'Half your performance is in the other actor.' 6 actors on representation, inhabiting characters and flop sweat

There are outstanding professionals in any field — people who are admired for their insights, their intelligence and pure skill. And when you get to work with such a person, well, it can be an amazing thing. Or maybe a nerve-racking thing, depending on your perspective. That's true for actors as well.

For Jeff Daniels, that was working with Meryl Streep for the first time.

"It's in a movie called 'Heartburn' with Mike Nichols directing. You're young and you're supporting. And she's No. 1 on the call sheet. And she's Meryl Streep. And you realize very quickly that if we do eight takes, I have to be great eight times. She only has to be great once. And she was [struggling], 'Mike, there's just something, I don't know what it is' ... and we get to about take six, seven, and I'm starting to flop sweat."

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Soon enough, though, Streep nailed it, says the veteran actor, who plays a wealthy businessman whose world falls apart in Netflix's "A Man in Full." "If she were a pitcher, it's not just fastballs now. Now it's fastball, curveball, slider, knuckle curve, change-up ... and I'm over here, I can feel the sweat. And that really taught me early on that half your performance is in the other actor."

Jeff Daniels, clockwise from back left, Nora Lum (Awkwafina), Tom Hollander, Ji-young Yoo, Hoa Xuande and Dakota Fanning
Jeff Daniels, clockwise from back left, Nora Lum (Awkwafina), Tom Hollander, Ji-young Yoo, Hoa Xuande and Dakota Fanning gather together to discuss their careers and their current projects. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

"Wow, that would have been like a master class," says clearly impressed newcomer Hoa Xuande of the HBO series "The Sympathizer." "My first speaking role on a TV show back home in Australia, I got to do a small scene with Elisabeth Moss. I had to be a bit of a d— to her. I remember being like, 'Oh, my God, I'm so sorry. I'm not like this in person.' And she was just like, 'Just keep doing your thing. I'm working off you.'"

Ji-young Yoo can relate. Her co-star in Prime Video's "Expats" was Nicole Kidman. "I was really trying to be so prepared and have so many options to give her because you're just worried about being a good scene partner. And then she's so charismatic and present. I looked up after we had finished going, 'Oh, my God, that just happened.'"

These stories and more came out when six actors from some of this season's top limited series got together in late April for The Envelope Limited Series Roundtable, moderated by TV host Kelvin Washington. The performers also discussed how fun it can be to be bad ("Playing a villain ... you get to do terrible things to people that we can't actually do because we'd go to jail," says Tom Hollander of FX's "Feud: Capote vs. the Swans"), bringing human qualities to their characters ("You think you don't like somebody, and then they say, 'You're pretty,' and you're like, 'Oh, maybe they're not so bad,'" says Dakota Fanning, who stars in Netflix's "Ripley") and finding yourself in your characters ("I think that Anne's introversion and how she is in the world ... it was easy to play because I feel like I am that," says Nora Lum — known professionally as Awkwafina — who stars in the Hulu movie "Quiz Lady").

Their conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.

Dakota Fanning stands on a flat riser for a portrait.
"It was fun to go toe to toe with Andrew Scott and play a lot of things without words sometimes too. Like the silences of it. And letting all that space happen," Dakota Fanning says of starring in "Ripley." (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Dakota, your Marge was a little different from other adaptations of "The Talented Mr. Ripley." She was a little more intuitive, gives a little more side-eye to Tom Ripley.

Dakota Fanning: The only way Steve Zaillian wanted to tell the story was if he could do it in a limited-series form and have all of that time to spend with the characters. And because you have so much more time, you get to know Marge a little bit more and go a little bit deeper with everyone. So everyone besides [Andrew Scott, as the title character] had to kind of fill in what their reality was, which was fun and challenging. You get to see that maybe Marge and Tom are a little bit more alike than we've ever seen before. We get that Marge comes from a small town and from a more similar background to Tom than to [the wealthy] Dickie.

And, of course, Tom and Marge are trying to occupy the same space in Dickie's life, and they're just wary of one another from the beginning. Marge is a character that is dealing with Tom in the first episode and is still dealing with him at the end. So you see how their relationship changes and evolves. It was fun to go toe to toe with Andrew Scott and play a lot of things without words sometimes too. Like the silences of it. And letting all that space happen.

