With Nicole Kidman’s ‘Expats,’ Creator Lulu Wang Finally Has a Project Her Mother Likes

Scribbled on a chalkboard in director Lulu Wang’s kitchen is a list of films and TV shows she and her partner, Barry Jenkins, have yet to see. As is tradition, their friends, many of them fellow filmmakers, come through their Silver Lake home and jot down suggestions for the pair. On this morning, the list features projects new and old, from the Apple TV+ series Slow Horses to the 1941 comedy The Lady Eve.

Not that Wang has had much time to get lost in the works of others lately. On Jan. 26, she’ll release Expats, her first project since she won over Hollywood (and critics) with her 2019 film, The Farewell, a fictionalized account of her family’s efforts to shield her grandma from a bleak diagnosis. The new series, her foray into TV, is an adaptation of the 2016 novel from Janice Y. K. Lee, who also was in Wang’s all-female writers room. With producer-star Nicole Kidman at its center, the Amazon Prime Video series follows a group of expats (and their caretakers) connected through tragedy in Umbrella Revolution-era Hong Kong.

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With her dog nestled beside her, Wang, who moved from Beijing to the U.S. at 6, opens up about her place in the industry and the perks and pressures that come with it.

How did your incoming calls change following The Farewell?

I never had incoming calls before The Farewell! I was in this little bubble where I was just writing and had no idea if anyone would care. After The Farewell, I got a lot of calls about other Asian American projects. That’s still the thing I get the most calls about.

Does that ever frustrate you?

I’m not trying to escape that. I’m not saying I don’t want to do those projects. But what drew me to The Farewell had nothing to do with being Asian American. What intrigued me was this question that I was asking that I had no answer for. In a way, making the film was a kind of therapy, a way to be seen, because my Western friends couldn’t see the other side. And when I would talk to my family, they couldn’t see the other side. It’s like being gaslit in two different areas. For the projects that come to me now, regardless of the identity of the characters, they have to ask a question that is interesting and, as The Farewell did, open a Pandora’s box.

So, Nicole Kidman calls you with Expats, and you don’t say yes initially. How did you get there?

I was just trying to figure out what the space is where I could keep growing as a filmmaker after The Farewell. There’s something really great about being able to work with a certain level of obscurity because you’re not creating under the shadow of success. But in the U.S., we love to build people up very quickly and then tear them down. So, my initial hesitation was that this is too big, too fast, and I really needed a space where I can have freedom and take risks. Nicole supporting me within the studio to have that freedom is what made me say yes.

You aren’t from Hong Kong, so you also grappled with whether this was your story to tell. How did you get comfortable with “yes”?

Because I don’t want to live in a world in which we can only tell the stories of our own experiences. That is way too limiting. At the same time, there does need to be a diligent process in which we are asking ourselves, “What is the responsible thing? What is my process?” — and have some transparency around that process. There is no right or wrong. I mean, I consulted my family so much in making The Farewell, and, in the end, if you ask my mother, she’d tell you I got it wrong, that I misrepresented her and that she’s way too mean [in the film]. So, to some degree, the closer you are to the subject, the more resistance you’re going to come up against because people don’t like to see themselves reflected.

With this show, you were showcasing the complicated politics of the area onscreen while also trying to navigate them offscreen, which got tricky

It’s a show that interrogates privilege, and it was shot during the pandemic — which unveils a lot of the specificities of privilege and that gets you in moments like this. And as somebody who doesn’t come from privilege but is now in a position of privilege, I’ve had both experiences. And so just trying to live it and also channel it into the work.

You’ve said that you were afraid to get it wrong, but you were almost more afraid to get it right. 

Yeah. It’s tricky times.

But your mother was happy with this one?

Yes, this one she really, really loves.

Journals back to 2012.
A stack of 5-year journals, ranging from 2012 to now.

Amazon is about to launch an advertising tier, which means many people will watch your series with ads. Did you make the show knowing that there could be commercials throughout? 

No, and I’m very angry about that. If I had known, I would’ve created in a different way because it’s not a show that has cliff-hangers or commercial breaks to make sure people come back.

Do you weigh in now on where those breaks will be?

No. Well, I mean, I don’t know. They say maybe. We’re still in the middle of dealing with it, but I just think that’s horrible. What’s funny is that in episode five, there actually is a commercial break in the news [on the show], and it’s a bit of an absurd moment because of what’s happening in the news and then the commercial that comes right after or in the middle of it. So, that’s what I kind of envision. We’re in the middle of a really dramatic scene and then you see some Gatorade or beauty commercial.

You’ve been consumed with Expats since The Farewell. Has there been any point since then where you were concerned about not striking while the iron was hot?

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt pressure. Of course I did. And it’s interesting because I felt that and sometimes still feel it. At the same time, the pandemic happened at the tail end of all the press for The Farewell. It forced us to slow down and in some ways stop. But I was also working on Expats, and then we went off and were shooting during the pandemic. Now, coming out of this experience, I recognize just how false that is. The notion that we have to keep going, going, going, it’s what leads to burnout. I don’t think you make the best work with that energy.

I’m sure not, and yet, with success, comes more and more people who rely on you to keep delivering. 

