There’s no right or wrong way to chase your dreams, though it could be argued that seriously pursued dreams are often actively self-realized. Emmy-Nominated comedian and SNL cast member Bowen Yang’s dreams weren’t so much self-realized as they have evolved, driven less by ambition and more so by a love for the craft, irrelevant of fame or capitalistic gains. “I was always going to be happy in a writer’s room,” Yang easily acknowledges. “I was always going to be happy performing on a stage and not getting paid for it. There’s no career in that, like, making a living wage off it. It was never something that I said out loud or thought really deeply about, because for the longest time, it was just fully deferred.”
LADYGUNN caught up with Yang as he was winding down from his first day shooting the upcoming Hulu romcom, Fire Island. Written by and starring his long-time friend Joel Kim Booster, Fire Island will also see Yang in his first major acting role. In conversation, Yang offers his perspective on the changing nature of finding balance, realizing envy, and avoiding the perils of ambition. The entertainer’s generous amount of self-awareness naturally offers a picture of someone who is in it for the right reasons, and always has been.
Read more of our conversation below.
How was your day! What have you been up to?
Today was good! It was interesting. It was my first day shooting this movie that Joel Kim Booster wrote. This really good friend of mine and incredible stand-up comedian, really good writer, really good actor, he does it all. It was really nice to just finally start this project that had been pretty abstract for a couple years at this point. So, it just felt very surreal to do that.
It was like, whenever anything in life is built up to expectation, it’s that feeling you get the night before the first day of school…it’s protracted over the course of a couple months, that’s just the bizarre quality. And once you’re actually there, everything is great and everything is going really well. The people are great, the vibes are good, and there are a lot of moments where I was like “I feel very happy and lucky to be doing this.”
Coat + Shoes, GUCCI.
Do you always feel lucky to do the things that you do, or does the feeling flat line in between periods? Obviously this is a bigger narrative project for you, it’s such a huge deal to even be able to make a film.
Totally. I’ve been gifted in a huge way. This film is not something that I had to try and sell, this is not something that I wrote, this is something that I and a very good friend of mine, who I’ve known for a long time, would offhandedly say to each other, “Someday we’ll write each other into movies. Won’t that be the day?” The fact that it’s realized is very rare and for this movie, it’s pure novelty. This is a first time experience for me, and you know, I’ve done small parts on other things but this is the first time where I’m like, “oh wow, the people I meet on set, all the crew, these are people that I’m really going to be in the trenches with for the next several weeks.” It’s an interesting social situation, professional situation, to be in.
I think it’s interesting because with films, you work on it and it takes a period of time and you are around those people all day every day for twelve hours and then once it’s over, you will never see them again in that context.
I saw Ariana Grande post something about The Voice and how excited she is to be a judge on it. You could tell it was from her and not some publicist or someone on her social team, but she wrote this whole thing. She was like, “I’m already getting emotional about saying goodbye to people who I’ve only known for a handful of days before this thing even launches and is out in the world. Isn’t that a super weird feeling?”
And I’m like, “No, that makes total sense to me.” You are embarking on this thing that feels…I’m willing to bet that Ariana Grande’s dream is to be a judge on The Voice and she’s really absorbing this experience, on every level, with as much awareness as she can have.
I feel like maybe this is a similar thing to me. Joel is dealing with a whole different set of problems than I am. He’s the lead in this movie, he’s written it, he’s executive producing it. This is a very specific experience for him where he has to really be a leader and I get to just kind of come in and enjoy it. It’s the perfect thing where I don’t feel that much actual professional pressure to check all these boxes at any given time, and I just get to be around.
And so in terms of “Does it ever get old?”, not that you asked that, you asked. “Do I always feel lucky?” I kind of do because even with SNL, even with this podcast that I host, and even this show Nora from Queens that I’m on, I’m always left with this overwhelming sense of gratitude, which I know is not that exciting or interesting to talk about.
It sounds like the thing that would be scary is if it stopped being challenging in a way.
I don’t think I experience comfort that well so every situation will be challenging. The one arena in my life where things might feel considerably less challenging now, as more time goes on, is maybe going to another season of SNL. But even with something like that, I’ve talked to people there and they go, “I was more confident the first day of this job as a writer or a cast member or something than I am now, because now I know what the job is and living up to the job is always going to be stressful.” A place like SNL engenders challenges constantly, which is good and also very high pressure. With the way that I seem to catastrophize a lot of things, I think everything will be a struggle for me, which is good, because then I’m working up against a goal that seems hard to achieve.
