Zoë Chao and Tracee Ellis Ross On Airplane Rituals, Instagram, and the Art of the Irish Exit
Zoë Chao is firmly planted in the millennial zeitgeist. The actress and screenwriter has built a dedicated fanbase as the star of Strangers, a bisexual, biracial, and bi-coastal scripted comedy series about Airbnb-ing your spare bedroom, and if that wasn’t enough, it’s streaming on Facebook. But Chao isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s about to make her film debut alongside Cate Blanchett in the much-anticipated Where’d You Go Bernadette, Richard Linklater’s comedy set in the far more bourgeois world of prep school parents and high-powered professionals. Having performed for theater, television, and everything in between (including her sister’s piece at The Shed that re-envisions classic rom-coms), Chao is no stranger to the art of winging it.
Chao took a little break from all that to talk to Tracee Ellis Ross, her friend, co-star (in the upcoming music-industry comedy Covers), fellow Brown alum, and partner in Instagram dance-video DMs. The pair, who Ross says “were shot from the heavens out of the same tube,” touched all the bases of modern life—from Chao’s go-to airplane outfit (“something between a kindergartner and an art student”) to the sweat-inducing etiquette of a FaceTime call. – CARINA IMBORNONE
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: My name is Tracee Ellis Ross. What’s your name?
ZOË CAROL CHAO: My name is Zoë Carol Chao.
ROSS: Has anyone ever called you Carol?
ROSS: What’s your nickname?
CHAO: My dad calls me ZoZo, Zoni. My white mom calls me Babycita. My sister calls me Janessa. Some people call me Zizzle, and some people call me Chao.
ROSS: And what did you start calling me?
CHAO: Trizzy. It’s so fun to say.
ROSS: It feels like champagne.
CHAO: There are bubbles in it.
ROSS: I feel like I’m an oversized bubble. How would you describe yourself in five words?
CHAO: Sweaty. Kaleidoscopic. Nervous—well, I guess that’s kind of sweaty. Empathetic, curious, and excitable. My dad thinks that our people, our ancestors, were born in the cold parts of China. That’s why we don’t function that well in heat.
ROSS: I think my ancestors were born in the hottest part of the world. I will sit in sun puddles. It’s ridiculous.
CHAO: Are you able to stay alert in heat?
ROSS: I thrive. I look the most beautiful. When I’m cold, my jaw gets tense. What do you think is your best angle for a photograph? Tell me your mirror face.
CHAO: It’s a pout lip. My upper lip sticks out over my lower lip.
ROSS: Oh, there we go. I see it.
CHAO: I looked at a picture when I was 3—
ROSS: And you were already doing it.
CHAO: Yeah, and also I never really wore my retainer.
ROSS: So, you’re basically trying to get back to the 3-year-old Zizzy?
CHAO: Exactly. She knew what was up. Zoë now is a complete sweaty mess.
ROSS: If you were to run away somewhere, where would you like to disappear?
CHAO: My nana has a home in New Hampshire. A hundred acres of pristine forest. She bought it in the seventies. It has all of her world travel trinkets inside of it. It has the best light, and it has all the seasons, and it has all of me growing up in there, and the best smells and textures and sounds.
ROSS: Would you disappear solo or would you disappear with someone? Or with more than one someone? With a tribe of someones?
CHAO: Lately I’ve been exploring spending time alone more. It’s a challenging but fruitful endeavor. But I will always want time with my sister, if that’s an option. What about you?
ROSS: Where would I disappear to? My bed.
CHAO: Do you have a heated blanket?
CHAO: You need to get one.
ROSS: I love a sleep mask. Would you leave behind any kind of note or trail for someone to come find you? Or would you just peace out?
CHAO: It’s either a real Irish exit or—
ROSS: What’s an Irish exit?
CHAO: You just peace out.
ROSS: Oh really?
CHAO: There is a little bit of Irish in me. And I love Celtic music. The two genres of music that people don’t know how much I listen to is Celtic music and Cajun and Zydeco music.
ROSS: What’s Zydeco music?
CHAO: Zydeco is a sub-genre of Cajun music. Washboard. Accordion.
ROSS: You like sounds.
CHAO: Oh, I frickin’ love sounds!
ROSS: I’m like a real big sounder. I express through sounds, but I also love the sound of silence. One of my most favorite things in the whole wide world is listening to the wind. I went on vacation recently and listened to the wind and the trees for four days and I’ve never been happier. And a couple of birds.
ROSS: You like percussive sounds. Did you like my use of that word?
CHAO: Yes, because you percussed inside of it.
ROSS: I’m like, “Wow! My Brown education was really worth something. Thank you Mama!” How often per day do you look at social media?
CHAO: Way too much.
ROSS: I take it off my phone sometimes.
CHAO: I’m always happy when your green dot is on.
ROSS: I hate that you can tell when people are on!
CHAO: I‘m like, “Maybe Tracee is gonna send me a dance video.”
ROSS: We communicate through DM dance videos. Apparently though, the app I use most is the text app.
CHAO: We text a lot.
ROSS: Way more than being on the phone. I do love the telephone. It’s such a luxury to me.
CHAO: I don’t.
ROSS: You don’t love the telephone?
CHAO: I would much rather be in person. And, also, I don’t listen to my voicemail.
