‘Legion’ Newcomer Lauren Tsai on Rewriting History as FX Drama’s New Time-Traveling Mutant

“I wanted to keep trying things that would push me, and that I was genuinely passionate about but too afraid to do before,” Tsai tells TheWrap

In the few short years since breaking out as a fan favorite on the massively popular Japanese reality series “Terrace House,” Lauren Tsai has leveraged her impressively broad skillset to rewrite what audiences may have come to expect of a post-reality TV career.

Tsai’s latest turn, a starring role on the third and final season of the FX-Marvel drama “Legion” as the time-traveling mutant Switch, follows on a successful modeling career in Tokyo, illustration gigs for brands like Marvel and “Mortal Kombat” and a design collaboration with Marc Jacobs.

That breadth of work is reflective of the 21-year-old’s vast ambition, an omnivorous desire to try her hand at as many things and pursue as many opportunities as possible that’s served as her animating ethos even before “Terrace House.”

“I had already decided I was going to move to Tokyo and take a gap year before I figured anything else out, and promised myself that in that time I was going to take every crazy opportunity and really push myself to go beyond my comfort zone,” Tsai said in an interview with TheWrap, describing her decision to sign herself up for the scrutiny of reality television. A seemingly mundane scene of Tsai sketching at the kitchen table in an early “Terrace House” episode marked the first time the artist had shared her work publicly.

“It changed so much for me in terms of how I felt about putting myself out there,” she said. “I became more confident in the face of criticism, and really learned to trust more in myself through being on that show. So, yeah, it was a wonderful, really wonderful time for me.”

Suzanne Tenner/FX

Lauren Tsai as Switch. (Suzanne Tenner/FX)

Tsai was one of the first to leave “Terrace House” that season, relocating from Hawaii to Tokyo, where her career as a model and artist continued to blossom. “That was a time when I was really dedicating myself to opening myself up and being more real,” Tsai said. “I wanted to keep trying things that would push me and things I was genuinely passionate about but too afraid to do before. So when the audition for “Legion”came through from agents here in L.A., I just went for it.”

Her character, Switch, is a new creation for Noah Hawley’s take on the Marvel Comics franchise. In the Season 3 premiere, the audience follows along as Switch loops backward and zips forward through time over and over again, rewriting the lives and fates of the show’s main characters until she gets her desired outcome, not entirely unlike the way Tsai herself zips between jobs and industries, stubbornly refusing to let her career be defined by one linear path.

“She’s bringing this whole other aspect to the show that’s going to bring out different sides to the other characters that we’ve never seen before,” Tsai said. “And even though she has this ability, she’s someone who’s still very much searching for herself, her own place in the world as a human, emotionally.”

“She has this power to change to everything but she’s still very vulnerable,” she said.

Read TheWrap’s full interview with Tsai below.

Lauren Tsai Legion

Pari Dukovic/FX

TheWrap: I think most people know you from “Terrace House,” and that show seems to have opened up a lot of doors for you career-wise. So can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like? What made you want to do the show?

Lauren Tsai: I did that when I was 18, so about three years ago now, wow. But it was a big leap for me. I wasn’t aware that it was the show, but I found the application on Facebook, and applied to it my senior year of high school, around when I was wrapping up everything and kind of finding out what I was going to do with my life. I had already decided I was going to move to Tokyo and take a gap year before I figured anything else out, and promised myself that in that time I was going to take every crazy opportunity and really push myself to go beyond my comfort zone. So it felt like the perfect opportunity. I was there for five months, and it changed so much for me in terms of how I felt about putting myself out there. I became more confident in the face of criticism, and really learned to trust more in myself through being on that show. So yeah it was a wonderful, really wonderful time for me.

You’re pretty savvy with social media and seem really comfortable having an online presence. And you came through this reality show where you are very much open for public consumption. Has that kind of changed how you think about your career as an artist?

I mean, it was definitely hard. Art is truly the constant in my life ever since I was a child. That’s how I really expressed things and how I discovered things about myself and things that I felt in my life. Growing up, it was always something so personal to me and something I felt afraid of sharing. But that’s like being genuine with anything, because when you put something out there that’s truly coming from your heart, criticism of that is something that really does get to you, or it can get to you if you’re in that mindset.

