Kulap Vilaysack is a force to be reckoned with. Between her successful Seeso show Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, Earwolf network podcast Who Charted?, acting career (you’ve seen her on shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation), and now a feature length documentary (Origin Story) about her journey to find her birth father, she’s doing it all (even if she’s too humble to admit it). We sat down at this year’s ATX Television Festival to chat about her career, reality TV, and the path that led her to making her first documentary film.
How did you get your start in comedy?
KV: I guess my start in comedy is being brought up by Lao immigrants. My mom had a Thai restaurant so I did a lot of child labor. So while I was deveining shrimp, or you know, chopping up veggies, the TV would be on. So [shows like] SNL, The Cosby Show, and Different Strokes, were such a big part of my life growing up. And my mom, as complicated as she is, loves to laugh, and that laugh was like a release valve. I also had this English teacher who saw something in me. He thought that I was funny and put me in plays, and I’m very grateful for that. Then, senior year, I did receive the senior class “Funniest Girl Award” AKA “The Seinfeld Award”.
So that just set up your whole career right there.
KV: Yeah, basically right there. I moved to Los Angeles to go to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. And then I started going to Second City Los Angeles classes, and when the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater opened I took classes there, performed there, made life-long friends there. A lot of my success and my connections come from that theater on Franklin in Los Angeles. I think that’s why Rob Cordry asked me to do Children’s Hospital. And with The Office, the casting director was like “oh you’re a UCB girl.” I got my representation there. I would say 85% of all the guest stars that are on our show are all people that I met through that world.
When I first watched Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ it was very clear that you’re a huge fan of reality TV because you get it exactly right. All of the moments are spot on and it truly feels like you’re watching a reality show. So which reality shows are you watching that are influencing your own show?
KV: I actually worked in reality TV before I was the house manager at the UCB Theater. And I was an associate producer for America’s Got Talent. Then I did Amy Grant’s Three Wishes. I don’t think anyone remembers that, but it was a show where Amy Grant grants people’s wishes.
Like a genie?
KV: Yeah, like a genie. So, reality show wise my girlfriends like Casey Wilson and June Diane [Raphael], love the housewives. It’s just not my thing. I like real estate. I’m interested in it. I like interior design. Whatever’s on HGTV, I’ll watch: Love It Or List It, House Hunters.
So, why Seeso? What did they say or do that made you think it was the right fit for this show?
KV: It was crazy because me and our producers and our studio (Paramount) sort of did a caravan and did six meetings in two days. We pitched and then Seeso pitched to us because they did not exist at the time. They laid it all out and their vision was something that I was instantly attracted to and I felt like I was in such good company. I knew that they were going to make a splash in their first year and we were going to get to be a part of that, and we really did benefit greatly from that timing.
How does working with Seeso and being on a streaming platform give you more creative control than you would get elsewhere?
KV: I think I’m pretty confident in saying that I had so much creative control and so much more than I would’ve had on a network or even cable. I mean I can say as many F-words as I want.
But you don’t too often. You’re very tempered with it.
KV: Well you know, you want it to count, because they’re delicious. And then we do get notes but they’re all very reasonable notes. Helpful notes. They really trust their creators. And I know that whatever happens next I’ll look back at this time and know that I got to come up in a safe environment and a protected environment with a lot of freedom and who knows if I’ll have that again.
You have great guest stars on this show, and you were saying that a lot of them come from your connections with UCB. Do you write these fantastic parts with them in mind? What is that process like?
KV: What usually happens is that the writers and I will just think about bits from character ideas, and we’ll build those out. We just have lists of possible characters and possible scenes that we’ll pitch to people. Some people I know do great characters already and it’s a question of how we fit them in.
Is there a lot of improv in the show?
KV: Yeah, it’s semi-scripted. Each scene has a bookend, and it has the premise, who you are, who I am, what our props are, and then the beats of the scene because it’s so hard to improv plot. And then for each beat we’ll have sample jokes and sample dialogue. You can use it—a lot of people do—or you don’t have to. And then we have an ending – that can change. But you never feel like you have to create in that way, and to me that’s when the brilliance can come through.
Tell me a little bit about Origin Story and what made you decide to make a documentary.
KV: Well, about three years ago I got pregnant and it was so exciting, but pretty early on I miscarried. It was so hard because I had already seen the [future] Christmases, you know. But I felt like an act of nesting would be to come to some sort of peace with my very complicated relationship with my mom, and to finally start inquiring about my birth father. This all coincided with this amazing comic book writer Gail Simone creating a DC comic book character named Kulap Vilaysack and her cape name is Katharsis. Gail asked me to come up with Katharsis’s origin story, which I did, but the irony was that I didn’t fully know mine. And I decided I wanted to have a record of it. So I went to Laos to meet my birth father, and it really is going to be a story about finding out what my origin story is and how it pertains to being a parent and what that means to me. And then also, being able to close that chapter and move on.
Are you able to find the comedy in these much more somber and difficult moments?
KV: Sometimes it’s really hard, but it’s how I’ve survived.
You’re doing so many different things with the podcasting, the acting, and the writing. Do you feel creatively fulfilled equally among those things?
KV: For me it’s creating, developing, and showrunning. I love that. Through Bajillion I got to direct a lot too, and I really want to start doing more directing. I think there’s a lot of like fun exploration to be had in that place. And to be honest, acting used to be my everything, but it’s really kind of on the bottom of the list right now. I love doing projects with my friends and people that excite me and that I respect, but yeah, when you say “fulfillment,” I think about how that was the best part of Bajillion. It’s just been such an amazing experience. I feel so lucky and I really feel like I found my voice through it. And maybe that will change. Maybe I’ll want to act again. But for now it’s been so great to be on the other side.
So you get to be called a quadruple-threat now?
KV: Oh, I’m not sure. I like being called a threat though.
If you could, what’s the one thing that you would go back and tell yourself when you started your career, knowing what you know now?
KV: It matters, but it doesn’t matter in the way you think it does. When you decide that you can [do something] it’s amazing what will open up for you. And take up space in a room. Hold up your half of the sky, because it’s yours. When you’re beginning, try everything. Fail and fail over and over again — humiliate yourself. And accept yourself. You need that foundation.
You can stream Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ now on Seeso (click through the link to start your 7-day free trial now)
[This interview has been edited for clarity and length]