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May 16, 2019

Spaces, Places

An extended career path led Giao-Chau Ly to exactly where she wants to be.

Maria Neuman
  • Giao-Chau Ly on the set of Speechless

    Christina Gandolfo

Success sometimes comes down to the basics, says Giao-Chau Ly, who recently got down to the nuts and bolts with some aspiring designers.

"I was speaking to a USC production design class and told them the thing that will get you the farthest is just showing up and not giving up," she says. "Also, work your butt off. People seem to recognize that more than talent."

Ly's hard work led her to ABC's Speechless. As production designer, she puts the visual stamp on the wry family comedy, which just wrapped its third season. But her unlikely journey started in Waterloo, Iowa, where her parents landed after fleeing Saigon during the Vietnam War.

The family relocated to southern California when she was three. By her college years, she was set on a law degree but then stumbled into a theater design class. "I needed an art requirement, and all the other classes were filled," she says with a laugh. A career path was born.

After graduating from UC San Diego and then working in local theaters in the Bay Area and Chicago for seven years, Ly decided to pursue an MFA in theater design at CalArts. "That training has totally helped me in the way I see things and how I solve problems."

It also made her willing, in her mid-30s, to accept her first television gig as a PA on the TNT drama Mob City.

"Definitely a humbling experience: you're older, you've had a career and you're taking people's lunch orders, but even now, I still feel like every single role on a film or TV set is critical." Five years later, having worked on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Community and Supergirl, Ly has climbed the ranks. She was art director on Speechless from 2016 to 2018, before rising to production designer.

Centered around the DiMeo family and their special-needs teenage son (played by Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy), the series is a charmingly unsentimental look at life with a disability.

Aside from the usual challenges of designing the look of a series (namely, quick timelines and limited spaces), Ly also has to account for the logistics of a character in a wheelchair.

"I did a ton of research, and there are a lot of things that are standard that we can't do, such as putting sets on decks so they appear to be higher than ground level." She also needs to make sure locations are wheelchair-accessible.

This past season, she's designed everything from a City Hall to a strip club to a seafood restaurant. "As a designer for TV, you get to explore different worlds in the same way actors do, and I love that it changes every week."

Seems she's definitely in the right place.

Viewers can catch up on Speechless on or the Watch ABC app.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019

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