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New web series ‘These Thems’ explores the queer spectrum through comedy

Authentic casting was paramount to creator/writer of YouTube OML production

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These Thems, gay news, Washington Blade
The cast of ‘These Thems’ is from left Shaan Dasani, Nick Park, Vico Ortiz and Gretchen Wylder. (Photo courtesy of Chatter Republic)

An episodic romantic comedy about a newly out lesbian journeying with nonbinary and transgender friends through New York City’s vibrant queer scene streams Feb. 27 on YouTube’s OML channel.

These Thems” follows 30-year-old Gretchen and her nonbinary friend and LGBTQ educator Vero as they navigate the increasingly-complex-yet-still-inclusive world of colorful queer community. 

Similar to “Pose,” this series features a multitude of transgender, nonbinary and queer characters portrayed by actors who are the same. It’s run by crew members who identify across the queer spectrum.

Series writer, creator and star Gretchen Wylder, who identifies as a queer cisgender femme, and director Jett Garrison, who identifies as transmasculine, recently spoke with the Washington Blade about this show, which both called a “comedy with heart.”

“These Thems” was listed in GLAAD’s “Top Trans Creatives and Stories to Watch in 2019” and has received awards at film festivals in Chicago, Austin, North Carolina and Kansas. It was also screened at Toronto’s Inside Out festival, Atlanta’s Out on Film and Los Angeles’ Outfest.

The series is set to stream Thursdays on OML through mid-April. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Gretchen, can you tell us a little about the show? How would you describe it?

GRETCHEN WYLDER: The show is a queer comedy series that follows four main characters in New York City. We follow a newly out lesbian who is trying to make up for lost time, and a nonbinary/wannabe queer educator who takes Gretchen under their wings. Their best friend is a trans man who is deciding whether or not to out himself at work, and he quickly falls for Gretchen’s best friend who is a cis gay man who is lovelorn and doesn’t really have any experience within the queer world. The audience follows Gretchen’s perspective through her lens of exploring the queer world for the first time.

BLADE: You also named the lead character Gretchen. Was there any special reason? 

WYLDER: There’s a lot of actor/writers whom I look up to who have named lead characters after themselves. Lucille Ball, Issa Rae. … And a lot of it is based off my own personal experience. Some of it is based on my own coming out experience, even though I came out 13 years ago. The first episode is inspired by a similar situation.

BLADE: Would you say you’re similar to your character?

WYLDER: Oh, Lord! We’re very similar, ha! I’m a Pisces and I’ve had my run of heartbreak, so we kind of see Gretchen going through the wringer a little bit. But near the end we see Gretchen reclaiming herself, her individuality and her sexuality.

BLADE: What inspired you to create a newly out lesbian navigating the queer world?

WYLDER: I like to think our show draws from and was inspired by “The L Word,” and it was so important to queer representation. But something that we deliver that “The L Word” doesn’t have is a more broad scope of what the queer community looks like. I feel like as enjoyable as it is, it for the most part it seems to focus its lens on cisgendered and conventionally attractive characters facing relationship troubles, and this show focuses more on the broadness of the New York queer community. One thing I never related to with “The L Word” was the predominantly white, feminine, lesbian circles. One thing that I wanted to reflect was queer intersectionality and to show that sometimes it is really difficult to navigate. We all don’t have the answers and we’re all learning and we’re all growing and the characters are just trying their best and experiencing life together — even if it looks different depending on the character.

BLADE: Was it a challenge writing for nonbinary cast members?

WYLDER: Many of my friendships and relationships are with people who identify as nonbinary or trans and I was very active in the queer community in New York City.When I was writing the show, I had four table readings in New York City. I come from a theater background and it comes immediately across from the audience when something is working or isn’t working. I tell you what, there have been so many rewrites of the script because so much of the language was clunky at first. I would get feedback and something wouldn’t work. It was a lot of trial and error.

BLADE: Jett, what drew you to this project?

