[Editor’s note: The following interview contains some spoilers for “May December.”]

There’s one word to describe the past few months in rising star Elizabeth Yu’s acting career: “wild.” Spend a little time with the “May December” breakout on the phone, and she’ll invoke the term for everything from the response to the Todd Haynes film to her rapid-fire casting process to her first day on set, which literally saw her smack in between two acting legends in a scene that’s a strong contender for sequence of the year. Wild.

And she’s not wrong. While “May December,” in which Yu plays Mary Atherton-Yoo, one of three children belonging to embattled couple Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), is only Yu’s second film role (the first was in Ray Romano’s 2022 effort “Somewhere in Queens”), she more than holds her own in the lauded feature.

Case in point: that first day of production, in which Yu serves as the fulcrum in a key scene where Gracie and the actress hired to play her in an upcoming film (Natalie Portman as Elizabeth) tag along while Mary picks out a graduation dress. As the scene unfolds — mostly in a single take, with enough shots sifting through mirrors to make the audience, rightly, feel very caught off-guard — Gracie and Elizabeth play a little cat and mouse, Mary grapples with her own mother’s barbed compliments, and we all learn a fair bit more about these three women.

Ahead, Yu walks us through that scene (which even served as her very first introduction to Samy Burch’s script), how she’s feeling about everything from Melton love to memes, and the other big Netflix project she’s got cooking (the much-anticipated “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series, in which she will play Azula).

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: You must be feeling great these days. 

Elizabeth Yu: It’s wild, dude. It’s crazy, I’m just so excited for everybody who worked on it, and the recognition that they’re all getting is so wonderful.

How did you first hear about the film? 

The [scene] breakdown came through like any other audition, and immediately I was like, “Oh yeah, there’s no way I’m getting this,” but I taped [my audition], and taped it over and over and over and over again to make sure that it was the best it could possibly be in case anybody saw it. And then got the call that they wanted to book me on it. I think I definitely shed a tear or two, it was really wild. 

They sent the script over for me to read, and I was sitting on the couch with my boyfriend reading the script and being like, “Oh, my God,” because of the plot and everything, being like, “No way!,” so shocked, and just being like, “Oh, my God, now I am going to go do that and act like I know what I’m even doing in front of these crazy, wild people.” I left to go film that probably two weeks or so after I had booked it. It really was just like jumping into the deep end, it was such a crazy experience. I’m still pinching myself.

May December. Elizabeth Yu. 2023 Photo by Brian Bowen Smith / Netflix
Elizabeth YuBrian Bowen Smith / Netflix

I know Todd has been sort of resistant of the Mary Kay Letourneau parallels, but I’m curious about how much you knew about that story or other real-life stories like this before the film? We don’t really hear about the kids in these stories too often.

He was very clear with, “This is not at all a replica of that.” [His interest] was mainly just what tabloid culture is and the spectacle of these insane stories in media and how people digest them. But I did watch a couple of [things about Letourneau].

There’s an Australian “60 Minutes” on the Mary Kay Letourneau thing, and it’s really interesting. We had a dinner with Julie, Todd, Charles, Gabriel, and I, and Julie was like, “You should really watch it, to just see what that relationship with the daughters and the dad is.” Because in that documentary, one of the daughters says he’s more of a “friend dad,” and I think that kind of really rung through the whole movie. It’s just like, yeah, what else could he be, with their ages being so close together and his dynamic with the family being so, I guess, submissive.

What was the scene you self-taped for your audition? Is it in the final film?

It was the dress shop scene with the mirrors and Natalie and Julie.

That’s a wild scene to self-tape! It’s such a key scene for all three of your characters. What was shooting it like?

That was actually my first day on set, so [it was] like incredibly terrifying, so daunting. It’s all in one take, except for a couple inserts, so I’m actually going off into a dressing room and changing my dresses to continue on with the scene. My high school theater knowledge came into play with the quick changes. It was crazy, because I’m also listening for the vocal cues of when I should walk out so I don’t step on anybody’s lines or anything or mess up timing. Then, depending on where I stand in the mirror, you can see Julie or Natalie, which was so stressful. I was like, “Please don’t make it my job to give them screen time or not.” It was insane.

We walked through it a couple times and we did that first take. And if I remember correctly, I think Todd said that he was done after the first take, which is wild. I think he’s just like that. A lot of times he likes that freshness in a scene. I think that was the only scene that was slated for the day, so everyone else was like, “No, no, we have to do it again.”

How did you prepare for that scene? It’s not just essential to the film, it’s also throwing you into the mix with two acting powerhouses.

The days leading up to it were the scariest part, because it’s you hyping it up in your mind and then being like, “Oh my God, I can’t do it.” And then you get there. I had met [Portman and Moore] before that scene, in fittings and hair and makeup testings, and they’re just so sweet and just great people, just so chill, but also leaders on a set. It was really inspiring. I tried to go in as much of a sponge as I could have and be like, “OK, every single thing that they do, I’m going to remember for the rest of my life, so let’s prepare for that.” Literally, they breathe and I was like, “That was a masterclass in acting. Thank you for that. Thank you.” Yeah, every single thing I could pick up on, I tried to.

It was like a masterclass in not only acting, but how to be a pro on a set. You hear horror stories [about other actors] and then you meet them and you’re like, “You are already, in my mind, such a pro and your accolades in your career are insane, you don’t have to be that nice.” And they just are. They’re just so kind.

“May December”

You worked closely with Charles, how does it feel seeing the accolades he’s getting for his work?

It’s incredible. He’s so talented, so kind. He really worked really hard on this process, and you could tell he was giving his everything to this movie and he loved every single second of it. In the back of my mind, at least, I was like, yeah, this is going to be huge for him because he’s just so talented and he’s such a great guy that I don’t know how anyone could not want to work with him. He’s just incredible to be around and so caring. I’ve texted him a million times, and I’m like, “I’m so proud of you. You’re doing so great. You deserve every second of it.”

The film has also really broken through with younger generations, I feel like I can’t open Twitter or Instagram or TikTok without seeing “May December” clips or memes.

[Laughs] I’ve heard of the iconic-ness of the hot dog line.

You have another major project coming up soon: Netflix’s “Avatar” series. Is there anything you can tell me about it?

Oh, God, this is so frustrating, because I want to tell everyone everything. I so badly do not want to keep it a secret ,because I’m so excited about it. I can’t wait to tell my grandchildren about this when I’m old, because I’ll never shut up about it as soon as it gets out. What I can say is it’s so amazing to see these Asian and Indigenous young actors, iconic Asian actors, iconic Indigenous actors, all on the big screen in this huge way, in this largely cinematic way. We’re all such big fans of the original series and what that means to so many people who grew up with it. I’m really excited for people to see it. I think that it’s a knock out of the park. I’m so proud of it and so excited to be a part of it.

You’re so early in your career, but you’ve already got these two examples of the breadth of your work and interests: a lauded indie film and then this major television tentpole adaptation. What do you want to do next?

I’m so blessed, and the imposter syndrome is so massive, so crazy. So lucky. It’s wild. I keep saying it because there’s no other better words to describe what this all is. I feel like beggars can’t be choosers. If I could do a million projects like “May December,” if I could do a million projects like “Avatar,” I would die happy.

“May December” is now streaming on Netflix.

Leave a comment