Geek Girl: Sandra Yi Sencindiver On Becoming Yuji Lee

By Olivia Emily

3 weeks ago

How to become a fashionista


Everyone was watching Geek Girl last month, with Emily Carey starring in the titular role as Harriet Manners, a teen turned model. One scene stealer is eccentric fashion designer Yuji Lee, played by Korean-American-Danish star Sandra Yi Sencindiver. We sat down with Sandra to get the intel on Yuji, plus what we can expect from the upcoming Alien TV series.

Interview: Sandra Yi Sencindiver

Sandra Yi Sencindiver

© Ian Lim

Hi Sandra, how’s life going at the moment?

Life is sweet, thank you for asking. Things are crazy right now – and, at the same time, very enjoyable. I recently returned from Bangkok where I have been shooting Alien. I have been catching up with WIFT Denmark (Women in Film and TV) where I was reelected co-chair. I attended the opening of a huge immersive exhibition at The National Museum of Denmark, The Viking Sorceress, as I have given my voice to the sorceress (Vølven). Geek Girl is among the top 10 most seen TV series right now worldwide and my short film Seeking Hwa Sun was shortlisted and in the running for a Robert nomination (equivalent the British Baftas). So, to quote a Danish expression, I feel like the yolk in an egg – which means I am truly blessed!

You’ve just starred in Geek Girl. Can you give us an elevator pitch for the show?

A neurodivergent teenager who is bullied at school stumbles into the crazy world of fashion and sets out to become the next it model. She meets love, friendship, intrigue and finds herself along the way.

You play Yuji Lee – can you describe her?

QUEEN MOTHER. HA! Yuji is a high fashion designer. A perfectionistic artist who lives for her art and always strives for the divine. She can come off quite demanding and eccentric but she is really just ultra-focused and maybe not as cold as she seems.

What was it like playing her?

It was a lot of fun. Because she is larger than life, she can come off as a diva and has odd quirks and lacks social grace. My co-stars and the director Declan gave me space and support to make her an elevated character. And as an actor, you always try and find the balance between making fun of your character and having fun with your character. So I took a lot of care to make her a living breathing human being. I thoroughly enjoyed being Yuji Lee who really demands space, time and attention.

How did you prepare for the role?

It always starts on the page. I read the script meticulously, draw out every detail the writers have put to the page and learn every little bit about my character and her relation to the other characters. And then I think and play around with the character’s physicality, I try to discover what it is to be in their body, how they move, walk, sit. I ask myself which parts of their body they utilise, which parts are stiff or suppressed? And the voice, how do they speak, what is their pitch? I consider tempo, both physically and in conversation. I made quite a lot of strong choices for Yuji. I love starting in the body because it becomes an immersive mask that informs you of and transforms you to the character. And it comes from another place than the intellect. The intellect is fed by the information on the page, but the body feeds you with instinct and impulse. And when filming, the best of times your instinct can even surprise you. It all becomes alive. Even when your character doesn’t speak. Everyone listens when Yuji speaks, but she is at the same time a woman of few words. So, her physical presence means something.

Any funny stories from rehearsals or filming?

There were quite a lot of fashion icons who appeared in cameos on the show. Amongst them was Tika the Iggy, who is a fashion influencer and an Italian greyhound. The production had made Tika her own craft table with snacks. Where her favorite snack, strawberries, were sliced just so. That cracked me up. There are usually one or two talent on a big scale production who have special demands. I guess Tika was our one diva on this show!

What is the cast dynamic? Who was your favourite person to work with?

I have been lucky to be a part of many cast families who have been absolutely lovely. I still see the lovely ladies of Foundation. But I have to say that this bunch are the sweetest and cutest: very funny and down to earth. I had quite a lot of scenes with Matthew Jordan. He is the loveliest person and such a beautiful soul with beautiful eyes that really connect! We had quite a few little bits where we would choreograph our props (Matthew plays Filip, Yuji’s PA) and that really brought something to the scenes – making their interaction organic, as if they had known each other forever and it also showed Yuji’s eccentricity with subtlety. I only had very few scenes with Hebe Beardsall who plays Betty. But that one scene where Betty greets Yuji before the perfume shoot, Hebe cracked me up. She is great and makes such original, subtle and authentic choices. It was so gooood.

It’s all about the fashion industry. How would you describe your personal style?

