Imagine for a moment that a machine existed that could take your own true potential and condense it down to a word on a card.
Would you try it?
That is the premise of Apple TV’s new series The Big Door Prize, but even star Ally Maki isn’t so sure she would take the machine up on the offer. “I'd be afraid that I would change the course of my direction to fit what I had read off a card,” Maki says. ”I think life is so exciting when you don't know what's going to happen.”
That idea of limitless potential and venturing into the unknown is what sets the tone of the interview as Timid sits down with Maki to discuss her career as an actor and her part in the Asian American community.
Maki’s career, which has spanned two decades thus far, has encompassed a wide range of projects. Some of her past work include shipwreck survivor Jess Kato on TBS comedy Wrecked, Polly Pocket toy Officer Giggle McDimples in Pixar’s Toy Story 4, and scientist Mina Hess on Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger. Currently on The Big Door Prize, Maki plays Hana, the mysterious bartender at The Bedford Bar who is new in town. “I think as Asian American women, it's so important to me to play characters that have the full spectrum of emotions and aren't perfect or just ‘good’ or ‘bad’,” Maki says. “We can exist in this gray area.” This dedication to portraying interesting characters with nuance and depth has been a hallmark of Maki's career, and she shows no signs of slowing down.
The Big Door Prize is a new comedy television series that premiered on March 29. Based on the book by M.O. Walsh, the show tells the story of residents in a small town whose lives are changed when a machine called the MORPHO shows up at the local grocery store that seemingly predicts one’s true potential. While officially listed as a comedy, the show includes elements of sci-fi, mystery, and drama, effortlessly transitioning between them through its consistent pacing and build up to its many reveals.
The love and care in preparing for and playing her character is evident in the way that Maki talks about her process. Prior to discussing the show’s premise, she thanks me for pronouncing Hana’s name correctly. “There were a lot of discussions on whether it would be pronounced Hana or Hannah,” Maki explains, “and I said it would mean a lot to me if it was pronounced ‘Hana’, because in Japanese that actually means ‘flower’. So I love that you said Hana. It makes me so happy and I hope it gives others the confidence to have people pronounce their names accurately as well.”
Hana is the one character on the show that, as far as the viewers know, has not had her turn with the MORPHO despite having encountered it in two different towns. Much of Hana is a mystery that has barely begun to be unraveled by the end of the first season.
Maki relied on her personal experience of adapting to new surroundings and navigating unfamiliar connections to infuse her performance with authenticity. "This was one of my first projects back after we shut down [due to the pandemic]," she recalls, adding that all her interactions, including her audition and chemistry read with co-star Damon Gupton, were conducted over Zoom. After the initial virtual process, the cast relocated to Atlanta for several months. Reflecting on her character's perspective, Maki observes that "Hana is also new to this town. She's also got her walls up." This realization allowed her to draw parallels between herself and her character. "I was just starting to get to know these people in this new town. It kind of worked in my favor in the end."
Moreover, Maki worked alongside showrunner David West Read to figure out what to know and when to know it. “One of the funny things about the MORPHO is that you are given this piece of information, and you can twist and turn that into whatever you think,” she says. “I didn't want to know any concrete answers because I wanted to learn with this character and grow as she learns and understands.”
With a new season in production, Maki is excited to continue to explore her character. “I'm so drawn to Hana as a character because she has this dark well of emotion,” she says. “She has this sort of world weariness to her where she definitely has her walls up. You can tell there's some loneliness, yet you see her wanting to connect, but maybe not knowing how to. I love that about her. It'd be so great to understand where that comes from. If she's new to the town, where did she come from before? There are so many amazing questions that I have, just as a viewer, that I want to know and understand.” She adds thoughtfully, “It seems like there is a lot of sadness and a little bit of pain behind her that she uses humor to deflect and I can totally understand that. I feel like I do that in real life, where I'll use jokes as a cover if I'm going through a hard time. So I think diving deeper into what that is could be really powerful and may help a lot of people who do the same.”
Maki notes that Miko Hayashi, her character on the film Shortcomings, also often used humor as a defense mechanism. “I love how much depth there is to Miko,” she says. “I love all the themes that come up that she represents in her understanding of how to use her voice. And I love that she is an intrinsically flawed character—they all are, hence the title, Shortcomings.”
The comedy film, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, is based off of a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, who, like Maki, is Japanese American. “Just to see his work exist was such a moment of great representation in my own life,” she states. “His graphic novel is so powerful and touching and way ahead of its time.”
Maki is all smiles as she reminisces about that entire experience. “When I got the opportunity to read for the film, I was just over the moon. It was one of those things where I woke up thinking I dreamt it.” As an Asian American woman in Hollywood, the ultimate goal has always been to break free from stereotypes and tokenism and to play diverse and complex characters. This opportunity gave Maki a chance to do just that.
