“I don’t have to be defined by [my parents’] choices.”
Kulap Vilaysack is a producer, writer, director and actress best known for creating the semi-scripted comedy series Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. Her most recent project, Origin Story, follows Vilaysack as she digs into her family’s complicated past and into her relationship with her parents.
Kulap Vilaysack was 14 years old when a family secret toppled her life upside down: The man she’d grown up knowing as her father was in fact her step-father — and, even worse, her biological father wanted nothing to do with her.
That’s a difficult truth to bear for any person, much less for a lonely Lao American teen in Minnesota used to feeling different, like “the other.”
Today, Kulap is an actress, producer, director and writer best known as the creator of the semi-scripted comedy Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. She drew on her traumatic childhood experiences for Origin Story, a documentary that follows her journey back to Laos as an adult and presents a personal quest to uncover the truth about her biological father.
Kulap grew up in Minnesota as a minority within a minority. She had difficulty relating to other kids at school, and had a stark sense of loneliness. At home, she continuously butted heads with her mother, who’d had her at age 18 while in a Thai refugee camp before settling in America, a wide-eyed new mother in a strange new country.
Their contentious relationship, on its own, left permanent psychological scars on Kulap. “It was tough for her and I,” she said. “We just really didn’t have a chance.”
One day, following a typical screaming tirade from her mother, a teenage Kulap sided with her father in an argument. It was then that her mother offhandedly replied, “Why are you defending him? He’s not your real dad.”
Kulap still remembers the look on her mother’s face — the shift from red-hot anger to fear as the words left her mouth. She’d known she’d finally gone too far. It was a revelation that nearly destroyed Kulap. “To find out the parent I thought I looked the most like and that I got along the best with is not my father,” she recalled, “It wrecked me.”
Discovering the painful truth about her father drove the wedge in her family even deeper, and as Kulap came to terms with this new reality, she faced another rejection almost immediately after. She was told her biological father did not want to have a relationship with her, worried that she would ask for money. “To find out this parent that I did not want to have, was not interested in having a relationship with me,” Kulap described, “As a 14-year-old, trying to deal with the shock of it was so much and so upsetting.”
The impact of that rejection followed her to adulthood. “I have always been looking for family. And trying to create something I didn’t have growing up,” she said.
Ultimately, she was successful in obtaining a sense of belonging by finding a family in her friends at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. She went on to appear in shows like Parks and Recreation, The Office and Bob’s Burgers; had a DC superhero named after her; and has now been writing and directing her own projects for more than a decade.
Though she will never get her childhood back, the documentary has allowed her to mend a gaping hole in her life by finally finding the answers she had been looking for. “Because I hadn’t asked any questions, I had filled in the gaps and the blanks and I was tying myself and identity to an incomplete origin story,” she said.
In its own way, the creation of Origin Story, which forced Kulap to reopen 20-year-old wounds and traumas, was excruciating. But she has no regrets. “This documentary was a catalyst for my evolution as a person. Had I not done it, my life would be completely different. It’s kind of like this Origin Story is now my new origin story,” Kulap said. She seems to have found closure in this search for her identity. “What I got was an understanding of all three of my parents. I can understand them. And I may not agree with their choices, but I also don’t have to be defined by their choices.”