Charlotte Nicdao is ready to be horrified.
Like everyone two years ago, the 31-year-old lead of the Apple TV+ dramedy Mythic Quest was plugged into her Nintendo Switch for long hours on Animal Crossing: Horizons. Now, she hesitates to press the power button.
Nicdao wasn’t acquainted with video games prior to the show, which she says is “even more of a dream” after three years. But after becoming Poppy Li, a video game virtuoso with a people problem, she picked up a controller to understand a character with a few striking similarities to her own self.
“I played a lot of Animal Crossing with my parents, while I was in L.A. and they were in Australia,” Nicdao tells Inverse via Zoom, recounting memories many can relate to from a strange time. “I’m here over the holidays, so I brought the Switch. When things calm down I’m gonna log back on. I’ll probably be mortified by the state of my island. But I’ll get to go fishing with my mom.”
A former musician from Melbourne, Charlotte Nicdao pivoted to acting when she found herself invested in an audition to play the role of a Filipina girl from Australia, a story identical to her own, and didn’t get it. Now she is one of the most prominent faces of Mythic Quest, a laugh-out-loud workplace sitcom with touching emotional depth.
Set in the studio of a popular online fantasy game — the fictional “Mythic Quest” — Nicdao plays Poppy, the game’s lead engineer. She’s the left brain to the game’s right: Ian Grimm (star and creator Rob McElhenney), an ego-driven visionary with whom she shares the most complicated of professional relationships.
In Season 3 of Mythic Quest, Poppy and Ian leave the studio to create their own game from scratch. While they share a vision and an office (an eerie white void deprived of natural light) the two still butt heads before realizing how much they need each other. The undercurrents of their thorny dynamic are highlighted in the prequel episode “Sarian,” a standalone chapter that is Mythic Quest tradition. “Sarian” reveals just how much Poppy and Ian’s similarly lonely upbringings shape them into the passionate but damaged creators we know them.
“I think it's toxic,” Nicdao says of Ian and Poppy. “But I don’t think there’s no hope for them. They have individual work to do they are ignoring in favor of blaming all their problems on the other. Each of them needs to go away to figure themselves out and come back. But maybe that wouldn’t be as fun to watch on a TV show.”
In an interview with Inverse, Charlotte Nicdao unpacks the messy personality of her Mythic Quest lead, as well as what the role of Poppy Li still means to her years later.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What does Poppy Li find so nourishing about a buffalo chicken pizza?
I think [there is] a very legitimate reason she's into this food. It's carby. It's got protein. It's sweet. It's delicious. I think Poppy is like, “This is a balanced meal.” What could be wrong with it?
The buffalo slice exists in Mythic Quest to represent Poppy’s relationship with Ian. How would you describe the totality of their relationship from the start of the series to now?
Their relationship, on a personal level, is completely dysfunctional. I root for them and their platonic relationship, and I hope one day they find a way to be friends and business partners in a way that isn't unhealthy. But I doubt they ever will. The problem is that they need each other. I feel like they're constantly battling this feeling of unnaturalness in their pairing. They achieve something together or click into something creative and it's like, “We’ll be together forever, because the things we build together are better than anything we build on our own.” They're super dysfunctional people, so when they're working together, that dysfunction just goes into overdrive.
What fascinates me about Poppy Li is she’s so lonely, socially and romantically, in a way I don’t think she realizes. What do you make about Poppy in isolation?
What you said is so astute. She spent her entire life not knowing how to connect with people, getting very excited about things that she can achieve without anyone's help. So she’s put herself in a box her whole life where she doesn't feel the need to have a social life. And I think that is a huge piece missing from her happiness, but she doesn't know that's missing.
I think the thing that draws her to programming and coding is that it's clear. “Input this and get this out.” With human interaction, that's not the way it works, so it scares her and frustrates her. As a result, she gets defensive, and that makes her harder to be around. A lot of the response I see [from fans] is like, “Why is she always angry?” Because she's terrified she is the one that doesn't know what's going on in any given social situation. And she's like, “Well, I can take control back if I'm the one being the bully.”
How much of yourself would you say exists in Poppy Li?
I'm an extrovert. I love being around people. I feel confident in spaces around people. But there are other areas of my life where I do not feel that way, where I feel deeply insecure, and terrified people are going to find out how bad I am at it. That affects the way that I move through spaces. I think Poppy feels that confidence in her work. When she's doing her work, she's in this utopia where everything works the way it's meant to. She's her best self in front of a computer. In social situations, she feels insecure, and that’s when all the spikiness comes out. I relate to that. I think anyone can. When you're forced into a situation where you feel deeply insecure, you are never going to be your best self. When I'm worried someone's gonna find me out as being fraudulent or stupid, I immediately become the worst version of myself.
We see Poppy’s origin story in Episode 7. You didn’t film all of it, but what does exploring Poppy’s backstory mean to you?
I'm so excited. The writers were respectful of my input, in terms of what Poppy’s life would have looked like. They’re telling the story of a little girl who has a Filipino dad and a white Australian mother, growing up in Melbourne in the ‘90s, which is my story. It probably feels very specific for an international audience. For me, it feels normal. But I know I've never seen it on television or in film before.
