Stage & Screen

A Tale of Transpacific Sacrifice: An Interview with The Cleaning Lady's Miranda Kwok and Élodie Yung

The Cleaning Lady is FOX’s first primetime drama series created and led by an AAPI woman, screenwriter-producer Miranda Kwok, and stars French-Cambodian actress, Élodie Yung as Thony, a Cambodian doctor who moves to the United States to get medical treatment for her son, but inadvertently finds herself cleaning up after mobsters. We sat down with Miranda and Elodie to chat about the show.
Elodie Yung in 'The Cleaning Lady'. Photo courtesy of FOX.
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A Tale of Transpacific Sacrifice: An Interview with The Cleaning Lady's Miranda Kwok and Élodie Yung

Miranda, the Cleaning Lady is based on the 2017 Argentine series called La Chica que Limpia. How did you come across this original show and what about it compelled you to create an adaptation?

Miranda: Well, Shay Mitchell found the original format and Warner Brothers had auctioned it to her, for her, and then they went out to writers to pitch a take. They brought the project to me and seeing her on board, I thought, well let’s have this character be a South East Asian character, that’s something that’s never been done, especially on primetime television.

So, Warner Brothers completely embraced the idea; I pitched it to Fox and they also were totally on board to have a different kind of female lead and to have an Asian lead. And, you know, the other inspiration was just to tell this story. The adaptation is different in that she was a doctor in the Philippines and came to the US for a medical treatment for her son, the system fails her and then she has to make a choice. Either she can go home where there are no resources for her family, or she can choose to stay illegally and she decides to work as an undocumented cleaning lady. And so, this is a story about an underdog and somebody who faces so many challenges and manages to defy all that and make her own rules. She’s not somebody who is going to be backed against the wall or pushed into a corner, she won’t take no for an answer, she’s going to create her own path and those are the themes that really spoke to me and inspired me to create this show.

Elodie Yung in The Cleaning Lady. Photo courtesy of FOX

In direct opposition to the American Dream, we do see the main character, Thony, sacrificing her prestigious career and stable life. This really echoes the story of many immigrant parents, especially those who arrive undocumented. Could you tell us a bit about the importance of emphasizing this sacrifice and if it was a challenge to push for this narrative?

Miranda: It wasn’t a challenge to push for the narrative, again the story was very well received and embraced. They actually encouraged us to have a show that was as authentic as possible. Absolutely, it is a story about the American dream, but not in the way it’s normally portrayed. You know, this is a very grounded, gritty version of it where yes, it is about sacrifice, and it is about finding your own path in whatever way that takes: it’s full of sacrifices. It’s also about doing things, not about the right way or wrong way, but any way you can. That mentality is what drives a lot of people who come to America to create their own path, and they have to make do, and that’s sort of the driving force of the series and for Thony as well.

Elodie Yung in The Cleaning Lady. Photo courtesy of FOX.

You see in society all these immigrant workers in jobs that most consumers don’t really give a second thought about, and the stories of these women are never front and centre of a popular television series. Did you both feel a sense of responsibility, in a way, to really stay true to these untold stories and be representative?

Élodie: Absolutely, I do believe that. For me, my contribution to this project was to bring my truth to it, and that came from my experience and my take on what it is to be an immigrant. I lived this from within: my dad, although he was documented, he came as a political refugee to France from Cambodia. We are telling kind of a similar story to me, and this is where I say I bring my truth. He was stripped from his status, you know? My dad has had a very varied journey, but he studied and he wanted to be a mechanical engineer. When he arrived in France, this couldn’t happen, and there was no equivalent. He tried to have an equivalent in university, and it didn’t work out for him. So what he did was pushing carts in a supermarket for years and this is where he met my mum, so it kind of worked out in the end. 

Elodie Yung in The Cleaning Lady. Photo courtesy of FOX.

Yes! That’s a nice outcome.

Élodie: But he had to go through that and in a way, it’s quite similar, what we’re looking at when we’re watching Thony’s journey. She was a surgeon, she was stripped from her power. She had to make this sacrifice, she arrives in a new country and she has to do what she has to do, to make do and survive. I think in that sense, it’s going to resonate in a lot of homes, for a lot of people who have had to go through this type of journey. Being this disempowered and yet finding – I mean this is my experience yet again, I can’t talk for everybody – but on this journey, little by little taking back the power. It doesn’t mean that you are going to be what you were supposed to be before tragedy hit you, but it’s just about getting back dignity, you know, making what you have to do for your family. I really know that from within, it’s a very personal point of view. I hope I brought that to my part.

Coming off of that feeling of disempowerment, and how this character truly is disempowered and less visible – Élodie, you have so much experience in portraying these badass, strong women –

Élodie: [laughing] Give me a break with that!

Well that’s exactly what I wanted to ask you! How different was it being away from the action?

Élodie: It’s beautiful. This is what I have been seeking my whole artistic life, you know? This is what I want to do. I want to tell real stories and this project, in a way, allowed me to do this and express myself. I could just take my heart, and put it on the table and say look, this is what Thony is going through. This is where I thrive: I want to understand people, I want to empathise, and I want to feel, and I hope people are going to feel for her. I want to open conversations on what these people are going through. I’ve always wanted to embrace a part like this, which, let me tell you, is way, way more exciting to me and more challenging because you have to be naked, you have to be true. Every word, everything, this is what I have tried to do, because I want to honour this woman. Honour maybe is not the word, I want to ‘faire justice’, I want to make justice for her. It’s poorly translated from my French, but you know what I mean?

Miranda: To do the character justice.

Élodie: I want to do my character justice, because we’re not in a heightened world, we’re grounded, we’re real. I want to talk about a real person, not a hero, not a superhero. She’s a common hero, if you want, but she’s just a simple woman that has to go through so much, and how does she bear this in her heart, like I don’t know.

Miranda: Well, Élodie has more than done this character justice. She has elevated this role in so many ways. She brings so much of herself, and there is so much of her that already embodies this character because of her internal strength and her fortitude, her resilience. She is also brilliant, and compassionate, and all of that shines through in Élodie and in this character, and that’s what’s so important to this role. You talk about responsibility, what’s so important is to show the many many layers of this character, and show the depths of this character and her story and also to show that there are so many kinds of different stories and that’s part of it too. Being an immigrant isn’t one thing, being a cleaning lady; you know you all just assume or disregard rather, you don’t even care about what their story is. There are a lot of immigrant stories in this, people from all different countries: there’s Élodie’s character, there is also Martha [Millan], who is a very different personality and what she has struggle with, and Adan Canto. I think showing that diversity itself is what gets people to have a broader understanding and compassion for these characters, and hopefully that will extend to having more compassion for people who are in these roles in real life in the world.

That’s great to hear, and I think it’s very clear that compassion is at the heart of this project. We can’t wait for audiences to see this show and see how it resonates with various immigrant diasporas and identities.

Thank you so much for your time!

The Cleaning Lady premieres on Monday the 3rd of January 2022 on FOX.
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