JETT GARRISON: I read the script and fell in love with the characters, fell in love with the story — the humor. One of the things that drew me to the project was how beautifully Gretchen wrote all of these characters. Gretchen, the character, is having her coming out of sorts, but this is not a coming out story, per se. It is a coming out for folks who are already in the queer community. We have been over the past maybe five years learning a whole new vocabulary that didn’t exist for some of us in our 30s, 40s or 50s. We didn’t have words like nonbinary or trans, so Gretchen gets a new vocabulary and is excited and overwhelmed and she’s trying her best to figure it out. And I feel like everyone, whether they are a straight cis ally or part of the queer community, has had some kind of moment where they are trying to navigate and honoring somebody’s sexuality, identity or humaness in a way that is foreign to them.

BLADE: How did you become involved?

GARRISON: I’ve been a filmmaker for almost 20 years, and primarily as a queer, feminist, female-forward type of storyteller. Gretchen was reaching out to transmasculine, trans male directors because of a central storyline that she knew she wanted to have an extra set of eyes and an extra heart to pay attention to. And I really connected to our transmasculine character, Asher. I knew that I wanted to develop those stories because we haven’t been seen in these storylines or characters.

BLADE: Did being a transmasculine director help with developing the authenticity in those scenes?

GARRISON: When you are a director working with your actors, whether it is in theater or film, you have to build this trust. … We (two of the transmasculine actors) were able to work in my apartment and have a discussion about what each of their identities mean to them and where they come from. Shaan (Dasani) happened to be a good friend of mine and we talk a lot about different experiences and where safety comes into play about being out — whether it’s at work or in public — so we’re constantly in dialogue. So, when you’re on set, you just develop the shorthand. And when you’re asking for subtle changes in a delivery, or maybe a shading of a line, it also incorporates the writer and Gretchen knew she could trust me and our actors to collaborate and make sure it all worked together.

BLADE: As a transmasculine director, what challenges did you face in the industry prior to this project?

GARRISON: I directed quite a bit. I got my MFA at the University of Texas and one of my shorts was nominated for a student Academy Award. But I haven’t done much directing since I transitioned, which was just a few years ago. It’s been a challenge for me because I identified as a butch lesbian and was a member of many female directing initiatives. But once I transitioned, I kind of transitioned myself out of those communities. I transitioned at a time when our trans sisters were doing a good job of elevating their visibility in the media. For us trans masculine folks, that wasn’t the case for a multitude of reasons. Now, a lot of it is coming out and meeting each other and helping try to elevate one another. “These Thems” came along at a perfect time. Episodic directing has been a goal of mine for a while.

BLADE: Does the show include cisgender heterosexual cast and characters? Are there any funny moments that stand out?

GARRISON: We wanted this to be participatory to see how cis-het connect with us and are a part of this world that we all live in. Our gender reveal party episode is hilarious and we didn’t want our cis-het people to come off as dumb or unknowing but learning about this new world along with Gretchen and the rest of us.

BLADE: Gretchen, how did cisgender heterosexual audience members feel about the show? Did they get what you were trying to say?

WYLDER: Cis-het friends who watch the show enjoy it and so did older lesbians and cis-gay men who are not within the trans spectrum and don’t understand it. So, this is a way to watch and learn in a fun comedic way. The character of Gretchen represents anyone, regardless of how they identify, who is new to this new world and faces its challenges in a funny, relatable way. Humor is something that everyone can relate to.

The cast of ‘These Thems.’ (Photo courtesy Chatter Republic)
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Final season of ‘Pose’ is must-see TV that matters

Groundbreaking FX drama has left its mark

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When the COVID pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, there were certainly more pressing and essential worries for us to grapple with than how it would impact the next season of a TV show. Yet it’s a testament to the power of “Pose” that many among its legion of fans were at least as concerned about the show’s disruption as they were about the possibility of running out of toilet paper.

