Lulu Wang praises Nicole Kidman for being 'instrument for the director' in Expats

Expats premieres on Prime Video on Friday, 26 January

Watch Lulu Wang discuss working with Nicole Kidman:

Expats sees Nicole Kidman "completely give up control" to her role, something that director Lulu Wang commended whilst speaking with Yahoo UK about the actor's dedication to her craft both on and off set.

The Prime Video series follows a group of expats in Hong Kong, all of whom have had their lives irrevocably changed by one event: the disappearance of a young boy. The missing child is Gus, the youngest son of Margaret (Kidman) and Clarke (Brian Tee), and the parents are still reeling from his disappearance, with fellow expats Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), Hilary (Sarayu Blue) and David (Jack Huston) also having ties to it.

Wang tells Yahoo UK that she was impressed with the way in which Kidman allowed herself to be "an instrument of the director" during the process, even if she had the added responsibility of acting as executive producer for the show, saying: "I think that Nicole really likes to just completely give up control when she's on set.

"She calls herself an instrument for the director and she really just loses herself in the character."Lulu Wang

Clarke (Brian Tee), Margaret (Nicole Kidman)
Nicole Kidman and Brian Tee as Margaret and Clarke in Expats, parents struggling after their son goes missing. (Prime Video)

"It was tremendous to work with her, both as an actor as well as an executive producer, because there were moments on set where I had to really guide her because she's Margaret.

"And then when she's not on set, when we were developing the script during other times, I had to look to her for guidance. You know like, 'hey, this is the script that I want to shoot. I want to make sure I have your support and all of that.' And so we were all wearing multiple hats on this show and so it was interesting to navigate all of those different roles."

Through Margaret's story, and indeed many of the other characters, Wang was able to explore the ideas of "grief and ambiguous loss" in a way that felt important to her in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

Margaret (Nicole Kidman)
Lulu Wang said she was impressed by how Nicole Kidman 'loses herself' in a character. (Prime Video)

"I think particularly over the last few years —with the pandemic and everything else— there's been the feeling that I have of collective grief and ambiguous loss, loss of time, loss of people that we love, loss of opportunities, loss of connections that we may have had. Things also deepened in other ways.

"I just lost my grandmother during the pandemic and couldn't go see her, and so I just wanted to explore [that], and I have friends who experienced a lot of loss.

"I wanted to explore the different ways in which people handle grief and loss, particularly when it is ambiguous, when you don't have a clear answer. You can't just be like, 'OK, here's the end of the chapter, you mourn, you move on'."Lulu Wang

"And how do you move on when the moving on isn't so easy? I wanted to do that in a way that hopefully doesn't feel too heavy, that there's also a lot of joy, a lot of levity, a lot of humour."

Portraying flawed women without judgement

Brian Tee and Nicole Kidman in Expats, which is a new limited series from Lulu Wang. (Prime Video)
Brian Tee and Nicole Kidman in Expats, which depicts its characters without fear of showing viewers their flaws. (Prime Video)

Expats is a drama with a multitude of layers, exploring the struggles of each of its characters deeply without fear of laying bare their flaws. Every character has their secrets, some darker than others, and that was by design as Wang was keen to explore women without judgement.

Mercy is the heart of the story, and using her voice allowed the director to delve into a character who sees themselves as the villain, and despises themselves because of it.

“Mercy was really my way into the story when I first read the novel, The Expatriates by Janice YK Lee and I loved that. She's this black sheep of the family, always out of place. She doesn't belong,” The Farewell director explained.

Ji-young Yoo as Mercy in Expats (Prime Video)
Ji-young Yoo as Mercy, who is at the heart of the story in Expats as someone dealing with tremendous guilt and who sees themselves as a villain. (Prime Video)

“She's Korean American, but she's in Hong Kong and she’s not a local, but she's also not a Westerner and what you think an Expat looks like, and so she just doesn't fit in anywhere.

“I love this theme of the perpetrator because I think we often speak about compassion as this concept but when it comes down to day-to-day personal relationships and dealings, how much compassion is there? And how much forgiveness is there for yourself as well as for others?"Lulu Wang

“So I thought that that was a really intriguing way into the story of somebody who carried so much guilt and so much self-hatred, and darkness, and how to help take her into the light. And what you recognise too is that she's quite young and people can make mistakes.”

But it’s not just Mercy who finds her scrutinised for being outside the social norm, many of the women in the show deal with the same. Hilary, for example, is constantly questioned and queried for her desire not to have kids, a subject Wang and her writers’ room were keen to balance it in the right way, even if it meant changing her story from the book.

Sarayu Blue (Hilary Star)
Another aspect of the story is centres on character Hilary (Sarayu Blue, pictured) who is constantly judged for not wanting children, which required the director and her writing team to strike the right balance. (Prime Video)

Wang reflects: “There were five women in the writers room, some were mothers some were not at the time, and we talked about how we didn't want to make a show about women where it all revolved around women wanting kids.

“We wanted to make sure we could portray that other perspective and so [it was] very intentional to change Hilary's storyline because in the book she adopts a child and it's this big struggle because she's struggling to conceive, and in the show we made it very clear that she's not struggling. That it is a choice and it's a choice that she has to navigate, that she has to hide, that she has to explain to her friends, to her family, to her husband.

“It's funny because there have been people who've seen the entire series and who said, ‘obviously Hilary's struggling to conceive’ and somehow it's like there's still that expectation, that if a woman doesn't have kids it's not by choice somehow. So even more so I felt like that was important to convey, I know a lot of Hilarys in my life, and so I wanted to see them represented.”

The challenge of following up The Farewell

Charly (Bonde Sham), Mercy (Ji-young Yoo)
Bonde Sham and Ji-young Yoo in Expats, which is Lulu Wang's follow up to her critically-acclaimed film The Farewell. (Prime Video)

It was aspects of the story like this that intrigued Wang, and made it “hard to say no” to making Expats as a follow up to The Farewell.

“It felt like this big canvas, a much larger canvas and obviously [it] came with its challenges,” Wang says.

The director brought many of her collaborators from The Farewell into this new production, and together they navigated these difficulties together.

Wang goes on: “With Nicole's blessing and Amazon’s support it just felt like I couldn't say no because to be able to make six films basically all at once, and at this level, we grew tremendously as filmmakers, as a director.

Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), David (Jack Huston)
Lulu Wang admitted that making Expats helped her realise her strengths as a director, after doubting her ability beforehand. (Prime Video)

“I didn't go to film school and as a director I've had very limited number of days on set, and it takes several years before you make another film and then you shoot another 30 days on set and that's it. With this, we were on set for well over 100 days, and so maybe part of it too for me was [questioning] ‘Am I really a good director? Can I even call myself a director?’ I've only directed these limited things.

“But then after making Expats, and being on set day after day for 100 days, at one point I was like, ‘OK, I am a director because today I'm not creative, I'm really tired.’ I have to show up and I still have to lead my team, I still have to inspire them and I still have to make creative choices with limitations.

“And let me tell you it's a lot easier doing that on the 26-day project and not sleeping than it is on the 100-day project. [It was about] learning to pace myself so that I can get through all of it and I don't regret that.”

Expats premieres on Prime Video with its first two episodes on Friday, 26 January and it will air weekly thereafter.

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