The Netflix-produced black comedy from Lee Sung Jin works overtime to deliver a startingly poignant story of revenge and connection while occupying a landmark moment for Asian representation. The show is decidedly not about racial identity, but features a mostly Asian cast and production team whose influences are felt at every layer. One aspect in particular that made headlines was the costuming. We spoke with Helen Huang on her goals for Beef and who she sees in each cast member.
“When I read the script, I knew that I wanted to do it. With each project, I always think about, what is it I have to contribute? What do I have to say? With this project, there’s a lot to say,” Huang remarks on her initial interest in the show.
“I was particularly drawn to the regional differences of the characters in the story in California. And then also the economic differences of the people in the story, especially as it revolves around the Asian American identity and community. I think those two factors, economics and where you’re from, define a lot. It tears down the monolith of being Asian American.”
The primary driving force of the show is the relationship between Danny (Steven Yeun) and Amy (Ali Wong), who come from two distant “bubbles,” as Huang describes it.
“Even visually, there’s this miscommunication and this perception people have of each other in different bubbles,” she explains.
Amy, a trendy, brand-conscious mom-trepreneur with the perfectly curated life, wears whites and creams through most of the season. According to Huang, one way to heighten the reality of “a very grounded, but also very philosophical show,” was to outfit Amy in the color palette of “a person who’s in extreme control, while Amy’s character is having a loss of control narratively, [creating] a good juxtaposition.”
For Danny’s bubble, Huang drew from memory.
“I would like to say Danny’s a very intimate character for me, because he kind of reminds me of my dad, and my brothers and the kids, the guys I went to high school with. I really wanted to use his character to visually show these people that I know and remember, because there’s not enough Asian stories.”
Huang drew from her own history as well, explaining her connection to fashion subcultures and how they inspired Danny’s skater kid in arrested development look.
“We had this one fitting and Steven put on these really baggy Dickies and he just clicked into character. And he was like, I know who this guy is now. For me, my brothers are from Torrance, in El Segundo. And they were always skate kids. I always thought, with a character like Danny, and so many Asian American growing up experiences, there is a gravitation towards subcultures or different types of music. I was goth when I was younger,” she explains.
“If you’re already in a subculture, like if you skate, or if you like metal, or if you’re goth or something, you don’t have to wait for the general culture to accept you. You have this little pocket of people that accept you already…And so there is this gravitation of small pockets, and I feel like that part of the Asian American identity is not often spoken of, and I really wanted Danny to feel that way.”
Huang’s intentionality extends to the entire cast, whose looks run the gamut from savvy international men’s fashion (George, portrayed by Joseph Lee), to suburban mall throwback in a Champion sweatshirt (Paul, portrayed by Young Mazino), to Issey Miyake and CDG-clad fashion grandma (Fumi, portrayed by Patti Yasutake).
No one is “eclipsed” by their wardrobe, as Huang explains using Danny’s cousin and ex-con Isaac (David Choe) as an example.
“I really wanted to make him seem less like the antagonist, so I didn’t want to dress him up like a traditional Asian gangster, because I feel like that eclipses a whole person. He kind of reminds me of my cousins, you know, they would go someplace, and they would buy all these kinds of tchotchkes and be like, oh, this is like a prehistoric rock or something. And that’s how I like to think of Isaac. I like to think that he has this bad temper, and he does all these bad things, but he also is really into crystals and likes to meditate.”
As a costume designer, Huang is always on the clock in a way, taking inspiration from the universal pastime of people watching.
“People never look the way you expect them to. I feel like those oddities are what makes a character on film or TV look real. If their look makes too much sense, it’s actually not great for a character…I think sometimes in film and TV, you try to make everyone’s world look a little bit too perfect. Whereas in reality, it’s an accumulation of a lot of our experiences.”
Watch Awards Radar’s entire interview with Helen Huang below.
Beef is now streaming on Netflix.