The powerhouse FX drama — which spotlights the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture in the late 1980s — had already made history. Not only did it feature the largest cast of transgender actors in regular roles, it boasted the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever included in a scripted series. In its first two seasons, the show racked up accolades and honors (including a Primetime Emmy for Billy Porter as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) while breaking new ground for the inclusion and representation of queer people — and especially transgender people of color — in television, both in front of the camera, and behind it. With the end of its second season in August 2019, fans were hungry for a third — but thanks to COVID, its future was suddenly in question.

So, when word came that the show’s third season would have its debut on May 2, it was the best news since finding out the vaccines were finally going to start rolling out. But it was bittersweet: Along with confirmation of the series’ imminent return came the sad revelation that the new season would also be the last. “Pose” would be coming to an end with a final, seven-episode arc.

As any viewer of show can attest, there were a lot of threads left hanging when last we saw its characters. That means there’s a lot of ground to cover in these last chapters in order to give everyone — characters and audience alike — the closure they deserve.

The show’s official synopsis goes like this: It’s now 1994 and ballroom feels like a distant memory for Blanca, who struggles to balance being a mother with being a present partner to her new love, as well as her latest role as a nurse’s aide. Meanwhile, as AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44, Pray Tell contends with unexpected health burdens. Meanwhile, a vicious new upstart house is emerging in the ballroom world, and the members of the House of Evangelista are forced to contend their legacy.

Obviously, there are a lot of details left hidden in that broad overview, and fans are undoubtedly full of questions about what they can expect to see.

Fortunately, the bulk of the show’s main cast convened on Zoom last week (along with show co-creator and Executive Producer Steven Canals and Executive Producer Janet Mock) for a press conference to discuss their “Pose” experience, and while they didn’t exactly give away any spoilers, they definitely dropped some tantalizing hints about what’s in store for audiences in the farewell season.

In truth, most of the discussion was dominated by reminiscences and expressions of mutual appreciation, sure signs that the feeling of family we see onscreen is something that has taken hold off screen, as well. But in between the affectionate banter, the cast and creatives addressed several questions that might be most on viewers’ minds.

Perhaps the most pressing of these — why, after only three seasons, is the critic-and-audience-acclaimed show calling it quits? — was taken on by Canals, who explained:

“I always knew what the beginning and what the end of the narrative would be. And when Ryan Murphy and I first met in September of 2016, we felt really strongly that that particular narrative made sense. And so, while we certainly could have continued to create narrative around these characters and in this world, and we certainly had a conversation in the writers’ room about it … I think we all agreed that it just made sense for us to ‘land the plane,’ if you will, comfortably — as opposed to continuing to give an audience story that just simply didn’t have any real core intention or a real thrust towards specificity.”

Also of interest was the obvious subject of how the parallels between the current pandemic and the AIDS crisis that looms over the show’s narrative might be reflected in the new episodes. While he didn’t hint at any direct connections in “Pose,” Porter used the subject to underscore a theme that has always been one of the show’s most important elements:

“I think the parallels are quite profound. I know that as a Black gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I have been dealing with a lot of PTSD during this COVID time. It’s very reminiscent of what it was like then. The best news about that is that I survived. We got through it, and there is another side to it. We can get to the other side.

“I feel like that’s what ‘Pose’ really accomplishes this season, reminding the public that it’s when we come together and when we lead with love [that] we get to the other side.”

Mock elaborated on the theme of resilience by discussing the importance of showing the strength of House mothers like Blanca and Electra (Dominique Jackson), who hold together — and lift up — their entire community:

“It’s that matriarchal power and lineage that I think the ballroom is, and what trans women are to one another, that then feeds everyone else and enables them to shine and have all the things that they want in the world. For me, it is [about] that celebration […] of Black trans women — that they’ve created this space, that they brought everyone else in with them, and that, at the end of the day, they are often the ones most often forgotten.

“I think with this season, I want everyone across the industry, the audience, to realize that. I think it’s essential, and it’s important.”