And I know that it’s weird to feel like you’re going up against your goals, rather than trying to meet your goals, or to try and bring them in via a non-confrontational or conflict-driven way. But I feel like your goals should be your enemy in a way because you want to close the distance on it. Does that make any sense?
It does. It’s kind of like self-competition. You’re competing against yourself, which is already a higher standard, whereas competing against someone or something, there’s an external prize at the end. It’s hard because you’re always going up that same hill with yourself.
I also think being in competition with yourself where you’re not disliking who you are, is important. I think there’s a healthy fulcrum where it’s like, “I just know what I’m capable of, I know what the parameters are. Maybe I want to work outside the parameters, maybe I want to rediscover what I do well within them.” It’s already all kind of laid out for you, internally.
What are your future hopes and dreams long term or short term? What future plans do you have that are achievable or that you aspire to?
I was never one of those people who picked someone’s brain or bought someone a coffee to talk about how to break in or anything because to be honest, I never vocalized or externalized this goal of working in comedy the way that I happen to now.
I was always going to be happy in a writer’s room, I was always going to be happy performing on a stage and not getting paid for it. There’s no career in that, like, making a living wage off it. That was never something that I said out loud or thought really deeply about because for the longest time it was just fully deferred. I mean the whole concept of working in show biz was fully deferred by this idea of working towards something on the reals, with medicine for example. It just wasn’t something I considered.
I don’t think I want to be too specific about what I want out of my career. It feels like I’ll be delighted at what comes and that’s what has been very helpful and healthy for me so far. I feel like that’s what sets up the gratitude more. It’s like, “Woah, I never thought I’d be doing this!” And you know, I feel like I talked to past cast members who have said, “I never knew what was coming next. I always had faith that something satisfying would make its way to me”, which sounds like it could be mistaken for entitlement or like, “Oh, I’ll get opportunities”… but it wasn’t that. When I heard this from people, it sounded like, “Oh no, you’re just leaving yourself open to a lot of great possibilities and if you’re too specific then maybe you’re making your scope too small.
It’s also setting yourself up to be unhappy if things don’t happen.
Totally. I feel like there’s some value to be placed in not being purely driven by ambition. I don’t consider myself an ambitious person, which sounds weird, but I feel like if I was even 10% more ambitious, I would be constantly disappointed. I would always be like “well, that’s what I hoped for myself and that’s why I should feel badly about the way things have turned out.” I feel like that hasn’t happened and, of course, that’s probably because I’ve had very good things happen to me. But I’m very happy within the closed system of “me” and how I am existing in this business.
I just watched this really long treatise on envy that this Youtube philosopher posted the other day. Her name is Natalie Wynn–her channel is called ContraPoints. She talks about how envy is at the heart of so many different interpersonal interactions and also how vital political dynamics are driven by envy.
I thought to myself, even though envy is this very human thing and there’s no avoiding it, it is the thing I have to avoid the most, or the thing I have to be the most conscious about not succumbing to in my thoughts about how I move forward. As long as I’m not jealous of anybody else, I’m fine with whatever happens.
How do you find balance in your life?
I feel like I haven’t found balance and that’s ok. You don’t find balance in the immediate term. Balance to me feels like something that you describe over the long term. I can talk about the last five years of my life as relatively balanced. Nothing terrible has happened to me or when something challenging was happening, I was able to balance it with a moment of respite or relaxation. I can’t describe myself as feeling balanced right now or balanced ten minutes ago. It’s a data set over a given amount of time. Does that make sense? I’ve asked you if things have made sense so many times, I’m so sorry.
But in terms of finding balance, I think it’s just something I am hoping for and almost expecting because if things swing really hard in one direction, I hope I will have the presence of mind to be like “ok, we’re returning the other way and we’re gonna stay for a little bit” you know? Like, I’m working too hard and then I’ll be like “Okay, now I just need a few weeks of just doing nothing and then I’ll be balanced”. It’s always…it’s a context dependent thing.
Any last parting words before we end this conversation?
I know that this sounds so rose colored or cloying but if people could notice envy in their lives but not fully endorse it– this is another thing that Natalie Wynn says in the video– I think that would be so cool. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I’m not bragging on it to other people, but this is what I’m trying to work on right now.
CONNECT WITH BOWEN YANG:
Story / @25percentcrisis
Photos / @shervinfoto
CD + Styling / @styledbyphil
Makeup / @deney_adam
Hair / @blaqfrancishair
Motion / @andyboyle