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Ali Wong and Randall Park, fellow UCLA Bruins-turned-romantic leads, tapped into their own Asian American experiences to bring humor, romance and Vienna sausage spaghetti to the big screen.
On May 31, the actors’ “will they or won’t they” film Always Be My Maybe, directed by Nahnatchka Khan, begins streaming on Netflix.
Sasha Tran (Wong) and Marcus Kim (Park) grew up as neighborhood sweethearts, sharing wholesome memories on San Francisco trolley rides and not-so wholesome ones in the back of Marcus’ car. But as the former besties pursued their dreams – Sasha’s to be a world-class chef and Marcus’ to maintain his band – they drifted apart.
Wong, Park and Khan spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in two separate interviews combined below about their time on the project, the importance of authenticity and more.
How did Always Be My Maybe come together?
RANDALL PARK: So Ali, after Baby Cobra, changed the game. There was a profile done on her for The New Yorker and she mentioned offhand that “Randall and I always talked about making a rom-com together” and it made it into the article and other publications picked up on that one section.
ALI WONG: We started getting all these calls from studios and we didn’t even have the script yet. So Randall and I started drafting an outline and pretty soon after we finished the outline, we got (co-writer) Mike Golamco involved and worked with him. It was just really easy.
NAHNATCHKA KHAN: I knew the story early on so I was involved in the beginning stage and met everybody at Netflix, met everybody at Good Universe and it was a natural evolution where they were like “Do you want to direct this?” It clicked in and I was like, “Yeah, I do wanna direct. That’d be amazing.”
Ali, Randall, how do your roles as actors, producers and writers affect the agency you have over the story you’re sharing?
WONG: You have all the agency. It’s agency, it’s also responsibility. A mentor told me to be there for every single take. He told me, “Ali, if anything goes wrong with the movie, everyone’s going to point their fingers at you.”
How did you feature common Asian American experiences, like cooking spam and rice and misusing handicap parking placards, without othering or stereotyping them?
WONG: I’m so glad you paid attention to that. You’re the only person who’s spoken about that. And that is one of my favorite parts. And I was like, “Why hasn’t anybody asked me about that?” Those all come from instinct and experience. It’s just what any other writer would do, like a white writer puts their experience into there. It’s just what we did.
PARK: There was no conscious, “Oh, this is going to galvanize the community.” It was more like, well this is a reality for us, let’s put it in.
KHAN: Obviously Ali and Randall being at the center of this, and being writers and producers, it was never a question of who are the stars of this movie. This is their story and I want to help them tell it and when you come from a place like that, everything is opened. We’re all making the same movie, which isn’t always the case. People have different ideas in their heads.
How intentional was it to show a San Francisco that’s authentic and familiar to you?
WONG: The Richmond District, that’s where I grew up and that’s never filmed. To me, as I lived away from San Francisco, those houses and those hills in Richmond, they just gave me this sense of nostalgia and really ground me in San Francisco. It was really important to me to film those exteriors in San Francisco and we actually re-created the interior of Sasha’s house, that layout that’s so familiar to typical house in Richmond, on stage too.
KHAN: [Authenticity] was very important. It was something that I always strive to do and make an effort to do because I think it’s important. In terms of the San Francisco you don’t normally see, Ali’s from the Bay Area so setting their childhood homes in the Richmond District was very important and getting the authenticity of those spaces was something we all talked about and wanted to explore — Clement Street, the idea of post-dim sum walking through. It doesn’t have to be the typical version of it that you’ve always seen.
The movie also includes Asian American actors as extras and secondary characters. Why include those details into the narrative?
KHAN: It just made sense for this world. It was something that I very much encouraged the casting department to look for.
PARK: Again it was coming just right from an authentic place. The band for example, I was in a band back in the day called Ill Again and it was predominantly Asian American, not all, but predominantly. And because of that, people who came to our shows were Asian American because they wanted to see a band that looked like them that was making okay music. The film’s band was based off my band so we wanted to create a band that was Asian American and when you go into the club because they’re Asian American and whether by design or not, Asian Americans show up. All of that came from a real place from our experience.
What’s the significance of having Sasha’s love interests all be Asian men?
WONG: I think expressing desire and attraction towards Asian American men is something that’s very authentic to me and it’s very personal to me. It’s something that is under-expressed. I’m not trying to do it as a service to Asian American men, but I’m doing it because it comes from a place that’s true and authentic and it’s fun.
How does comedy serve as a vehicle for representation on-screen?
KHAN: I love that genre. I think that humor allows you a wedge in. It allows you an access point. But the flip side of that is that it’s got to be funny. If it’s not funny, people are not engaged, tuning out and they’re not gonna stick around for whatever the story is underneath that. I think humor gives people a way in and you also have to deliver and entertain, deliver on that promise.
PARK: There are just more stories. Different stories. I don’t think rom-coms are necessarily a better way. There are other types of stories.
WONG: Look at Black Panther, that was an action movie and that was huge, that was a huge cultural watershed movement.
PARK: I think it’s important that the movies be relatable regardless of genre.
Ali’s character, Sasha, returns to traditional ways of preparing Asian dishes. Why have the film end on that note?
KHAN: I think that’s a part of this story. It’s like going back to the things that I think you felt at whatever point in your life that you connect with, that feel real to your experiences. I think the authenticity of it — it’s being authentic to the character, to the world and so in Ali’s character, in Sasha’s case, her upbringing as a latchkey kid, her parents weren’t around, she felt at home at Marcus’ house with his mom and because of that connection — his mom teaching her and setting her on her life path, it was a way of honoring her. It was a way of going back to that time in her life that was so transformative and storytelling-wise that felt right. That felt like that’s where she came from and that’s where she wanted to go back to.
As a creative of color in Hollywood, what does authenticity mean to you?
PARK: If you think too hard about it, then you’re probably not getting close to it as far as authenticity is concerned. It is very much a feeling and it’s just something that should come naturally and instinctually.
WONG: It’s a tough answer, but it really just comes from instinct. Like when Sasha’s making the spam and rice, it wouldn’t feel right for her to be pouring herself Lucky Charms. I ate some Lucky Charms growing up but my parents thought it was just such a waste of money. It’s just doing what feels right and being able to be in tune with what feels right.
The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
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