Mock also talked about the way “Pose” focuses on the small, day-to-day lives of its characters as much as it does the larger-than-life splendor of the ballroom culture in which they participate:

“We wanted to ensure that we show the everyday, mundane moments, as well as the great, grand celebrations. The ballroom is are presentation of what it means to congregate and share testimony and to love on each other, and our show is a celebration of the everyday intimacies. So, for us, while we were plotting these big, grand moments […] we wanted to bring in traditions — weddings, matrimony, all this stuff — that our characters get to engage in. We wanted to be a part of the tradition of that, and all the moments that a family shares together. We wanted to make sure that all of those things were celebrated in this.”

When discussion turned to the unprecedented level of support and collaborative inclusion with which the show’s queer cast were bestowed by Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative staff — from the presence of trans women like Mock and Co-producer Our Lady J in the writers’ room to the extensive reliance on the insights and talents of real-life members of the ballroom community — Jackson was quick to add that besides giving the show its ferocious authenticity, it gave her an increased recognition of her own worth:

“I will never, ever, ever walk into a space thinking that I need to impress them […] I will never walk into a space being fearful of my identity stopping me from anything. Because of this journey, when I walk into spaces now, my identity is not because I’m an abomination. My identity is a plus. My identity is my value. So, when I walk into spaces now,they need to impress me. You can be the biggest Hollywood director, producer, whatever, but you’re not going to take my story or relay stories that are reflective of my life or my existence and make them into anything you want, because of ‘Pose,’ because of Ryan, because of Steven, because of Janet and Brad [co-creator/executive producer Falchuk), because of Our Lady J, because of my cast members.

“I will never walk into spaces or live a life or an existence thinking that I need to impress anyone.”

Porter concurred, adding:

“There was never, ever a space in my brain to dream what‘Pose’ is, what Pray Tell is. I spent the first 25-plusyears of my career trying to fit into a masculinity construct that society placed on us so I could eat.‘Pose,’ and Pray Tell in particular, really taught me to dream the impossible […] the idea that the little, Black church sissy from Pittsburgh is now in a position of power in Hollywood in a way that never existed before. You can damn sure believe that I will be wielding that power and there will be a difference and a change in how things go from here on out.”

If the cast members themselves have found themselves feeling more empowered thanks to “Pose,” so too have the millions of LGBTQ people — and allies — who have tuned into it since its premiere in 2018. The show is one of those rare entries into the cultural lexicon that simply allows its queer and trans people to live authentic lives, giving long-withheld representation to countless viewers who were able to see themselves reflected back from the screen for perhaps the very first time. It’s that powerful sense of validation provided by “Pose” that keeps it standing tall in an entertainment market now providing so much LGBTQ inclusion that it’s becoming dangerously easy to take it for granted.

Whatever moments of heartbreak, joy, and celebration “Pose” brings us as it plays out its final act — and there are sure to be many — we can all be sure it will leave us with a message expressed through an oft-heard line of dialogue that Mock says she found herself writing “over and over again” during the series’ run:

“You are everything, and you deserve everything this world has to offer.” It’s that nurturing sentiment the “Pose” has been instilling in us from the beginning, like a mother to us all.

And that’s why so many of us can’t wait until the first two episodes of its final season air at 10 p.m. (both Eastern and Pacific), Sunday, May 2, on FX.

The final season of “Pose” will begin to air on FX on Sunday, May 2, at 10 p.m. ET. (Photos courtesy of FX)

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At 75, John Waters has no plans to retire

‘I’d go nuts if I didn’t work’

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When writer and filmmaker John Waters turned 70 five years ago, he said he took six friends on a first-class trip to Paris for his birthday and “we had the best time.”

This year, for his 75th birthday on April 22, he was going to take his friends to Rome but the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way and they couldn’t all travel.

Instead, a friend is having a small dinner party for him in New York City, and he’s going with a friend. “Everybody has had their shots, and that’s what I’m going to do…It will be low-key this year.”

The older he gets, he said, the less he cares about making a big fuss out of every birthday anyway.

“What difference does it make? Old means old. It doesn’t matter which one.”

Though he’s taking some time to celebrate his 75th birthday, Waters has no plans to retire.

