Confessions of Zoë Chao
Zoë Chao is telling me the story of how she knew she wanted to be an actress. Though she is presumably the main character of this tale, the supporting cast and scenery are equally alluring: Chao is a summer intern at an art gallery, working with three contemporary female artists and a mute squirrel cub emcee (a woman wearing a squirrel head high school mascot-style). This fabulous fivesome is driving around in an ice cream truck-cum-traveling karaoke bar, which was renovated by the artists, and blessing the greater Los Angeles area with "tinkle pop" karaoke versions of early 2010's Top 40 hits. I have no idea where this story is going. I say out loud to Zoë, "I have no idea where this story is going."
"There's a point to all this," she assures me, unoffended. I'm captivated. Chao goes on to explain that as the intern, she had been tasked with auditioning potential squirrel emcees for this confectionary karaoke art venture. Somewhere down the (literal) road it clicked. Chao, then an undergrad art history student at Brown University, didn't want the art-adjacent career she'd always imagined for herself — the curator or the gallerist. "I should be the mute squirrel cub," she recalls of the aha moment. We laugh.
Chao, now 36, made her way to grad school for acting following the mute squirrel cub epiphany, followed by five years as a cocktail waitress, an aspiring actor rite of passage (and, coincidentally, excellent training for her forthcoming role on the Starz reboot of early aughts cult favorite, Party Down). In the last few years, and especially during the pandemic, she's racked up quite the IMDb resume; you might remember her as Sara Yang on HBO Max's Love Life, or from Amazon Prime's Modern Love. Most recently, she's Zoe (sans umlaut), one of a handful of potential murderers on AppleTV+'s high school reunion-set whodunnit, The Afterparty.
"There are a lot of parallels between real Zoë and character Zoe in Afterparty," she explains. Both spent their youth as artists; both attended school in Providence, Rhode Island; both imagined a future for themselves in the arts. Only one has been accused of murder (that we know of).
The supporting cast of The Afterparty, not unlike that of Chao's own acting origin story, is a treasure trove of characters: Dave Franco is Xavier, the Bieber-esque pop star who is killed during the afterparty for his high school reunion. Any one of his former classmates, each embodying the grown-up versions of their high school stereotypes, could've done it — from Sam Richardson's bumbling nerd to Ilana Glazer's misunderstood class president, to Ike Barinholtz's leather loving bad boy. (For her InStyle shoot, Chao was styled as four stereotypes you might find at your own high school reunion: The goth, the posh popular girl, the varsity athlete, and the artist.)
Tiffany Haddish stars as the gossip-hungry Detective Danner, who is collecting statements from the party guests/witnesses. Every episode focuses on one person's perspective on the night's events, and is filmed in a different cinematic style — there's the rom-com, the teen movie, a Hamilton-style musical episode. It's all very absurdist and very, very funny.
"I would hit the pillow at the end of a day and my face would hurt from smiling and laughing," Chao says of the on-set atmosphere. "A lot of these people — they're titans of comedy. They had seven months of bits that they really needed to get out. In between scenes, it would just explode."
Despite her experience in the comedy genre, though, Chao has her sights set on a different superlative for her future: Drama Queen. "To this day, I don't think I actually even identify as a comedian or a comedic actress," she says. "In some ways, the world of drama feels more comfortable to me, even though I haven't actually done a ton of it. It's become important and sort of urgent for me to keep trying new things, and to exist in different spaces, too."
Read on for Chao's thoughts on early 2000s high school fashion, growing up in a family of artists, and the celebrity doppelgänger she still gets mistaken for.
My first question is, who did it?
What if you found out when you watched the last episode that you did it?
I'm not ready for that.
It's weird because when we signed on to the project and we got to read the scripts, we learned who the killer/killers are. But that didn't stop me from being utterly shaken by the time we actually filmed the big reveal, because at that point it was at the end of five months and you really get attached to these characters. They become real people. You're like, "Oh shit, someone did it. Someone really did it." Dang it. It was kind of gutting to revisit.
Was there a cinematic style that you felt like you had the most fun filming?
