Élodie Yung on Playing the Anti-Hero in ‘The Cleaning Lady’

“Whatever decision [my character] makes, I just have to try to understand it. But I can relate to any person who has to do what’s necessary to survive.”

“Whatever decision [my character] makes, I just have to try to understand it. But I can relate to any person who has to do what’s necessary to survive.”

Élodie Yung in the “For My Son” episode of 'The Cleaning Lady'. (Photo: Jeff Neumann/FOX)

by Sadaf Ahsan
April 26, 2024

There are few drama series quite like Fox’s The Cleaning Lady, which was created and written by Canadian-American screenwriter Miranda Kwok (The 100, Spartacus). Well into its third season, it remains as topical as ever, and a rare primetime opportunity to watch an Asian actress play the sort of role that often only goes to white men; think Breaking Bad’s Walter White or Mad Men’s Don Draper, even the Mandalorian. 

In comes Élodie Yung, a French Cambodian actress who was previously best known for playing Elektra in Netflix’s Daredevil in 2016, and some American and French bit roles. As a teen, she was all about karate (and has a black belt, mind you), then studied law in hopes of becoming a judge and, finally, settled on drama school (at first, just to make some pocket money). As she tells it, when she went into audition for The Cleaning Lady back in 2022, she didn’t realize what it would become: so representative, a darker and darker tale, and a cult favourite. 

Élodie Yung in The Cleaning Lady (Photo: Jeff Neumann/FOX)

Yung plays Thony De La Rose, a Cambodian-Filipino surgeon who is in the U.S. on an expired visa with her young son Luca, who has a rare, life-threatening medical condition that requires bone marrow treatment, which happens to only be available in Las Vegas. So Thony begins working there as a cleaning lady. But when she one day finds herself witness to a murder, and is discovered by Arman Morales (a.k.a. the dude who did it, played by the late Adan Canto), he offers her work as a cleaner and a doctor within his crime network, which could pay for her son’s healthcare. A la Walter White and Don Draper, she begins living a double life, keeping secrets of her day-to-day from her family, while also falling for Arman, obviously.

Adan Canto (left) and Élodie Yung. (Photo: Jeff Neumann/Fox)

“Originally, this character was written for a Filipino woman, but once they invited me for the pilot, they wanted to embrace my roots,” says Yung, explaining how Thony became Cambodian-Filipino. “So depending on where the script takes Thony, we implement those cultural touches and specificities.”

The most important part of Thony’s story, for Yung and for many of the show’s fans, is her status as an undocumented immigrant. At the end of the second season, we saw just how dehumanizing an ICE raid and detention centre can be, and Thony’s sister-in-law Fiona get deported.

“It’s important that we don’t lose track of that,” she says. “That’s one of the elements that makes the DNA of the show. It is opening conversations in families; how do you face the reality of having a [sick] child, not having access to care, and being in a situation where you feel like you’re watched and you have to work the system? [That] opens conversation in a way that the news can’t, because people watch it in their living room and it impacts them on an emotional level if the job’s done well, [allowing] you to put yourself in the shoes of those characters.”

A lot has been said throughout the series’ three seasons about whether Thony is a straight-out villain or hero or, of course, anti-hero. After all, she may be a mom doing whatever she can to survive and keep her family thriving, but she’s also a criminal, and sometimes does very bad things. As an actor, that isn’t an easy line to walk.

Élodie Yung. (Photo: Jeff Neumann/FOX)

Yung explains, “My contribution is to empathize with my characters, no matter what they do. My job is to be non-judgmental and compassionate. Whatever decision she makes, I just have to try to understand it. But I can relate to any person who has to do what’s necessary to survive. I understand that some people sometimes need to take shortcuts or be inventive when they [hit] a wall, to be resourceful and resilient. I think a lot of people can relate to that.”

If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll know there’s always a lot happening to The Cleaning Lady. At first, Yung was worried about the hefty material and the production’s quick pace, but discovered not only was rest the cure (particularly as a mom who doesn’t sleep much as it is), but so was understanding Thony from the inside out.

Élodie Yung. (Photo: Jeff Neumann/FOX)

“For me, my characters are like [real] people; that’s my approach to anything I do,” says Yung. “I need to understand the psychology of this person; what she feels, how she reacts to things.” 

“Obviously, it is very much what’s on the page, but it’s also me bringing my own experience of life. The most important thing that I have to maintain here is integrity and making this character real, because the stakes are high.”

Particularly in its third season. Viewers will know that — spoiler alert! — in a recent episode, Arman was killed, bringing an end to a series-long love triangle between him, Thony and Nadia (who is, um, Arman’s wife, yikes).

Eva De Dominici and Élodie Yung. (Photo: Jeff Neumann/FOX)

Originally, the writers had intended for Season 3 to be heavily focused on Arman, but after Canto died in January from appendiceal cancer, scripts were tweaked in time for the series’ premiere in March.

“We’re going through a real tragedy here with the loss of Adan,” says Yung. “So it’s been a very peculiar season in terms of how to handle this story, how to honour Adan’s memory, and how to also introduce new characters and carry on Thony’s journey. We’re all grieving, it’s terrible. I’m thinking of his wife, his kids. On set, we’re a very unified team, cast, and crew so we go through stages together. It hasn’t been easy for the new actors to jump into this very sensitive climate, but they have been so gracious, supportive, and giving. I only felt love from everyone and that gives space to…play together.”

As far as the show’s narrative is concerned, Yung isn’t too heartbroken about letting that triangle go. She said, “We have to rethink what our priority is. A love triangle was not on the menu this season with everything that’s been happening. I don’t think that, in her life, emotionally, there’s space for any other type of love right now. I was very much part of those conversations, because I wanted to honour this special relationship. Sometimes you do have to think, okay, this woman has lost someone she really loved. Practically and in real life, where would she go next? Do we need a love triangle? I’m not sure. Everything was done with a lot of thought and conversation, and I think it was handled pretty well.”

Accordingly, Season 3 did kick off with Thony very much on her own to navigate the world around her, and without Arman, that is likely to get tougher as the series continues, especially as we see her take more risks to protect Luca, never mind the consequences. 

“I just want her to go on a real journey,” says Yung, reminiscing on where Thony’s story may one day end. “I  want her to face the consequences of her actions. That’s important from a character’s evolutionary perspective, to see that everything that she does and everything that shifts around her has an impact on her. That’s going to lead us in a new direction one way or another, and not something that’s a bit more generic. I just want to carry on relating to this woman.”

The Cleaning Lady airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

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