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Cinematographers Bianca Cline and Eric Adkins Talk Bringing Marcel the Shell with Shoes On to Life | Interview

‘Marcel the Shell’ cinematographers Bianca Cline (live-action) and Eric Adkins (stop-motion) discuss bringing the one-inch-tall shell to life in time for the film’s digital release.

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Very few films are as small (literally and figuratively) but pack the emotional punch that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On does. Dean Fleischer-Camp’s film is an extension of the web shorts that date back over a decade ago. The first short has over 32 million views as of July 2022, and what began as a three-minute short has now expanded into a 90-minute feature film.

Jenny Slate voices the adorable Marcel, a one-inch-tall shell that is being interviewed by Dean, played by Fleischer-Camp himself, a young filmmaker who I mistook for Cooper Raiff just by his voice. But like Raiff, who is an up-and-coming filmmaker himself, Fleischer-Camp has made a special film with Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and it’s a film that truly appeals to all audiences (bring tissues for a beautiful rendition of an Eagles classic).

A still from Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Photo courtesy of A24.

I could go on about the film for hours, but because of the dense nature of this interview, I’ll introduce our subjects. I spoke with live-action and stop-motion cinematographers, Bianca Cline and Eric Adkins over Zoom. They were so generous with their time, and I had so much fun hearing them go into such detail about the process of making the film that you won’t get anywhere else. In this interview, they discuss what their unique working relationship was like, the differences in techniques filming live-action and stop-motion, and the way the two blend together.

Coastal House Media: Could you two describe what your working relationship on this project was like?

Bianca Cline: It’s a really unique film because it wasn’t one or the other [live-action or stop-motion] — the two overlap quite a bit. It wasn’t like there were sections that are stop-motion and sections that are live-action, it was a constant blending of the two. When I came on in pre-production, they hadn’t hired a stop-motion DP, and so I was like really excited when I met Eric [Adkins] because that collaboration was going to be so important but also unusual because it’s not like there were normal delegations the way you would [have them] with grip, electric, or the art department, so it was like we were developing a new thing and it was different for Eric because [he] doesn’t usually have to work with somebody like me.

We started the film like a live-action film. I think we filmed for 24 days, but there was so much more that went into it. We wanted Marcel and his grandmother and some of the other characters to always be made in stop-motion instead of doing them as CGI characters. But doing that isn’t as simple as just doing the character and putting it in because he’s constantly interacting with things that are in the real world, spoons, books, fruit and all of these other things including living things like grass and dirt — dirt’s not alive — but tangible, organic things. So it was a constant puzzle of [figuring out] which pieces need to be replicated in stop-motion, which parts need to be captured in the live-action portion of the film, and also [figuring out] what things can work for the stop-motion; like what kind of camera movement can work? What kind of lighting is going to be replicable [without] adding too much? If it’s going to make the film much better, we’d do it that way.

And Eric was there every day of the live-action [portion of filming], constantly watching what I was doing because we were creating the look of the film there, but it [also] needed to be replicated on a stage, which is a much different situation especially since we wanted it to feel like a documentary. Even though most of the lighting wasn’t natural, we had to make it feel natural and we were trying to push the envelope a bit with things that you might do in stop-motion because we had the opportunity. With live-action, you might film sunlight coming in the window with leaves which [are] constantly moving and is something that [is] very easy for me to film but then super difficult for Eric to replicate on stage.

Eric Adkins: Early on, I did some testings almost a year before the live-action [filming] and we were trying to figure out what would be the easiest way to do these interactions. And what came out of that was that the real high-tech way, which not only would be extremely expensive but also was the least successful way how to go, especially because the original production — the little web episodes — were done by this director [Dean Fleischer-Camp] who is an editor [and he] would essentially do a live take and then animate many different cuts and animate in post [production] and edit. So what was baked in was this beautiful movement of wind blowing, a branch or something, or light shifting because of the window. Traditionally, you don’t do that in stop-motion; you control that stuff and make that not happen, so the idea of working with this fluid live-action feel came down to trying to interact with what is captured as much as possible.