So I think for me, being on “Terrace House,” that was kind of the first time that I really put my artwork out there, and that was when I realized that I craved to be– craved to have my work shown, actually. I thought for such a long time growing up that my work was something that satisfied something for me, and would only satisfy something for myself, but now I’m finding that if I’m putting my work out there from this whole other level of being able to connect to people — not just those around me immediately, but to people that I will probably never meet in this lifetime. And I think that feeling of truly just spreading my arms to the world in the realest way I can, I think that’s something that, that’s the feeling I hope that I can keep chasing for the rest of my career. So, being on the show really made me completely realize that art is what I want to do forever.

Terrace House Aloha State

Tsai with the cast of “Terrace House: Aloha State.” (Netflix)

So how was it that you come to acting?

Acting was something that I was really interested in when I was younger, like in middle school, elementary school. But I kind of talked myself out of it for a while because I told myself, I’m not like the actresses or the theater girls at school, or I’m not like this, or I’m not like that. I was really just scared of being judged by people for a long time, whether it was my artwork or a funny joke I wanted to tell, but was too afraid it wouldn’t be funny so I just didn’t talk to anyone. But after “Terrace House” when I was living in Japan, and I was doing a lot more with my artwork — I did the collaboration with Marc Jacobs, I did some work for Starbucks Japan and I started doing some covers for Marvel — that was a time when I was really dedicating myself to opening myself up and being more real. So I wanted to keep trying things that would push me and things I was genuinely passionate about but too afraid to do before. So when the audition for “Legion”came through from agents here in L.A., I just went for it.

Do you feel like acting challenges you in a different way, or engages your brain differently than something like your art, which is so personal and really comes from you, as opposed to playing this other character?

You know, it’s interesting because the only experience I have in acting so far is with this character, but playing this character really brought up a lot of things from my past that I was able to relate to. So it tapped into the same place that art does for me.

Oh, interesting.

Because portraying this character, I was able to go back to certain feelings and certain memories and really process them and begin to understand them the same way that I do when I’m drawing. Because when I’m drawing, no matter what it is, to get myself into the flow I really do have to cut into some place of my heart that feels that’s going to start the engine. It’s the emotional push, that jolt, and I think with acting, through doing other auditions and things, I’ve been able to explore sides of myself that don’t feel like me at all, and really get into the performing aspect of it. But some part of playing this role is almost therapeutic for me. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it felt like creating from my experience.

When you read the character, or when you read the script, what jumped out at you about her? What was it about her that you really keyed in on?

Well, when I first got the audition, it was just the side and a little bit of a background description. But when I got episode one, I was so excited because it’s an episode where we really do get to have a very solid introduction to the character. For me what jumped out was that she’s a character who’s bringing something to the show that could change everything that’s happened up until this point in the show. She’s bringing this whole other aspect to the show that’s going to bring out different sides to the other characters that we’ve never seen before. And even though she has this ability, she’s someone who’s still very much searching for herself, like her own place in the world as a human, emotionally. That’s the most interesting thing for me. She has this power to change to everything but she’s still very vulnerable.

Legion

Aubrey Plaza as Lenny and Lauren Tsai as Switch. (Suzanne Tenner/FX)

Were you a fan of the show coming in, or comics more generally? Because I know you’ve done those Marvel covers. Are you a big comic book person?

I was actually a big fan of like Japanese comics growing up. I had never been a huge fan of American comics, just because I’d never really been exposed to them when I was younger. But I definitely was a fan of all the Marvel movies and stuff, and then once I started doing more work for Marvel, I started really diving more into that world, which I love so much now. And with “Legion,” I had heard of the show before but I hadn’t watched it until after I got the part, that’s when I binged both seasons and became huge fan of the show. Even if I wasn’t involved with it. I think I’d be talking about it non-stop. It is such a special show on TV, and the way that Noah Hawley has expanded this superhero genre, I think it’s going to inspire a lot of people to play and see how far they can push things with their storytelling.

In that first episode, she’s such a point of view character, you really do follow her through all of these different timelines. Was that kind of intimidating to take it on as your first episode? Where you kind of have basically the entire episode riding on your character and you have all of these different strings to keep track of?

