Ali Wong and Randall Park in ‘Always Be My Maybe.’ Ed Araquel/TNS
It’s a sunny Friday morning in downtown Culver City and Ali Wong is adamantly trying to convince Randall Park, her co-star and collaborator in the romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe, that his life is about to change.
Wong stars in the Netflix original as Sasha Tran, a celebrity chef with a dashing fiancé (Daniel Dae Kim) and a picture-perfect future within her grasp.
In San Francisco to open a new restaurant, she reconnects with her childhood friend Marcus Kim (Park), an unambitious musician who still lives at home.
Years have passed since the blowout that led to their estrangement as teenagers.
The old sparks have not. Marcus raps, Sasha lady-bosses, Keanu Reeves shows up and romance blooms anew in unexpected ways — all helmed by Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan in her feature directorial debut.
“Everyone has seen (Park) in all these different things … but it’s long overdue for him to be the leading man in a movie,” says Wong, 37, a stand-up comic known for her raunchy fearlessness who shot to fame with her 2016 comedy special Baby Cobra.
“And that’s the reason I’m most excited about it, frankly.”
Park, sitting next to her on the patio of the Culver Hotel, shakes his head. “I tell Ali, it’s not! It’s just a gut feeling.
I think the movie is great and I’m very proud of it, and I think a lot of people are going to like it. But I don’t think it’s going to drastically change my life.”
It is an overabundance of modesty that makes Park, 45, demur whenever Wong champions him to his face — certainly more than most leads of a hit TV show going into their sixth season would.
The West LA native, the son of Korean immigrants, has played family patriarch Louis Huang opposite Constance Wu on Fresh Off the Boat for the last four years.
Over his career he’s stolen scenes in everything from Veep to The Interview (playing Kim Jong Un, a send-up that earned him death threats) and both the Marvel (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and DC (Aquaman) cinematic universes.
But a certain type of romantic leading role has eluded him, like most Asian American actors and performers of colour in Hollywood, where inclusion numbers remain dismal.
Joining forces with Wong, who worked as a writer on Fresh Off the Boat, the pair teamed up to write, star in and produce Always Be My Maybe after she mentioned in an interview that went viral that the friends were planning on scripting their own When Harry Met Sally.
Momentum and eager fans were on their side.
They wrote the screenplay with pal Michael Golamco, then Netflix and production company Good Universe came on board and the pair tapped their friend Khan to direct. A story of their own, for them to star in.
Last May, Wong’s second comedy special, Hard Knock Wife, hit Netflix — filmed while she was seven months pregnant, as she was in her first special.
The same month, production commenced on Always Be My Maybe (a play on the Mariah Carey tune), which also marks Wong’s biggest film role to date.
What Wong and Park are helping to change with their new Netflix rom-com is the landscape of what entertainment looks like: Who gets to play the lead in movies. Who gets to fall in love in rom-coms.
Or details like the mouth-watering Spam and rice with furikake a young Sasha makes for herself in Always Be My Maybe, or the emotionally resonant role a perfect pot of kimchi jjigae plays in their lives.
Or the many shout-outs to growing up in the vibrantly diverse Bay Area of the late-90s and early 2000s, a place and time when any hormonal teen might have turned the dial to 106.1 KMEL to get down to D’Angelo in the back seat of a Toyota Corolla — just a few years after the ground-breaking but short-lived Margaret Cho sitcom All-American Girl would have been on the air, set in the home of a Korean American family in San Francisco.
“It was important because Ali is half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese, Randall is Korean, and we wanted it to be authentic to everyone’s experience,” said Khan.
“And Randall’s experience is different from Ali’s experience.
We wanted to show, but not make a huge meal out of it, that these things can coexist very peacefully. You don’t have to just choose one thing.”
Not to mention a strong female gaze.
Wong wrote herself three love interests to snog throughout the movie, Park, Kim and Reeves — who had fans gasping when he showed up in the trailer — a move Khan appreciated with a laugh during a recent phone chat: “Isn’t she a genius?”
Like their on-screen counterparts Sasha and Marcus, who grow up next door to each other in 1990s San Francisco, the history between the two stars runs deep.
In 1995, Park co-founded the Asian American-centred LCC Theatre Company at UCLA. Seven years later, Wong joined the troupe.