So while live-action is beautiful and sometimes you capture unique things, my part was to actually translate what was captured and actually lock it into something that is a reaction to what was given.

The fact that you’re dealing with live actors too was really kind of interesting because there were all [of] these focus issues: making sure you’re not too closely-focused, making sure it’s not a diopter situation where you ruin the background focus just for the sake of what’s up front. So it’s really a nice, collaborative scenario where each of us are doing our own jobs but [are] also working together to try to create a whole, and it was really fun to do that.

CHM: So neither of you worked on the original short films then?

Cline: Yeah, I think it was just Dean [Fleischer-Camp] and Jenny [Slate] that made those.

A still from the set of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Photo courtesy of A24.

CHM: Whenever I interview a duo that worked together, I like to ask this. Could you guys complement each other and name one thing that the other brought to the table?

Cline: Going in, I was really worried. I thought that it would be very restrictive, that Eric [Adkins] would say, “Oh, that’s too hard for me to replicate,” or, “I can’t do that,” over a sustained period because it could take days to do one scene [and] we wanted it to feel spontaneous so that it would feel like a documentary [and] also so Marcel would feel more real. I thought that that would be really difficult, that it was going to be very restrictive, that we’d have to have the camera locked off a lot and that camera movement or having interactive lighting would be tricky, and Eric was just constantly pushing to make those things better. I’m like, “Oh, let’s film the scene with candles,” and sure, it’d [have] super unpredictable lighting, but Eric was like, “Yeah, we’ll find a way [and] we’ll make it work.”

He [Eric] was taking notes on everything; how the lighting was working and focal distance and lens and was never snobbish. I could just do my job [and] didn’t have to worry about all those things because Eric was just on top of it constantly.

Adkins: Well, thank you. I felt blessed in the sense that the spirit of Bianca and what she was trying to achieve and her relationship with the Dean [Fleischer-Camp] the director whom I knew a little bit about but I didn’t know as much about the project as a whole; that was probably a good thing [because] it was just nice to experience firsthand what was transpiring, what was being worked out, [and] not only Bianca was inclusive, but [the] entire crew was very helpful to me, too. It must have been weird [to have] this guy taking notes and eventually he’s going to take over the show, but yet, her whole crew was very supportive and giving me color temperature reports or distance to the main subject on [a given] take and we were all doing different things and because of that, I think we were able to just work well with each other.

I think when you work with stop-motion people, they’re working so tight that you really have to have a good spirit in life, and so going into a live-action world, I knew I wasn’t going to be a problem but I also was really happy that I was included and [that I] had a good time.

Cline: I didn’t even know that that was happening, Eric. [There’s] a whole world of numbers and problems that I just didn’t even have to think about or worry about [and it was] so nice that it was taken care of without me having to think about it. 

CHM: We’ve talked a lot about stop-motion, but was there any CGI in the film or is it all stop-motion?

A still from Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Photo courtesy of A24.

Adkins: Well, we had puppet people there to not only move characters around if Kirsten [Lepore], the animation director, didn’t do it, but things like the worm going through the box were practical puppetry in real live-action and then we had some puppets that were oversized that we were going to use for the bee or the spider and all that. But they decided to actually photograph those objects because the bee was going to be so small and the spiders’ part grew. But [because] they’re so detailed, the spiders ended up being CGI. Some of the mannerisms were based out of some puppetry and some design work that [would have] been done had they been stop-motion puppets, and they would put them on a Lazy Susan, a rotisserie gear, getting a 360º of them so they could actually scan them so [that] they could actually play with them. [While] they were authentic to the puppet creation, they ended up being sourced-out CGI. But everything else, all the shells, all [of] the other products that were used, were stop-motion. They weren’t real shells; some of them were, but the lead characters were not because they had to be exactly the same, [though] they were designed after a real shell. We had like a dozen Marcel’s on set.

