Kulap Vilaysack has won over entertainment giants like Sarah Silverman and John Legend with her quick wit, Midwest work ethic and infectious laugh. But at the Minnesota premiere of her debut feature film, “Origin Story,” all she could think about was impressing Mom.
The documentary, streaming on Amazon Prime, opens with Vilaysack reflecting back on when, as a 14-year-old, her mom, Bouaphet, abruptly ended one of their numerous fights by blurting out a deep, dark family secret: The man she called Daddy was not her biological parent.
The Minneapolis restaurant owner had actually booted Kulap’s birth father out of the house when Kulap was a toddler, and he had since retreated back to his home country of Laos.
What follows is a now grown-up, but still traumatized, Vilaysack traveling to Asia in hopes of bonding with the mystery man while still trying to mend fences with a mother who doesn’t hesitate to ask her successful daughter to pay off her gambling debts, firing off nasty text messages when her requests aren’t met.
At one point in the film, Vilaysack learns that her mom abruptly dropped her with another family when she was an infant, only making infrequent visits over a period of nearly three years.
And now, the movie’s “antagonist” was sitting two seats away from her, watching the film for the first time.
“You know that feeling you have when you almost got into a car accident?” Vilaysack said an hour after the screening last fall while Mom mingled with guests at an after-party. “You feel alive, but it’s also, like ‘Whoaaaa! What just happened?’ When I got into the car with my sister to come over here, I just let out some primal sounds. It’s so brutal.”
Anyone who only watches the first half of “Origin” may be shocked to find the two women in same room, let alone the same state.
Vilaysack’s childhood was an endless cycle of long work hours and clashes at home. By the age of 11, she was waiting tables at mom’s restaurant, the now-defunct Diamond Thai in the West Bank, often retreating to the hotel across the street simply to stare at the indoor pool.
As soon as she graduated from Eagan High School, Vilaysack escaped to Los Angeles to study at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. She eventually found herself in the improv community, where she met her future husband, Scott Aukerman, the director of Zach Galifianakis’ upcoming special, “Between Two Ferns: The Movie,” as well as members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, a breeding ground for “Saturday Night Live” cast members that was co-founded by Amy Poehler.
Over the past decade, Vilaysack has made numerous guest appearances on popular sitcoms, co-hosted the podcast “Who Charted?” and spearheaded the series “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$,” a spoof of shows that turn real estate agents into reality stars, now airing on Pluto TV.
This past winter, she produced “A Legendary Christmas,” an NBC variety show starring Legend and Chrissy Teigen. The DC comic book superhero Katharsis is based on her.
“She’s insanely talented,” said David Caspe, who helped create ABC’s “Happy Endings” and Showtime’s “Black Monday.” “She really seems like she can do anything. I can’t say enough good things about her.”
Comedians, who can be a cynical bunch, also appreciate her upbeat company.
“She’s one of my favorite people on the planet because she’s nothing but positive energy,” said veteran stand-up Jimmy Pardo, host of the long-running podcast, “Never Not Funny.” “You know that expression ‘She lights up a room?’ She truly does. You just feel better being around her.”
But privately, her mom’s Big Lie kept gnawing at her.
In an early scene from “Origin,” cameras capture Vilaysack having an emotional breakdown in her Hollywood Hills home, banging her fists on the desk and smashing furniture before her husband comes in to comfort her.
“That uncertainty about her father and her whole family was definitely hanging over her,” said Aukerman, who will be appearing this weekend at Fitzgerald Theatre as part of a live edition of his TV show, “Comedy Bang! Bang!”
“At that point, if her birth father had knocked on the door, she would have slammed it in his face,” he said in a phone interview.
The documentary, which Vilaysack, now 39, started shooting six years ago, follows her as she secures birth certificate records and plays a game of connect the dots that eventually leads her to her biological dad, Saky Wilon. Arrangements are quickly made for her to travel to Laos to meet him.
At first, Wilon seems like the answer to her prayers.
His killer smile, apologetic manner and warmth win her over during numerous meals and a boat trip down the Mekong River. But cracks start appearing in the armor. His insistence that he never cheated on her mom doesn’t quite ring true. Eventually, he asks for money. Lots of it.
Back in Minnesota, Vilaysack learns more about her mom.
While serving pho to the camera crew in her Eagan home, Bouaphet shares her own origin story, how she was “born in a toilet”; how she nearly died in her escape from Laos to a camp in Thailand; how lonely and lost she was when she immigrated to Washington, D.C., and then Minnesota; how she only wanted a better life for her oldest daughter; how she’s come to regret her failings as a parent.
“Kulap wasn’t the only one with a difficult experience,” said Ron Danielson, who, along with his wife, Julie, sponsored the Vilaysacks’ move to Minnesota and would care for Kulap during the time that Mom was missing in action. “For her to see that through this film and identify with her mom’s tough life, I think that brought a lot of resolution for her and an understanding that life isn’t so simple.”
Vilaysack’s first cut of the movie, which ran four hours, was much harsher on Bouaphet. But in the editing room, she developed more sympathy for her mom’s past. Watching the final film can still be difficult for Kulap, especially when she’s back home.
“It’s one thing to be in California, where we’re all granola with crystals in our bras and discussing who our shamans are,” she said. “But I’m airing my family’s dirty laundry. That’s not the Minnesota way.”
Family members and friends sang their praises about the film at the after-party, although one nephew suggested that Auntie should have sworn less.
No one beamed brighter than Bouaphet.
“I’m very proud of her,” she said, admitting that she had to turn away a few times when she popped up on a big screen. “Even if it’s hard, it’s better this way. I told the truth. People will learn a lot from it. Find the truth in everything.”
Since the film first opened, Wilon, who subsequently moved to Sacramento, has attempted several times to become his daughter’s Facebook friend.
Vilaysack has yet to accept.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431