ROSS: No one does anymore. If people call and they don’t get you, they should send a text.
CHAO: I like FaceTiming you. That’s fun.
ROSS: FaceTiming is a bold move. Do you have rules around FaceTiming? What kind of people FaceTime me? Who FaceTimed who first? Was it me? Did I FaceTime you first?
CHAO: I got sweaty when you FaceTimed me. It was this weird thing like, “She’s so familiar, yet I don’t know her.”
ROSS: The first time I met you, I felt like we’d known each other forever. We’re of the same ilk. We’re cut from the same tube. Nope! That’s not correct. We were shot from the heavens out of the same tube.
CHAO: The long arm hairs on my arm are standing up.
ROSS: Same heart tribe. Do you have a dedicated airport routine? I have traveled with you, and I will say this: Zoë‘s travel attire is fucking top line! It reminds me of something between a kindergartner and an art student. I mean that as a compliment. Let me describe what she’s got on right now. She’s wearing a—
CHAO: —a toilet paper dress.
ROSS: For me, kindergarten and first grade—I feel like that was the pinnacle.
CHAO: Your instincts are so honed back when you fight with your parents. You know what you want. That’s when everybody makes you doubt yourself. It’s like, I know that I want to wear this vest with ruffles on the side with my cowboy boots and the sequined scrunchie. And why are you making me doubt that when I know?
ROSS: I should wear my pants backwards. That’s why I put them that way.
CHAO: Exactly. You spend most of your life trying to prove what you’re doing in your everyday look. But now, on and off the red carpet, there’s a whole other level that I just haven’t really considered.
ROSS: What are you reading right now?
CHAO: A collection of short stories by Alice Munro. I finished Conversations with Friends. I couldn’t put it down. I was crying. But then I felt just a little bit older than it was. It did resonate, people are losing their minds, but Alice Munro I keep coming back to. She seems to have so many women inside her, of all different ages and backgrounds. The stories are so specific.
ROSS: Are you a big reader?
CHAO: I’m happiest when I’m in a place where I can read and have the attention to read. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts actually.
ROSS: What are your favorite podcasts?
CHAO: Have you ever listened to S-Town? I listen to a ton of true crime podcasts. Live and Die in L.A. Oprah’s SuperSoul Summer.
ROSS: If you weren’t looking at Instagram, what do you think would occupy your time during the day? For me, Instagram took over for magazines. I love visuals. I have magazines downstairs from ’83. I would flip, flip, flip, and I would stop, and I would look. I feel like that’s the same way I use Instagram. I’m always making mood boards.
CHAO: Lately, I have been into learning new things, like knitting. Like Fimo.
ROSS: What’s that?
CHAO: It’s a clay that you can bake. I went through a period of time where I was just out of a breakup and had moved to New York. I was having a hard time sitting on the couch by myself. So I was drawing, or beading, or dancing.
ROSS: I think that’s so important. Who would play you in your biopic?
CHAO: Could we get Tracee Ellis? But I mean, my sister. People think we’re twins. She’s five and a half years younger, and way shorter, and way smarter. She has a piece up right now in The Shed, which is a new art space that recently opened in Manhattan. It’s in an emerging group show called Open Call. Her piece is called “What Brings Us Together and What Brings Us Apart.” It’s a 20-minute video installation where the two of us reenact sister scenes from 12 mainstream American films that we grew up watching. We’re half-Chinese; my dad’s Chinese, my mom is white Ohioan. We step into these roles originally played by white women, and then re-imagine all of the contradictions of race, gender, politics, and sexuality that have been embedded in scripted sisterhood.
ROSS: Oof, that is fantastic.
CHAO: It was so moving to me, Tracee, to be inside A League of their Own, Sense and Sensibility, Hannah and Her Sisters. They were so formative in shaping my understanding of love, femininity, and womanhood.
ROSS: There’s also some big gaps.
CHAO: I never saw myself in them. I mean, I wanted to. But to be inside these scenes, and then to realize that I’m now in movies that little Zoës and Maias will watch, and that they will have representation to look to—that is so moving to me.
ROSS: What’s your favorite mystery movie and why?
CHAO: I love Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo, North by Northwest. I also like the ’70s films like Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, Klute, and these Korean films, Oldboy and Mother. They’re so dark.
ROSS: Sunrise or sunset?
ROSS: Bath or shower?
ROSS: Bar soap, liquid soap?
CHAO: Bar soap.
ROSS: Ballpoint or felt tip?
CHAO: Oh, ballpoint.
ROSS: I‘m felt tip.
CHAO: You would be felt tip. Oil or spray for perfume?
ROSS: Quinoa or brown rice?
CHAO: Brown rice. But brown rice versus white rice? White rice.
ROSS: I could live on white rice. I just want to eat a big bowl of white rice.
CHAO: I have family members who have white rice with every meal on the side. By the way, see The Farewell. It’s so good.
ROSS: White rice, when made correctly, is epicly good.
CHAO: I didn’t tell you my airplane ritual. I always get a Virgin Mary at one of the chains, and I get bags of ranch Doritos and nacho Doritos.
ROSS: And do you open both bags at one time and eat one of each?
CHAO: I load up on salt. When I get off I am twice the woman I was before.
ROSS: A bloaty full lady in a kindergarten-art student outfit, with a fluorescent orange fishing bag.