Having family secrets is one thing, but having a family secret that flips your world upside down in such a way that messes with your cultural and genetic identity can be a heavy burden for you to carry on your shoulders. For Kulap Vilaysack, she faced a hard truth as a teenager when she learned the man that raised her wasn’t her real father. It complicated her relationship with her mother and it marked the start of an emotional journey of uncovering more truths in her entangled family tree that would lead to her documentary Origin Story, which will screen at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on May 7 ahead of its debut on May 10 on Amazon — all appropriate for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The documentary will also have a limited theatrical run at the Arena Cinelounge in Hollywood.
When Vilaysack was 14 years old, she sided with her father in an argument between him and her mother. It was here when she got hit in the gut with a truth. “Why are you defending him?” her mom asked. “He’s not your real dad.” This turning point in her life is told in the doc via illustrations, keeping in line with the film’s comic book-esque title and storytelling technique. It spares no moment to make you feel the frustration, confusion, anger and determination pulsating through Vilaysack’s veins as she searches for the truth via a life-changing trip to Laos and interviews with the father that raised her and her sponsor family that took her parents in as Laotian refugees. More than that, it shows her nuanced relationship with her mother and difficulties in trying to get answers from her as a result of the argument that happened over 20 years ago.
“Every part of this has been so difficult,” Vilaysack admitted to Deadline. “I was exploring different ways and different mediums of how to write about my past.” She thought of doing it as a screenplay and even a one-woman stage show, but it made the most sense to do a documentary.
She struggled with the story and in the beginning, she didn’t think anyone would care. “Is this the most masturbatory, self-indulgent diary ever?” she asked herself. But when she would talk to people about her story, they were able to relate. “I was driven to figure this thing out, and if I didn’t have a camera, I couldn’t really trust my own memory,” she said. “That’s kind of how it all fell into place.”
Vilaysack was born in Washington D.C. to her parents who were from Laos but arrived stateside after a leaving the trauma of a refugee camp in Thailand. They eventually moved to the suburbs of Minnesota where they moved in with a sponsor family. This is where things start getting very layered when it comes to Vilaysack’s familial tapestry. She has her two parents, immigrants from Laos; a white family that cared for her like she was their own daughter and then the estranged father who she is searching for. At one point, when her mother and “first father” have a rocky separation, she is left with the sponsor family as her mom left — and it’s here where Vilaysack’s search for the truth deepens. In addition to trying to find her real father in the docu, she attempts to unblur the timeline of her childhood. Many people told her one thing about the time she spent away from her mother while her mother has a different story. All were factors in creating this documentary. She wanted to see exactly how far she could stretch this story to find the truth.
“I think it was just a moment in time — a number of factors with my family situation, my first family, my mom and my dad, my two sisters. It sort of imploded because of my parents’ separation, where my house was divided,” she said of the journey of making Origin Story. “We were exhausted from all the fighting and all the crying. Things with my mom had only gotten worse. Then I got pregnant for the first time and I had my first miscarriage. That, I think, really shifted things in my head, of wanting to figure out who I am and to deal with this subject of motherhood — something that I want but I’m afraid of. I’m afraid I’m going to repeat certain behaviors.” She admits that she has a feeling that she knows herself, but doesn’t fully know herself.
Documenting such a personal and dramatic story might be sort of a surprise to many who are familiar with Vilaysack’s work, which is very much involved in the world of comedy. After moving to Los Angeles to attend FIDM for Fashion Merchandising, she went on to work at Ed Hardy — she makes sure to point out this was the pre-Christian Audigier era of trucker caps.
She took a class for “acting on camera” from a man who had a bit part in Robocop. She admits it seemed kind of awful, especially when the instructor told her “actresses need to be pretty”. However, it was during this class when she was doing a dramatic scene about birthing a killer baby that she discovered that she had the ability to make people laugh.
She went on to take improv classes at Second City LA and partnered with classmate Val Myers to do a comedy show called “Garage Comedy” at the El Cid in L.A which became popular. When UCB opened in L.A., Vilaysack took classes there and eventually became their night manager — and she got to put that Fashion Merchandising degree to use by designing their first hoodie.
She went on to appear in episodes of The Office, Parks and Recreation, Happy Ending, Bob’s Burgers, The Sarah Silverman Program, Reno 911! and Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital. She was also the co-host of the podcast Who Charted? until 2018. In 2016, she created the comedy Bajiliion Dollar Properties which is still searching for a home after NBC’s streaming service Seeso shuttered. She also served as an EP on thes how alongside her husband Scott Auckerman (Comedy Bang Bang) and made the occasional appearance on the show alongside Dan Ahdoot, Tim Baltz, Ryan Gaul, Mandell Maughan, Tawny Newsome, Drew Tarver and Paul F. Tompkins. She was also a writer and showrunner of the John Legend and Chrissy Teigen’s A Legendary Christmas on NBC.
