Ali Wong Shares How ‘Beef’ Fame and Taking a Break From Stand-Up Changed Everything 

Ali Wong‘s heart is on the road.

It’s the morning after the opening night of her 44-date stand-up tour that will take her across the U.S. and Canada, and the star-producer of “Beef” is headed to Atlanta. Dressed in black sweats, she apologizes for not having had the chance to wash her hair before our Zoom conversation; instead, she got a little “elliptical in” before heading out. “It’s nice to be back on the road, doing stand-up again,” says Wong, who previously starred in “Always Be My Maybe.” “I had taken a big break when I was filming ‘Beef.’ I think that was the longest break I’ve ever taken,” she says. Netflix’s 10-part series follows strangers Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) as a failing contractor, and Amy Lau (Wong), a successful entrepreneur. A road-rage incident instigated by Amy unravels their lives and relationships.

It has been over a decade since Wong landed on Variety’s 10 Comedians to Watch list. Since then, she’s had Netflix comedy specials, written for ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat” and co-wrote “Always Be My Maybe” in addition to starring in the rom-com, but “Beef’s” immense success — the show has amassed more than 186 million hours viewed since its April debut — thrust the spotlight on Wong in a way she had never experienced before. She’s still adjusting.

Our interview takes place two days after the cast and creators of the series responded to a resurfaced 2014 clip of “Beef” star David Choe joking about sexually assaulting a massage therapist. In the statement, the group called his video “undeniably hurtful and extremely disturbing” while stating they “do not condone this story in any way.” It concluded, “We’re aware David has apologized in the past for making up this horrific story, and we’ve seen him put in the work to get the mental health support he needed over the last decade to better himself and learn from his mistakes.”

Here, Wong opens up about how “Beef ” has changed her life, re-focusing on stand-up and finding peace with her newfound fame.

Let’s talk about David Choe. The team released a joint statement about him, which says, “We’ve seen him put in the work.” What did that mean?

The behavior just described in that is really upsetting. We put out that statement and for now, I just feel like it’s time for me to listen and not rush to say anything more on the matter.

OK. Since you’re on the road — in a car — and “Beef” kicks off with the road rage incident, what kind of driver are you?

I’m cautious, even more now after the show because I fictionally lived through that whole experience and where things could go. It is not worth pushing for whoever had the right of way. I don’t want to end up having an affair with a stranger’s brother, and then be in a shootout and crash my car!

How did you prepare for this and live with the character of Amy for so long?

The writing by [showrunner Lee Sung Jin] was so powerful, and I connected to it. I didn’t have to do that much work. I don’t know what it is but it’s hard for me still to identify as an actress and to even say, “I’m an actor or an actress.” I really identify first and foremost as a stand-up.

I don’t have too much formal training, and in terms of preparing, the thing that worried me the most was memorizing all those lines. Sometimes, I’d have to memorize 10 pages of dialogue in one day, and that part was the most scary for me. Steven would memorize this stuff fast, and I would have to start a week beforehand, prepping. Also, not doing stand-up was huge. It’s such a form of expression for me. To just take that away made me feel trapped. I didn’t have time to journal. I have this very specific thing I usually do where I do pages every morning. Do you journal?

I did. I would do it online and just word vomit.

And it was for purging?

It was therapeutic, but I stopped because there was no time.

It’s a lot of self-care stuff to keep you sane. I didn’t have time to journal while I was on the show. I write out three pages in the morning and I shred them because it’s for vomiting. It’s not for someone to discover and find out what I was thinking in 2020 going through the pandemic. This was not on purpose, it was merely because of time, but I took so much of my usual tools of release and self-expression away that it also led to me feeling pent up and trapped.

[With] the show, we were in such a time crunch, we had to get so much done, and I think that [was] good to have our back against the wall like that. In the end, even though it was hard, I just didn’t have time to think about it too much. I’m not a method actor. I like to show up and be present with my scene partners and say the words.

So it must have been daunting doing this versus your stand-up.

Last night, I wore my forest green Pangaia sweatsuit. My hair and makeup routine is five minutes at the most — I put eyeliner on, I go over my set and it’s just me. I wrote all those words, I decide how I’m
going to do my inflections, and it’s not being captured on camera. It’s so ephemeral. Film is the opposite. You’re collaborating with a zillion people, and the most important thing is trust. So, when Sunny and Steven approached me, I said yes, because I’ve always wanted to work with them and because I trust them.

How did you take moments for self-care during production then?

I had a giant yellow yoga mat that was swag from “Big Mouth” in my trailer, and whenever I had 15 minutes to spare, I would try to squeeze in a stretching session. Every weekend, I spent with my friends. I have a group of friends from UCLA, it’s seven girls, eight of us total, and they’re graphic designers, doctors, public defenders, pharmacists, nonprofit event organizers and they’re very much not in the business. We’d go to each other’s houses and barbecue. I’m probably the third funniest one in the group, and that group of women is very tantamount to my sanity.

I mostly tried to sleep when I could. For most of “Beef ” I didn’t sleep. When I look at that show, I just see a really not healthy woman when I see myself. Even though we shot in L.A., it was hard because I didn’t get to see my kids as much as I would have liked to. I think that really helped me identify with Amy because I’m always busy working.

The success of this show has shifted your career. Now, upon Google search, your private life is on display. How has that been?

It’s so weird. I can’t even explain it. I have never, ever been snapped by paparazzi until this year. I was talking to someone recently and they said, “I think it’s so alarming when it happens because you feel like you’ve been caught when really, you’re not doing anything wrong.” It was someone giving me, in hindsight, advice about their former relationship with a famous person. They had spent so much energy hiding, and that defined the whole relationship. That’s still staying with me, and it’s quite an adjustment.

The other thing is my mom reads People magazine; she’s been a longtime subscriber, and she does the crossword puzzle. I haven’t even discussed it with her, but that must be so surreal for her. I’m trying to get used to it.

Are you starting to get more calls and seeing offers come in?

I am. I decided a while ago that it was time for me to return to stand-up. That was the longest break I ever took, and the worry is that that muscle atrophies — you can lose it if you don’t put the reps in. It’s
like weightlifting. Acting is wonderful, but it takes a lot of time. It’s time for me to be with my kids and do stand-up for now. Although I do appreciate getting calls and offers. It’s so wonderful and something I never imagined would happen. I’m just excited to be doing this in my sweats.

How does it feel being in front of an audience again and being true to who you want to be?

It feels good. It’s nice because a lot personally has happened in the past year. I’m not single now, but I was single for a long time after I got divorced. It was so compelling to talk about my life as a single woman. When practicing, I was in the habit of talking as if I was still single. What’s strange is now [my romantic life] is public information. For me, stand-up is still an abstraction of truth — it does not represent the whole me. Out of respect for my relationship, I have to practice putting them in the past tense.

Dress: Iris Van Herpen; Earrings: Lele Sadoughi; Shoes: Stuart Weitzman; 

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