For Charlotte Nicdao, 'Mythic Quest' Is Family
The close-knit environment of Apple TV's 'Mythic Quest' has given Nicdao a place to shine as the "bad feminist" Poppy Li.
In one of the most affecting pieces of COVID-inspired entertainment from last year, Mythic Quest star Charlotte Nicdao stares out from a computer as her character Poppy Li, a talented, ambitious, enthusiastic, sometimes immature programmer on a medieval role playing video game. The Apple TV show's quarantine episode, orchestrated by the cast and crew after production on their second season was shut down, is perhaps one of the most accurate portraits of the isolation of that period, and Nicdao carries it on her shoulders, embodying extreme loneliness.
Now, a week away from Mythic Quest's second season finale airing, Nicdao stares out at me from another computer screen. She's in hotel quarantine in her native Australia where she has returned to reunite with her husband and her Great Dane after doing press in Los Angeles. Behind her are Post-its counting down her days left in solitude. She turns her computer around to show me the Sydney Harbour Bridge from her window. At least she has a view.
For years, Nicdao had established a niche doing American productions that shot in Australia. You can glimpse her for a quick second in Thor: Ragnarok. (On set, she mostly talked with Sam Neill about "farming and bird conservation.") She'd travel out to Los Angeles occasionally to try to break through in American productions made in America, when finally Mythic Quest came along.
Nicdao initially wasn't what creators Rob McEhlenney, who also stars as the pompous game creator Ian Grimm, his It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-star Charlie Day, and former Community writer Megan Ganz were looking for with Poppy Li. She was most frequently cast as the "sweet sidekick," which wasn't at all what they had in mind. The character, a foil to Ian, was written older, with a distinctly vicious edge. But Nicdao was drawn to her, and McEhlenney gave her a shot.
"Look, I'm not going to say we're pioneers in depicting complex female characters. We're not," Nicdao says. "That's been happening for a long time now, which is really great. But something that I think we don't get the opportunity to see a lot is the flawed role model. The idea of a woman who's succeeding, that in some cases maybe shouldn't be, has got a lot of growing still to do, that we're not looking at purely as an aspirational character."
Poppy starts the series as an underdog battling against Ian's unconquerable ego. By the end of the first season, he makes her his co-creative director, which unleashes her own power trip. Poppy is, frankly, a terrible boss. She's a delight to watch, but is also a woman who has not figured out how to achieve her goals without stomping on others. She tries to do "girl talk" with her fellow female employees, but threatens to fire them if they reveal her secrets. She farts during a Women in Gaming speech.
Nicdao relished the opportunity to be a "bad feminist." "I've been calling myself a feminist since I was a teenager. I care very deeply about issues like representation and inclusion," she says. "I'm constantly thinking about how I'm speaking, making sure that I'm not hurting anybody with my words, making sure that I'm thinking about my privilege. I'm very conscious of these things, and, honestly, I think that's a good way to be. Poppy doesn't give a shit. Poppy's out there for herself. And she is marginalized in many ways, but I think she wields that like a weapon more than anything."
Though Mythic Quest is about a high-stress, highly combative workplace, with Poppy often an instigator, Nicdao is effusive about her coworkers who have become like family to her. She was messaging with the other female leads—Ashly Burch, Imani Hakim, and Jessie Ennis—right before she got on our Zoom. They formed an instant bond after they went out for dinner following their first costume fitting, and hit it off so well that Nicdao immediately suggested they all go to a Korean spa.
"Everyone was like, 'We just met, I don't think we're ready to be naked around each other yet,'" she remembers. They did eventually go. Multiple times. Now, they are the hosts of a podcast called Questie Besties, alongside fellow actor and executive producer David Hornsby. Nicdao composed and performed the adorable theme song. Musical talent orbits Nicdao: Her husband Bayden Hine—with whom she used to run a plant business in Australia as the "ultimate hipster couple"—wrote the tune that closes Mythic Quest's special episode "Everlight." She was worried that suggesting his work to McEhlenney would sound "nepotistic," but Hine is just one of the cast members' partners to get involved in the series; Burch and Hakim's partners have roles on the show, and Ennis' fiancé is on the camera crew. When you're on Mythic Quest, you're family.
The day before we talked (it's Friday afternoon for me and Saturday morning for her), Nicdao had watched the second season's penultimate episode on Zoom with her mother and father, the actor Alfred Nicdao, one of the first Asian actors ever on Australian television, she tells me. In the final scene, Poppy serenades Ian who has been hospitalized after a bout of dehydration. (He initially told her it was a heart attack.) The two collaborators finally open up to one another instead of bitterly competing. McElhenney had asked Nicdao to come up with a song for Poppy to sing and she chose a Filipino lullaby.
"We hadn't really established yet that Poppy is Filipina, but they never said to me like, 'Oh, well, you have to be Chinese or you have to be Vietnamese,' which is often what happens when you're an Asian performer. You just get put in a box of what people think that you should be," Nicdao explains. "But they were always very open to me being the ethnicity that I am, which is Filipina-Australian."
Nicdao was training to be a concert clarinetist when she dropped out of music school to pursue acting. Her father was supportive but cautioned her not to get her hopes up. "He sat me down and said if you want to do this you have to go into it knowing it's not going to be glamorous," she remembers. "You're not going to be booking lead roles. We don't get those sorts of roles. Go into it with open eyes, go into it because you love it. And don't have big, crazy expectations of where your career is going to go."
In classic Ian and Poppy fashion, the sweet moment is ruined when Ian asks her to instead sing something in English—a moment McElhenney improvised—but the experience was still meaningful for both Nicdao and her dad. "And when I sang that Filipino lullaby, he cried and he messaged me this morning," she says. "And he was just like, I just want to tell you, I'm so proud of you. And I'm so proud of the way that you're representing the Filipino community. And it's really special."
In the Season 2 finale, Ian and Poppy decide to quit working on Mythic Quest to start an entirely new game based on her idea. The show has not been renewed for a third season yet, but the ending promises to rewrite the series' central premise and focus even more on Poppy.
"When I read the end of that episode, I responded the way I imagine a lot of the audience will respond," Nicdao says. "I freaked out and I was like, 'What does this mean? What are you doing?'" Not that Mythic Quest hasn't been doing that in small ways all along, from the highly praised 1990s-set standalone half hour in Season 1 to the quarantine experiment. "I think that each season Poppy is learning a new skill for her tool belt," Nicdao explains. "So Season 1, she's learning how to have confidence in her ideas. Season 2, she's learning how to be a leader. And I think if we get to keep going, I hope that in future seasons she continues to add different things to her tool belt. I think that she still needs to learn how to be a good partner. I think that she probably still needs to learn how to be a good person."
Even if for some reason Mythic Quest is not renewed for another season, Nicdao expects she has made friends for life. "I just know that regardless of whether we keep going, these people are never going to get rid of me," she says. "I've fallen in love with every single one of them, and whether we make a Season 3 or not, I'm going to be knocking on their doors every time I'm in LA."