Plus, her take on Broadway's re-opening this fall.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 11, 2021 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Most of the country knows what Phillipa Soo's voice sounds like - they've heard it bringing inimitable life to Eliza Hamilton on the Hamilton soundtrack.

But now Soo is putting her vocal talents to a new challenge, narrating Audible Original The Stand-In, a romance novel by Lily Chu.

The novel, which hits Audible July 15, follows Chinese-Canadian woman Gracie, who is mistaken by paparazzi for a famous Chinese actress in town performing in a play. The actress then hires Gracie to be her double at public events, attending alongside her costar and rumored real-life love interest. Everything goes smoothly until sparks fly between Gracie and the leading man.

EW can debut an exclusive excerpt from the book, as well as the cover art. We also talked to Soo about her experiences recording this during the pandemic, what drew her to the story, and what situations she wished she had a stand-in for in her own life. Read more after the cover.

The Stand In by Lily Chu
Credit: Audible

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've done smaller entries in audiobooks before, but this is your first full-on novel - what made you want to dip into this world?

PHILLIPA SOO: I've always really enjoyed doing vocal voice work. What's so great about going into a recording studio and being able to do something like an audiobook, is you really get to apply a lot of the technical aspects, as well as the fun, creative aspects of the work. It really is all on me. I get to play every character. I get to try and come up with the voice for this very particular character and she's also the narrator. I was so drawn to the story and the premise of it. I was just immediately drawn into the humor, and I really connected to the character of Gracie, for a myriad of reasons. Ultimately, having read the book before recording it, I was so excited to get to explore the text and put it in my own voice.

How does doing narration like this differ from say making a Broadway cast recording?

My experience was very different because it was also during the pandemic. It was really just me in there in the booth. I had on the phone, or through my headphones, the director and the audio engineer and just started reading. I hadn't really done it before out loud. I had practiced some things on my own, but really it was just about like getting it out there and getting it down. Whereas a recording of a musical is very much something that you've rehearsed and practiced and you've done live, and you're getting it on a recording. Working on an album was a couple of days, whereas this definitely took a week-long chunk of time.

How did you prep? Was it similar to the scansion of Shakespeare text or the way you might attack a musical score?

It's a combination of some technical elements - making sure that I'm pronouncing names correctly. In this particular story I do speak some Chinese, and I, Phillippa Soo, do not speak Chinese in my own life. I have family members who do. Having the guidance of the director and the guidance of some of my own family members who do speak the language was really helpful because I was able to listen to samples to try and wrap that around in my own mouth. Then there's another level of just trying to get into the mind of all these characters. Because I'm voicing not only the character of Gracie, but I'm also voicing all of the other characters as well. That means keeping track of how different each character is and what is it about my voice that I'm making this character sound like versus this other character. Once you get all that stuff done, you can really explore and have fun and get to live in the story and live in this audio experience of the story.

How did you find the right voice and approach for each character? Did you have a favorite one to do?

It started with a lot of daydreaming. I read the whole book before I recorded it. Part of my process is about spending time thinking about who these people are and what their wants and their desires are and what that might say about how they sound or how they might say something. Especially since this is an audio experience, it was really important to me that the choice I was making for each character - the way they sounded, how they delivered their lines - was because of something about their character or who they were or what they were trying to get from the other person in that moment. I had a lot of fun differentiating all of those characters, especially the ones that were slightly different from each other and had to end up talking to each other at certain moments. I did a couple of accents in this one. My favorite character was playing Gracie, who is also the narrator of the story. I feel like I got to know her the best. Just because I was not only inside of her story, but inside her mind and how she was experiencing this story. Getting to know her through that and just being so charmed by how funny and witty and interesting she is. If she were a real person, I would totally want to hang out with her.

The story shares some ties with your life in that it's about a bi-racial Chinese actress and her double. Is that what attracted you to it? Did you find many parallels to your own life?

I was so profoundly moved by the fact that I was getting to play this very specifically bi-racial, Chinese, and white character. There's something specific to my own experience and specific to Gracie's own experience that I really connected with being bi-racial and feeling like you are a part of two worlds, and at the same time, in your own world and not feeling a part of either. The complicated nature of what that means and how you identify yourself when you're living in two different worlds. Aside from all that, she's just a modern woman who is trying to figure out who she is in the world. And I definitely relate to that. I am second generation whereas Gracie is first generation, but I think that there is something there to feeling a disconnect to your ancestry because it's different from what you experienced. There's a level of digging that you have to do to find out where you came from and how that all happened and really appreciating that and exploring that and being excited to dig deeper into your own history.

What were your on thoughts about what the story has to say about the intersection of being the child of immigrants and the pitfalls of fame?

I thought it was beautifully depicted. There's a lot of nuances with the immigrant experience. It's not one thing for every person. There's a lot of common shared experiences, but there's also a lot of different experiences within that. Especially with something like the language barrier and speaking Chinese. Gracie is able to speak Chinese and understand Chinese to a certain extent, but she's not fluent and feeling like that somehow might make her less Chinese is definitely something that I have experienced in my life. Ultimately, there's a level of appreciation for one's upbringing and one's ancestry, and also an appreciation for one's own personal experience, and how that's different from where you might have come from or where your family has come from, and understanding that there's no lesser or greater value. It's just your own experience. I really appreciated Gracie's own struggle to understand who she is and where she fits. And that, she doesn't necessarily get all of her lists checked or all of her questions answered, but she certainly goes through a journey and discovers a lot about herself as a person through that.

Romances come with love scenes built-in. How did this compare to acting a romantic scene on stage or screen? Does it feel more intimate since you have to convey it purely through voice and not physical staging?

There are two elements to it. One is there's a freedom because it's just me and I can try things and figure things out as I'm in the recording booth, to really convey a romantic moment in a story. When you're on a set, you're working with an acting partner and that has to be a conversation. The downside is that you're alone, having to do a romantic scene recording something in my closet during a pandemic, and not having any scene partner to feed off. But, that's the magic of the storytelling right? My goal is to make it feel just as exciting and intimate and beautiful and romantic, even when it's just me, but that's a lot to do with the imagination and as the listener letting yourself be immersed.

Would you ever want a stand-in like Gracie is in this story? What events would you most want to have them attend?

Oh my god. If I had to hire a stand-in for me, it would be someone to go to the DMV for me. That's something I don't enjoy doing. I have to get my license renewed, and wouldn't it be great to have a stand-in go for me to go to the DMV and take care of that? But other than stuff like that, I feel grateful that I don't feel like I need a stand-in. There are definitely those everyday things I wish I just had somebody who looked exactly like me to go and do.

Broadway is re-opening this fall. Can we expect to see you back on stage soon?

I don't have anything necessarily planned, but I'm definitely excited to get back into that world and start collaborating with people again, start developing things again. I was developing a couple of things before the pandemic hit. I'm really excited to get back into a rehearsal room and look people in the eye and share snacks with people. Ultimately, it's going to be a very joyous, wonderful, and emotional experience. We've learned so much in this past year. As we slowly come back, we're really going to be asking ourselves some hard questions about what's the kind of theater that we want to make and we want to see and how is it going to be different after all that we've learned? Because it's definitely not going to be the same. I'm really excited to see what is going to come of that and advocate for all of this new and exciting work that is being done. That takes risks, that asks hard questions, that gives people joy, that makes people feel, that brings people together. I just want people to have those beautiful aesthetic experiences again and to remember why things like the arts, things like going to see a play or reading or listening to a novel are so important because it's to help us sharpen our toolkit of how to be an empathetic person.

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