“To center myself this morning, I wrote a list of things I love and things I hate,” the actor Zoë Chao said on a drizzly afternoon last month at the sumptuous Russian Tea Room, in Manhattan. As she talked, she plucked a miniature blini from a silver tower in the middle of our table.
“I don’t have a strong attachment to self,” she continued, examining the glistening beads of black caviar on her tiny pancake. “That’s good for surviving different environments, because you can adapt. But when I’m forced to articulate myself, I go into a flop sweat.”
She grinned and downed the blini in one bite.
Had Chao chosen a different career, her malleability might’ve been a hindrance. But as an actor, her ability to try on and shed varying traits is bearing fruit. This year, Chao, 37, is appearing in a collection of roles that speak to her range, including the much-anticipated return of “Party Down,” on Starz, which is closing in on its Season 3 finale. Still to come, Season 2 of the Apple TV+ murder mystery comedy “The Afterparty,” beginning in April; “If You Were the Last,” a sci-fi romance, which festival goers previewed at South by Southwest this month; and the dramatic film “Nightbitch,” slated for summer, alongside Amy Adams.
In the 13 years since it first went off the air, “Party Down” has accrued cult status, but when it premiered, in 2009, many critics didn’t know what to make of the series, and it was canceled after two seasons. The comedy-drama series follows a group of waiters — mostly aspiring actors or writers — working for a catering company in metropolitan Los Angeles. The six-episode third season, which debuted last month, picks up with most of the original cast, plus a few new members, including Chao.
In the show, Chao plays the truculent, egoistic chef Lucy Dang. As a chef, Chao’s Lucy might receive mixed reviews. One of her creations, which she presents, straight-faced, as a “rumination on mortality,” pairs delicate sweetness with dank Camembert. Entirely unconcerned with the client’s gustatory enjoyment, Lucy considers herself an artiste, creating food for unsophisticated palates, and Chao plays her with the utmost seriousness.
John Enbom, one of the show’s creators, said in a video call that “Zoë had a very fulfilling take on the character from the get-go.” Lucy had originally been written as “ferocious” and “kind of angry,” he explained, but “Zoë took that and added the extra assumption that nobody got what Lucy was doing, and that kept her from being too abrasive.”
Last week’s episode saw Lucy, along with several of her colleagues, decide to indulge in some psychedelic mushrooms while on the clock. When the shrooms hit, Lucy’s boss, Ron, finds her crouched over hors d’oeuvres that bear more than a passing resemblance to spiny turds.
“Is it even food?” Ron asks after taking a wary bite.
“Oh my god, exactly!” Lucy responds, eyes wide. “It’s spiced wood pulp.”
Chao didn’t set out to become an actor. She was born in Providence, R.I., and studied art history at Brown, but despite her declared major, she spent her senior year preparing a one-woman show with the theater department rather than studying for her exams.
“I realized I was always spending my time performing,” she explained. “It was a fulcrum moment.”
She attended the graduate theater program at University of California, San Diego, before moving to Los Angeles, where she worked at Bar Marmont, in West Hollywood. She was waiting tables while she auditioned for roles in TV and film.
“It was so erratic and depressing,” she remembered. It was 2014, and the offers were not rolling in. She discovered “Party Down” during this period, and the parallels between her life and the show were not subtle.
“It was sometimes hard to watch,” she acknowledged. “Every day, you’re like, do I throw in the towel?” She recalled a moment when one character is cut from an upcoming film. “I know that feeling,” she said, rolling her eyes as she stirred her tea. “I got cut from ‘Succession’! Sometimes people ask me about that credit, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, well, my bangs are in it.’” (She is credited as “Joyce Miller’s Staff” in Episode 4 of the first season.)
Her first break came with a web series, called “God Particles,” that brought her to Sundance in 2017. She was 31 and months away from quitting acting, but she decided to take one final leap with a new manager, and it paid off. Two years later, she was in Austria filming a movie with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, then back in New York for her role as Sara Yang in HBO’s series “Love Life,” a performance that ultimately led to her lead role in “The Afterparty.”
Every episode is a different genre, so they needed actors who could span a range of tones. “We were looking for funny people who could also do dramatic things and be believable, Christopher Miller, the creator and co-showrunner of “The Afterparty,” said in a recent video call. “It’s a really tough part. But Zoë was perfect for it.”
Sam Richardson, Chao’s co-star in “The Afterparty,” plays a character smitten with her, and much of the series revolves around their dynamic. Richardson praised her self-control, her insistence on never rushing. “Even if we didn’t know exactly what we were going for, we knew that we could go to each other and find it and figure it out,” he said. “I trusted her implicitly.”
When the opportunity arose to try out for the “Party Down” revival, Chao said, she had “never been more nervous for an audition.” Her neighbor, a personal chef, lent her his cooking outfit, complete with jacket and cravat. Once she landed the role, she experienced acute joy, then panic.
“My experience filming the third season was just a steady anxiety attack,” she deadpanned.
In person, Chao speaks openly and vigorously about her foibles, both personal and professional, and her affect is irresistibly warm. She listens intently and responds emphatically; her career in drama is unsurprising given the intensity of her reactions. This tendency does not go unnoticed by her friends.
“Zoë has this chaos to her, which is terrific,” Richardson said, smiling widely. I noted that she seemed incredibly attuned to the fluctuations in her own mood. He nodded. “She doesn’t navigate the world oblivious of herself,” he said. “She is a person who is incredibly anxious, but she can also navigate any situation as a very dynamic being.”
Back at the tea room, Chao lifted her teacup to her lips as light glinted off the silver rings that circled her fingers. Overhead, the gilded ceiling suffused the room with a lustrous glow. I asked her how she thought about this next phase in her career, with bigger and bigger roles coming down the pike. Did it make her anxious?
“No one has ever been like, you’re so chill,” she said with a wide grin. “As for what’s next, I have no idea. And for the first time ever, I’m cool with that.”
I waited, and she laughed. “Well, OK, I’m fine with it right now, but who knows about next week?”