While the number of roles for Asian Americans has grown in recent years, Maki shares that it had felt surreal to be a part of a project written and directed by Asian Americans—Adrian Tomine and Randall Park, respectively—and with Asian Americans in the main cast—Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, and Maki herself. She recalls how important it was to her to have Cola, one of her closest friends, share that experience with her. “We were texting throughout the process like, ‘Can you imagine if we both did this movie? What a full circle. This is something we've dreamt and talked about,’” she says. “Sometimes we think that in our Asian American community, we'll never work together and it’s so sad that that feels like the truth. But this was another shattering moment where we're like, ‘Wow, we can have it all.’”
In Hollywood, frequently being the sole Asian cast member on set can lead to feelings of isolation and constraint. For Maki, however, being immersed in a supportive community offered an entirely distinct and uplifting experience. “When you're working with your community and your friends, there's just a level of comfort,” she explains. “There were so many moments on set where I would think that in other situations, I may not have had enough confidence to speak up about something, but here, it just feels like I'm telling family, almost.” Maki found that this experience—fortunately no longer unique but still rare—allows the art to really benefit. “You can get to those deeper levels because you're starting at a point of already understanding so much, where you don't have to explain first, which takes a lot of energy and effort.”
In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians became the first major Hollywood film to feature a modern story with a predominantly Asian cast in 25 years. Since then, we have seen a rise in demand for Asian stories in mainstream media. The outpouring of support within and outside of the Asian American community inspired Maki, and she wanted to help keep that momentum going. She, along with others in her community, recognized the untapped potential of sharing Asian American narratives, and it seemed the rest of the world was finally beginning to take notice.
Maki thought about ways she could build a network for the community to connect with and support each other both in and out of the entertainment industry. “My mind went immediately to Asian American women because I was raised by such strong, powerful women,” she says. “My mom was an elementary school teacher and my grandmother was in the Japanese American incarceration camps as a teenager. It was just very important for me to pay homage to that, and also to have a way to unite and collaborate with other Asian women around us.”
What resulted was the Asian American Girl Club, an apparel company Maki founded with the goal of redefining what it means to be a modern Asian American woman and fostering a sense of community. As Maki describes, “It’s sort of the passion of my heart and life's work.” She notes that in the past, Asian American women have often felt isolated and competitive with one another, but AAGC has changed that narrative by promoting collaboration and connection. “We can collectively rise stronger,” says Maki. “That's been the whole message from the very beginning.” She has been thrilled to witness the growth of an authentic community over the past five years and notes that the most impactful thing has been seeing the connections made through AAGC. Maki has received numerous messages from people who have found new friends, jobs, and pride in their identities as Asian American women. As Maki reflects, ”That's really what it's all about—going back to my younger self and giving her and other people that look like her what they may have needed.”
Maki's past struggles with using her voice in both her personal and professional life have led her to recognize the importance of building a supportive community, which is at the core of the Asian American Girl Club. “A lot of it is understanding all the sacrifices my family made for me to be here, so I always want to make them proud, and sometimes that makes it hard to speak up.” she explains. "With the Asian American Girl Club, you feel like you're not alone because this community exists. That in and of itself makes it easier to speak out because there are going to be supporters. There's this network of people who will understand." Through this community, Maki has found the courage to not only speak up for herself but to also be an ally and advocate for other communities.
As she overcomes these struggles, Maki realizes the importance of extending the same kindness and support she offers others to herself. Raised in the entertainment industry, she felt compelled to always say “yes” and deliver, which fueled her unyielding perfectionism. However, as she explains, the pressure to constantly deliver eventually took a toll on her mental and emotional well-being. “Right before the pandemic, I was in a state of complete burn out and asking for a break felt like an impossibility. It was the first time I was balancing entrepreneurship with acting and I didn’t want to let anybody down, all while feeling like I was failing everybody around me. It took me a long time to realize how my own state of exhaustion and unhappiness factored into the equation.” Despite the difficulties, Maki allowed herself to take a step back during the latter half of the pandemic and reflect on what truly mattered to her. “I just sat in the quiet,” she says. “It forced me to tear down all the systems I had no control over and reimagine a life that incorporated all the dreams and passions I had in a healthy way.” It had been a stark reminder that only she could dictate her dreams and priorities in life. She adds, ”For a long time, I thought caring for myself was selfish. I realize now that filling your own cup allows you to be a more balanced, giving, and empathetic leader.”
As Maki looks to the future, she's excited to share her upcoming projects with the world, including season two of The Big Door Prize and the Netflix animated series, Exploding Kittens. But beyond those, she's also focused on producing and developing her own stories, exploring the endless possibilities that lie ahead. Maki's refusal to let her potential be defined by a single pursuit is a testament to her creative spirit and boundless imagination, which will undoubtedly continue to propel her forward in whatever direction she chooses to take.
The season finale of The Big Door Prize will air on May 17.
Shortcomings will be screened at the Tribeca Film festival on June 17 and 18 and is set to be released in theaters on August 4.