building a better future

Editor’s Note: Alice Still is an opinion columnist for The Eagle. Still was not involved in the reporting, writing or editing of this story.

If Stephanie Hsu wasn’t taking the world by storm on the screen, she said she would be at home making soup. 

Instead, Hsu chooses to “stand tall,” come back into her worth and “continue to take up that space” that she’s made for herself and others in the entertainment industry.

On Feb. 21, Hsu made an appearance at American University’s Washington College of Law as the keynote speaker for the Spirits and Traditions Board’s Spirit of Change Week.

Jackson Dietz, a junior in the School of Communication and the director of STB, said his team started planning the event this past June. 

“We really wanted to bring somebody [to campus] who would be impactful to students,” Dietz said. “We see a lot of politicians come to campus, and I think that they’re great and they really speak to people who are interested in policy and passionate about policy. But seeing how students connected [at the event] with Stephanie, particularly the student who wrote their thesis about ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once,’ really reminded me why I got into this work.” 

Alice Still, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Communication and the deputy director of communications for STB, said that Spirit of Change Week is “a new take on Founder’s Week. It’s kind of just marking a new era for American University and just being together, having a sense of community.” 

“[Students] are bonded by making change and making the world a better place,” Still said, “and that’s really what this week is all about.”

Hsu is inarguably a changemaker herself, paving the way for more east Asian, queer and female representation in the industry. 

At 33, Hsu has already been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the 2022 Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” She also has had a successful career on Broadway. Currently, she is producing and starring in the television series “Laid,” which does not yet have a release date. 

Before the main presentation, student media sat down with Hsu in her green room.

When asked about being a new Oscars voter, Hsu first reflected on watching the 2002 Academy Awards as a kid and seeing Halle Berry be the first woman of color to win Best Leading Actress for her role in “Monster’s Ball.” 

“As a kid, I don’t think I had the language to be like, ‘Halle Berry does not look like me, but looks closer to me than any other person I’ve ever seen who has won an Oscar,’” she said. “But that was the only sort of thing that was even close to me being able to imagine myself being included in that world.”

Twenty years later, Hsu walked in Berry’s shoes and attended the 2022 Academy Awards as a nominee. 

She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her roles of Joy and Jobu in “Everything Everywhere,” and the film won Best Picture. Hsu was then invited to join the actors branch of the academy in 2023.

“Not only was it crazy to be nominated for an Oscar, to get to go to the Oscars, sit in the front row with all my best friends, then to be able to be folded into the academy and actually be given a voice is an incredible honor and I hold it with a lot of care and pride,” Hsu said.

Though Hsu couldn’t disclose who she voted for during Oscars voting this year, she did speak about a standout performance that led her to pilot someone else’s nomination.  

“There was one person I nominated for an acting role that they did … and they hadn’t been nominated for SAG, they hadn’t been nominated for anything else.” Hsu said. “But I saw their performance and I thought it was so funny and, like, wild and ridiculous that I was like, ‘you know what? I’m going to use my vote to vote for that person because I think they’re freaking amazing.’ And they got nominated!”

“So many people championed me last year,” Hsu continued, “and it felt good to get to champion someone I believe in.” 

During the main presentation moderated by SOC professor and faculty director of SOC3, Pallavi Kumar, Hsu spoke more about using the arts to create change and fielded questions from student attendees.

Hsu started the conversation with her thoughts on art as a vehicle for driving social change. “Media has a really amazing ability to sort of pepper in a lot of messages or ways in which we want the world to move,” she said. “And I feel like to be an artist is a huge responsibility.”

Throughout the talk, Hsu leaned into the idea of folding new ideas for the future into interpersonal interactions, whether that be in a production or in a one-on-one conversation. 

She first came to realize the power of art as a vehicle for activism during her time as a New York University student doing experimental theater. There, Hsu found a diverse, welcoming community and a way to “actually make the art that I wanted to without having to go through all these different filter systems that exist in the industry.”

Into her adulthood, Hsu continued to prioritize the future and move through her career in a way that would create a positive impact on humanity. Having a role in “Everything Everywhere” allowed her to see what this impact could look like. 

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert [the directors of “Everything Everywhere”], she said, made an effort to keep the film low-waste and keep production hours more sustainable for the actors and crew.

Inside and outside of the studio, Hsu is influenced by activists Adrienne Maree Brown and Naomi Klein, whose respective sayings “the small is part of the all” and “no is not enough” inspire her to make little changes to the way she interacts with others and come up with “yeses” — things that could make the future world a better place.

“I got really tired of answering to people I don’t believe in,” Hsu said. “I’m just gonna find my people and we’re gonna make stuff and you can come on board or you can’t, or you won’t.” 

Hsu encouraged young artists and professionals in the room to, instead of perpetuating the status quo, do things their own way.

“If you find your people you can make another way,” she said. “I just have to keep believing that it is possible to continue to do things that people don’t think are possible.”

“Nothing feels hopeful to me right now,” Hsu continued. “I’m in a very privileged position right now where I have access to people with power, and so the more that I can sort of sneak in and make change, that’s what keeps me going.”

In the absence of hope, Hsu chooses to keep believing. 

“I have deep faith in humanity, and I believe in people,” she said. “I think I believe more than I hope, you know? Like, I need some muscle behind the hope right now.”

Students in the audience asked Hsu questions toward the end of the event, many of them focusing on breaking into the industry and her experiences representing marginalized communities.

“Let [disillusionment] open up possibility that anything could literally happen, because you’re going to make it happen,” Hsu said to a student hoping to pursue a career in film. “I think as long as there are going to be people who want to make things, no matter what their background is, we’re going to see more of it … I see it [already] on sets.”

As for her portrayals of Joy and Jobu in “Everything Everywhere,” her performance in the film as a queer daughter of Chinese immigrants resonated with many fans and audience members at the event, and Hsu spoke about how her performance’s ability to heal viewers heals her in return.

“Art doesn’t just stop when I finish it. It’s something that gives to you and you receiving it also gives back to me,” she said. “I’m not a spokesperson [for this experience]. I’m just, like, receiving you actually.”

Closing the event, Hsu brought the evening full circle, sharing what she most enjoys about coming to speak at universities.

“I speak to students because you truly are the future, and it is my deepest hope that we can collectively imagine something that is better for us,” Hsu said. “And if my role is to do that as an artist, and to put in those subliminal messages, I am humbly at your service to do so.”

This article was edited by Bailey Hobbs, Sara Winick and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks and Charlie Mennuti.

movies@theeagleonline.com


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