CHM: I heard that Bianca, you have some stories about creating the look of the film and the landscape, for Eric to do the stop-motion work. Would you be able to share any of those?

Cline: I mean, we wanted the film to feel a little bit homemade, so we wanted there to be some amount of the film feeling kind of “off the cuff,” a little bit thrown away in certain ways because it’s meant to just be impromptu. Not every scene, but for the majority of the film is meant to be this filmmaker named Dean who’ll [see] Marcel has something to say and film, so we wanted everything to feel very spontaneous but obviously it doesn’t work that way, especially with feature films in general. But [we] also knew that it had to be replicated, so everything was very planned but had to feel like it wasn’t, which is a really difficult thing to do. It’s like trying to make something [that is] super controlled but make it feel like it’s a little bit chaotic and out of control.

We filmed almost the entire thing in one house — I think it was 18 days in this one house —so the house was also our production office for pre-production so we were basically there every day. I’d spend 12 hours a day at this house and when I came on the film there, actually I didn’t see a script and they sent me locked audio; it was like sound effects, dialogue, music, everything was fairly locked and they had storyboards to go with it.

And then what we did during prep was Dean and I kind of went around the house and found locations in the house that would work for the different scenes. And [if] we would find [that] we had too many scenes in the kitchen [we’d] try to find somewhere else and look to spread it out and so by the time we started production, we had locked audio with photo boards that you could watch. They’re all stills, but you could just watch, see this is happening here, this is happening here, which was really great for inter-departmental work, especially [as] everything becomes very complicated.

Usually, when you’re filming a live-action with human actors, it would just be like, “Okay, the art department will dress this room and it’s fine and we’ll put the lights outside the windows,” but it just didn’t work that way because, if he [Marcel] is interacting with certain things cannot be replicated or cannot be removed from the house [like] a hundred-year-old wood floor [that you] can’t pull out and take it to the stage. So [we’d] set him [Marcel] on a book or something that can be taken to the end; [we would] like constantly [have to do] that.

The other thing that was really tricky was Marcel is very, very tiny and [while] he comes across as small, when you’re thinking about it, I think he’s less than one-inch [tall]. Trying to film somebody that small is difficult without looking down on him all the time, and we wanted to have depth and feel things and other characters in the film as well as we wanted to be at Marcel’s eye level just so he could be in his world.

We ended up doing a lot of testing for the scenes that were going to be on the actual floor or on surfaces where we couldn’t lift him up. We got prisms and we would film him; so the lens was all the way to the floor and then we were just trying to incorporate a lot of things that you would into a documentary like filming near windows and filming near lamps and light sources and as well as what Marcel [would] do, what’s going to be really cute [and asking] What does he do in that world?

We sat with a couple of people, I can’t remember their names; [one] developed all of the treehouses and there was another woman who was developing props, little chairs and little things that Marcel would live in and that a one-inch-tall character would create. So we were constantly trying to do that, repurposing candles; birthday candles become this thing that lights the entire room if you’re one-inch-tall, that was kind of our theme, that’s the world we want and then we’ll see how we can make it work on a stop-motion stage.

A still from Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Photo courtesy of A24.

CHM: This is probably going to sound like a stupid question, but you mentioned some of those shots where you’re looking at him on the ground, whether he is being chased around or running around or whatever the case is, is Marcel CGI in those scenes, or is that all stop-motion?

Adkins: You know, the live-action unit shot reference footage of the character in the route, but we also put tracking dots on the floor: one that represented another character, one that represented the Marcel in the route that they were going to take and the focus defined where the contact was going to be. But if it was a wide shot of Marcel running down the floor, it was still stop-motion. We would actually cheat the scale of it and shoot it closer, but as long as we had the measure distance that they ran and we were at the right tilt angle and the right lens, everything could just be placed in there and tracked with it.

