The Cast Of Strangers Talks Airbnb, Human Connection & Queer Visibility

The wordy magnets and vibrant postcards that people use to decorate their refrigerators usually inspire passing moments of inspiration — at most. But for filmmaker Mia Lidofsky, a postcard plastered on the fridge at a friend’s Los Angeles home — where she and her partner were living several years ago—had some words emblazoned on it that stuck: “Strangers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your loneliness.”

Cut to two years later, and Mia is at the Sundance Film Festival to premiere her new series Strangers (executive produced by Refinery29 and Beachside Productions). Set in Los Angeles, the series follows the life of Isobel (Zoe Chao), a woman on the cusp of thirty, freshly single, and exploring her queer sexual identity. In a quest to cling to her last vestige of stability during this tenuous time — her home — she opens up her spare room to Airbnb renters as a way of not breaking the bank. Through this, Isobel and her best friend, Cam (Meredith Hagner), meet a host of strangers, all unique in their idiosyncrasies, who challenge the two friends’ pre-existing preconceptions about new people, and help to pivot the direction of their own lives, too.

While sitting around the fireplace at a cozy rented home in snowy Park City, Utah, Lidofsky tells Refinery29 that the Airbnb storylines were also informed by the surprising connections she experienced in renting out her apartment in New York. “It was in that moment where Airbnb was becoming big, Uber was happening and Tinder had just come and it occurred to me just how connected we were in the sharing economy,” she says. “And this ability to connect but also through this kind of internet connection, we can often disconnect.”

That’s particularly true of metropolises like New York and Los Angeles; demanding cities that can often feel isolating, with everyone keeping to themselves as a means of survival. “I wanted to tell a story about actual connection and human connection and how in sharing the most intimate place of the home, how you can really open yourself up,” Lidofsky says. “And by opening up oneself up by being vulnerable, change happens and life happens.”

Zoe Chao, a childhood friend of Mia’s from Providence, Rhode Island, says that this vulnerability is precisely what drew her to the story, and to the character of Isobel. “The world we live in right now is pretty scary and tricky, and what’s so exciting about Strangers is that I sort of catch myself wanting to close up right now and self preserve...the state of things makes me super nervous and makes me more introverted,” Chao says. “And what’s so nice about Strangers is this notion that it sort of puts forth, which is to stay vulnerable and open to people you don’t know, and what you can learn from yourself from people you don’t know.”

"It feels like it is my job as a gay creator to change the narrative of normal."

Mia Lidofsky
For Isobel, the eccentric strangers and guests that come through her home — played by the likes of Shiri Appleby of UnReal and Girls’ Jemima Kirke — unwittingly cause her to be amenable to change, and, in an unconventional way, give her the fresh perspective she’s been looking for. “I think it’s this idea of entering thirty and life is supposed to be laid out for you, and the idea that you’re only just starting to figure out who you are and what this life could look like,” Lidofsky says. “And it’s that kind of journey and that idea that we can start fresh and start new at any point. Any person can now come into your life and change the course of it.”

Strangers is also an unapologetically queer story that not only explores the vast spectrum of sexuality, and what that might look like. It depicts the realities of dating, heartbreak and reconciliation in a frank, funny way. It’s a story that Lidofsky knows all too well, because it’s hers. “Especially post-Trump and what feels like Armageddon, it feels like it is my job as a gay creator to change the narrative of normal,” she says. “And so I think that that’s exciting about this series: It portrays these honest, open, genuine women struggling to find themselves in all these different capacities, and one of those means is through their sexuality.”

Kirke, who had previously worked with Lidofsky on Girls, says that she was interested in Strangers precisely because of the heightened “importance of gay art and female art” in our ever-changing world. “The freaks need to come out now, more than ever. That’s where all the art needs to come from now,” she says. “Nothing is going to stop us making what we want to make now. That’s a freedom that is not going to be taken away. It’s a very basic one. We need to be exploiting that as much as we can, because that’s really all we’ve got right now. Now is the time for artists to step up and make exactly what they want to make; there’s no room for anyone to be scared right now.” Hagerty, who plays Isobel’s lesbian best friend Cam in the series, nods in agreement. “You’re so frickin’ right! It’s true, what we need to do is the opposite of homogenise.”

It’s no surprise that the success of Strangers ultimately rests on the fact that it shines a bright spotlight on narratives that are often untold, and refuses to cast them into the shadows as a side story. “I was trying to create visibility for the gay and queer community that I know within the self,” Lidofsky says. “But what I didn’t quite realise at the time is that it’s about the invisibility of women.” Strangers is also radically changing the game in terms of representation, too. “To be a person of colour, and to see that face on that poster is just...really rad,” Chao says, smiling. Lidofsky looks back at the poster and grins, too. “It was important to me, because I think it’s its own racism when you say ‘I don’t see colour.’ It’s like, we see colour. I see Zoe. I see her face. I love those eyes, that skin tone. You need to see more of all of us out there
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