Yeah, I was terrified at first. I mean, not terrified, more nervous in a good way, definitely. But the team was so incredible and so warm and so supportive of me going on this journey with them. Because I think the beautiful thing about “Legion,” too, is that it’s truly a journey for the viewers, but also a journey for everyone on the team bringing these characters to life. Really, when we got on set, we were able to play and experiment and relish in the possibility of each day. So I think for me, having such a large chunk of the episode be riding on my character’s shoulders, I was definitely nervous, but it was something that I was able to take day by day. And working with the team I never felt overwhelmed by any of it. I’ve never been able to get out of bed so easily every day. I was truly excited to be there.

Legion

Rachel Keller as Syd Barrett. (Suzanne Tenner/FX)

It’s interesting because she just kind of happens upon this group. She sees this flyer and she’s like, “Okay, I’m going to see where this takes me.” I guess without asking you to spoil too much, what is it about her that she’s like so willing to go off on this crazy journey without giving it much thought?

I think that Switch growing up, and for her whole life, she never truly felt like she’s been able to connect to the people around her. Whether it’s the people in her family or anyone else. Immediately in episode one, we see that her and her dad are very, extremely distant, and she craves that validation from him. And in school and on the streets, she doesn’t feel like she’s anyone. So she really does live in her head through this ability to time travel. I think she identifies so much with being the other, that in the real world she’s kind of given up on connecting with the people around her. So when she finds this flyer looking for someone with her abilities specifically, this thing that she thought was going to keep her distant from people her whole life, that for her was probably the first time she felt special in a good way and felt a sense of purpose in life. And then meeting David, she finally finds that validation that she’s looking for and instantly grabs on to it.

Just in a purely technical sense, there’s a lot happening in this episode. I’m thinking of that Superorganism sequence where you crawl through the tunnel and it’s basically a music video.

Oh yes. Yes.

Was it difficult to get into it those kinds of moments, when there’s so much happening and a lot of it is you kind of have to envision as you’re doing it?

I think in focusing in any creative project, you really have to teach yourself to block out the noise and focus in on the part you want to play, whether it’s acting or an art project. But I think that I was really able to convince myself that was real, in the moment. But that Superorganism scene was so fun to shoot because the director of episode one, Andrew Stanton, he’s an absolute joy to work with. He’s like one of my icons growing up. But in playing this character you have to kind of go on this crazy journey with the audience in the world that David’s created. I definitely had to cut myself off from all distraction for a while, so I was really trying to be off my phone, off of worrying about anything else and living in that moment.

Legion

Dan Stevens as David Haller. (Suzanne Tenner/FX)

I’m not sure how much formal acting training you have but, as a newbie, did you find yourself turning to the other cast members and asking them for advice?

Yeah, I actually have no acting lessons at all, except like a couple YouTube videos and like a trailer for a master class on Instagram. It was actually really helpful, even just the trailer was helpful. But, I learned so much from the people I was working with because they were all so inviting. And Dan [Stevens] was the first person I worked with on my first day. We shot that scene where we’re in my house and he says, “Open your eyes,” and I’m back in my bedroom. I remember everyone being so kind toward me and being so open to my questions. They really did give me advice that helped me a lot throughout the show. Navid [Negahban] and Dan definitely, those were the two people who really helped me a ton. I got to ask Dan — because I truly think Dan is just the most incredible actor ever — I was able to ask him questions about how he taps into these emotions so quickly. So it was a great time to learn from them.

Was there a piece of advice that you found especially helpful?

There was a lot of technical advice, but in the moment they helped me so much to get into character and I think that just simply acting with them and letting them take lead on a lot of scenes was really helpful. But Navid would give me a lot of advice for like technical things about acting. Like when you’re looking at someone who’s close to the camera, look into the eye that’s closer to the camera because that’ll look better. There’s like a bunch of little things like that that were super helpful.

Now that you have this show under your belt, is acting something that you are looking to pursue further?

Yes, absolutely. This experience for me was incredible, and I want to keep exploring it and getting better and seeing what opportunities come in the future.

Lauren Tsai Legion

Pari Dukovic/FX

“Legion” airs Mondays at 10/9c on FX.

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