Party Down's Zoe Chao Is Thrilled  to Be Invited
Colleen Hayes/Courtesy of STARZ
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Party Down’s Zoë Chao Is Thrilled (and Terrified) to Be Invited

With roles in Party Down, Your Place or Mine, Somebody I Used to Know, and The Afterparty, Chao is everywhere, and it’s kind of freaking her out.

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.” 

Even though Chao herself has several recent comic projects—the second season of Apple TV+ mystery-comedy The Afterparty; the rom-coms Somebody I Used to Know and Your Place or Mine—she doesn’t consider herself a born comedian. “I don’t find myself funny IRL or on the screen,” she says. “I always feel like I’ve snuck in through the back, and someone is going to be like, ‘Now’s the time we out you. You are not funny, and you’ve never been funny, and you need to leave this set.’” 

In the first season of The Afterparty, she even helped creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller prank eagle-eyed viewers with an off-screen misdirect. “We did do one sneaky thing to the Reddit gang,” Miller told VF last year. “We released a photo of Zoë wearing a blond wig and then deleted it immediately, even though it never happens in the show.” 

Chao laughs now, remembering the red herring. “[Miller] was like, ‘Hey, can we just take you real quick? We’re setting up, could you just wear a wig really quick and just do something in the mirror?’ And I was like, yeah. And then, truly the show came out, and in interviews, they’re like, ‘Did you know about the clues?’” She…didn’t.

Chao does love a good mystery—though much like Tiffany Haddish’s Detective Danner on The Afterparty, she’s one who couldn’t decode her way out of an escape room. “There are clues on top of the clues” as to who the murderer is in season one, she says. “I also read those scripts. And by the time we shot the reveal, I had forgotten, and was so bummed out.” She reads a lot of mystery novels, she says. “You would think that would translate into some sort of skill, but I am the worst at figuring it out. I’m always like, Whoa, did not see that coming.” 

True to form, she offers a wide-eyed shrug when asked who the culprit will be in season two (it’s set to premiere in July), as well as whether there’ll be more Party Down in the future: “I would tell you if I knew, but I am the last person to know.” She and her castmates did spend time at the premiere pitching more episodes. “[We] all made it very clear to everyone at Starz, and anyone who had any money. Random people, YouTubers, we were like, ‘We are all willing to come back! We’re willing and able!’” 

That group could also include Lizzy Caplan, a main cast member in the show’s original run. Caplan’s scheduling conflicts kept her from appearing in the new season of Party Down—until a tantalizing mid-credits cameo in the finale, where her caterer-made-good character, Casey, now a bona fide star, runs into Scott’s Henry at a junket and teases that she’ll be back soon. “She’s really gung ho about a season four,” Chao says.

Even if it takes another decade-plus to happen, Chao says she could see Lucy still working that pink bow tie. Throughout the season she shrooms, flirts with an admitted Nazi, offers existential takes on cake pops, and, we learn in the finale, skims enough from the Party Down supplies to scrape together $2,000 worth of saffron threads to audition for an haute cuisine restaurant. Ron, of course, unwittingly pops the bite she’s made into his mouth—literally devouring her chance at escape with one chomp. 

“I think that finding a home for Lucy has been very hard,” Chao says. “So it feels like in some ways, maybe Party Down is the only place that will have her.” 

Chao, too, says she’s found belonging with Party Down. She has three group texts popping off constantly: one for the Party Down cast, and one for each season of The Afterparty. “I’ve really inherited three families in a very short period of time, and they’re all dysfunctional, but my heart is overwhelmed,” she says.

The actor has come a long way since her Bar Marmont days, when she says she “totally related to the desperateness of the whole show and the yearning to be doing something else other than what you’re doing.” Even now that season three is out in the world, she still can’t believe she got to crash the party.

“I’m a very long way from Bar Marmont. Although, while shooting it, I’m like, ‘Am I back?’”