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Interviews

Interview: Irene Choi Talks “Insatiable”, Harvard Psychology, and Her Favorite Outfit from Season One

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Irene Choi

Irene Choi

Everyone loves a great villain. And with “Insatiable”, Netflix’s latest original “Coming of Rage” series, beauty pageants, high school drama, and a pack of daring teenage girls combine to produce a season of wonderfully cringe-worthy characters and enough drama-filled moments to keep viewers screaming at their screens for hours on end. In other words, fans of the show won’t be running low on diabolical antagonists any time soon.

In fact, nearing the top of this notorious, and rather long, list of insatiable characters, sits Dixie Sinclair. Tasked with the roll of bringing this over-the-top and outspoken high school bully to life on-screen, actress, Irene Choi, has been hard at work, ensuring that her character progresses beyond the typical “mean girl” stereotype and illustrates just enough nuance to produce a glimmer of what she calls “humanity” in an otherwise comedic villain. While balancing serious topics with humor and ease is a fine line to walk, Choi is no stranger to getting the job done. With previous roles in Community and the Golden Globe award-winning show, Mozart in the Jungle, Irene knows exactly what it takes for fans to root for her devious character, if only just a little bit. And while we all count on the protagonist to pull out a victory with their back against the wall, many still can’t help but cheer for the bona-fide arch-nemesis to bring some action to the table before the figurative curtains close.

With Insatiable making it’s Netflix debut August 10th, and a discussion for a second season still up in the air, we had the pleasure of sharing some laughs with Irene and learning all about her role in “Insatiable”, putting her Harvard degree to use in the acting world, and of course, her favorite outfit from Season One!

Congratulations on the very first season of InsatiableHow did you initially get involved with the show?

Thank you so much! My manager got me the audition during Pilot Season and it was a pretty quick and traditional process. He got me the audition and the day after that, I was testing! I was sent the “sides” [part of the script], it’s what you audition with, and then the full script as well.

As a comedy-drama or “dramedy” so to speak, there must have been a lot of laughter-filled moments on set! Were there any scenes that stood out to you as the most fun to work on? 

Yes! For me personally, any scene with Arden Myrin, who plays my Mom! She comes from MADtv and from a super heavy improv background. She’s so quick and terrific with improv! Every take with her was different and always a surprise. It was definitely such a joy to work with her. She was also incredibly, incredibly, funny as well! (laughs) There were definitely a lot of times when I just couldn’t get through a take because I was giggling and laughing with her and trying really hard not to break character!

Insatiable has an impressive cast including actors like Arden, Debby Ryan, Alyssa Milano, and yourself! The combination of all of you together is really fun to watch! What was it like to act alongside these other strong women in the industry?

Professionally speaking, it was such a terrific learning experience just seeing everyone doing their work! I guess it’s not a surprise because a lot of people in the industry get to where they are through different paths… but, they all bring in their own experiences which is great! And you’re right, Insatiable does have a cast of very strong women! Literally, a lot of the characters are very strong. I would say this is, I think, mirrored by the fact that a lot of the women playing these roles are also very strong women in real life. Except, in the show, they play really awful people! (laughs) None of these women are anything like that in real life! Everyone was incredibly gracious.

I couldn’t help but notice the playful and somewhat over the top wardrobe used on the show! Given that Alyssa Milano is a host and judge on Project Runway All Stars, did she ever provide any fun fashion insight on set? 

Not exactly, we had an excellent costume designer who was incredibly creative with everyone’s wardrobe choices. She made sure that it really mirrored the character. I’m sure she [Alyssa] had a lot of insight with her character though! [The costume designer] really respected our choices in terms of, “you are the ones that are saying these lines, so you probably know the character better than anyone, especially after playing them for a while” and asked, “do you think this is something your character would wear? What feels more uniquely true to your character?”

[The costumes] That was definitely a really fun thing! For example, Sarah Colonna’s character [Angie Bladell], who plays Patty’s Mom, would always make fun of the fact that Angie never met a denim skirt that she’s disliked! (laughs) She loves her past season “Jessica Simpson” heels, which was funny. [The costume designer] did a terrific job catering to what she believed the characters would wear. It made us feel like the costume was kind of our “armour”, so we would feel more like that character!

How exciting! Did you have a favorite outfit from the first season of Insatiable?