Nora, in "Quiz Lady," you play Anne, a more sensible, responsible person, who with her chaotic sister, played by Sandra Oh, schemes to get their mother out of debt. What drew you to such a quiet role?

Nora Lum: Anne's introversion and her relationship with how she is in the world and her job — it was really easy to play because I feel like I am that, a person who wants to hide all the time. And then Sandra was really excited to play this kind of crazy character, which also enticed me to play Anne.

A lot of your roles are funny, a little loud, and so to find out that you're kind of introverted is interesting. Was that helpful in this quiet role?

Lum: When you go [to those loud roles], it's especially hard to turn it on. But if you're doing something that's kind of morose, it's just like, "Bring me to the set and my chair," you know? Yeah, it was fun.

Nora Lum (Awkwafina) looks serious posing for a portrait.
"I think that was me losing it a little bit too," says Nora Lum (Awkwafina) of a sudden outburst by her normally reserved character in "Quiz Lady." (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

In the film, Anne's sister puts her on social media showing that she's amazing at these quizzes and then she goes viral. Any parallels there?

Lum: I definitely had little flashbacks of when that was happening to me, and it was really scary. Although it is ultimately good, you're watching the car kind of go out of control.

Tom Hollander: You were definitely the shy introverted person. But every so often, you exploded with the truth, which is one of the amazing things about the show. Sometimeswhen you're acting, you get to do stuff that you dream of doing in real life but you can't ever.

[Laughter]

Hollander: You said that you feel like you're an introvert in real life, but do you sometimes get those moments where you just go, "I can't not say it anymore"? Do you do that?

Lum: I try not to do that in public, you know, but definitely on the inside sometimes.

Hollander: So you were able to express a lot of yourself in that?

Lum: I definitely expressed. It was improvised. Like, no one asked me to do that. I think that was me losing it a little bit too.

Hollander: It was amazing.

Tom Hollander wears a suit jacket and dress shirt for a portrait.
"Everything was difficult, everything was awkward, and you feel foolish and sweaty," Tom Hollander says of learning to take on Truman Capote's voice and mannerisms for "Feud: Capote vs. the Swans." (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Sandra Oh is a common thread here. Hoa, she's also in "The Sympathizer." And you played against four different Robert Downey Jr.'s, as if one wasn't enough.

Hoa Xuande: Sandra really kind of taught me how to just relax and be chill. Because you spend so many hours trying to figure out what this scene means and if what you're doing is the truth of the scene. And all these little things that actors get neurotic over. And then you walk on set and you try to do everything at the same time, and Sandra's like, "Relax. Just talk to me." When she started doing her lines for a particular scene, I was caught off guard. I was like, "Wait, are you talking to me? Or are we doing the scene?"

And then like, with Robert, it was all about keeping things fun and fresh. Because, you know, when you do things 10, 20 times on set at like 4 a.m. sometimes, and you're just like, "How am I going to even make sense of any of these words?" And Robert was just like, "Brother, just forget about it. You're here with me. F— it." Like it doesn't matter if you're not sticking to the words right now, because we're trying to find the scene and the character. Just keep it fresh, fun and alive. And, you know, Robert's got like a million characters coming out of him at once. We could only put him in the four.

The series is, of course, about the Vietnam War and post-Vietnam. Did the shoot challenge any thoughts you may have had? Or did you learn anything new about the war?

Xuande: Growing up, especially in Australia, I didn't have much of an attachment to my heritage and even my parents' past and what brought them to the country and why we're there. I never really took an interest in that history or that big, significant part of my life, let alone America and Australia being involved in such a poignant part of their histories, you know? So doing this taught me a lot about stuff that I've kind of made insignificant in my life. And reading [source material] Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel about the different refugees and how they had to make do even after being saved from the war, looking forward with hope in America, but never really fulfilling that. And how they just disappeared, essentially. And [it] kind of just dawned on me how actually deep and traumatic that experience would have been for people who never felt like they could share their stories.

Wearing a bright yellow dress, Ji-young Yoo leans against a wall for a portrait.
"I built a lot of playlists because it's set in 2014. And one of them ended up in the show!" says Ji-young Yoo of prepping for "Expats." (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Ji-young, you and I were talking a little bit about your Mercy in "Expats" — a young woman trying to find herself in Hong Kong. She's kind of floating adrift. Then there's a moment of negligence that leads to a tragedy, and she's trying to recover from that.

