Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
The Performer: Zoë Chao
The Series: Love Life
When we first meet Chao’s character Sara Yang in Love Life, she’s the epitome of a twentysomething floating through life in the Big Apple: loose, playful, committed to a low level of effort.
This is best summed up in her first scene as she rallies for her boyfriend’s birthday despite a UTI, telling Darby (her best friend and roommate, played by the talented Anna Kendrick), “All I’m doing for Jim’s birthday is karaoke and a blowjob… so they both have to be really good.”
At karaoke, we meet her boyfriend Jim and as we soon begin to learn, Sara has two special skills. One, she’s relatively good at remaining non-committal in her relationship for fear of settling down. And two, she’s a dedicated friend to Darby, the central character in the series, whose love-life chronicles we follow as the anthology series plays out over a span of eight years (or so).
Though not the focal point of the series, Chao does a masterful job as Sara, depicting the ‘should I’ or ‘shouldn’t I’ dilemmas of modern-day millennial love. She encapsulates the things that make being in your 20s great, but also the predicaments when full-blown adulting kicks in.
As Darby goes through several roller-coaster rides in her quest for true love, Sara is there for her. In episode two, after Darby makes what could only be described as one of the most uncomfortable drunk toasts ever at a funeral, Sara tries to console her in a fit of empathy saying, “Once I puked at Jim’s cousin’s Bat Mitzvah, in the men’s room, next to the Rabbi.”
That’s just the kind of friend she is.
As Darby’s emotional support animal, Sara usually pushes her own stuff aside to take care of Darby as the consummate wing girl. But since Love Life covers a decent span of time, we get to see their character arcs hit several speedbumps. More specifically, in the areas of getting serious about life, love and the ability to know what will work out well for them… and what will not.
Chao specifically shines in episode eight when the latter comes to fruition for Sara at a friend’s lesbian bachelorette party. With her self-destructive instincts on full display, Chao’s poignant portrayal of a party girl gone wild becomes one of the series most powerful human moments.
The 34-year-old Chao was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and attended Brown University getting her bachelor’s degree in Art History. Soon after, she switched coastlines moving to California, where she got her M.F.A. in Acting from UC San Diego.
After doing some theater work in San Diego, including La Jolla Playhouse’s Sideways, Chao broke into the biz with small roles in TV series such as The Protector (2011) and Hart of Dixie (2012). After trying to keep a straight face in the cringeworthy comedy The Comeback (2014), amongst other roles, Chao’s career gained steam when she landed the lead role in the Facebook Watch series, Strangers (2017-2018), where she starred as a young woman exploring her bisexuality in NYC in a show created by her childhood friend, Mia Lidofsky. Incidentally, the two-season series also co-starred Meredith Hagner, who was recently featured in this column.
After nailing down a small part in the award-winning HBO series, Succession (2018), Chao appeared in Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (2019) before landing her most notable film role to date in the dark comedy, Downhill (2019). In it, she starred as the strong-minded millennial girlfriend of Zach (Zach Woods) who gets a front-row seat for a relationship meltdown in the Swiss Alps courtesy of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell.
If you’re still scratching your head and saying, “Yes, but that’s not where I know her from…” Chao also recurred on two notable Netflix shows, Living With Yourself (2019) and The OA (2019).
With HBO’s first original-scripted series Love Life officially renewed for a second season, we’re sure to see more Sara Yang soon once we finally crack the whole coronavirus production thing.
In the meantime, Chao has two indie films in the can slated for 2020 release: The Long Weekend and I Used to Go Here, starring Gillian Jacobs and Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.