“I knew of him,” she recalls. “Everyone was always saying nobody could hold a candle to Randall Park.”
“My recollection is very different,” he interjects with an embarrassed chuckle.
When Wong later moved back to the Bay Area to launch her stand-up career, Park would occasionally open for her.
He credits the movie gaining traction to the world’s love for Wong. “Ali is so important to our culture right now,” he says.
Wong turns to him. “I remember in the beginning I couldn’t even believe that we were friends,” she says. “Well, now I can believe it!”
As writers and producers they give an unprecedented array of Asian American experiences space to exist in Always Be My Maybe, a film that portrays the rich diversity and texture of Bay Area life within the bounds of a modern-day rom-com.
“As an Asian American, you’re always going to be interested in other Asian Americans from entertainment and the creative fields.
A thread connecting the emotional beats of the film and the cross-cultural, intra-Asian cultures that comprise its world is food — how we learn to make it, how we eat it, how we appreciate the legacies it comes from.
To help pull off dishes from different Asian cultures, from the Korean stew Marcus’ mom makes to the over-the-top offerings of the exceptionally indulgent, conceptually ridiculous restaurant Maximal where a double date turns disastrous, the producers recruited Los Angeles celebrity chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka, who came on as consultant.
“She had such a keen sensibility about what the dishes should be,” says Khan, who was born in Las Vegas to Iranian immigrant parents and grew up in Hawaii.
“For me, food is so intertwined with memories. You can not see a family member for years and suddenly a dish, or a smell, or a taste will remind you and you’re transported back.
That was a key part of the movie, too, because they did have that history together.”
Although she now lives in the LA area and has spent much of her time on tour of late, Wong laments how starkly her hometown has changed, a sentiment echoed by Marcus in the rap verses he spits with his band, Hello Peril — missives about gentrification and Asian American identity, backed by band mates played by Karan Soni, Charlyne Yi, and Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, who also co-wrote songs with Park and Dan the Automator.
“As an Asian American, you’re always going to be interested in other Asian Americans from entertainment and the creative fields,” Wong says.
“So you’re always going to pay extra attention and you’re always going to wonder: If I meet them, will there be a natural sisterhood or brotherhood?
I think some of us bringing those people in kind of came from that curiosity. And we felt it, and it felt good.”
They sing the praises of the friends they cast in supporting roles who deserve to break big themselves.
And there’s Reeves, who filmed his cameo while still in production on John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.
Writing a secretive part with him specifically in mind, they sent Reeves the script. It turned out he was a huge fan of Wong’s Baby Cobra special.
He came to film his scenes at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco ready to improvise. “He got what we were going for and he was down,” says Park. “And I still can’t believe it.”
“That’s what’s cool when you populate a movie with those characters,” says Wong. “Then you’re not the Asian Person; you’re the insecure person, the artist, the (jerk). You get to be somebody.”
Park nods. “You get to be human.”
Talking about those human foibles and of Marcus’ struggle to aim higher than his hometown gets Park thinking.
“When Sasha says to Marcus, ‘You have all this talent but you act like you don’t care about it, and that’s just you being scared’ — I wonder if that’s the case with me,” Park admits.
“I like the idea of just being cool with where I’m at, but part of me wonders if it’s a fear-based thing.”
Luckily, he’s got Wong in his corner. After all, the moment the trailer debuted, so did his status as a leading man.
“All these people have been commenting about how he’s such a stud muffin, which we all knew, and he was like, ‘Why are people responding like that?’ Because you are, fool!”
Wong admonishes Park. “He’s a beautiful-ass man!”
To Golamco, who was born in the Philippines and grew up in the Bay Area, there’s a traceable line from centring Asian American romantic leads to shifting societal perceptions.
The more casually specific the experiences lived on screen, the more authentic they feel. “And you lose touch with your humanity once you think those little details are unimportant.”
“For the audience to be able to put themselves in the shoes of someone who is Asian American or a person of colour or anyone who up until now has not been the lead in a movie, to identify with that … it opens up the possibilities for our place in America,” he says.
Time will tell if Always Be My Maybe is a tide-turner that cracks the door open a little wider for more inclusive and diverse stories, adding to the movement kick-started by last year’s Warner Bros. hit Crazy Rich Asians.
Tribune News Service
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