“No, God no,” he said last weekend while on a Zoom call with fans from London. “I jump out of bed every morning. It hurts to jump out of bed. I have aches and pains. But no, I’d go nuts if I didn’t work.”

That’s probably just as well because he has a lot going on. Between shooting episodes of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” getting ready for film festivals in several cities, planning a guided tour in Provincetown, and preparing for an exhibit of his private art collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, he’s staying busy.

The ultimate multitasker, he didn’t even stop working when he went for a COVID vaccination recently.

“I signed an autograph when I was getting the shot,” he said. “Well, not at the moment, but right before.”

In a Zoom session organized by London’s Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities — an early birthday present of sorts because it drew fans from at least three continents — Waters announced that he just last week finished the book he’s been writing for the past three years, “LIARMOUTH,” a novel about a woman who steals luggage at the airport. It’s due out next year from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

He also expressed optimism that some events that had to be cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic will be back in 2021, including his Camp John Waters “sleepaway” weekend for superfans in Kent, Conn., and a new, renamed iteration of the Burger Boogaloo punk rock music festival that he hosts in Oakland, Calif.

There’s even a chance he’ll make another movie. Waters told his fans there’s still interest in “Fruitcake,” the children’s Christmas film that he’s been trying for years to make. “There is new possibility,” he teased. “That’s all I’ll say. I’m not going to jinx it.”

He’s waiting to hear about the several dozen spoken-word shows he performs around the country every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “I think a lot of those decisions are going to happen in September.”

Most of all, he said, he’s just eager to make in-person appearances after a year in lockdown. Some of his engagements that were cancelled due to COVID have been rescheduled for the coming year, including appearances in New York, California, and Pennsylvania, and he’s adding others.

“I’m dying to get back on the road,” he said last weekend. “I’m still amazed that 20-something-year-old kids know who I am. I want to see what they look like.”

He’s wondering whether Meet-N-Greets – the sessions where he signs autographs and poses for photos with fans after a performance – will be possible in a post-pandemic world.

“Even before this, when I did the Christmas tour, I had Meet-N-Greets for usually 50 people” after a show, he said. “I’d always get sick because you have to hug everybody and then get on an airplane the next day. So I think Meet-N-Greets might never come back. I don’t know how they’re ever going to do that safely.”

On a personal basis, too, he’s yearning to get out and travel more.

“I want to go to a movie theater. I want to go to a concert,” he said. “I want to be able to have even a dull day out with other people.”

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This year’s Oscars might be historic — but does anyone care?

Diverse nominees lacking LGBTQ representation

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Oscar, gay news, Washington Blade

It’s Oscar weekend. Are you excited?

Unless you’re actually one of the nominees, odds are pretty good that you’re not – but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is geared up to present its prestigious annual film awards for the 93rd time on Sunday night, really, really wants you to be. Why else, a week ahead of the Big Night, would they roll out the show’s producers for a press conference to drop hints that the upcoming broadcast would “look like a movie” and incorporate satellite hookups from “multiple locations?” It was a clear bid to drum up excitement.

More details came Monday, when a letter from that same trio – producer Steven Soderbergh (himself an Oscar winner for directing “Traffic” in 2000) and co-producers Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher – went out to the nominees. As it turns out, the ceremony will be held at LA’s historic Union Station (site of Saturday’s press conference), which will be treated “as an active movie set” in terms of COVID-related safety protocols, with “additional elements” of the show being incorporated live from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre via satellite hook-up.

More interestingly, the letter revealed, “The first—and most obvious—point we want to get across with this year’s show is STORIES MATTER.” In keeping with that theme, nominees are requested to submit to a brief interview to “tell the story of your path to April 25,” as part of an effort to “highlight the connections between all of us who work in the movies and show that the process is uniquely intimate, collaborative, and fun.” The emphasis on “story” was further reflected by instructions about messaging in the speeches (“If you’re thanking someone, say their name, not their title… make it PERSONAL”) and a dress code described as “a fusion of Inspirational and Aspirational.” Whatever Soderbergh and crew have planned for the show, their letter leaves little doubt they intend to tightly manage the narrative it presents.

