by Jana Monji, AsAmNews Contributor
The Cleaning Lady is not just a show about the titular woman, but also one run by women.
The series was created by Miranda Kwok, a Canadian of Chinese descent who is also an alum of the WGA Showrunner Training Program, the WGA Writer Access Project and the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. Showrunner Melissa Carter had previously written and been a showrunner for Queen Sugar during its 2016 season. Kwok and Carter also serve as writers and executive producers.
In a virtual joint interview with leading lady Cambodian French Élodie Yung and in a full cast virtual press conference, the three talked about the development and management of the series that begins Season 2 on 19 September 2022.
“The Cleaning Lady” is about a former Manila surgeon named Thony who is in Las Vegas with her terminally ill son Luca. She’s overstayed her visa because the organ donor backed out last-minute but because Luca is both Cambodian and Filipino, finding a match is hard and his only hope is in the US. Through a series of events, Thony becomes the cleaning lady for an organized crime operation and under the protection of Arman Morales who has some unresolved feeling about her. But she’s also under the radar of the FBI, connecting with an agent, Garrett, who doesn’t always play by the rules.
Originally, the main character was going to be Filipina until they cast Yung.Yung supplied them with a list of names and they eventually chose the name Thony.
“We decided to embrace her Cambodian roots and really take the DNA of who Elodie is,” Carter said. “The more you get to know the actor, the more talents you can pull in…Élodie has really transformed the character of Thony in surprising and unexpected ways.”
While most Filipinos are Catholic, the same cannot be said for most Cambodians. You’ll notice that Thony is Buddhist. Carter said, “Because TV moves so fast, you really do get to siphon their life energy, moment by moment, episode by episode.”
At the end of Season 1, Thony was reunited with her husband Marco, but we realize that Marco has a gambling problem. While Thony and Marco might not have a solid marriage, the friendship between Thony and Marco’s sister, Fiona has solidified.
Kwok said that in Season 2, Thony and Thony’s sister-in-law Fiona face a shocking situation that really throws them into crisis mode where they’re working together. Fiona now enters into the mob world to meet gangster Arman Morales who has been working with Thony.
“So Fiona gets to see this criminal that Thony has been working with and also see this deep connection they have firsthand and how he will do anything to protect Thony, but also he will do anything to protect Fiona as an extension of Thony. And in the same way, they also get Garrett to help the family as well,” Kwok said.
This season Thony’s different worlds will start to mix.
“This season definitely we are, as we said, crossing our worlds, mixing our crime world and our family world. There’s a blend because there’s only so long that Thony can keep her secrets from her bestie, Fiona,” Carter said.
The family’s immigration status also impacts the challenges they face on the show.
“… because this family is undocumented, they face, you know, different challenges. And, you know, when something happens, when something goes sideways, you know, it’s more challenging and more difficult for this family than other families, and they have greater fears and different challenges,” Kwok said.
Since neither Kwok nor Carter are Cambodian or Filipina, they also have to listen to their cast members. Yung noted that on set, she feels she can address any questions she has about the script to either Carter or Kwok. That was clearly shown in Season 1 when they included a segment with karaoke which Carter said is a big part of Filipino culture. When they asked Yung if she could sing, Yung quickly said yes and sent videos of herself singing in the bathroom.
But sometimes, those changes are unplanned. On the day of the interview, Carter noted that earlier in the day while filming, the script had a logical error that they caught and the script was re-written on the fly so that everyone was comfortable.
Carter and Kwok described Thony as a character who is determined to help others.
“The goal that was stated at the end of season 1 was that Thony wanted to help people like herself. She went through this medical journey and saw how difficult it was to get the medical help that Luca wanted. She wants to be able to help people in a way that people were not able to help her,” Carter said.
Kwok added, “Thony is galvanized by the experience she faced in Season 1 about not having access (to medical treatment for her son Luca) so that is a very important goal of hers. The problem is, once she tries to achieve that goal, there are further complications.”
“So in one way she’s always trying to do something good, despite the challenges she faces in doing that and unfortunately that can lead to some tough choices and complex decisions about how to keep afloat while trying to do something for her community.”
When asked how episodes are assigned to different writers, Carter explained that although an episode credit may read it has been written by someone, it has really been written by nine writers, including Carter and Kwok. Carter and Kwok get the final pass to, as Carter explained, “to make sure it sounds like a cohesive voice and that it lives up to our standards.”
They also want their show to empower marginalized voices.
“I think it was always definitely a goal to highlight marginalized voices and put you know, to highlight, you know, people who are normally pushed into the shadows, people who are undocumented, people who are immigrants who are struggling, who don’t have a voice,” Kwok said.
“And in addition to undocumented workers, we also focus on domestic workers, which is a quadrant of society that you don’t often see at the center, the heroes of a story. And we make very careful decisions, even things like we decided, yes, the cleaning ladies, their group of friends, some of them will wear makeup, and some of them have amazing dance moves. And they have children. They have responsibilities. They have families of their own. Bringing that world in that people we often say that they’re the domestic workers in our show.”
Thony is underestimated because she is both a surgeon and a mother, but people only see her as a cleaning lady, Thony is underestimated. She’s a different kind of superhero.
“Thony uses it as a cloak of invisibility. It’s like her superpower where she can just get in and out of anywhere because people don’t really look at cleaning woman,” Kwok said.
“So part of the show is turning the camera on domestic workers, on cleaning women, making them the center of their own story so that we take that invisibility away in our show, that we’re actually focusing on domestic workers in that way which feels really fun and fresh and, really, showing these people as real people that are fully fleshed out characters and human beings who have hopes and dreams as well their challenges.”
Kwok added that this season will also focus on celebrating the achievements of undocumented immigrants, like starting their own businesses or owning their own home.
Yet beyond giving cleaning ladies and undocumented workers a voice, this show has raised awareness about Filipino and Cambodian culture and provided the AAPI population with strong female lead representation.
The Cleaning Lady premieres Season 2 on 19 September 2022 on Fox.
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