Zoë Chao believes in fate. It’s not hard to see why she would, when she’s recently been spotted playing a character in the reboot of one of her favorite 2000s sitcoms (Party Down) and shares both a name and hometown with the character she plays on Apple TV+’s The Afterparty. Coincidence, it seems, has been everywhere for the actress lately, who — as Party Down’s Lucy, an erratic, defiant chef who sees food as a high art, and as The Afterparty’s Zoe, an art teacher turned vice-principal who hails from Rhode Island — has been living and breathing the aphorism “art imitates life.”
But there is one thing she and her Afterparty character don’t really have in common. The series is a murder-mystery comedy that unfolds as the night of the murder is recounted from a new character’s perspective in each episode. And as one of the only three cast members returning for the show’s second season (along with Sam Richardson and Tiffany Haddish), Chao is finding that unlike her character, her self-taught detective skills haven’t helped her solve the case yet. Still, that doesn’t stop her from channeling her astrological sign and trying.
With whodunits like The Afterparty, it’s not often that we see cast members return for a second season. Is Zoe a suspect again this season?
Everyone’s a suspect in The Afterparty. We all have motives. It’s bigger and we go even further into each of the genres. Both times I had no idea who the murderer was and it’s weird because I read a lot of mystery books and watch a lot of detective shows and listen to true crime podcasts all the time, so you would think it would maybe translate into some skill and it doesn’t.
I’m curious about your character in The Afterparty because she’s also named Zoe and she’s an artist. You have an art background. How similar are you?
It was kind of eerie, how many similarities there were when I auditioned for Zoe back in 2020. On set, I told Chris, “Did you know that I’m also from Providence?” Zoe the character goes to RISD — my dad taught at RISD and my sister went to RISD. Then Ike Barinholtz’s character goes to Brown, which is where I went to school. It was just a wild coincidence.
It sounds like fate. Do you believe in that?
It does sound like fate and kismet. I think life is a weird, wild ride, and yeah, why not?
That’s a good segue into our etiquette questions. Here’s a lighter one: Your two recent projects, The Afterparty and Party Down, both have the word party in them, so what’s your number-one party rule?
Lighting is key. My mom is a visual artist and she’s very sensitive to light and color. She would help my sister and me set up our college dorms and any apartment that we’ve lived in. She’s always about distributing light. She prefers the lamps over overhead lighting, and of course, warm lighting. I think curating the right crowd, people that will enjoy each other. And then music. If a party can end with dancing, that’s a success.
Have you ever thought this much about parties, or just now because you’re in so many shows with the word party in them?
I haven’t. [Laughs.] Actually, I recently visited my younger sister, who’s at this very prestigious art residency called Skowhegan up in Maine, and for her 32nd birthday, I gifted her a karaoke machine. We love to sing and she’s an incredible singer: Her alter ego is Shamaia Twain, because her name is Maia and her favorite artist growing up was Shania Twain. And for this residency, she forgot to pack enough socks but she packed the karaoke machine.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I’ve been singing “Zombie” by the Cranberries. Also 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.” Oh, and 3LW’s “No More” has made it into the canon. I don’t know if you might be too young for that one, but it goes … [Sings for a few seconds.]
The third season of Party Down is also a reboot of the original. Do you feel a certain way about reboots?
I get nervous about reboots. But when I heard Party Down was coming back and they were introducing new characters, I ran to get in line. I didn’t actually even care if people liked the third season because I just felt like getting to be a part of season three was for me. It wasn’t a career thing, or like another notch on the belt, it was just this bucket-list type of thing. I feel so lucky I get to play Lucy.
And you got to play an artsy chef. What’s your number-one cooking rule?
I love food. I’m a very good eater; I am not a prolific cook. I was spoiled by growing up with a nana and a father who were really great cooks. Supposedly, when I was still breastfeeding, my dad took moo shu pork and waved it around my mouth so that I would cultivate an appreciation for food. [Laughs.] And I did. It worked.
You’ve waited tables before, so what’s your number-one tipping rule?
Overtip, especially after COVID. Money is not distributed fairly in this world; it’s not often based on merit. If you got it, tip it. Working in the service industry is really hard and I survived off of those tips for six years.
Would you gift an edible arrangement?
I would. As you know now, I love eating and I also love jokes. I feel like it’s not in vogue and that’s why I would send an edible arrangement. If it were in vogue, I’d be less inspired to send one.
As a person with so many artists in their life, do you have any museum rules?
I’m mostly a “to each their own” type of gal. Just don’t be trying to touch shit. That is so annoying. Can we just respect the work? I also really don’t love when someone says, “I could paint that.” I know it’s tempting, but say it to anyone but me.
How do you cancel plans?
I make an effort to not cancel plans. My boyfriend recently asked me what percentage of plans I think I cancel and I said, “80 percent I don’t cancel and 20 percent I do.” I really try not to flake because it’s a quality that if I did not check could really be a part of who I am. If I do, it has to be because of a good reason. It can’t be just because I don’t want to. I also am so okay with people canceling plans on me. I honestly welcome it. Cancel any plans with me and it’s not even a thing.
You mentioned your boyfriend, so what is your number-one rule for dating?
I really believe in going on adventures that happen to be dates. I think that remains the case even if you’re ten years into a relationship: planning adventures and then being able to let go of the plan in the name of spontaneity.
When you go to eat with your partner, do you have rules for who covers the bill?
Whoever makes more money is who should pay. And I feel that way for dates too, if it’s something that everyone’s privy to.
Do you think it’s okay to ghost after a single date?
I would think so. I have never done that and I probably err on the side of over-communication, but I’m fine with people ghosting.
What’s your number-one rule around your house?
Oh my gosh, do people have number-one rules? Do you have a number-one rule? The Virgo in me wishes I did have more rules for life. Just keep the toilet paper stocked. That would be my only rule.
What about when it comes to your phone — any rules?
I wish I had rules around my phone. It owns me. I am my phone’s bitch. I don’t know what I’m ever gonna do if I have kids because I won’t know how to influence them in a healthy way. I’m a really erratic social-media person. I only do Instagram and it’s bouts of nothing and then way too many Stories. And it always feels bad.
Do you answer fan DMs?
It’s a no-no. But in the early days, when there were fans of the show Strangers that is on Facebook Watch, our fans were so lovely and smart and thoughtful. And I was new to anyone paying attention to my work, so I did respond. OG fans, I will sometimes DM. There’s a beautiful once-a-year DM relationship that happens with a fan of Love Life, who was really inspired by the character I played, Sarah Yang, who was struggling with alcoholism in the first season and gets sober at the end. This admirer of the show was really moved by that character and every year she reminds me of her sober anniversary and she’s six years sober. She told me recently, and I said, “This is such a beautiful, joyful way to track time.”
That is so sweet. That role was the best friend of the main character, so what’s your number-one rule for being a good friend?
I take this very seriously, so I’m really thinking. Just be the best listener with your best friend. Navigating this world and this life can feel lonely to anyone, so when you have someone who really listens to you, it just makes this wild experiment less lonely.
That’s a perfect answer. Well, we only have a few minutes left. Are there any other etiquette things you want to share?
Please don’t trim your toenails on the subway.
Oh my God. Have you seen that?
Yeah. There was a part of me that was impressed, but I’m landing on, “Please don’t do that.”
This interview, which was conducted before the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, has been edited and condensed for clarity.