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Zoe Chao said her relationship with director Mia Lidofsky is the longest of her life.
“We met on the first day of nursery school, and we were three years old, and she was crying,” Chao recalled. “And I said, ‘Come play with me,’ and 28 years later we are still friends.”
But despite being friends for nearly three decades, the two Rhode Island natives hadn't released any professional work together until just recently. Last month, Chao — an actor — and Lidofsky — a director — debuted their new dramedy “Strangers” on Facebook's Watch platform, the social media site's new digital video section.
The series, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and was produced by Refinery 29, follows the late 20-something Isobel (played by Chao) as she tries to rebuild her life after a breakup and deciding to slowly explore her bisexuality while sharing her home with a rotating cast of Airbnb-like guests. Producers revealed earlier this week that the show would be returning for a second season.
“Working with your best friend is not easy, but it is deeply moving," Chao said. "We’re still learning a lot.”
Before they began working on “Strangers,” Chao was working as a waitress and Lidofsky was finding her way in the world of film.
Chao said she felt particularly connected to the character of Isabel, whose relationship ends after she cheats on her boyfriend with a woman.
“Isobel is very close to me because of that late 20s crisis of identity — you can keep continuing things as they are or make big changes,” Chao said. “I remember waking up in my late 20s and feeling stuck. The narratives that you have told yourself are not holding up and there’s that painful moment where you have to initiate change.”
For Chao, that transition involved moving to New York from Los Angeles a week after filming for season one of the show wrapped. “I was sacrificing safety and reliability and thinking, ‘Whoa, I am in a completely new place,” she said. “I am still going through that.”
“Isobel is very close to me because of that late-20s crisis of identity — you can keep continuing things as they are or make big changes.”
Growing up in a family of visual artists, Chao always knew she was going to have a creative career. She was also eager to explore her identity as a biracial Asian American in her work.
“My mom is Caucasian and she sends me all of these ancestry sites now,” she said. “She has Irish English roots from Ohio. My dad is Chinese. My grandmother moved to Michigan from China when she was 7, pre-Cultural Revolution.”
As she began auditioning for roles, Chao noticed that there was a certain sameness to the roles for Asian-American actresses, she said. She would often play a "quirky best friend" or a tech worker, she noted. "Strangers" let her break that pattern.
“One of the most moving things about ‘Strangers’ is that a face that looks like mine is the center of the story," she said. "We get to know Isobel beyond the caricature.”
Isobel and her story is also unique, Chao noted, because she is openly bisexual in an era where few Hollywood characters are.
“For many people of color, that’s the only ‘otherness’ we are allowed,” Chao noted. “So to have Isobel be a person of color that’s also queer, it’s cool.”
"One of the most moving things about ‘Strangers’ is that a face that looks like mine is the center of the story. We get to know Isobel beyond the caricature.”
Chao said that she did wonder how the decision to cast a non-bisexual actress would be received. “I had a lot of apprehension about playing someone who is bisexual,” she said. “But Mia is a gay woman and a gay filmmaker, and I trusted her vision.”
Because "Strangers" revolves around the sharing economy and the guests that rent Isobel’s space, it is also a uniquely 2017 show, Chao noted.
“The sharing community is a huge part of what [20 and 30-somethings] are seeing the world. Mia was so smart to include that,” she said, adding that Isobel’s stumbles through adulthood felt particularly relatable. “Navigating modern life feels like the ground is very uneven.”
The ubiquitous presence of social media in modern American life is also a big part of the reason Chao is happy the show is broadcast on Facebook Watch.
“It is so nice to have access to millions of people,” she said. “I look forward to having people discovering the show on their phones, in their cars. You could watch it while in an AirBnb.”