Definitely! I had a few! There’s one outfit, it’s a blue dress with these white butterfly sleeves and detached matching cuffs. I loved that outfit!

I think it’s always the funniest when Dixie Sinclair [Irene’s character] wears incredibly innocent and sweet outfits which contradicts her very opposite personality. I think it’s a decision that she’d make in real life. (laughs) She’d probably think that dressing as this innocent little angel will kind of get her sympathy points, I guess you could say. That episode is actually the one where I’m [Dixie’s] bullying Patty through the bull horn during the cafeteria scene and I actually slap her! So, Dixie’s doing very bad things while basically wearing this very “Easter Sunday” type outfit!

What do you think is the most enjoyable or most challenging part about playing a comedic villain like Dixie?

I guess it’s that she is so different from who I am. I’d like to think so because she’s such a bad person! (laughs). I’d like to think that I’m not as close! She says and does some pretty awful and incredibly offensive things that I’d never, ever say, or ever think of doing in real life!

I think the most challenging part is relating to her. As actors, it’s important to not really judge your character because you bring yourself into it. Even though she’s a villain and has jokes and crazy lines, it was important for me [as an actress] to find some grounding and a little bit of humanity, which the writers definitely gave me a chance to do. So, it wasn’t too hard, but it was still a challenge.

I thought, “ok. She’s an awful person. Everyone hates her. But, at the same time, what are a couple ways that I can possibly relate to her? Also, how do I somehow make it so that the audience doesn’t essentially want to see my character dead?!” (laughs) I needed to sort of find a way for people to kind of root for her a little bit.

I see! You spoke about getting into the mindset of characters. I read that you previously studied psychology at Harvard University!

I did, yes!

Do you think this psychology background helps you get into the mindset of different characters on-set? 

Oh yeah! Going back, psychology is something that I majored in without knowing what to do professionally. It was just one of those things where I happened to take an intro class and then, all of sudden, I had to choose a major. It was my Sophomore year. So, I spoke with my counselor and asked, “out of all the classes I took, which ones happened to fit that certain major?” They told me I’d already taken four classes in psychology, so I said, “ok, I’ll do that!”

But, yes! I think psychology has absolutely helped me! Especially because this is a cast of characters where each one is essentially going through a lot of deep psychological turmoil whether they’re aware of it or not. It’s kind of a cast of people with a lot of issues who have way too much power to make these really bad choices. Especially for Dixie. Even though she’s written as a huge caricature and for laughs, there’s a lot of nuances within her. For example, she isn’t written as a traditional “mean girl” you see on television or in movies. She’s not written to be like a typical, popular, person.

Almost immediately, “mean girls” are generally written to be the most pretty and popular girls in the school. Dixie’s not set up that way. If you think about it, I feel like in real life, the bullies are often not the most positive people. Often times, they’re very, sort of misunderstood. And they’re not brought up in a position of social power or prowess. So, I thought that was an interesting thing to break down about her character.

And if I want to go even further with this and her background, Dixie grew up as an adoptee with a single mother who was not a great parental figure. This sort of plays into that fact, even though it’s funny, when she moved into the Barnard house, she starts to call Christopher Gorham’s character [Bob Barnard] “daddy”. The joke is that he’s incredibly attractive, but also, it’s that sense that she’s really never had a father figure. She’s sort of just latches onto this first male role model character that she has.

Even simple little lines. Dixie says it’s a “joke”, but, when Donald Choi [actor Daniel Kang] states the fact that “we’re the only two Asians in school. It’s so cliché for us to hook up”, Dixie says, “I’m not Asian. I’m adopted”. I think she has a very warped sense of identity.

One thing I like about the show is that you get to address all these heavier topics through a satire which can make these things a lot easier for people to discuss.

Yes! I agree!

Going back to yourself as an actress, I noticed that in addition to studying psychology in school, you also played violin in the Harvard Orchestra, were a DJ for the college radio station and were in an all-girl rock band! Why did you decide on acting versus a music career?

Well, I grew up playing the violin pretty competitively, so, it just felt like a continuation when I went into college. Also, the funny thing is, one of my friends who was in the [rock] band with me has pursued a quite successful musical career! So, it is funny that I strayed away from that!

