In ‘Boogie,’ Eddie Huang expands Asian American movie roles

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Eddie Huang, the author, restaurateur and TV host whose memoir chronicling life as an immigrant kid in the ’90s was adapted into the hit ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” would’ve taken the fast lane to moviemaking had such a path existed. Instead, after minoring in film in college and hustling in and out of careers in law, streetwear and assorted other pursuits, he started knocking down walls his way.

“It was never a viable thing to tell Asian American stories until I broke through with [the Taiwanese bun shop] Baohaus,” said Huang, 39, who makes his feature directorial debut with the recent release “Boogie,” the New York City-set tale of a Chinese American hoop star with NBA dreams. “You can’t walk in with an Asian American memoir or movie. No one believes in it, no one wants to do it — but they do believe that we’re good at cooking and kung fu.”

He started telling the story of his own cultural roots by serving up Taiwanese bao to hungry New Yorkers, “but the goal was always to leverage the success and intention into film in some way.” Huang’s 2013 book, “Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir” — loosely adapted into a historic ABC sitcom that debuted in 2015 and that starred Hudson Yang as a young Eddie, with Randall Park and Constance Wu as his parents — opened a new door.

“People came to me for recipe books and I was like, ‘I don’t want to write a recipe book. I don’t even have an interest in being a chef,’” said Huang. “I did it because that was the only place I felt as an Asian American you could tell your story without somebody standing over you.”

Taylor Takahashi and Taylour Paige stand on a New York street corner.

Taylor Takahashi as Alfred “Boogie” Chin and Taylour Paige as Eleanor in “Boogie.”

(Nicole Rivelli / Focus Features)

“Boogie,” written during a time of self-doubt after a public split with the network show, a self-described heartbreak and behind-the-scenes friction on his Vice travel series “Huang’s World,” tells the coming-of-age story of Alfred “Boogie” Chin (played by newcomer Taylor Takahashi), a high school basketball phenom struggling to chart his own destiny amid a volatile home life, a romance with a classmate (Taylour Paige) and the often-conflicting pressures of his bicultural identity.

It wasn’t easy for Huang to push his writing and feature directing debut to the finish line. Only weeks before filming began, he persuaded producers to cast Takahashi, his assistant at the time, as the lead in the movie. When another actor dropped out during production, rising rapper Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson nailed an on-the-court audition and came aboard to play Boogie’s rival Monk just four months before Jackson’s death at age 20.

Like Takahashi, Jackson had no previous acting experience, but the two brought authentic emotion to a world seldom depicted onscreen, said Huang, whose next focus is a slate of film and television projects “telling stories from the margins” through his production company, Color Correct. “I hope that other people are inspired to do that so we don’t see the same faces all the time and give people a chance.”

Huang spoke via video chat ahead of the release of “Boogie,” which is now in theaters and will be available on PVOD on Friday. This conversation also took place before the Atlanta-area shootings on March 16 that left eight people dead, mostly Asian women, increasing the national conversation about violence against Asian Americans.

An in-studio portrait of Eddie Huang

Eddie Huang adds “filmmaker” to his résumé with “Boogie,” now in theaters.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

I always felt like one of the best ways to get to know people was to watch them play basketball…

Eddie Huang

“Boogie” is fictional but contains shades of your own experiences. What made you want to tell this story about a basketball player and his relationships?

I always felt like one of the best ways to get to know people was to watch them play basketball, so basketball has always been this thing within which I’ve studied humanity. Even when I wasn’t getting along with my father, basketball was something we could do. I would never really yell back at my dad. I never raised my hand back to my dad despite a lot of crazy stuff going on in my house. But I could take it out on him playing basketball.

I couldn’t beat him until I was 18, and he still remembers it: It’s one of his best and also worst memories. I didn’t go to class much in college; I would just play ball, then I came home and I washed up my dad. I remember beating him and just leaving the ball on the floor and walking away. I think he could tell I was really mad at him for a long time, and because of Asian values and respect and the things that I respect and believe in, I was never going to raise a hand to him. But if I had a chance to beat him at something, I was going to do it and do it pretty mercilessly. And that was our relationship.

A pretty loaded game of one-on-one.

