Cover Elodie Yung stars as Thony De La Rosa in The Cleaning Lady (Photo: Ursula Coyote/2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

The Cleaning Lady did what other shows could barely do: have a Cambodian lead character on screen. Tatler catches up with actress Elodie Yung who plays the part and how the show is championing Southeast Asian representation

You likely know Elodie Yung as the Queen of Hell’s Kitchen, in the Netflix Marvel show, Daredevil and its spin-off series, The Defenders. With her British accent on the show, you wouldn’t even know that Yung is in fact, French Cambodian. Trading her Twin Sai for cleaning gloves, Yung is currently starring as Thony De La Rosa in the Fox series, The Cleaning Lady—a complete transformation from the comic book assassin that she’s most known for. But Yung’s new role is breaking barriers and doing what other shows haven’t really done—having a Cambodian lead character on screen.

The mob drama series follows Cambodian doctor Thony De La Rosa, formerly based in the Philippines who travels to the US hoping for a life-saving treatment for her son, Luca, who has an immunodeficiency disorder. However, Thony runs into some visa issues and ends up living illegally in the country. To make ends meet while she waits for her son’s treatment, she works as a cleaning lady and lives with her Filipino sister-in-law who is also living there on an expired visa. During one of her cleaning gigs, Thony witnesses a murder and becomes entangled in a criminal organisation.

While Yung’s character was originally written as a Filipino woman, it was changed to reflect her Cambodian heritage while still keeping her ties to the Philippines. For instance, Thony was a doctor in the Philippines, married to a Filipino, her son is half-Filipino and her sister-in-law is Filipino. The Cleaning Lady is groundbreaking for both Cambodian and Filipino representation with Yung headlining the drama and Filipino American actress, Martha Millan also at the forefront.

With the show currently underway, Tatler catches up with Yung in this exclusive interview to talk about her role and how the show is championing Southeast Asian representation—and why that matters.

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Your character, Thony De La Rosa was originally Filipino but it was changed to reflect your Cambodian background. How did you feel when you were cast for the role and when your background was specifically reflected?

I was in shock at first because it never happened before! I could not believe they wanted to make the lead character of the series Cambodian. It felt incredible.

Were you able to give your own input in shaping the character? How similar would you say you are to Thony?

From the moment I auditioned, I gave my input to the character. I don’t think there’s any other way for what we do so I would definitely say that Thony and I share the same heart. I like to think that we share the same resilience although I haven’t been tested in my personal life the way Thony has been. And she is probably way more calm and courageous than I would be in certain situations.

How did you prepare for your role? Did you draw from your own experiences? Did you watch the original Argentina series beforehand?

I think that as actors, we suffer from enough comparisons so I try to avoid [watching the original] in my art as much as I could and consciously choose not to watch the series so I could be freer in my creative process.

I wouldn’t say I draw anything specifically from my own experience because I have never cleaned for a living—for regular customers or the mob! But I draw from my personal knowledge of what is it to be an immigrant in difficult conditions from watching my Dad (who was a political refugee in France from Cambodia) and tried to understand this resilience that comes with it. I draw from watching my Mum doing manual labour her entire life as a cashier in a supermarket and the disregard she’s had at times from people. As a mother, I draw from my knowledge of love for my child as well.

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The Cleaning Lady is breaking barriers for Southeast Asian actors. Was there any pressure in taking on the role knowing that you’re representing many and that they would look up to you?

There was no pressure at the time when I got the part and filmed the series, but it’s only now when I’m doing press that the responsibility hit me! And it comes with extreme joy as well because I never had anyone to look up to or refer to when I was watching TV growing up. That’s something I want that for future generations: to find themselves represented in the public landscape.

You previously said that this role was a dream come true. What about Thony’s character attracted you the most?

The rawness of the part. Because of my looks, I’ve had to play a lot of characters that were ninjas, fighters…I had a lot of fun doing that but Thony stays away from the stereotypes. She’s a survivor and a fighter in her own way but like any mother would be in her situation. She’s not a superhero, she’s far from perfect, and her strength shows up at her most vulnerable times.

You’re working with a diverse cast and crew here. Can you tell us more about that experience?

It was great to be on a set where the actors had different backgrounds—Filipino, Mexican, American, Argentinian and would enrich their character from their own perception and experiences. Similarly, having a writing room where people had different points of view on things is great. In my opinion, a melting pot is a rich asset to the work environment.

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I never had anyone to look up to or refer to when I was watching TV growing up. That’s something I want for future generations: to find themselves represented in the public landscape
Elodie Yung

There’s certainly progress, however little when it comes to portraying diverse stories on screen. How do you think The Cleaning Lady will further contribute to that?

Rome wasn’t built in a day but things are moving forward: it starts in the writing rooms, having creatives that are more aware that we need stories to represent different voices. I think executives and decision-makers are more conscious of it and more open-minded now. It’s step by step, like what The Cleaning Lady is doing—embracing my background for example when it wasn’t originally written for a Cambodian woman.

We’ve seen you do action as Elektra in Marvel’s Daredevil. What kind of Elodie Yung would we be seeing here?

In this story, my character’s only weapons are her heart and her brain, no swords of any sort! You’ll see me broken, then standing for myself, then lost, then overcoming obstacles, in fear, ecstatic with joy. I guess “vulnerable” overall is the word I’d use.

Besides representation, the show will also empower women having you and Filipino American actress, Martha Millan as leads. How important is it for you to be able to empower others with this role?

I think supporting each other and having great talents are keys to really good storytelling. I fell in love with Martha [Millan] during her audition and every day on set with her feels like life, the true moments of life. She is amazing to work with and I’m so happy for her because she hasn’t had the opportunities to shine in the past, and now is her moment with this project and her complex character.

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There’s a lot to unpack in The Cleaning Lady. You’re an illegal immigrant, your son has an immunodeficiency disorder, you’re a doctor in the Philippines but work as a cleaner, then you witnessed a crime and became involved. Among all these, what would you say is the core of the series?

I would say that the core of the series is the love her mother has for her son. Thony is desperate to save him and that’s what drives the show: she will do whatever it takes to protect him.

It’s been two decades since you started acting. What’s something you learned about yourself over the years?

To me, every part, every script and every person that I work with teaches me something new. My first job in France taught me it was an actual job—that acting was an actual job as I came from a working-class background where acting wasn’t even a concept.  Another job taught me I could put my feelings in a character and it was a great help for me to deal with my demons. This part [in The Cleaning Lady] has helped me understand my Dad a bit better.

What can viewers look forward to the most in The Cleaning Lady?

I think they’ll be very entertained because it has a thrilling pace and it is set in Las Vegas where anything can happen. But they also have to get ready (or not!) to be heartbroken.

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The Cleaning Lady is airing on Fox, with new episodes every Monday.

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