That’s not surprising, of course; Hollywood is in the business of creating narratives, and the one it takes most seriously is the one it creates about itself. Nevertheless, it’s particularly telling that the story it is working so hard to tell seems designed to brush its problem with inclusion comfortably into the background.

This year, the organization might well feel that when it comes to diversity, the nominations speak for themselves. For a year in which tremendous social upheaval has brought Black experience in America to the forefront of the public conversation, the Oscars have chosen an impressive number of Black-led films and Black artists among an overall slate that offers the most diverse lineup of nominees in its history. Women are also represented, thanks to the inclusion of Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” among the Best Picture contenders and the first-ever two nominations for women – Fennell and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) – as Best Director. Additionally, Zhao, who is Chinese, is the first woman of color ever nominated in that category, Steven Yuen (“Minari”) became the first Asian-American to receive a Best Actor nod, and in the same category, Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”) became the first person of Pakistani descent to be nominated in any acting category.

In the midst of all this inclusion, however, the LGBTQ community – traditionally a stronghold for some of Oscar’s most ardent fans – has this year been largely left empty-handed, once again. Besides two Best Actress nods for women playing bisexual characters (Viola Davis and Andra Day, for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” respectively), there are no major nominations for films with significant LGBTQ content – though it’s worth noting that the aforementioned “Young Woman” features trans actress Laverne Cox in a prominent supporting role. While it’s not a problem for us to stand on the sidelines and cheer for the victories achieved by representatives of other marginalized communities, it’s becoming harder to ignore the nagging feeling that our willingness to forgive an institution that continues to disappoint and diminish us is really something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

In any case, this year’s Academy Awards have the potential for making history. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are people of color, and at least two of them are considered frontrunners in their categories. Zhao could become the first woman of Asian descent to win the Best Director prize. And while the potential for those wins lends a kind of excitement to the proceedings, an inescapable feeling of “too little, too late” – coupled with a pandemic-induced awareness of the relative unimportance of awards like these in the greater scheme of things – makes it more difficult than ever, perhaps, to care.

With that in mind, here are the currently leading “official” predictions for the winners in the top six categories, based on a combination of Oscar history, industry buzz, review consensus, and plain old-fashioned gut instinct:

BEST PICTURE: “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are considered the front-runners, thanks to previous wins in the equivalent category at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, respectively. “Nomadland” is favored to win.

BEST DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao, who has taken the directing prize at both the Globes and the BAFTAs, seems a sure bet for “Nomadland.”

BEST ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman, whose death in 2020 after a secret battle with colon cancer devastated fans and co-workers alike, would seem the inevitable winner for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” even without his already-racked-up wins at the Globes, Critics’ Choice, and SAG Awards. If he takes it – and it’s almost certain he will – it would make him only the second Best Actor winner to be awarded the prize posthumously (the first was Peter Finch, for 1976’s “Network”).

BEST ACTRESS: There are no clear front-runners here. With one high-profile win each under their belt Davis (SAGs), Day (Globes), Frances McDormand (BAFTAs for “Nomadland”) and Carey Mulligan (Critics’ Choice for “Promising Young Woman”) are all positioned as possible winners. However, with Davis already making history with this performance as Oscar’s most-nominated Black actress, the appeal of also making her the first to win in both Actress categories (her performance in 2016’s “Fences” earned her the Best Supporting prize) might just give her the edge.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Having won for his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” at all the other major film awards, Daniel Kaluuya is the definition of a “shoo-in.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: As is often the case, this category might be the most wide-open. Buzz has favored both Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) and Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), but her win at the BAFTA Awards puts Youn in place as the probable frontrunner. If she wins, she will be only the second Asian actress to win an Oscar, after Miyoshi Umeki (1957’s “Sayonara”).

You can find out the winners when the Oscars air on ABC, Sunday April 25 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. But don’t worry – if you don’t care enough to watch, you can always Google it afterward.

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