'Boogie' Star Taylor Takahashi on His Unusual Path From Personal Assistant to Leading Man

Taylor Takahashi
Courtesy of Jonny Marlow. Suit by Ermenegildo Zegna.

The first-time actor opens up about his improbable move starring in director Eddie Huang's film about a Chinese American high school basketball star.

Taylor Takahashi has a hell of an origin story.

Just five years ago, he moved from his Bay Area hometown of Alameda to Orange County to work as a personal trainer. After about a year, the ex-high school basketball star missed playing hoops, so he joined a recreation league in Monterey Park in L.A.'s San Gabriel Valley. To his surprise, one of his teammates was Eddie Huang.

Takahashi, 28, was a fan of the chef turned TV personality's Vice show, Huang's World, and the two ended up bonding over their shared passions for basketball and cooking (Takahashi was also working part time as a yakitori chef at a Japanese restaurant). Huang invited the younger man to cook with him for some of his catering events, where he noticed Takahashi's aptitude for taking direction.

That led to a conversation about whether Takahashi had ever thought about working in the entertainment industry. "Not a day in my life," he answered truthfully. Huang said he could show him the ropes and sent him the script for his directorial debut, Boogie, a coming-of-age story about a Chinese American high school basketball star, out March 5 from Focus Features. The next thing Takahashi knew, he was flying to New York, where his duties as Huang's personal assistant included training the young actor cast in the title role to credibly portray a top hoops prospect.

With about three weeks left in preproduction, Takahashi showed up for work to find Huang waiting for him outside. He thought he was about to be fired. Instead, the director (who had decided that he needed to recast the lead) told him to go into the production office and read a scene on tape. "He sent it to the studio, and by that Monday I was Boogie," Takahashi says.

Early on, Huang had a feeling that his assistant was actually his star, but kept that idea close to the vest. "Already nobody wanted to make this film," Huang says with a laugh. "If I was like, 'Yo, I think my assistant is Boogie,' I would've been shut down."

Takahashi was hesitant to take the part. "Eddie, not for your first movie, man," he told Huang. After all, Boogie is an intensely personal story for Huang, an iconoclastic personality who has been vocal about his belief that ABC's adaptation of his 2013 memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, sanitized his unfiltered perspective as an Asian American man. To convince Takahashi, Huang pointed out how rare it was for guys like them to have a character in American pop culture to relate to. "There's never going to be another Asian American basketball role," Huang told him.

For the shoot, Huang used Takahashi's rookie nerves to the film's advantage. "He's not a trained actor," says Huang, "so it's finding a way to get Taylor's emotions in that place." Takahashi, the all-time leading scorer at Alameda High, had no trouble with the basketball sequences. "The hardest part was remembering what it was like when you're 18, more on the edge and things sting a little more because it's all new," he says, adding, "I'm pretty chill in real life." Yet the first-time actor delivers a charismatic performance that is credible in its portrayal of a young athlete whose on-court cockiness is a cover for adolescent insecurities.

Takahashi and Boogie aren't identical: Although the actor says he also was fairly rebellious in his teen years, as a yonsei (fourth-generation) Japanese American, he didn't grow up with the immigrant family issues that both Huang and Boogie experienced. Still, there is one major point of similarity (besides basketball) that Takahashi feels with his character. "I kind of came of age [in this movie] along with Boogie," says the newcomer. "Before all this, I did not like the spotlight. To fast-forward and see the leaps and bounds, it's one of the most life-changing experiences I've ever had."

This story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.