Charles Melton on How 'The Sun Is Also a Star' "Brings Humanity" to the Issue of Immigration
The Asian American actor spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the importance of representation in the film, which follows two teenagers who fall in love over the course of one day as Yara Shahidi's character fights her family's deportation.
Charles Melton may be best known for his role as Reggie on The CW's Riverdale, but he steps out of his TV supporting role to play the male lead in The Sun Is Also a Star.
The actor stars opposite Yara Shahidi in the romantic teen drama. Based on the young adult novel by Nicola Yoon, the film follows Natasha (Shahidi) and Daniel (Melton) after he tells her that it is possible for the two strangers to fall in love over the course of one day. The budding romance between the skeptic and hopeless romantic becomes even more complicated when Daniel learns that Natasha's family is about to be deported to Jamaica.
"She's about to go back to Jamaica with her family, so it's a love story that takes place in 24 hours," Melton told The Hollywood Reporter about the film. "It's a beautiful love story that goes beyond the stage of immigration. It goes beyond the stage of what it means to be an American, to be Jamaican or Asian and to live the American dream."
The film hit close to home for Melton, himself the son of an immigrant. In addition to speaking about his mother's process of becoming a U.S. citizen, the actor opened up to THR about the lack of representation of Asian male leads in romantic comedies, the pressure his character feels as a first-generation Asian American and what it was like to film in New York City.
To start off, can you tell me a little bit about who Daniel is?
Daniel Bae is a first-generation Korean American whose parents immigrated from South Korea to America not only to pursue the American dream but also to give their kids a better life. Daniel Bae is the golden child. His parents groom him from a young age to be a doctor. There's this Korean tradition on your first birthday called "doljanchi," where they set up a piggy bank, a stethoscope, a basketball, etc. You're basically given five options and you choose on your first birthday what your path will be. My character chooses the stethoscope, but you can tell that his parents wanted him to choose the stethoscope because they rigged it. They groomed him to be a doctor.
He's a hopeless romantic and he's a poet, so he's struggling with two identities — not only in the sense of being Korean American, but also with the decision of being a doctor for his parents, who have sacrificed so much for him, or to follow his dreams of being a poet. So on this specific day of his college interview, which ends up being one of the defining days of his life, he meets this girl, Natasha, who's logical. He falls in love the first time he sees her.
How do you think the film balances the love story between Daniel and Natasha with Natasha's family's deportation storyline?
There's a beautiful balance in the way the story is told. I feel like you can find your own personal story in one of the characters and what they're going through. You have Natasha, who has more of a jaded perspective of what love is, and then you have this hopeless romantic, Daniel Bae. There's this nice fluidity in their love story. Natasha claims to not be someone who believes in love and is passionate, though her actions speak otherwise. She's fighting for her family out of love to stay in New York City. She kind of contradicts her own words. Her actions speak louder than her words.
Immigration is a topic that really hits close to home for so many, especially with the current presidential administration. Did you feel any pressure to tell a story about such a serious topic?
This story brings humanity to the topic of immigration. I think about my mother, who moved as an immigrant when she met my father in 1990. I remember when she became a U.S. citizen and the tasks that were required to become a U.S. citizen. They ask a lot of questions like, "Who was the 40th president? Who's vying for state governor in Texas? Who's running for city council?" All of these requirements are unique because this country was founded on immigrants. To use a paper formula to measure whether you're American or not is unique.
I remember one of the questions my mom always struggled with was — and I remember it because she would have me test her every day, almost every hour, when I was 12 years old — "What are the three branches of government?" The only reason I know this is because of my mom. It's executive, legislative and judicial. If I go around and ask that, I guarantee not even 20 percent of American citizens know the three branches of government. It's just funny the kinds of requirements the U.S. wants immigrants to learn when in reality this country was founded on hopes and dreams by immigrants.
It's great to see people empathize with these characters' stories, because when you're hearing about these policies, people really just see it at face value. But we look beyond that in this film. We bring light to a situation in which people can empathize with someone's story because you see them as a human and not as a label, whether it be as an immigrant or Asian or black.
How would you describe the dynamic between Daniel and his family?
His parents came to America with the sole purpose to give their family a better life. Daniel feels a lot of pressure from his parents because of the sacrifices that they made, and he struggles with the identity of what it means to be an Asian American. I think there comes a point when Daniel really asks himself if he's willing to compromise his dreams and passions and go into a career that his parents want for him just to not let them down. On top of that, he has a strained relationship with his older brother. His brother is the opposite of Daniel. In families, older siblings usually want to lead by example, and his brother wasn't the best example, so that's additional pressure that Daniel experiences.
There are, unfortunately, very few movies like this with Asian male leads. Historically, Asian men in Hollywood tend to be typecast in other ways. What do you make of the fact that Asian male leads are rare in Hollywood romance films?
I think we're moving in the right direction with representation. I'm proud and honored to be an Asian American and to tell this story. I'll tell you a funny story. I was going through TSA and this guy comes up to me and he goes, 'Riverdale.' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' He goes, 'Can I get a picture?' I'm like, 'Sure.' Usually guys that are my dad's age who ask me for a photo always have an excuse. 'It's for my wife. It's for my daughter. It's for my daughter's babysitter's nephew's dog walker.' But he asked me for the photo and it was cool. I go through security and he taps me on the shoulder again. He goes, 'Hey, that's my wife.' And she's a Filipino woman. And he goes, 'And this is my son.' And this man and his son, who was 9 years old, just look at me. The son's just watching. His wife leans down to their son and says, 'See, he looks like you. You look like him.' For me, that was a very beautiful moment, and it gave recognition in the sense of understanding that as an actor, it's my job to play a character. There's nothing else that I would want to do but to understand the platform, especially with social media, that I carry. And to be able to do what I'm very passionate about is very humbling. It's an honor. That experience brought tears to my eyes.
Do you feel responsibility or pressure to increase that representation that is lacking in Hollywood?
I think the best thing I can do as an actor is to do my best work in every project I do and the next thing. There's weight to that. Maybe what I can do will open doors for people like with what Bruce Lee did, what Jackie Chan did, what Jet Li did. They opened doors for me. Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling, Ethan Hawke, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp. They opened doors for me as well. Not only did people open doors for me on face value but also with their art. I think it's beautiful to see someone who's representative of how you look and where you may be from that gives you a little bit more hope. The responsibility is, to me, just to do my best work.
What was it like to film in New York City?
We filmed for 27 days in New York. It was pretty magical in the city. New York is such a great representation of what America is. You have people from all walks of life and from all over the world in this one city of 8.5 million people. You have Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem, Brooklyn, Koreatown, Queens. There's so many parts of New York City that represent what America is, which is a melting pot of people from all over the world.
What is the one thing you want viewers to take from The Sun Is Also a Star?
That's such a tough question. There are so many different things that are so universal, but the one thing I want people to take away from it is hope. To understand that you have to have hope and that fate isn't something that we have control over, but it's very real. Things might not make sense today, tomorrow or a week from now, but everything will fall into place and you will eventually understand it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.