I really enjoyed the fifth episode where we got to go back to high school and sort of see all of the origin stories, and explore all the different haircuts. It's scary. I felt like it was informative for all of us ... You don't get to do that normally with characters, to actually go back to when they're 15 or 16, and sort of plant the seeds that then you get to grow later.
It also felt like ... We haven't been to parties [The Afterparty began filming in October 2020], so it felt really fun to be at a house party. It also was terrifying. Everybody was really safe and Apple did such a great job making a really safe environment. It was a wild exercise to be with a bunch of people packed into a small room after the seven months that we had had.
What was it like wearing those "high school" costumes?
Do you remember that denim that is elastic, that denim that's actually not denim? I was wearing one of those skirts, and it just kept expanding over each hour, so by the end I was just like in this tube of sorts, which felt very accurate to my experience in high school.
I remember my mom didn't want us to pierce our ears for a while. She was like, "Just wait until you're 16." But you know, I really wanted hoop earrings. So, I got those bangles, you know those really thin wiry bangles that you stack. I cut them and I just stuck them on my ears.
Oh my god, did that hurt?
It hurt so much, and they would fall off all the time. But they did look like hoop earrings, but people would be like, "Your earring keeps falling off." I'd be like, "Oh yeah, it's so finicky."
Then I'd go home and just massage my earlobes, because nothing fit right. Nothing felt right. It was an uncomfortable period of time. I felt similarly uncomfortable in our costumes. Trayce Gigi Field did a really good job bringing 2006 back to us.
It's kind of crazy to see all these nostalgic movies and TV shows coming out now. It reminds me of when you were constantly pulling up pants and pulling down skirts. Nothing ever sat correctly on your hips.
And readjusting bras that were way too big. They never fit my boobs, and so my tank top would just get stuck in between my small breasts and the big cup.
And you just doused yourself in so much Tommy Girl. I remember one day my mom was so angry. She pulled over on the side of the road, and she was like, "You cannot do this to me anymore. I'm going to vomit. I have a sensitive nose."
I'm like, "I'm just so afraid of smelling bad, mom."
It's wild to watch Euphoria and to see, "Oh wow, they're bringing it back and they're doing it way better than we did it originally."
Yeah, like a full skincare routine.
Oh my god, I only just started putting sunscreen on! I'm way late. Damage has been done. The sun spots on my face are here to stay.
Did the cast improvise at all while filming The Afterparty?
We improvised, yes. Ben [Schwartz] did a bit … He was just making up Xavier songs. One was called "Fart Grease." The other was called "Cupid's Dick." The camera wasn't even on him. There were so many ...
The hilarity ensued in every empty moment there was. It was filled with hilarity. There would be runs that would go for so long, and the crew would be laughing really hard. We would all just be like, there's no way this is going to make it in. But Chris [Miller, the series' creator] would let us go because we were having so much fun. It was a really joyful process, one of the more joyful processes that I've experienced.
There are a lot of comedic actors who kind of go the Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind route and do more dramatic stuff. Is that something that you'd ever want to crossover into?
Yeah, totally. It's really funny to me when people are like, "You really got a hand on comedy." I'm like, "What? This shit is so hard, and I'm barely holding on by a thread." To be in the company of The Afterparty cast is mind-blowing to me, because I spent all of theater grad school crying. To this day, I don't think I actually even identify as a comedian or a comedic actress. I feel like I'm still really studying comedy, and there's so much more to learn from people.
In some ways, the world of drama feels more comfortable to me, even though I haven't actually done a ton of it. It's become important and sort of urgent for me to keep trying new things, and to exist in different spaces, too. I think that feels worth pursuing. I don't want to keep hitting the same beats. I feel very lucky to work, and I feel really grateful that I can even say I'm at a point now where I want to keep evolving and trying new things. I think for a very long time, I was just like, "I want to work in any capacity." I'll hit the same note over, and over, and over and please, please, pigeonhole me.
Now there seems to be an opportunity for me to flex different muscles, and I'm excited to do that.
Your parents and your sister are all artists. What was that like growing up and also pursuing an art?
