A Letter To My Future Self: Chase Sui Wonders On Finding Her Voice
In this series of Incredible Women essays, inspiring voices making a mark on the world share a letter to themselves in the future. This time, Chase Sui Wonders – who has risen through the acting ranks via HBO Max dramedy Generation, satirical horror Bodies Bodies Bodies, and now Apple TV+’s City on Fire – writes about her experience with selective mutism in childhood and how her love of movies helped her to break free from it
Dear future Chase,
Remember those first 10 years of life you spent with low-grade mutism? Think back: you speak to your mom, your brothers and your sister inside the confines of home, but as soon as you step foot outside, a zipper goes over your mouth. Your mom runs into a friend at the grocery store – she asks you how old you are. You can’t say. You wait in line to see Santa at the mall, he asks what you want for Christmas. You just sit in his lap and blink. An older kid asks if he can play with you at recess and you can’t find the words to tell him that sounds like fun.
Your mom is starting to get worried, so she takes you to audition for The Wizard of Oz at the local community theater. You practice all week, and even braid your hair like Dorothy. You think you’re ready to talk but, when you get there, the people at the head of the audition room look like aliens and the floor feels like lava. They ask if you’ve prepared anything (you have), but you just stare at them. A nice man behind the piano suggests you just sing Happy Birthday. Easy enough. Until he starts playing the chords. Everything feels impossible, so you grab the audition chair, march it to the back corner of the room and sit there, facing the wall, until this horrible shame-fest is over.
You’re not sure why you don’t like to speak. Maybe it’s because it seems like everything is a test, with answers you can’t erase. You want to speak to people, but it just seems like there must be a better way of getting your feelings across than the normal way people go about it – osmosis or telepathy or something.
With Hans Gruber and Inspector Clouseau as your shield, you slowly work your way to having full conversations with people and, sometimes, even making friends with them”
So instead of speaking, you watch movies. You watch movies like Austin Powers and Die Hard and Rush Hour, over and over again, quoting Jackie Chan and Fat Bastard nonstop until these words feel like your own. You make yourself laugh with these impressions, then you make your nuclear family laugh, then you make a few kids at school laugh, and next thing you know – boom! – you’re speaking in full sentences, telling stories and making eye contact. With Hans Gruber and Inspector Clouseau as your shield, you slowly work your way to having full conversations with people and, sometimes, even making friends with them.
Now, you’re not only meeting your heroes, you’ve actually worked with some of them. You brought a form of the introversion you had as a kid to your character Riley in Generation, and Emma in Bodies Bodies Bodies. And you still can’t stop quoting characters. You were on the set of City of Fire with Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, where you got to quote Seth Cohen to the people who created Seth Cohen. You’re writing projects of your own, flanked by brilliant creative collaborators and friends, making up for all those years spent saying nothing as you talk with them about complex character arcs for hours on end.
Flash-forward to where you are in the future, and hopefully you’re still engaging in a healthy amount of human interaction, looking back fondly at your much younger self and remembering your brief stint with mutism. I hope you’re still telling stories about people on the fringes, about outsiders and misanthropes.
And who knows? Maybe some little girl somewhere is quoting one of your characters on the cusp of breaking out of her own mutism.
City on Fire is on Apple TV+ from May 12
A letter to my future self: climate activist and visual storyteller Aditi Mayer
A letter to my future self: actor and advocate Madison Tevlin