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Actress Traces Family Roots to Find Her Own ‘Origin Story’

Image: To match Special Report MEKONG-CHINA/MURDERS

Actress traces her refugee roots to Laos in search of her biological father. SUKREE SUKPLANG / Reuters

When Kulap Vilaysack was 14-years old, she learned that the man she'd grown up calling 'Dad' was not her biological father. Last summer – nearly 20 years later – Vilaysack’s search for her birth father took her halfway around the world to Laos, her parents’ home country. That trip, chronicled on film, is the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary called “Origin Story."
The story finds its roots back in 1993, when Kulap's parents – Laotian refugees that settled in Eagan, Minnesota outside of St. Paul – were arguing. Her mother, in the heat of the moment, accidentally revealed the truth to her daughter.
“I didn’t believe her at the time,” Vilaysack said. “I went to my dad immediately. He didn’t really say anything as much as what his face told me.”
Actress embarks on quest to find her own 'Origin Story'
(L-R) Kulap, her sister Alyssa, her mother, her sister Anita, and her father in Minnesota, circa 2001. Courtesy Kulap Vilaysack
In that moment, everything she thought she knew about her identity and where she came from was called into question. The more details she learned, Vilaysack says, the more deeply she was hurt.
“Finding out that way and then finding out that basically every adult in my life knew this truth, I felt betrayed,” she recalled. “When I found out my dad wasn’t my real dad, I quickly also heard that [my birth father] didn’t want contact with me for fear that I would want child support. That hurt."
Her research for the film also took Vilaysack – who now lives in California – back to Eagan, where growing up the eldest of three sisters in a tight-knit, immigrant community created its own set of challenges. Her mother was only a teenager when she and thousands of others fled Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
After crossing the Mekong River, Vilaysack’s mother lived in a Thai refugee camp for several months before coming to the United States, where she gave birth to Kulap and her sisters.
“On top of what culturally I would be in charge of, my mom had me do additional things,” Vilaysack said. “I would clean the house, do everyone’s laundry. And at the same time I was expected to get really good grades. It’s sort of a similar story, I’m sure, for many immigrant kids.”
Actress embarks on quest to find her own 'Origin Story'
Kulap with her parents next to a riverbank in Minnesota, circa 1984. Courtesy Kulap Vilaysack
Even before the truth about her father upended her sense of identity, Vilaysack says she struggled with authority and developed a strained relationship with her mother.
“My mom is not a bad person. And my mom loves me very much,” she said. “But my mom doesn’t know how to be in a family. She left home very young. She left the country very young. Her mom died. She can barely remember her mom.”
Vilaysack says she felt no desire to reach out to her biological father for much of her childhood and early adulthood. After high school, she moved to Los Angeles where she eventually studied comedy at the renowned Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
Naturally funny and with a knack for comedic timing, Vilaysack found refuge from her family tumult in the performance world. She went on to land several guest roles on popular sitcoms including “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” And since late 2010, she has hosted a comedic podcast called, “Who Charted” on the Earwolf network that her husband, fellow podcaster and comedian, Scott Aukerman founded.
Actress embarks on quest to find her own 'Origin Story'
Kulap and Scott's wedding photo in Los Angeles, September 13th, 2008. Courtesy Kulap Vilaysack
From an early age, Vilaysack says she discovered she could use humor as a way to get through tough times and to help her relate to her parents, especially her mother.
“In my family, when we weren’t arguing or not talking, we were laughing,” she said. “My mom is very funny and dynamic. I would say that on my mom’s best days there’s nobody more fun than my mom. [Laughing] is how everyone in my family kind of coped with stuff.”
Comedy may have given her a coping mechanism, but it also helped to fuel fundraising for the film through an IndieGoGo campaign. Vilaysack tapped into her comedic family – the friends she has worked with and built relationships with over her years in L.A. – to help propel her project forward.
Yet, Vilaysack wasn’t always as vocal, articulate, or forthcoming about her feelings. Seven years ago, at age 27, she started therapy, which she says helped her learn better ways to process her emotions, and her unresolved feelings towards her birth father.
“I think I probably just chalked it up to this random thing that happened to me, but didn’t see how deep that permeated my sense of self,” she said. “As an adult I realized that when you put these things away, you’re making deposits into a bank that has high interest and this account is just getting bigger and bigger.”
Actress embarks on quest to find her own 'Origin Story'
'Origin Story' film crew in Laos: (L-R) Producer Erica Kraus, Director of Photography Jonathan Nicholas, and Kulap in front of the Wat Phu Temple. Courtesy Kulap Vilaysack
Adulthood, Vilaysack says, was the right time for her to launch the search for her father, and the right time for her to tell her "Origin Story.” And though she eventually did find her biological father – a man who traveled to the United States with Kulap’s mother, but eventually returned to Laos, and who Kulap says laughs just as loudly and fully as she does – the mission to find him, and their eventual meeting, told in honest and emotional detail in her film, did not bring all of the closure she sought.
She still struggles, she says, with wishing some parts of her story were different.
“[This film] is just me learning for myself where I come from and who I come from – and hopefully I can make peace with that and move on.”
Actress embarks on quest to find her own 'Origin Story'
Actress and comedian, Kulap Vilaysack. Courtesy Kulap Vilaysack