As far as my knowledge, none of Marcel or Connie was CGI, but the concept of a wide-shot, like the bee who was a non-supporting character [doesn’t] make ground contact so why not have it be an object just floating around? As far as Marcel and the contact, we had different surfaces whether it was a wood floor or a metal enamel on top of the washer machine, there were always different reflections. There were always different things that helped make Marcel feel attached to that surface, even on the glass table where the dog was interacting [with it]; there was the puppeteer flicking water up in the dog’s face and there was the glass top surface and we got the natural reflection of that table. It was a nice blend and yet they were shot in two separate worlds.

Cline: My kids were asking me about that shot last night. They were like, “How did you get the dog to do that? And the water?” and I was [like], “Well, it’s actually a bunch of different shots composed together.”

Adkins: I think it’s even confusing for me sometimes, and I was glad I watched it the other day again because sometimes there were things that were completely replaced and sometimes they were just applied onto the existing surface that was in the actual plate. It was easy for them to roto the coffee table and have the background be in there, but when there was an elaborate camera move or something that, the dynamics and the layout were changed.

It’s all about interactivity and making it believable. Sometimes the animators would use sticky wax or things that would’ve fixed the character and then the cleanup artist has to paint all that out because that wouldn’t be there or how shiny the map ended up becoming because the wax kind of bored into the paper pulp of it and then all of a sudden the lights got a lot more contrasting, but “Hey!,” we said, “it’s GoPro footage — it’s going be a little bit hot,” you know?

CHM: There’s a scene where Marcel is trying to launch a fruit onto a shelf, was that done with the same process you guys just talked about?

Cline: No, I mean, we did it fairly practically on set. Our puppeteer had a stick with an actual Marcel on it and he [was] trying to drop down into frame, hit the spoon and make the berry fly for real. Other than [that], we’d replace the black stick that he was holding and the Marcel and replace him with a stop-motion Marcel, right? That was at least the plan on set, I don’t know how it actually went.

Adkins: Yeah, I looked at that shot again because it was a sequence of shots and I think that there were some shots that were practical that were left like Marcel [was] flicked over and just laid there and didn’t move and then there were shots where Marcel hit it and then walked away.

I know we lined up the spoons exactly the way it was and tried to create reflections within the spoon that felt like they were in that environment. I don’t know because I wasn’t part of the composite layer of how much of that was actually reused from the plates and how much was over-shot because the animator physically had to animate the spoon to copy the movement of the spoon of each take. So it was rapid-fire recreation and whether or not they just used the reflection of the spoon or the whole spoon, it’s a mystery to us, too. 

Cline: There are two more people on this team: Kirsten Lepore, the animation director, and Zdravko Stoitchkov, the visual effect supervisor. The four of us together had a really symbiotic relationship.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is still in select theaters now and available for rental on digital platforms. For information about showtimes, click here.


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Andrew is an entertainment journalist and film "critic" who has written for the likes of Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, Film Focus Online, /Film and The Hollywood Handle among others. Leader of the Kaitlyn Dever Fanclub.

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Charlie Michael Baker: Journey of Autism, Social Media and Working with Kylie Jenner (EXCLUSIVE)

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Charlie Michael Baker and Kylie Jenner

At just 17, Charlie Michael Baker is giving his all to change the world. Baker is a renowned author, entrepreneur, actor, and journalist and he is on a mission to help millions of people suffering from autism. Charlie Michael Baker previously told Costal House Media he raised over £400,000 to help people with autism. He faced many challenges since childhood but his determination and perseverance were the key to his success.

Baker is a Social Media sensation with over 1.2M followers on Instagram. Charlie Michael Baker is one of the many influencers being bullied on social media every day. He receives 300-500 rape and death threats daily!

Charlie Michael Baker

Charlie Michael Baker

We had the honor to connect with Charlie Michael Baker. You can read our conversation below.

Nikita Pahwa: Congratulations on launching your new book! What can you tell us about it?

Charlie Michael Baker: So my new book is about social media, specifically, the dangers of social media. All young kids now want to grow up and be ‘famous’ but don’t know the bad side of it all. I was one of those kids, I’d always wanted to be famous, it’s something I’d always dreamed of!