Whereas Yuji is always in black and very minimalistic, I am all about color. I love to dress up and I very often overdress. My motto is: eat the cake and wear the dress! I am fond of mixing Danish brands and vintage finds. A have a weakness for chunky 80s jewelry and blazers from old European brands like Guy Laroche, Claude Montana and Ferré. And I swear to slower Danish brands like roccamore, Mr. Larkin and Monies while also a sucker for the more popular trendy Danish brands like Rotate, Ganni and Stine Goya. I want things of good quality, considered design and excellent tailoring.

Sandra in Geek Girl

Sandra Yi Sencindiver as Yuji Lee in Geek Girl. © Netflix

You’ve also got the Alien TV series coming up – can you tell us a bit about that?

Oh, I can’t tell you much. It is all very, very secret. But I assure you, they are ambitious and putting excellent talent, momentous efforts and money into it to give the audience a brilliant series.

You play Yutani – what is she like?

You will have to see, ha ha ha ha! But I can tease and say I found it very interesting figuring out how a woman like that would walk, talk and command a room. 

How did you prepare differently for this role than you did for Geek Girl?

I did prepare differently. But how, you will have to learn later when the show comes out!

What has filming been like?

Intense and hot. Bangkok in spring is no walk in the park.

Any highlights so far?

A highlight of this year has definitely been Geek Girl coming out and becoming such a major success. It is mad how many people have watched it. I think some people presumed that the target audience would ‘only’ be young girls (and I hate how often the value of culture and art is diminished when the target is a female audience). But this show has hit home with a broad demographic globally. I get DMs every day from people of all ages, nationalities and genders from all over the world who love the show. And its organic inclusion of neurodiverse character has meant a great deal for neurodivergent audiences (and there quite a few!). They feel seen, and that is so important – that we make art and tell stories of the human experience that include a wide range of perspectives of what it means to be human. Fun detail: Geek Girl is apparently a very rewatchable show. There are a lot of audiences out there on their third, fourth and for some seventh rewatch! 

What has been your favourite project to date?

I have been so fortunate that these last four years; I have been offered some excellent projects. Which means I have only said ‘yes’ to projects I really wanted to do. And every project I have truly enjoyed and felt was my new favorite!

Any other roles in the pipeline that you’re excited about? (If you’re allowed to tell us!)

If the audiences want it and the broadcasters greenlight them, I will have the privilege of doing some season twos, revisiting some of the amazing characters I have lent my likeness to. And yes, my agent and I are looking into new opportunities to delve into before that happens.

Who has been your favourite actor to work with in the past?

Such a difficult question! I have so many. Well going back to Foundation, I had many scenes with Ella-Rae Smith (Queen Sareth) and Terrence Mann (Dusk). They were both pure joys to work with. Ella-Rae is such a young actress but with an old soul and an amazing screen presence. I was always so impressed with her, how she held a fierce authority in such a huge project with so many experienced actors. Terrence and I felt at ease with each other, so it was so easy to play off and opposite each other. Plus, we both come from the theatre, albeit different theatre backgrounds. He is a megastar and has held every major musical theatre role on Broadway, and I have done the weird, immersive, experimental, independent theatre in Copenhagen. But something about coming from that craft made it very unpretentious to work together.

Sandra Yi Sencindiver and Ella-Rae Smith in Foundation

Sandra Yi Sencindiver and Ella-Rae Smith in Foundation. © Apple TV

Which co-star did you learn the most from?

Actually, the first thing that comes to mind are not from co-stars but from teachers and masterclasses I attended after finishing my classical training. Now this might be too nerdy and not interesting, but here we go. I took a Shakespeare masterclass, taught by voice and speech teacher, Patsy Rodenburg, who had been flown in from London and Shakespeare’s Globe. She emphasized to me to be proud of how prepared I always was and not to shy away from coming into the room as a lead. ‘You must carry and see yourself as a lead or else no one will.’ I took that with me. 

That same year, I took a drag king masterclass where I became very conscious of the way (a lot) of women nod and mirror the person they are talking with. They look at their conversation partner from the front of the eyes where (some) men looked from the back of their head, more observing than meeting the other person’s eyes. That I have found extremely useful and have consciously used that in many roles of high authority. See if you can find it!

What’s your dream role?

On stage, I have always dreamt of doing one of Shakespeare’s gender switching roles like Viola or Rosalind. For the longest time, the staging, casting and costuming of these roles have been done so unconvincingly. It always irritated me because one actor can actually play both genders convincingly. It would be so interesting to work with a director who understands gender fluidity and who would want to play around gender tropes, subversion of gender expectations and expressions. Nowadays, there are so many actors that are capable of just that.