They allowed me into the casting process, letting me know who was being cast and how this family was coming together. Coincidentally, one of my best friends in the world got cast as Poppy’s mom. The actor who plays Poppy’s dad is like Filipino royalty in the entertainment industry. (Editor’s note: The actor is Dionysio Basco, brother of actor Dante Basco.)
I got to meet Isla Hall who plays young Poppy. We had a Zoom meeting while she was working on her accent. She’s not Australian, and her accent is better than mine. We talked about the character. She’s so switched on. The day I filmed my scene for the episode, it was the first thing scheduled. The rest of the day they were filming stuff with young Poppy and her family. I stayed on set because I was so enjoying watching her work. It was cool to see this family that looked like mine. They were like, “Charlotte, you can go home.” And I was like, “I’m not leaving.”
Funny enough, right before “Sarian” is the Christmas episode, “The 12 Hours of Christmas” where Poppy alludes to being left out of her family’s plans. Given we get a glimpse of Poppy’s home life, what do you think happened to Poppy and her family?
I haven't had conversations with the writers about that. I only have my assumptions. You see in that flashback episode Poppy is really driven by enthusiasm for things she loves. She has tunnel vision. There's an element of, “That’s cute,” like the enthusiasm is adorable. But you can see her dismissing anything that isn't her thing. I can see that as she gets older, as she gets told frequently she's a genius, she pushes everyone away. I always sort of pictured Poppy as having skipped grades in school, always younger than the kids around her. “Okay, well, no one gets me.” I think she has a lovely family that probably does care about her, but at some point have gotten fed up with her being a bit of an asshole.
You became an actor after you didn’t land the audition for a role you wanted. What do you remember about the “eureka” moment that led you to pursue acting?
My dad is an actor, he was one of the first Asian actors on Australian television. The opportunities he had throughout the ‘90s when I was growing up, were representative of the opportunities for actors of color in Australia. So I never considered acting as your career. Because for actors that looked like us, it wasn’t. I studied music seriously.
An audition came up for — I can't even remember the show, but it was based on a book. This character had been written as an Asian Australian young woman. Something about that got me. I was so used to auditioning for roles that were supporting the white protagonist’s journey. This one came up and I was like, “Wow, this could be me. This is a lead character. This is me.” I got far along in the process, met the director, got all the scripts. I thought it was mine. I didn’t get it.
I cringe thinking about this now, but for two weeks I remember waking up crying, being so sad I didn’t get the opportunity. And at the end of those couple of weeks, I was like, “I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed about anything in my life. I guess I want to be an actor.” I had allowed myself to go down that path, and when the path was cut off, I realized I wanted it.
You’ve once called Poppy Li a dream role. Is that still true three seasons later?
She has become more of a dream the longer I play her. This was the first time I was given the opportunity to be a protagonist. That was huge for me. I am so grateful to Ron McElhenney and Megan Ganz, they took a punt on me and I'll always be grateful. Before I got Mythic Quest, the pinnacle of my career I could imagine was a show like Mythic Quest. Being on Mythic Quest has enabled me to dream, like, “What else? How much further can we go?”
When I signed on, I thought this would be a purely comedic role. But Poppy plays with more dramatic beats than I predicted. I’m grateful to the creators and writers for having faith in me to depict those stories. It’s one of the most exciting parts of my job.
Poppy is an unapologetically Asian Australian woman but she’s not “The Asian Girl” in Mythic Quest. What does that representation mean for you?
I'm so proud of our show. I remember the first table read and seeing Ashly Burch, who's half-Thai, and Danny Pudi who’s half-Indian, and realizing nobody had to be the token Asian. Which I think is a big part of what moving forward, in terms of inclusivity, looks like. It is not just speaking Asian performers. Once you stop making it so there's the one person in the cast [who has to] represent everything, the opportunity to tell more interesting, more nuanced stories presents itself. The fact she's Australian has informed the story, that she's Filipina has informed the story. Sometimes in my life being Filipina or Australian informs who I am, but it’s not the only thing I am.
You’ve said before you weren’t into gaming prior to Mythic Quest. What has the show informed you about the ongoing difficult working conditions of video game studios?
It’s definitely opened my eyes to that side of the industry. One thing we kind of laugh about — but it's kind of tragic — [is that] we get a lot of messages from people in the gaming industry saying, “I love Mythic Quest. That's exactly what my office is like.” And we're like, “It shouldn’t be! No one should be working in an environment like [the one in] Mythic Quest.
I'm not in that industry so I don't feel like I can speak on it with authority. But I do think that, similar to a lot of industries, there's changes going on with people deciding what is and isn’t worth the final product. I think Mythic Quest is really about that dichotomy of artists working in this commercial space, making art for profit. The television industry is similar. I think the art industry is similar. It presents all these moral quandaries I wouldn’t presume to have the answers to, but the show is trying to pose those questions.
What does love look like to Poppy Li?
I think she's figuring it out. In her mind, love is a transactional thing. She thinks love is something that you give or get in return for something else. She is now discovering that maybe it's something you just feel for someone and you can't help it. And I'm really interested to see how that discovery might evolve in Season 4.
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