NP: How do you deal with death and rape threats?

CMB: The short answer is, I don’t, really. I stopped reading my DMs a few months back because of it all. I don’t deal with negativity and there’s too many trolls to block each and every one, so they all just get ignored.

Charlie Michael Baker Social Media and I

Charlie Michael Baker Social Media and I (Photo: @kaybeephotography2 on Instagram)

NP: What advice would you give to people in similar situations?

CMB: I’d say don’t listen to them, do what I do and just don’t read them. It’s better that way. What you don’t see can’t hurt you!

NP: If you could say one thing to people sending you threats, what would it be?

CMB: Without ruining my career *lol* I’d say just to be a bit kinder. If there’s something going on in your life that you’re not very happy with, ask someone for help. Speak to someone you trust rather than swaying to a life of being a keyboard warrior. It’s not nice!

NP: Is your new book related to Charlie Baker: Autism and Me?

CMB: It is! It will be written in the same – ish way BUT Charlie Michael Baker Social Media And I will be exclusively E – book sold on my website charliembaker.net.

NP: Are you currently working on a new venture with Kylie Jenner?

CMB: I am! We’re working with the same brand – glow beverages. We’re working alongside an NBA star too whose name I cannot remember for the life of me – oops lol.

Kylie Jenner and Charlie Michael Baker

Kylie Jenner and Charlie Michael Baker

NP: Are you planning to collaborate with more celebrities in the future?

CMB: I love working with celebrities. Mostly just to see what they’re like to be honest. Kylie is so nice though honestly I keep messaging her life updates!

NP: Last question, is it true that you’re working on the Charlie Baker: Autism and Me movie? Are we going to see it on the big screen?

CMB: Yes, it is! I’m filming something very very special this year with Creation Media 22 which should appear on Netflix and Prime Video which is so exciting! It will be my first time in front of an actual TV camera so it’s a bit different to daily vlogs!

You can get your Charlie Michael Baker Social Media And I E-copy on March, 1 for £0.01 (yes, a penny!). Get your Charlie Baker: Autism and Me copy on Amazon.

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Interviews

INTERVIEW | ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ Stars Brandon Soo Hoo and Leah Lewis Discuss Representation, Positivity, and the Power of Belief

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Tiger's Apprentice
Tiger's Apprentice (Paramount+)

Paramount’s latest animated flick ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ has finally been released and garnered positive response from everywhere. Adapted from Laurence Yep’s beloved children’s book series, ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ brings to life the thrilling journey of Chinese American teen Tom Lee (portrayed by Brandon Soo Hoo). He is suddenly thrust into a realm he once believed existed only in bedtime tales. After a tragedy strikes his family, the young man discovers his identity as a Guardian. Subsequently, he is mentored by the mystical Tiger Hu (played by Henry Golding) to confront the evil Loo (portrayed by Michelle Yeoh). In between all this chaos, he develops a special friendship with a girl named Rav (played by Leah Lewis) who helps him in defeating the villain and saving the world.

It is one of those films that you can enjoy with your family. It is tender, beautifully crafted, and encourages you to think about how traditions play a crucial role in everyone’s lives. In this exclusive interview, Brandon Soo Hoo and Leah Lewis share their perspectives on the film’s themes, the significance of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation in media, and the impact of portraying multi-dimensional characters. The actors delve into the importance of maintaining positivity in the face of adversity, believing in oneself, and breaking stereotypes in the entertainment industry. From challenging outdated narratives to normalizing cultural heritage, Brandon and Leah express their excitement for viewers to experience the film’s adventurous and tender journey of self-discovery.

Tiger's Apprentice

A still from ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ (Paramount+)

Aayush Sharma: ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ is a mixture of so many great things love, care, culture, and family. But for you guys, what was the one thing that made you relate to this story and made you proud? And why do you think that particular thing is so important for people to see?