Ji-young Yoo: Yeah, don't text and babysit, first of all. This truly was my first leading role of any kind in the film and TV world. And I was doing it, obviously, in Hong Kong. We shot there for about six months at first in 2021. And then shot in L.A. for the following year, on and off. I didn't meet [the cast] until we started shooting. We didn't do table reads. [Writer-director Lulu Wang] doesn't really do rehearsals. She really just allowed me and trusted me, who knows why, to just build it all on my own. So, especially during that era of COVID, I had a lot of time to build [Mercy's] internal world.

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And I got maybe a little too obsessive about it. One of the things that I don't think anyone's gonna notice in the show, that I put in there, is that Mercy's left-handed. The reason why I did that is my mother is left-handed. And [for] her generation in Korea, it was considered really bad luck to be left-handed. I felt like that would have added a lot to Mercy's feelings of falling short and not really being sure of who she is or where she fits. So I taught myself to do things with my left hand. I also read a lot about Hong Kong, and I built a lot of playlists because it's set in 2014. And one of them ended up in the show!

Xuande: Nice.

Jeff, "A Man in Full" was a Tom Wolfe book, written more than 20 years ago, obviously updated a little bit for the series. It was really intense. Talk about playing Charlie Croker.

Jeff Daniels: At this point in the career for me, I like risking failure. I like going, "This could be a disaster. This could be a big swing and a miss." And Charlie Croker is that, because I've gotta be larger than life. We start at more. It helped doing "Dumb and Dumber," because when you're with Jim Carrey, you start at 11. I had to come up with a huge Southern accent that Tom Wolfe kind of wrote into the book. And when Charlie gets too upset, you can't understand what he's saying. And all I did was just kind of switch to vowels. I eliminated consonants.

[Laughter]

Daniels: And Bill Camp was with me and Tom Pelphrey and I sat them in the cast chairs, and I'm going, "Don't leave me out there on a limb. You gotta go with me." They both went for it. And I kept waiting. I'd do a take or two, and just be all in, and I'd wait for [director Regina King] to come around and go, "Really good, really terrific. Um, let's try one a little less ..."

Lum: A little less. [Laughs]

Daniels: Never happened. Apparently, I got away with it. I called my agent. I said, "This is either great, or you're gonna go, 'What the hell were you thinking?' "

Fanning: It's kind of exciting, you know?

Lum: You never know, right?

Daniels: But when you've got the writing underneath you, it's like riding Secretariat. Really is.

You saying you decided to go big kind of fits the idea of what we've seen in a lot of shows. If you look at "Succession," right? These powerful men. "Billions."

Daniels: What was fun was I felt like this was the end of the dinosaurs, when they went extinct. Those manly men ... those guys aren't doing well right now. Some of them have been in a courtroom in New York. Trump's got some issues with money. Charlie had some issues with money. He gets called in on a Tuesday, and they're calling in the note. "You owe $800 million by Friday." And they're not the only two. I mean, the party's over.

Jeff Daniels stands in a corner for a portrait.
"At this point in the career for me, I like risking failure. I like going, "This could be a disaster. This could be a big swing and a miss," Jeff Daniels says of his role in "A Man in Full." (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Tom, Truman Capote has very distinct mannerisms, style of speaking. How did you get into that?

Hollander: Well, a really brilliant voice teacher called Jerome Butler, who's an amazing man. But listening, copying, like being a parrot for a bit and then trying to ... It's quite an extreme voice, so it's one where I had to give myself permission to not have to be exactly like him, because I couldn't do an impression of him. I could up to a point, and then you have to go, "But I've also got to be a human being, and the best way to be a human being is to be myself."

Daniels: Did you find that the accent could— it would take you?

Hollander: Eventually, it became something I was not fighting, and then I could disappear into it. It started as something that ... Everything was difficult, everything was awkward, and you feel foolish and sweaty. And then you do it again and again, and then after about five months of it, the character was my best friend. I felt like I had wings. I would disappear into him. And he's smarter than me, more interesting than me. So I loved him. And then I missed him when it finished.

Daniels: He kind of inhabits you.

Hollander: I mean, it's a great part, you know?

Lum: Your Capote genuinely blew me away.

Hollander: Thank you. Well, you blew me away too.

Lum: Oh, in "Quiz Lady"?