The machine, yeah. And listen, this is getting into therapy, but as somebody who was raised as the peacemaker in the family, people always ask, “Were you raised with unconditional love?” I’m like, “Immigrant kid, definitely not.” You have to, in a way, justify the sacrifices of your parents and the love that you receive. I’ve done that my whole life. And so now I’m in a place where I don’t want to justify. I have to create from a place where I know if everything goes away, I am enough that I can rebuild it. I literally moved to L.A. knowing not a single person, having not gone to film school and then I worked a decade in isolation. They say it takes, what, seven years to become an overnight success?

The pencils Wang uses to annotate scripts.
The Blackwing pencils that Wang uses to annotate scripts.

Your Hollywood origin story begins with you being fired off Pineapple Express as an assistant, no?

Yeah, I’ve been fired a lot. (Laughs.) I once got fired from a coffee shop I worked at during college. It was my fault. I shot at that shop, which they gave me permission to do, but then my crew got really hungry, and they ate all the pastries.

I have heard you say, “I’ve never done well with hierarchies.” I’m curious how that’s helped or hindered you in this business? 

I’m trying to be aware of those things now because I certainly don’t want to hurt people. But I don’t respond well to authority and hierarchy — and maybe that’s something about being raised where there was a lot of authority, both in my family and outside. And being a short Asian woman, some of it is just rebellion.

Wang, a classically trained pianist, at 6 alongside a receipt for the first piano her parents ever bought her.
Wang, a classically trained pianist, at age 6, alongside a receipt for the first piano her parents ever bought her.

You’ve said that doors didn’t open for you after your first film, Posthumous. What motivated you to keep going?

There’s a quote that I had up over my desk — it’s been attributed to various people, so I don’t know who originally said it — but it’s that you can’t discover new lands unless you’re willing to lose sight of the shore. It’s also in the show. And I think about that quote because it’s the journey that my parents went through as immigrants, having left a place not knowing what was on the other side, and that there’s this period of metaphorical darkness when you don’t see the land ahead, but you’ve also left what’s familiar, and you can’t go back. That’s how I think of that period of my life between Posthumous and The Farewell. And so it’s just about having faith that you will land somewhere if you just keep going.

I’ve also heard you say that you had a tough decision to make on The Farewell, whether to accept an offer from A24 that included theatrical or one for more than double that amount with a streamer that didn’t include theatrical. You ultimately chose the former. Would you make the same decision today?

Definitely. There are always these sorts of pivotal decisions in life, where you’re faced with what you’re made of and where it’s not just a life decision plot twist, but it’s a sort of philosophical decision. And one of the themes that keeps coming up for me, being raised as a people pleaser and all of that, is that the things that you say no to are just as important as the things that you say yes to. And it’s something that the more that I’ve practiced it and had those choices validated, the more I’m trying to strengthen that muscle, hopefully in a healthy way. But, yeah, at the time, it was incredibly challenging. I felt like I was letting so many people down because there is that part of it where it’s like, we’ve all worked hard and we all took a risk, and this is a much more immediate guarantee that we’re going to not just have a return, but really see rewards for everybody. And so, for me to go against that, I felt like I was just letting everybody down. Thankfully, it worked out.

Obviously, A24 has only grown in the years since The Farewell. It seems to be transitioning to a major studio while still trying to maintain its cool-kids appeal. What was the draw for you, and perhaps it still is the draw?  

I mean, I’m always open to working with them. I don’t have anything at the moment. They’ve done an amazing job, clearly, of curating and having great taste, and we’ll just see. They’re growing very quickly, and so, like every company, when things grow, they change.

You’re part of something you call the Heart Collective. What is it, exactly?  

It started many years ago, and the idea was to have a collective of female directors. Vera Miao, who’s one of my best friends and somebody I collaborate with a lot, started saying, “Oh, I really like this person. And I really like that person,” and she just brought the five of us together. Initially, the intention behind it was more around work — of, like, okay, we re going to grow a group of female directors of color to support each other and to talk about things. And then we went to brunch, and we just had a great time together and we became friends. So, we call ourselves a collective, but we’re not really, we’re just friends. There’s no agenda, we’re not trying to grow.

Friends who are navigating the same industry together …

Yes, which is huge. My instinct is always to be more transparent with people, to share information that can be helpful, but it’s also hard sometimes because you don’t know how it will get twisted or where it goes. But we all feel safe with each other and we have these real conversations, and it helps us to define our own value because you’re like, “Well, am I asking for too much? Where is the line between self-worth and being obnoxious?” I think women ask that question a lot more. …

I’m not sure how much men do.

Well, I live with a male director, but I think Barry doesn’t necessarily talk about those things out loud. I’m sure there’s an internal questioning, but I think, for us, we just talk out loud about it. We go, “Well, what did this person get? What did that person get? And at what moment in time? And based on what?” And to have people give you real context of how it should be done and how other people have done it is really, really helpful.

I’m curious how you and Barry lean on each other professionally?

Creatively, I try not to share things too early because I value his opinion and vice versa. I think we want to make sure that we don’t flood that opportunity to the point where [the other person] can’t see clearly. But on the business side, it’s really helpful because when the Heart Collective is together, I’ll be like, “I actually don’t know. Barry, can you come in here,” and kind of force the transparency out of him. (Laughs.)

Says Wang of the Jee Hwang piece Desiring Uncertainty: “I love what this painting conveys about creativity from a female lens — the mixture of wildness and beauty.”
Says Wang of the piece, Island, from Jee Hwang’s Desiring Uncertainty: “It spoke deeply to me during a time when I desperately craved some certainty. I love what this painting conveys about creativity from a female lens — the mixture of wildness and beauty.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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