Brandon Soo Hoo: One of the favorite things that I related with my character was Tom has uncanny ability to maintain a positive outlook when things get really tough. And so, you know, he’ll drop in a humorous little quip here and there in the face of adversity. I think that’s such a powerful way to confront anything challenging because life isn’t that serious. And, if you really lean into the negative, and if you really lean into the dark side, I feel like it can really corrupt and taint you. I believe maintaining that light and positivity around you is like the ultimate protection that you have, from the dark stuff when life kind of gets you down. Because if you let life get too dark, then you won’t let enough of your inner light kind of radiate outwards and do what it needs to do. So, you know, hold on to your light, hold on to the positivity. I feel like it’s contagious. It’s very, very healing.

Leah Lewis: I think, for me, one of my favorite things about this film that I would take away, is really learning how to believe in yourself. And I know that’s such a simple statement, but it’s a big loaded one for me. I really feel like when it comes down, to believing in yourself, it’s the things that you care about, the people you care about, where you came from, where you’re going. You see this character, Tom, struggle with believing in himself in any aspect. I think that’s really important too. And I think, when you can believe in yourself too and present yourself, honestly, and vulnerably, that’s also when you find other people who are right for you in your life. You see Tom eventually learns how to be himself, and because of it, he fits into this Zodiac and kind of ends up finding a community that he never would have expected. So, I think that aspect is important for me.

AS: So, you know, besides showing so many great things, this is also an Asian story. The characters, the cast, the makers, and most of the people involved in this project, have an Asian background. But you know when we see the entertainment industry, we still see a lot of talented Asian actors stuck in a kind of stereotype. And they are cast in one kind of role. For you guys, how does Asian representation in movies intersect with a broader discussion about diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry?

BS: I mean, it’s 2024, we’re past the era of having Asian people playing just submissive roles or playing like the tech support. I think that right now is like a renaissance for Asian entertainers and Asian artists to showcase that we are multi-dimensional people, that we can be the hero, we can be the cool guy. It’s all that stuff is like, we’re really seeing Asians being at the forefront of stories like that. And it’s so important because growing up, if you don’t see all of those things represented in media, it’s kind of hard to feel like, you can see that in yourself. So, it’s almost like this conditioning that we received from a really young age. So right now, we’re trying to reverse engineer all of that by showing you can be the hero of your own story, you know, you can save the day. And you could be more than just like whatever aesthetic or face that people want to put on you. You can kind of step out of those boundaries and as a human being, you can do whatever the heck you want. So, I think that it’s so important for us to be able to share with you all.

Brandon Soo Hoo (@brandonsoohoo/Instagram)

LL: I agree, I think, we’re living in a day and age where we’re moving towards a place where representation isn’t such a flashy, flashy thing. It’s a necessary and needed thing that should already be kind of embedded into our society. So, it’s a huge win for the AAPI community any time there’s an API lead or like, especially something like this film where it’s completely eccentric. But I also think the more and more we start to see those projects, like, it’s important to be able to normalize the difference in all these characters. You know, when I also look at, the list of like, Caucasian actors, I can think of an actor for every kind of character. I’m like, oh, yeah, I know, this actor played that, and this and that. But you know, for Asian, that’s been a long time coming, where it’s like, oh, it’s only Michelle Yeoh, who plays that or like, you know, we have the designated person who plays the geek or the kind of hero or like the dark character. And what’s so cool about this film, too, is like, Tom is just, he’s a cool, regular guy who hails from Chinese American culture. This film shows heritage and culture in a way where it’s so normalized, and just so kind of nuanced. I feel like that sense of representation is so cool for the people at home who are like, hey, casually, I like this guy, or I know those kinds of traditions, and I love the way he builds in this theme because I feel that way. I don’t know, I just, I also wish I had something like this growing up too. But like, now is the best time to see people that look like you, speak like you, or act like you on screen. It really recovers that belief in yourself that things are possible for you. Like we all watch TV. We all care about these characters to feel seen and feel like you know, you have a voice out there somewhere. There’s nothing better than that feeling. So, I hope that this film does that for a lot of people to me.

