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Expats Star Ji-young Yoo on Making TV Debut Alongside Nicole Kidman

Expats Star Ji-young Yoo on Making TV Debut Alongside Nicole Kidman

What happens when you give Ji-young Yoo too much time to prepare for a role in the middle
of a pandemic?

“I did ridiculous [stuff] like learning to do things with my left hand,” says Yoo, who in her television debut stars opposite Nicole Kidman in the Prime Video limited series Expats. Her character, Mercy — an American drifter living in Hong Kong whose life has been defined by misfortune and fraught relationships — wasn’t left-handed on the page, but the detail helped Yoo with her process. “My mom is left-handed,” she says, “and her family forced her to learn how to use her right hand because in the period that she was growing up in Korea, it was considered unlucky to be left-handed. I felt like that would have added a lot more animosity between [Mercy] and her mother.”

That level of commitment exemplifies the seriousness with which Yoo undertook her task, not only holding her own as a lead among a cast of veterans but also embodying a character that some viewers might have trouble getting behind. It is under Mercy’s watch that Margaret’s (Kidman) youngest child goes missing one night, and Mercy doubles down on her guilt by taking up with a married man (Jack Huston). “I had to trust that everyone else was too good and too talented to waste their time on someone who’s going to waste their time, so I did everything I could to control what I could, which was how much I prepared and the options I brought to the table and how present I could be in the moment,” says Yoo, who was 21 when she auditioned for her 25-year-old character, for whom she has deep empathy. “Mercy causes trouble from a lack of belief in her ability to receive or give love that isn’t somehow tainted just by her being a part of it, and I hoped that some people by the end would understand and potentially see either themselves or people in their lives in her.”

Yoo’s thoughtfulness extends to her stage name — her choice to adopt one and to keep it ethnically Korean. “Especially in this industry, there can be so little boundary between what is public and what is personal, and I wanted a place where I could take off the business hat,” says Yoo, who was born SunHee Seo. “My birth name is easy to pronounce, but I was getting a lot of people — specifically white people — saying, ‘Your name is just so hard. Have you thought about making it easier?’ ”

Yoo’s stage surname is a tribute to one of her favorite Korean actors, Burning’s Yoo Ah-in. The rest consists of Korean words that are easy to pronounce in English, to leave no excuse for mispronunciations. “I hope we have moved past the period where Asian Americans felt a need to assimilate or make ourselves more palatable to Western tastemakers,” says the Colorado-born Yoo, who won best performance at the 2023 Tribeca Festival for the indie Smoking Tigers and appeared at Sundance in January in the ensemble drama Freaky Tales, starring Pedro Pascal. “I hope that my authenticity to my identity will open more doors for me than close them.” 

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This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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