I think violin was something I did because I was already good at it. It was something that I had been exposed to. I guess, in a way, a little pressured into doing. At the time, I thought I enjoyed it because I was good, if that makes sense. But, acting was one thing where I was like, “wait! Here’s something that I do enjoy but I’m not the best at, nor have I really had an opportunity to explore”. I had been exposed to it as a kid in the summer. Usually, orchestra is during the school year and in the summer, there’s a lot of community theatre going on. So, I was creatively exposed to acting in that way. I always knew it was something that I liked more than violin, even though it was something that I wasn’t better at.

Also, working in a corporate setting, I realized that a nine-to-five job was not something that I enjoyed. I happened to be in Los Angeles already and I thought, “what is one thing that I’ve always wanted to do, I actually really enjoy, and isn’t something that’s going to be handed to me…something that I’m not already good at”. And basically, it was acting! (laughs) It was definitely a huge risk. It came with a lot of close calls to quitting, and I think every actor you speak to will say that, but that was my journey!

Throughout your career you’ve been involved in some really successful productions such as Community and the Golden Globe winning, Mozart in the Jungle! What do you think it is about comedy that keeps you coming back as an actress?

Oh my gosh! (laughs) I never really thought about that! I guess a lot of has to do with the material. I don’t really come from an improv background. And, I’m probably going into this deeper than I should, but, I come from an immigrant background. My parents immigrated to the United States, so the American sense of humor wasn’t something that I really learned from them. It’s something that I learned from television or on my own.

For me, this topic of on-screen American comedy was almost like a “babysitter” in a way. Television was such a big support branch in terms of how I learned about what was considered funny and the nuances of American culture that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned in my household. So, I’ve always been a big fan of comedy ever since I was a child. When I came into acting, I was already skewed towards that genre.

And, as cheesy as it sounds, it’s always really, really, fun to laugh! Comedy, I felt like growing up, made me laugh a lot whenever I wasn’t feeling great. So, as an artist, you kind of want to go into the field that you grew up with, or that really helped you become who you are as a person.

Were there any specific actors or shows that sparked this interest in acting for you?

Yeah! (laughs) I think the first time was when I watching Sesame Street! I was a toddler and I’d point to the television and tell my friends, “I want to do that! I want to do what they’re doing!” And, sort of dream of being an actor.

I was also definitely a huge fan of The Simpsons growing up! Probably much younger than I should have been! (laughs) But, that’s kind of what happens when you grow up in a household that doesn’t quite understand American humor. I think my parents just thought it was a cartoon! (laughs) That was a big thing for me.

And, I obsessively watch a lot of Seinfeld, and a lot of Arrested Development. I’m such an enormous fan of Freaks and Geeks3rd Rock, and a lot of Christopher Guest movies!

Before I started acting, these were the main things that I watched over and over again and inspired me to say, “you know what? That’s exactly what I want to do when I’m older!”

I’ve heard you’re also a big reality T.V. show fan! Do you have a favorite right now?

I am! Right now, it’s Bachelor in Paradise. Which I really do think is the best reality show of the summer. The best reality programming ever! I’m such a sucker for the entire Bachelorseries! (laughs) I’m also right now, definitely loving, 90 Day Fiancé. They just started a new season. But, the Bachelor in Paradise is a never miss! That is watched very seriously in my living room!

(laughs) I’ve seen commercials for 90 Day Fiancé. I guess I’ll have to check it out!

It’s good! (jokes) That’s all I’m going to say!

So, on the acting front, are there any plans for a second season of Insatiableor do you have any other projects in the works that you could tell us a little bit about?

We haven’t heard about a second season of Insatiable yet. We’re all waiting on that. It’s not me being secretive or anything! (laughs) No, none of us have heard anything about it. Hopefully, we’ll hear soon! Otherwise, I don’t really have anything too big coming up. Mostly we’re all crossing our fingers for a second season!

To wrap things up, I usually end with a couple of fill in the blank sentences. Would you like to give it a shot?

Sure!

One fun hobby of mine is…

Playing video games! Resident Evil is my favorite!

If I could travel anywhere, I would visit…

The Moon!

My favorite Netflix show other than Insatiable is…

Oh! The last thing I watched was Black Mirror, so I’d have to say that! The answer changes every day, but for today, Black Mirror!

Last one! One fun fact people may not know about me is…

I love crafting! It’s also a hobby!

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