AS: You guys are working with such huge stars. Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu, Henry Golding, and more. What was your reaction when you heard these guys will be in the movie?

BS: Man, I mean, the reaction was and still is just like, almost like a surreal disbelief. I was like, these are people that I watched growing up when I was little, I was like, dang, these are some huge Asian names. They are the biggest names in our community. So yeah, I told my parents immediately about, like, who’s going to be in the project, and we all just like giggled about it together. So, I think just immense pride. It’s such a celebration, and it’s such a win, not just for me and my career, but it’s such a celebration for the Asian community. It’s like, man, look at all of us, like, together just being badass Zodiac warriors.

LL: I felt the same way. I mean, honestly, I tend to do this thing to where if someone tells me like this person is who you’re working with. I’m just like, wait, what? And I’m still like that, you know, like when we were able to even see Sandra Oh, at the premiere of like, let’s go, oh, my God, like, that’s really freakin’ cool. It’s also just like, I think it’s a really proud moment to finally see all different generations of AAPI actors coming together on one screen and to be able to see that there is space for more than just one or two. This whole cast is like a chock filled with it. And everyone is so talented, it’s been an honor. I’m really proud to be a part of it.

Leah Lewis and Sandra Oh

Leah Lewis and Sandra Oh (@leahmlewis/Instagram)

AS: The film has finally been released and it has opened to great reviews. If anyone hasn’t seen the movie, what’s your advice to them? And why should they watch ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’?

BS: What do you what are you waiting for? Get in there. Watch this movie. It’s special, it’s beautiful. There’s something in there for everybody. And yeah, I think you’re really missing out on something that’s, that’s really beautiful and important. So go check it out. I hope they get to watch it with your family because there are a lot of beautiful lessons in there to share. So, go go check it out. You have to.

LL: It’s like, it’s a cool, like, genuinely cool. It has Steelo to it. Adventurous, tender film about finding yourself and I know we all want to do that. So, you should totally watch it and I hope you find a bit of yourself in this cool tender film.

‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ is currently streaming on Paramount+.

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INTERVIEW | Sarayu Blue Dives Deep into ‘EXPATS’ Journey with Cultural Authenticity and Emotional Depth

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Sarayu Blue stars as Hilary Starr in Lulu Wang's 'EXPATS' (@sarayublue/Instagram)

After taking the world by storm with ‘The Farewell,’ director Lulu Wang is back and this time, she has taken her storytelling prowess to the small screen. Her series, ‘EXPATS,’ is a story mainly about three women trying to overcome guilt and grief in the most authentic way possible. The very first frame of the series encourages viewers to take a remarkable journey into the lives of characters that are connected in one way or the other. Nicole Kidman portrays Margaret in the series while Ji-young Yoo plays Mercy. Both stars have given spectacular performances in the six-part series, but one actor who has managed to nab all the attention is none other than Sarayu Blue, who plays the role of Hilary.

At first, Hilary seems to be a no-nonsense woman who has moved to Hong Kong to make strides in her professional life. She does brilliantly professionally, but her personal life is in a bit of turmoil. Her marriage is not going well, her best friend seems to have lost almost everything, and she is overburdened with the pressure of becoming a mother. Wang knows how to extract a powerful performance from an actor and Sarayu is no different. Sarayu’s portrayal of the character is truly magnificent, capturing Hilary’s frustration and compassion with authenticity on screen. I sat down (virtually) with Sarayu Blue and discussed several aspects of her character in the Prime Video series. The actress opened up about how she learned Punjabi to make her character more authentic and also, how South Asian parents show love most uniquely.

Sarayu Blue in a still from ‘EXPATS’ (Prime Video)

Aayush Sharma: Congratulations on the series. It’s getting such beautiful reactions. Your character is written so beautifully, but Lulu Wang made some alterations to your character’s journey in the series, particularly regarding her approach to motherhood. So, how, as an actor, approached the shift in your character’s arc? And what kind of discussions have you had with Wong regarding these changes?

