Élodie Yung, star of the TV show “The Cleaning Lady,” said it’s a role that feels close to home for her.
Yung plays Thony, a Filipina doctor who immigrated to the United States and has to start from the bottom as a cleaning woman. The role reminds Yung of her father, who had been a doctor in Cambodia. When their family immigrated to France during the Khmer Rouge regime, the only job the elder Yung could get was in a grocery store.
“His sole job was to collect carts and then push the carts,” Yung told NBC Asian America. Yung grew up in France but now lives in the United States (and still speaks with a French accent).
She said her situation is more privileged, but through her family, “I can deeply relate to those people who have to leave their country because of horrible circumstances. I can relate to the hardship that it takes to build a new life in a new country and the emotional baggage that you carry with you.”
“The Cleaning Lady” was created by Miranda Kwok and is the first primetime drama on Fox to be created by, produced by and starring an Asian woman. It follows Thony De La Rosa, who lives in Las Vegas. She stumbles onto the crime world when she is hired to be a cleaner for the mob. She can’t say no because she is undocumented, and she needs the money to care for her son, who has a life-threatening autoimmune disease.
Kwok developed the show based on an Argentinian series, “La Chica Que Limpia” and according to her, “The Cleaning Lady” is the highest-rated drama premiere on Fox in two years. Online, it is the most-streamed premiere for Fox on Hulu.
“The moment I pitched that this would be a character from the Philippines and it would have a Southeast Asian female lead, [Fox and Warner Bros.] totally embraced it and supported that all along the way,” Kwok, who is also an executive producer on the show, said. “There is actually a greater appetite for these diverse stories, from different perspectives that we haven’t seen before.”
Kwok is Chinese Canadian, but she wanted “The Cleaning Lady” to center a Filipino family. She pointed to the fact that while the Asian American community is seen as upwardly mobile and affluent, a sizable percentage of the population also lives in poverty, is undocumented and is at an increased risk of hate crimes and violence.
“[We’re] either seen as the model minority or as the help — somebody who doesn’t matter and is a second-class citizen,” Kwok said. “There’s a lot of stereotypes around Asian Americans and around immigrants, and around Asian immigrants.”
Many who immigrate to the United States have to start their careers in lower-wage jobs, and they are looked down upon and dismissed as unskilled and unintelligent. To counter that, Kwok said, “What I wanted to do was … just show people that no matter who you are, where you’re from or what profession you’ve had, everyone deserves the same amount of respect and dignity.”
Thony was originally Filipina. But when the show cast Yung, they changed her character slightly. Since Yung is Cambodian and French, Thony is now a Cambodian who worked in the Philippines before moving to the United States. She lives with her sister-in-law, played by Filipina Australian actor Martha Millan, who is Filipina and a mother.
Yung even got to name her character. She said Thony is named after a cousin of her father, who also escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge and has been a major figure in her life. “It’s from strength, this name,” Yung said.
Thony’s backstory in the show also matches Yung’s: The character’s father was a doctor in Cambodia, who died during the Khmer Rouge.
“This is the first time in my whole career … where I felt like I didn’t need to fit a box,” said Yung, who is well known to superhero fans as Elektra in the Marvel shows “Daredevil” and “The Defenders.” “I have to put my whole self, physically — my heart, my brain, everything — in [Thony’s] situation, in her shoes.”
Yung said she wanted to make the character seem real and human, even if Thony finds herself in larger-than-life circumstances in “The Cleaning Lady,” such as running from a burning building or being interrogated by the FBI. She wanted to go beyond the headlines, which she said paints undocumented people as criminals and dehumanizes them.
“When you watch something like this, [the characters] are immersed in their daily life, in their job, and they’re with their friends and their family at dinner. You can relate to them,” Yung said. “You can be labeled undocumented, but you are a woman, like any other woman. You’re a mother, like any other mother.”
Kwok said “The Cleaning Lady” also has a Filipino writer (Celena Cipriaso) to make sure the characters were portrayed sensitively and authentically. In one moment, Thony sings a lullaby in Tagalog to her son.
“People are put into circumstances or born into circumstances that are beyond their control. And sometimes it’s just about making the best choice you can, and sometimes it’s not a good choice,” Kwok said. “We’re just trying to glorify humanity and the choices that people are forced to make.”
Yung said Thony is the kind of “meaty” role she had been waiting for. She moved to the Untied States 10 years ago, after being frustrated with the French film industry. Since then, she’s played a goddess in “Gods of Egypt,” an Interpol agent in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and a Marvel superhero.
After being typecast in the French film industry as an “angry cop,” Yung said she’s been very intentional in the roles she chooses in America.
“I’ve always been a pain in the neck with my team and my agents, and to say, ‘Let me audition for every single thing,’” she said. “Even if it was described for an American girl with no accent, blond and white, I’ve always auditioned for everything. I just love acting so much, and I want to push boundaries.”
So when is Elektra going to make a reappearance in the Marvel universe? Yung laughed in response.
“If they call me back, I would put Elektra’s costume on very happily,” she said. “Now, I’m doing Thony, and I’m very happy with it.”