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#‘Expats’ Creator Lulu Wang on Giving Background Players Main Character Energy

When Lulu Wang read Janice Y.K. Lee’s best-selling novel The Expatriates, she immediately knew she wanted to explore the periphery of the titular characters’ “bubble” in her limited series adaptation for Prime Video: “We had to step outside and see them through other lenses in order to understand the context.” With the blessing of Lee (who was in her writers room) and star/executive producer Nicole Kidman, Wang departs from the main narrative — which depicts an expat community in turmoil after one of their children goes missing — in Expats‘ penultimate installment. “Grief can often be very selfish and isolating,” she explains. “I wanted the audience to experience all those things before going, ‘Wait, there’s so much more out there.’ ” The episode’s opening sequence establishes that purpose right away.

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“It was important to be out in the city, to throw you into an [unfamiliar] environment, to be in the elements, because the rain was a character,” says Wang, who used a slow zoom in from a bird’s-eye view of the city to, finally, a familiar face — domestic worker Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla), who heretofore has only appeared as a background player in the lives of her expat employers, Hilary and David Starr (Sarayu Blue and Jack Huston). “[The zoom] gives you the time to [realize] this is the main character now.”

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In order to find someone who could pull off this description, Wang decided to focus on vocal chops rather than acting experience. “Amelyn came in as a singer who had never acted before,” Wang says of the Hong Kong-based artist, who helped select the song that Puri sings in this scene. The director wanted a fun pop number to emphasize the episode’s tonal departure from the rest of the series, and they ultimately landed on Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which as a summer 2013 release was also historically accurate to what would have ruled the international pop charts in 2014.

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Anyone who has visited Hong Kong has likely witnessed the weekly outdoor gatherings of the city’s foreign domestic underclass, called “helpers” in local parlance. Lee explained to Wang and the rest of the crew that even when it’s raining, these live-in helpers prefer to be outside the home on Sunday. Mostly hailing from the Philippines, many stay with their employers for years, raising their families as they send money to their own back home. “It’s such a huge part of the fabric of Hong Kong,” Wang says.

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Although domestic helpers are prohibited by law from taking on additional work outside of their employers’ homes — a policy Wang calls “indentured servitude” — some spend their days off secretly working side jobs, as Essie (Ruby Ruiz), the helper of Margaret’s (Nicole Kidman) family, is revealed to be doing. “While Puri is enjoying her day off and she has hobbies and friends, Essie’s main purpose is to send money back to her family, so she has this other gig,” Wang says. “She’s got her secrets. Even though Margaret calls her family, there’s so much she doesn’t know about her.”

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Hong Kong in 2014, in global headlines and the lives of locals, was defined by the burgeoning pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, making its entrance in the series here as literal background noise for the main characters. “Who has the privilege to not be political?” says Wang of the expats’ ability to ignore the battle over civil liberties, adding that she set the series at the dawn of the movement, which ultimately failed in the China-controlled Legislative Council, “because it was the precipice of change.” Adds the showrunner, “I thought it was more emotional, knowing what we know now, to look at 2014 when there was still so much hope. It felt like a parallel to all these [main] characters’ stories. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and yet you still have to go on.”

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

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