Zoë Chao has been to this party before. In fact, she lived it.
When Party Down originally aired in 2009 and 2010, Chao had recently graduated from the University of California San Diego’s MFA acting program. She was also in the midst of a four and a half year stint as a cocktail waitress at LA’s Bar Marmont.
“I watched the show while serving, which made me feel less alone on this parallel journey. I fell in love with it,” she tells Vanity Fair. “Years later, my agent said, ‘Hey, they’re bringing Party Down back. There’s a role. Are you interested?’ And I was like, ‘Is the sky blue? They’re bringing new people on to that perfect show?’”
Now, 13 years after its cancellation, the long-awaited third season of Party Down is a reality, with its finale airing this week. Chao joined the cast as Lucy, an avant-garde chef clawing at the confines of a modest events catering company. The actor borrowed utensils and chef gear from her upstairs neighbor Kenny for her callback; when she got word that she’d been cast, she says, “I lost my mind.”
Then, as filming grew nearer and the reality that she’d be joining original cast members Adam Scott, Jane Lynch, Megan Mullally, Ken Marino, Martin Starr, and Ryan Hansen, “my joy quickly turned into panic. I was like, ‘Oh, this was a bad idea, actually.’ Because the nerves that I had for my callback were nothing compared to the nerves that I had when I stepped onto that set. Every day, actually. They didn’t dissipate.”
Though Chao and her costar Tyrel Jackson Williams, the cast’s other new addition, bonded over their jitters, she was so anxious on her first day of shooting that she “kind of blacked out, truly.” But her constant scene partner, Starr—“that sick son of a bitch”—eventually got her out of her head.
“A couple weeks into shooting, he was like, remember your first day? You were so nervous! So I guess everyone could tell I was really nervous. But they were great. I do feel like they’re my effed-up family now, you know?” It’s a real-life dynamic that mirrors the show’s characters, coworkers turned unlikely pillars of support.
She’ll be watching the finale live with her 99-year-old grandfather, whom she’s visiting in Arizona. Chao says he’s an avid movie fan who would go to the theater three to four times a week prepandemic, and a major inspiration for her wanting to get into acting in the first place. “He has a headshot of mine from like, right out of grad school on his wall,” she says, and has watched all of her projects—except “any of them ones that I’m having sex with people.”
So far, the third season of Party Down has been well received by Granddad.
“I will say every episode has kept his attention, and he does have a tendency to nod off. So it speaks well of the show that he’s staying awake.” As a plus, “watching my grandfather watch [Marino’s Ron] shit his brains out last night was very gratifying.” The physical comedy hit for Chao during filming too. When she would leave the Party Down set for the day, she’d be completely drained from laughing: “My face would just be like, exhausted. I used new muscles I never knew I had.”