Hearing the story of Hulu’s new film Quiz Lady — a tomboyish sister pushes her shy sister to appear on a quiz show to pay off debts — you might think that the more Jenny and Awkwafina get, the more Sandra Oh acts together in shenanigans. But one of the joys of the Jessica Yu-directed comedy is watching these two actresses play atypical roles. It’s Oh yelling into town and Awkwafina having to be forced off her couch and away from her popcorn stash. And the fun they have is infectious.
“Sandra’s character is completely inappropriate and self-serving and kind of stuck in the past,” Yu told IndieWire. “But she doesn’t fully accept it. [Sandra and I] We talked about the period in Jenny’s childhood that she can’t let go of, and we came to the conclusion that it was something like the late 90s, early 1990s. I think she has a little bit of Ariana Grande that she wants to hold on to.”
As for Awkwafina’s Anne, the character’s goal is to hide as much as possible until a nap forces her to step out of her comfort zone and participate in “Can’t Stop the Quiz,” a nightly game show run by a fly hosted by Will Ferrell. “There was a simplicity, all the neutral tones that kind of matched the tones of the cubicle at work,” Yu said. “So there were weird discussions where we were like, ‘Okay, the wall is this and her skin color is that.’ What is there in between that we could dress them with?’”
When “Quiz Lady” begins, Jenny and Anne are estranged and find a cautious rapport to pay off their mother’s gambling debts and save Anne’s dog – but that rapprochement is tested again and again as they cautiously make their way to the first audition for “Can’”. “Stop the Quiz” and then tries to dethrone the grinning current champion (played by Jason Schwartzbaum in completely smug Slimeball mode). Along the way there’s a Benjamin Franklin-style hotel, a drug-fueled audition, and Oh revealing his gift for slapstick comedy. But even though the comedy reaches far-reaching proportions, the relationship between the sisters is never satisfied with easy answers or sentimentality.
“We really tried to spend a lot of time in prep just talking about the script, about these relationships, the backstories, so that the foundation was there for the more important moments,” Yu said. “Because I think if you do that right, you can get off track and come back, right? But I think a perfect example is a scene in the emergency room where it starts with physical comedy. And then it goes to a place that’s more real than anything we’ve seen in the film up to that point. And it was really, really satisfying to watch our actors navigate.”
Equally satisfying is watching Awkwafina nervously navigate her performance in Can’t Stop the Quiz. Here the attention and exposure threaten to destroy their ability to win. An outrageous combination of “Jeopardy!” and charades, the game is both soothing in its rhythms and unsettling in its sudden departures from trivialities. And for shy Anne, the prospect of giving clues is truly frightening.
“With the game show, we wanted it to feel a little bit like Oz, right? So the color, everything feels the light. It feels different than anything else in the film,” Yu said. “What was fun was being able to go see The Price Is Right and just get a feel for it. And our production designer Jeff Mann did a lot of research. We wanted to walk the line between a show where you have to be very clever and a show where there is also playfulness.”
“The other thing I really liked is that it really gave our actors the opportunity to just order something off the menu [playing charades]. And so part of it was that they just worked off each other and did it. There were some hints in the script about how they would start with certain clues. And then sometimes the actor would just add something else.”
And with a cast like this, that little bit extra is a recipe for success.