Sarayu Blue: Actually, the changes had already happened before I came. Because in the book, Hillary is not written South Asian. And so that was one of the changes. And so, when I auditioned, it was already South Asian, of course. I think when I got on board, I was able to read all the scripts, and I just devoured them. I mean, in one sitting, it was like, you know, I couldn’t get enough. It was such an exciting experience to see this South Asian woman who’s so human, she’s so layered and complicated, and messy, and real, and beautiful, and funny and vulnerable, and raw and hurting. And so, then it just became the biggest gift I could ever imagine.

AS: One of the best things about your character was her backstory, and showing the kind of Sikh family she was born into. But what was that one thing that you wanted viewers to see in your character to understand why Hillary sees the world in the way she does? Also, how challenging was it for you to learn the Punjabi language to make your character sound more authentic?

SB: I’m so thankful to our team and our wonderful consultant, Inder, who was like the most patient and kind human. I kept reciting it repeatedly, because somebody who speaks Telugu, and I’ve tried to teach people Telugu, pronunciation is everything. It’s everything, along with the accent, and every emphasis that matters so much. So, I was so thankful for that support. Also, Sudha (Brinder) speaks Punjabi, so I had Masters constantly working with me, and I was so thankful. Meanwhile, I think as far as the view that Hillary has, or what was important to me, it was important to see the hurt for both Brinder and Hilary. You know, what I love about the dynamic you see in Episode Four is you really see that they’re both hurting, and there’s aggression because that’s how we speak to each other. (laughs) I mean, that part is so universal, because my mother and I have a very contentious love. But, you know, that hurt underneath, and the vulnerability underneath is why it feels so real. And that representation of that specific dynamic was very important to me.

AS: Yeah, I mean, I can understand as an Indian, I know the kind of relationship that we share with our parents. I mean, they would just bash us, and then say that’s how we show our love for you. That’s, that’s our love. (laughs)

SB: I said to my dad, my dad was calling. I was FaceTiming with him, and he said, ‘So what are you doing? Are you doing anything interesting?’ I said, ‘I’m just doing a lot of press for this show. Remember that show? I did EXPATS? And he said, ‘I remember that.’ He added, ‘So nothing. You’re not doing anything.’ (laughs) But I get it.

Sarayu Blue with Sudha Bhuchar and Jennifer Beveridge (@sarayublue/Instagram)

AS: Your Punjabi was so amazing in that scene because I’m a Punjabi and when I was hearing that conversation, I had to pause the episode and go to the internet to see if you had any Punjabi roots because your accent was so authentic.

SB: Let me tell you how much that means to me because it’s the most important thing for me. Because Telugu is not easy to speak. It’s not, and I was raised by a Telugu professor and a Telugu short story writer. Also, I’ve tried to teach Telugu to somebody, and if it doesn’t sound right, it won’t feel good. That’s why it’s all I wanted to show. You must speak the language with the right pronunciation. That’s very important.

AS: Now that EXPATS has premiered three episodes on Prime Video and receiving so much love. But for those who haven’t started the series, what would like to tell them and why they should be watching this show?

SB: I am so honored to be in this show. I really am. I get goosebumps even talking to you right now, seeing you smile, and having this conversation. I want people to watch the show for everyone. There’s so much good talent in this show. You know, Sudha who plays Brinder is extraordinary. Kavi Raz, who plays my dad in Episode Six, is brilliant. You know, all these actors, Ruby Ruiz, Ji-young Yoo, Brian Tee, there’s so much brilliance that I hope people just watch and realize how many actors of color are getting to do amazing work. It feels like a dream. But, of course, there’s so much to see in this show, you know.

Cast of ‘Expats’ with director Lulu Wang at the premiere. (Getty Images)

The first three episode of ‘EXPATS’ are currently streaming exclusively on Prime Video.

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