It's funny because I'm a little embarrassed to talk about it, because it's so hard to pursue art, no matter what the art is, no matter where you come from. Most people don't have the support of family. I just really lucked out. To me, it's much more impressive to meet people who have struck out on their own to pave a path that wasn't paved for them. I personally would not have gotten this far without my parents and sister [visual artist Maia Chao] being like, "No, keep going, keep going."
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Cary Grant. I grew up on old movies.
Worst audition story?
I can sing — I would never say I'm a singer, but I once went out for a musical. They said to prepare 16 bars of music. I was like, "OK, well I will prepare the 16 bars and not a bar more." And I finished the song in the middle of a phrase, which makes no sense, even for someone who is not a musical theater person. I just was like, "I will follow the rules." I get up in front of 12 people, sing my 16 bars, cut myself off in the middle of a sentence. They were like, "Hey. Oh, a fascinating choice. Could we hear the rest of the song?"
I said, "No. I don't know the rest of the song." They said, "Do you have anything else in your repertoire?" Because normally, you'll have a couple of songs ready to go. I just was so clueless and panicked. I just said, "No, that will be all for today. Thank you so much for your time." Then I ran off. They didn't even have a chance to say anything else.
What's the favorite item of clothing that you've owned?
For one of my birthdays, my younger sister — she was maybe eight or nine at the time — saved up her allowance and bought me this tank top that I still have today. I wore it for years. It's really cool. It was just crossed [in the front], black, elastic-y. I remember she had circled it in the dELiA*s catalog.
What was your last binge watch?
Cheer season two. It's insane. Then my boyfriend and I tried to do Cheer in our apartment, and it was ... I almost broke my face.
What is your weirdest fan interaction, besides this one?
Someone came up to me and was like, "I am a big fan of your work." I was like, "Oh my gosh, thank you," because it doesn't happen that frequently. It's still very nice for someone to come up to me and say "Good job." I was like, "Thank you so much."
They were like, "Yeah, This Is Us, I never want that show to end." I was like, "Do you think I'm Mandy Moore?" They were like, "Aren't you?" I'm like, "No." I used to get Mandy Moore a lot which is so weird because I would always be like, you know, I'm half Asian and she's not. That was a weird one. Someone once said I was great in Parasite. I was like, oh, racism!
When you said Mandy Moore though, I sat back and like I can kind of see it.
Yeah, there was a sweet period where we really overlapped. I made the mistake of changing my profile picture on Facebook during college to a picture that really looked like me, but it was Mandy Moore. Then I had friends comment on it from high school saying, "You've never looked better."
Who would play you in the movie version of your life?
I think my sister. There's no one who knows me better and no one I would trust more. Trying to get her to do that though, I don't think any money could lure her into that exercise.
If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life what would it be?
This dish my Nana makes. It's beef and carrots — it's like Chinese beef and carrots. And white rice.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
We still have the home that we grew up in. Now when we go home, my sister's room is my old bedroom. I think it's the best bedroom in the house. It's the tiniest, but when you look up the ceiling just has been falling apart forever. When I was in that bed looking up, the way that the paint chips had peeled, it looked like a steer. I thought that was really cool.
[It was also] just full of CDs. Always a mess. Let's see, a boom box. Portable easels. Weird puppets from travels. My parents are both artists and teachers, but they would take us in the summer and they would spend their money on travel. Yeah, I have a weird collection of puppets from Japan, Mexico, India. They're all a little scary, but they would hang in my room. What else?
Yeah, yeah. A Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers poster.
I had a crush on JTT — Jonathan Taylor Thomas — but never put him up because I think my parents ... I've always trusted their aesthetic and their point of view, and I think I had this hunch early on that posters were maybe gauche. I don't know, or just not cool. I was weird. I was like the only kid watching black and white movies when I was little. It's not even art movies. They were real show biz movies. It was a sequence, a poster that I still have, of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.
Photographer: Rozette Rago, assisted by Gabriel Nivera; Style: Christopher Kim; Hair: Derek Yuen; Makeup: Rachel Goodwin; Retouching: Kevin Lee; Beauty Direction: Kayla Greaves; Booking: Isabel Jones; Creative Director: Jenna Brillhart; Art Director: Sarah Maiden; Visuals Editor: Kelly Chiello; Associate Photo Editor: Amanda Lauro.