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It’s not unusual to watch Modern Love, Amazon Prime’s anthology series based on the popular New York Times column, and leave feeling enamored. Not only does each episode portray a real-life romance—we love love!—but it casts the most charming actors in Hollywood. See Zoë Chao, The High Note and Love Life actor who is so endearing that director Jesse Peretz named the lead character in season two, episode two (“The Night Girl Finds a Day Boy”) after her.
Amid a cast that includes Game of Thrones stars, A-list veterans, and Oscar-season favorites, Chao stands out as Zoe. The character has delayed sleep phase syndrome, a disorder that means she’s mostly awake at night and asleep during the day. This schedule makes dating hard, naturally, but then she meets Jordan (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and introduces him to her world. In less capable hands, Zoe might have been played dangerously close to inspiring a Manic Pixie Dream Girl think piece, but Chao keeps her grounded and realistic. The character might be sweet, but she’s not going to change for anyone or apologize for how she lives her life.
It takes a lot of skill to keep a character from entering trope territory, but Chao is an expert. In Love Life, the HBO Max series in which she played the best friend to Anna Kendrick’s lead, she brings necessary subtlety and depth to a role that in another rom-com would have been written off as the wacky BFF. It’ll be exciting to see how Chao plays a traditional villain, something she’s set to do in the upcoming Netflix movie Senior Year opposite Rebel Wilson.
Here, we caught up with Chao to talk more about Modern Love, the surprising accessory that helped her get into character for Senior Year, and more.
Glamour: Your episode of Modern Love is so sweet. How did this role come about?
Zoë Chao: I had worked with Jesse Peretz, who directed the episode, and Anthony Bregman, who produced, before and I love them very much. Jesse said he had a script that this incredible writer, Sarah Heyward, had written for the series and that they both had me in mind. They were naming the character Zoe, which was very, very flattering. This was pre-pandemic. When he brought it up, I was like, “Oh, I hope we can do this!” Because I would truly do anything that Jesse and Anthony make. They’ve made some of the best television and movies out there and have been advocates and champions of mine, and I just feel very indebted to them.
And then I read the actual script and was moved by it. It also felt very special that this was my first project back after the initial many months of the pandemic. It felt like returning home to family, which was really nice.
Your character has such an interesting story—was there anything in particular that you connected to the most with her?
I align more with people who don’t feel like they fit the norm. I relate to the experience of having a marginalized identity, as a woman of color. So I have a lot of empathy for her, for this character and her condition. And you know, I’m also an actor—so my schedule is always up in the air. I keep really weird hours. When I read the script, I found her to be a compelling protagonist because she wasn’t apologetic about living differently. She was like, “You’re lucky to be privy to my life, to get a chance to see how I live and the magical world that I inhabit.”
Was there any scene that felt challenging going in—or one you were most excited about?
I was most excited about fighting with Gbenga Akinnagbe. I just love fighting on screen. I think Sarah wrote some really great scenes that have a lot of tension in them. It’s two people who are fighting for themselves, but also fighting for each other and trying to find a way to meet in the middle. I found those to be compelling scenes and so freeing to be inside of.
I think it’s nice to be in someone else’s tension and anxiety, you know? It’s a nice break from one’s own. Life is hard, and being a human is hard, and being in any type of relationship is a challenge. There’s something liberating about being in someone else’s fight. My job is to advocate for this character. Let’s go. When you’re in your own fight, it’s terrible. You can’t end the scene when you want to.
To back up a little bit, this column is about getting to know you better as an actor. Did you always want to be one growing up? If not, how did you find your way to this career?
I grew up on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. That’s what I remember spending my weekends doing. My parents joke about how they would pass a room and hear me—at the age of like five or six—in my little voice talking and having very long, engaged conversations. They’d look inside the room and I’d be talking to a bookcase with a crayon in my hand, pretending I was smoking. Good on them for not sending me to a shrink and instead being like, “Oh, she has a very rich imagination.” I had a very rich play life when I was younger.
My sister and I played a lot. She’s five and a half years younger, and I’d be like, “Today, do you want to play prohibitionist times? Do you want to play Westward Ho? Do you want to play gambling at the horse track with Frank Sinatra?” So I’ve always loved the world of play and slipping into other worlds.
I went to college for art history. My parents are both artists, and my sister is a visual artist too. I thought maybe some proximity to the art world is where I would fit. But then I realized I was spending most of my time focusing on this one-woman show and doing plays and musicals. At the end of my senior year, I decided to go to grad school for theater. I did three years of intensive theater study and realized, Oh, turns out I can do this six days a week, 12 hours a day.
You have a movie with Rebel Wilson coming up called Senior Year. What can you tell me about that?
What was so fun about Senior Year is that I got to play a very unlikeable person who has a point of view on everything and is kind of unhinged. We get to see her fall apart, and that is just so fun. For that role, I was like, “She’s got to have talons. She’s got to have nails!” It was the first time I’ve ever had gel extensions, and so much of my character’s physicality was informed by having these very long nails for two months. They made my real life a pain. But on set…sometimes you have to say a certain phrase to get into the character, to find it again. All I had to do was look at my nails and try to pick something up or try to text and I’d be like, “Oh, she’s here. She’s with us.” That was really fun.
Have you played a villain before?
No, it was truly a dream of mine to play a really heinous human being. So I had a great couple of months.
You’ll also be starring in After Party. Tell me about that role.
It’s a modern-day whodunit with some of the funniest people ever. It’s an ensemble piece, and we shot it for five months in Los Angeles during the height of the pandemic. It feels kind of miraculous that we made it through. It’s about a high school reunion after-party, where someone is murdered. Each episode is a different character’s take on the sequence of events, and it’s done in a different genre each episode. I love a mystery, and I think a funny mystery is a delight. Hopefully people will like it.
Those both sound truly entertaining. It’s nice in weird times like this to have some levity.
There’s something about this Modern Love episode, too, that feels hopeful. The things I’ve participated in during the pandemic all feel like there’s something uncomplicated about them. That’s really simplistic, but there’s an escape that feels clean and joyful—like, you don’t have to apologize for these escapes.
Last question: If you could put it out into the universe and manifest a role you’d love to play, what would it be?
If you’d asked this before Senior Year, I’d be like, “Sign me up for Villain With Very Questionable Morals!” I love playing people that are not spending every second being like, “What is the right thing to do?” I experience that enough in real life.
But now that I’ve played a villain, I would love to play within the action world. I just watched Be Water, which is this brilliant documentary on Bruce Lee. I’d love to be in some sort of genre-bending weird piece where there’s dance in it but people aren’t dancers and it’s not a musical. Physical and genre-bending and weird and surprising and darkly funny—that’s the world where I live in and would love to inhabit on screen.
Anna Moeslein is the deputy editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @annamoeslein.
Originally Appeared on Glamour