Hollander: Yeah.

Is it hard to turn that off?

Hollander: The complimenting?

[Laughter]

Hollander: It's an occupational hazard.

As Jeff was saying, when you get locked into a character — Denzel Washington talked about being Malcolm X and how he couldn't turn it off for quite some time. Is it challenging?

Daniels: Yeah, it used to be. I'd go home after doing a movie and the personality traits of whomever I was playing were still around, which annoyed everyone in my family.

And then I was able to drop it. Maybe it's just getting older.

Tom, did anything change for you while playing Truman Capote and his betrayal of the women closest to him?

Hollander: Well, I don't think he thought he was betraying them. So, what you do in life and what you think you're doing are not necessarily the same thing. The tragedy of the story is not forgiving, never making up and then people dying. In fact, I found myself writing an email only two days ago to someone who I never really apologized to for something. In a way, it's about the forgiveness that never happens and it eats your soul.

I want to talk a little bit about representation. Here we are with half this panel serving Asian representation. Ji-young, how important is that for you?

Yoo: Softball question, that one. [Laughs] Yeah, I think it's very important to me — for the person that I am and the type of career I would like to have. What's been really interesting is a lot of people have asked me, "What it's like to work with Lulu?" Her being Asian American and her also being a woman. And what's been really unique about my career so far is, I've worked with one man as a director, and he was co-directing with a woman. And that goes for theater as well. So I've actually worked with more women, and also Asian American women, in the director's chair, and also as producers and heads of department than I actually have worked with men. So, I think that's obviously proof of a changing industry and something that's really exciting and new and cool.

What was really interesting about doing this show in Hong Kong for me, being Korean American, is going to Hong Kong where I don't have a cultural connection but there's a scene in Episode 1 where a lot of the Hong Kongers try to speak to Mercy in Cantonese and she has to explain that she's Korean. And I had that experience almost every single day. And, unlike Mercy who was a little annoyed by it, I thought it was really special. Because I grew up in the middle of the U.S. in a very white neighborhood. And my experience growing up in America has been people assuming I don't belong before people assuming I do.

Hoa Xuande lies on the floor propping himself up on one elbow for a portrait.
"It's not necessarily that these things are new, it's just that there's a full spectrum of perspectives that we're missing," Hua Xuande, star of "The Sympathizer" says of under-represented people on TV and in films. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Hoa?

Xuande: I'm learning stuff about myself that I haven't learned before because it's never been shown to me. It's never been reflected to me. It's not necessarily that these things are new, it's just that there's a full spectrum of perspectives that we're missing.

Lum: We want the opportunity to fail, you know? And I think that it has been growing. Especially in the last eight years, since "Crazy Rich Asians."

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What do you all think about your show's endings? Jeff?

Daniels: Well, I can't tell you anything about the ending because that would blow it. But what's exciting is, as we were still shooting, the episodes would come in. We didn't know how it was gonna end. And when we got the sixth and final episode, what you want and what David E. Kelley delivered, was completely unpredictable, never would have seen it coming, yet plausible. I read scripts, and maybe 10 pages in you stop and you go, "What happens next?" And if I can guess right, that's a negative. So, when the episodes would come in, if I didn't see it coming and it still worked, that's gonna work for the audience too. And so, that's what a great ending is for me.

Tom, same question.

Hollander: The actual story is a sad ending where he died very young and Babe Paley died very young. But what's clever about this show is they managed to give it a happy ending. They also tell you the whole story in the first episode. And then they retell the same story over eight different episodes with completely different conceits. And they managed to give a tragedy a happy ending by going, "Well, this is a story about a writer. And a writer can imagine anything. So we're gonna imagine that it's this. And we're gonna construct a fictional, sort of fantasia ending."

Ji-young?

Yoo: Mercy, her big question is, when you've done something so horrible and irreversible, how do you start to forgive yourself to move forward? Are you allowed to? When do you stop punishing yourself? I loved where her arc goes, because it's not necessarily providing a simple answer, and I think that's good, because it's a really hard question.

Tom Hollander; Hoa Xuande; Dakota Fanning; Ji-young Yoo; and Jeff Daniels.; Awkwafina (Nora Lum)
Tom Hollander; Hoa Xuande; Dakota Fanning; Ji-young Yoo; and Jeff Daniels.; Awkwafina (Nora Lum)

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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