Screen wise, dream roles appear when I audition and self-tape. Sometimes I will receive sides and the text and character will jump off the page. I get a very clear idea of who the person is. And then I self-tape for the role and for a period of time that role becomes my dream role. I imagine working that role on set, building an arch, telling her story. Sometimes that dream comes into fruition, oh joy, and sometimes I have to let it go because they cast somebody else. And hopefully that role is a dream role for her.

What’s a genre you’d like to do more of?

Lately I have been doing a lot of TV: high concept shows, sci-fi, fantasy. Genre strong work with an elevated tone. I love it. But I am also very good at playing in subtle, simmering psychological drama. So, I would love to do more arthouse films. Where you work intensely for six weeks with a small team and cast and one or two storylines. That would be really delicious to delve in to!

Do you get to spend much time at home?

My husband probably would probably say not enough! One of the great things about being abroad doing high profile TV is I can afford to select my projects with care. I can prioritize spending time with my family, or I can take on mentoring, activism, lobby work or collaborate with people with no money, but who have a strong artistic vision. So I am very privileged.

Do you live in the town or the country? Which do you prefer?

Town! I am, through and through a city girl. I spent part of my childhood and adolescence in the country, and I am never going back. Not that I don’t enjoy nature, beaches, mountains and beautiful landscapes but that is for adventure and vacation. My everyday life is the city.

What’s your interior design style?

My husband is Danish and has a very passionate preference for classic Danish interior design. So we have classic minimalistic furniture by the oldies: Arne Jacobsen, Wegner, Finn Juhl, Louis Poulsen and Le Klint. If I were alone, I think it would a bit more modern and eclectic.

How do you find balance in your personal and work lives?

Working abroad, it is all about the work. At home, I try to be about the family, even though I do get sucked into passion projects and activism when I am home.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A classical pianist. I played classic piano from I was eight till I was around 19. At that time, I had become mad with acting, singing and theatre.

If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be? 

You are weird, odd and different. Not like anyone else. Don’t try to fit in. Don’t be sad about it, it will be your gift later.

How can we all live a little bit better?

Buy fewer but better things. Go for quality rather than quantity. It makes you appreciate what you have, you take better care of it, and it is more sustainable.

Anything fun in the pipeline – professionally or personally?

A little bit of both. My husband, my two daughters and I are going to Korea with my twin sister and her daughter. We were born there. Adopted by an American man and a Korean woman and then immigrated to the US. We have a bit of family there whom we will visit. We adore Korea, the people, the food, the culture and national parks.

And workwise, I am meeting a couple of industry people there as well. I am very interested in finding out what the female auteurs are up to in Korea. There are quite a few female screenwriters, especially writing K-drama but fewer female film auteurs. Working in Korea is on my bucketlist! There are so many brilliant artists and directors I would love to work with, national treasures like Park Chan-Wook and Yim Soon Rye. And I am obsessed with diaspora artists like Celine Song (Past Lives) and Lee Sung Jin (Beef) who, like me, carry a dichotomy of cultures and experiences in them.

Sandra Yi Sencindiver Recommends…

I’m currently watching… House of the Dragon! I am a huge Game of Thrones stan and I read all the books before they adapted them into TV.

What I’m reading… While I was in Bangkok a lot of brilliant new voices were published! So on my book shelf I have unread books from Elias Sadaq, Celine Szabó, Bjørn Rasmussen, Moussa Mchangama and Maja Lee Langvad all waiting to be read.

The last thing I watched (and loved) was… It’s Okay not to be Okay, a K-drama about trauma, mental health, neurodivergence, family and love. I loved it because it featured neurodivergent characters and took on some taboo subjects like mental health and made space for healing and growth. I am amazed by the format: what a feat to write 22 episodes, each ninety minutes long and being able to keep the audience engaged! 

What I’m most looking forward to seeing… Pachinko season 2

Favourite film of all time… Too difficult a question. If forced: The Handmaiden and Past Lives

Favourite song of all time… I don’t have a favorite song, but I love my millennial female pop artists!

Band/singer I always have on repeat… Beyoncé

My ultimate cultural recommendation… Please watch films at the cinema! The sound is never as good on your laptop or on your TV. At home, you run the risk of checking your phone or getting a snack. At the cinema, you are pleasurably forced to concentrate on that one thing people put a lot of love and hours into making.

Cultural guilty pleasure… I have none. I take pleasure in all culture, high and low and feel no shame about consuming low culture. Rom coms, yes please. Chick flicks, yes please. K-drama, yes please. Bridgerton, absolutely.

WATCH

Sandra Yi Sencindiver stars as Yuji Lee in Geek Girl on Netflix and as Rue Corintha in Foundation on Apple TV, both streaming now.