that ‘scare’ Nicole Kidman reflects on mortality, romance, and her decision to avoid intimidating scenes in her acting career by likening herself to a donkey.
The tone and tempo of Expats is unique, especially in a world of instant gratification for streaming shows. Actress Nicole Kidman comments, “It’s a different type of television. It takes time to build up. It’s more comparable to Kieślowski’s Dekalog or Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.” Kidman shares her thoughts via Zoom from Los Angeles, joined by her co-stars Sarayu Blue and Ji-young Yoo. At one point, an unseen hand appears on the screen to pass them all a warm, fluffy towel to combat the cold studio. It feels like a spa day with an international celebrity, a comedic genius, and a generation Z activist.
Lulu Wang directs Expats, which tells the story of three American women – Margaret (played by Kidman), Hilary (played by Blue), and Mercy (played by Yoo) – living in Hong Kong. As tragedy strikes and Margaret’s youngest child passes away, tensions rise and their lives feel constricted. Kidman’s role is a perfect fit, showcasing her ability to play a diverse range of characters, while also reminding us of her talent in more experimental films like Eyes Wide Shut, Birth, and Stoker. Blue, known for her role in the sitcom I Feel Bad and smaller parts in Veep and The Big Bang Theory, delivers a performance with a subtle hint of dark humor. Yoo, who was cast in her first on-screen role in 2020 while still studying, is a rising star in the industry.
If Expats explores themes of loss, guilt, and marriage, it also delves into issues of social class, race, privilege, and belonging. The central question is: what truly distinguishes an immigrant from an expat? According to Yoo, “expats are temporary and will eventually leave,” while immigrants have made a deliberate choice to stay. Blue adds that the play also examines how expats occupy a unique class strata, granting them access to any destination. In her portrayal of Blue, a successful but internally conflicted citizen of the world, there is a constant sense of insecurity despite the appearance of belonging. Blue acknowledges that the script addresses issues of privilege and she admires Lulu for not shying away from those discussions.
The way race and heritage interact with money and status are probably most explicitly told in the character of Mercy, whose backstory is that she arrived in the US as an immigrant from South Korea, but appears in Hong Kong as a highly educated, though still skint, Asian American. “She’s so deep in her own chaos she’s not really thinking about the outside world,” Yoo says, “and how she’s affected by it, or how it’s affected by her.”
As a performer, Yoo was acutely aware of the assumption in the western world that Asian Americans would feel at ease traveling to Asia. However, when Yoo visited South Korea for the first time, he experienced something different. The South Koreans could easily identify him as American without even hearing him speak. It was something in his demeanor and energy. The dynamic between Kidman, Yoo, and Blue (who has Indian heritage) in the ensemble is unique and humbling. As Blue points out, women of color often find themselves in roles that serve as a launching pad for other characters’ stories.
Yoo, who is 24 years old, was the first to be chosen for the role. Contrary to popular belief, she was not studying acting but instead cinema and media studies at the University of South California. She did not even have the opportunity to graduate before being cast in The Sky is Everywhere in 2020. “I am technically on a leave of absence from university,” she explains. When asked why she was chosen for the role, her answer is always the same: “I don’t know.” She expresses gratitude for the opportunity nonetheless. Her performance is remarkable, displaying a depth and maturity that is uncharacteristic for someone her age. “She is very mature,” says Kidman. “In fact, she is the most mature out of the three of us.” Despite her maturity, Yoo still represents the younger generation known as “zoomers,” breaking away from the traditional way of approaching social issues in acting. “I don’t believe in being apolitical. Even taking an apolitical stance is a political statement. As an artist, it is important to have a point of view.”
According to Kidman, who is an executive producer, the casting process for the show was not based on celebrity status. Amazon simply instructed them to cast the show and create it without any focus on famous actors. Blue attributes the chemistry between the three main actors to careful casting and spending time together to get to know each other. Kidman adds that they all had the opportunity to bond through activities like swimming and sharing meals, including her children and Blue’s dog.
In 2021, during the middle of the Covid pandemic, filming began in Hong Kong despite closed schools and grounded planes. The city’s unnaturally blue skies and lack of activity added an ominous atmosphere to the backdrop. Nicole Kidman, one of the actors, stated that the city’s energy is reflected in the show and cannot be faked. Interestingly, in light of the show’s theme of expats and entitlement, Kidman was able to bypass Hong Kong’s strict quarantine regulations by using a private jet for filming. However, some online criticism seemed to focus more on expats refusing to wear face masks rather than Kidman breaking the rules herself.
The Covid pandemic also had a significant impact on her acting abilities. In one particular scene, Kidman’s character struggles with the loss of her son. Kidman recalls feeling overwhelmed and unable to perform the scene. She describes it as a moment where she felt like a stubborn donkey refusing to move forward. To make matters worse, she was alone in Hong Kong without her family, which she now sees as a mistake. The distance and inability to see her loved ones added to the emotional toll of the scene. This experience not only affected her performance, but also her mental well-being. However, Kidman sees it as her responsibility to accurately portray difficult and realistic storylines, such as domestic violence in Big Little Lies. She believes that her job as an actor is to authentically connect with the realities of life, including its pain and beauty.
Kidman delivers a moving and raw portrayal of grief, with no pretense or embellishment. In an interview, she acknowledges the self-centered nature of grief, as well as the complexities of being an expat and a privileged woman. Blue’s character, on the other hand, grapples with the decision of whether or not to have children. This contrast of a mourning mother and a conflicted non-mother adds depth to the story, showing that it is possible to hold both perspectives simultaneously: the devastating loss of a child and the potential challenges of motherhood. It is also refreshing to see maternal ambivalence depicted on screen, as it is not a common theme.
“As someone who has chosen not to have children, this was a personal journey that I went through on my own,” explains Blue. “It’s not something that is often talked about or given space for, and sometimes we don’t even allow ourselves that space. When I saw Hilary asking, ‘Can someone just tell me if I should have a baby? Is there a way to know for sure?’ It wasn’t because she was focused solely on her career or didn’t value her husband or had already made up her mind about not wanting children. It was really about questioning if it’s okay to not have children and still embrace my femininity as a woman. I could deeply relate to her struggle.”
Aside from Yoo, Expats is also interesting because it explores the concept of aging and the misconception that there is a definitive point of maturity. Blue explains, “The assumption is that once you reach your 40s, you have everything figured out. You’re strong, you have it all together. But with Hilary, we get to see her continue to grow and evolve in her marriage and friendships. And surprisingly, 40 is not considered old.”
“Frequently, multiple directors oversee a show like this,” Kidman explains. “However, in this case, there is a unified and distinctly female perspective.” While there are male characters in this drama who deliver great performances, the show’s unique quality lies in its focus on women from diverse backgrounds. This representation of diverse women is refreshing and long overdue. As Blue points out, “Not all women are identical, and it’s refreshing to see that represented.” It’s absurd that this is considered groundbreaking. The reality is, when female characters are written with depth and complexity, it is exceptionally captivating.”
The show “Expats” will be available on Prime Video starting 26 January.