Being in the comedy world, Vilaysack wouldn’t necessarily share her family troubles with her friends and peers. Growing up, her mother taught her not to trust anybody. It was ingrained in her not to bother people with her problems, but to help solve theirs.
There would be times when her mother would text and call. She would share bits and pieces with her friends but wasn’t giving everyone the full story. One day, she had an “ah-ha!” moment and realized she didn’t have any intimate female friendships. She connected the dots and realized her complex and distant relationship with her mother was a direct line to why she didn’t have female friends.
“When I started to see that and wanting to have that and to feel more well-rounded, I became really close with Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael,” she said. She started to open up to them and started to build relationships that allowed me to take emotional risks — and it translated to the work that when into her documentary; her own life story that was all about secrets.
Before the documentary, Vilaysack said that her parents never wanted to talk about their past or their fractured relationships. “You would garner information if it was bluntly thrown at you — almost in punishment, between conversations, or casually dropped in such a way,” she said. “I think as an adult and trying to rewire myself to be more of a healthy human, I have worked hard to have those skills.”
From the moment the documentary begins, it is a gut-punch as we are thrown into the aforementioned argument where she learned that her father wasn’t her real father. As harsh truths unravel, we are let in on the complex and harsh relationship with her mother that has come out of her attempt to find the truth. Through very hard-to-swallow texts and surprise details, we go on this journey with Vilaysack where she starts to put pieces of the puzzle together through interviews with her sponsor family and her first father. She eventually finds her birth father and after some heavy lifting, her mother agrees to talk on camera — but everything isn’t necessarily reconciled, but Vilaysack does get some clarity. If anything it shows the dynamics of an Asian immigrant family, secrets and how they deal with and suppress emotions — which is a common and pragmatic practice with many Asian families. At one moment in the documentary, she is seen talking to her sisters and her mother about family and what all of them have been through. One minute, they are laughing, the next they are yelling at each other. Vilaysack says that it’s her favorite scene because “it’s so real” and that it is a snapshot of what her family is like because of all that has happened to them.
The documentary not only gives us insight into Vilaysack’s emotional journey, but it also gives a glimpse of the cultural identity of first-generation Asian American children and how it clashes with immigrant parents. It also finds Vilaysack having a slow burn reconnection with her birth father which becomes a whole separate emotional — and wildly unexpected journey itself. At the same time, she finds herself reconnecting with her Lao culture and coming to terms — as much as she could — with how she was raised as a child.
“I grew up in a bilingual household. Because my parents were learning English at the same time, I started speaking too, and of course, in some ways, I surpassed, because of my steady schooling. My parents were struggling to retain part of my culture while being in this brand new world, and I was being taught sometimes differently in school,” she points out. She recalls being in kindergarten, getting in fights with her mom about regimented daily routines like brushing teeth and eating string cheese. For some families, those may seem like silly things to argue over, but for immigrant families — particularly Asians from developing countries — it’s oddly common.
Beyond that, she remembers being weaponized in fights by her first father and her mom which carried over to her life in Los Angeles. She remembers being called upon to fix her family’s problems while living across the globe. “This is the awful thing that I say about my parents’ marriage,” she says, “if their marriage is a dead horse, they’re dancing around it and beating with sticks, and then forcing me and my sisters to watch.”
As difficult a journey it was, Origin Story is somewhat a catharsis for the fashion student turned aspiring actor turned comedy improviser turned podcaster turned showrunner turned Asian American documentarian. As she mends relationships with her family she has become heavily involved in the Asian American community. Specifically, she started “Laos Angeles” a group that advocates for the advancement of Laos and her diaspora in media and entertainment.
“I’m so much freer than I was at the beginning,” she admits, saying that she was able to put form into this dysfunction. She continued: “I think initially I thought I was going to get the truth. The truth to me was to make people admit this exact thing in this exact way that I want. I realized that wasn’t going to happen and that truth is so relative.”
As for the relationship with her mom, she has said it has improved tremendously and making the documentary helped. They recently went on a trip together and it was very healing. “For these people, my parents who’ve been through what they’ve been through, they’ve held onto truths for years,” she stated. “It was so hard to go through but so worth it in the end. Now I have peace about it. I’m not angry.”