Yeah! I remember a bartender at a bar once when I was 12 or 13, my dad went to the bathroom and he was like, “It’s interesting: Whoever your dad says he likes, you cheer against them.” That’s also part of the reason people are like, “You’re from Orlando. You’re not a Magic fan?” My dad was a rabid Magic fan. So I chose the Knicks.

If you can tell a lot about a person by the way they play, what kind of player are you on the court?

I’m gonna go with Taylor Takahashi’s description: I’m a high-IQ player and very unselfish on offense. … I’m our enforcer. I’m the smallest guy on the floor, but I’m the toughest one. If another team is picking on us or pushing us around, I’m usually the first one to push them back. That’s just me. I don’t like being picked on, and as an Asian playing basketball, people always come for you first.

Taylor Takahashi and Bashar "Pop Smoke" Jackson on a basketball court.

Boogie (Taylor Takahashi) faces off against rival hoop star Monk (Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson) in “Boogie.”

(David Giesbrecht / Focus Features)

You started writing this five years ago, in 2016. Where were you at in life that Boogie was the character that materialized out of your experiences and your imagination?

When I was writing “Fresh Off the Boat” [the memoir], I was much more brash and extremely confident — it was like, “Nothing’s going to stop me,” and that’s kind of what got me here. But my experience on “Fresh Off the Boat” [the television series] really beat me down, Hollywood beat me down, and even “Huang’s World”…when Vice became a TV channel, there was a lot of friction and politics with taking this beautiful thing that was very real and honest and insane on the internet without the pressure of making television.

There were executives from goofy shows coming in, telling us what to do, and I was probably the most vocal person, per usual, about it. I got arrested shooting our Sicily episode, which ended up being one of our best episodes, but when we were in jail, the producer of that episode wanted us to give up the footage. I was like, “I refuse.” And the rest of the crew agreed with me. That was the chasm between the new guys coming into Vice and the old ones.

I remember crying at work … and I went home that day and I started writing “Boogie.”

Eddie Huang

We had a bit of a mutiny. Once we got out of jail, we were like, “We don’t want to work with this producer anymore.” I took over the shoot, but I got home and I was suspended. I thought I lost that show, and that show really meant the world to me. It meant more to me than “Fresh Off the Boat” ever did. I remember crying at work. … And I went home that day and I started writing “Boogie.”

I think Boogie is a much more complex and interesting character, because I wrote it in that moment of sadness and questioning myself, not so confident that I was actually going to bounce back. I think a lot of those emotions are in the film.

What were you questioning at that time?

I was questioning if I’d ever get the boulder up the mountain. If I was ever going to get to tell this Asian American immigrant story in the medium of film or television and have it be as real and truthful and genuine as “Fresh Off the Boat” [the memoir] or as Baohaus was. It felt like this chasm I could not close. You fight for something for so long and you get so close and it gets taken away, or you feel hoodwinked like I did on “Fresh Off the Boat” [the TV series], and it just wears on you. I think I finally learned to be more vulnerable. I was able to tell people, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get this done.” And I think that humanity I found in myself really changed me and the way I tell stories.

Most people don’t experience those kinds of revelations as publicly as you have. How do you reflect on how you have changed over the years?

As an immigrant in this country, especially as an Asian man, we’re pretty emasculated. You want to be tough, and you don’t want to show weakness. So I think when you see Baohaus and “Fresh Off the Boat” [the memoir], it’s very defiant. It’s very, “I’m gonna run through that wall.” Because we don’t get to make stuff and still be vulnerable and be weaker, you know? Criterion’s filled with stories of white people that get to be weak and tell their story, but we’ve pretty much got “Minari.”

When you say weak, do you mean emotionally vulnerable?

Yeah, emotionally vulnerable. I think I was always like, “Nah, block it out. You’ve got to run through that wall.” And a lot of people I looked up to were like that too, they kept that toughness up. I had a heartbreak. A relationship went wrong around the same time. Everything in my life crashed down in that period around 2015, and I realized it wasn’t about pushing the boulder up the mountain or winning or accomplishing this stuff. It was about being in my actual feelings and being honest with myself about how I felt. “I don’t care if this gets made or doesn’t get made, f— it, I’m just going to write how I actually feel.” I think I learned to tap into that vulnerability. It was a big change.

Taylor Takahashi lies on a floor, eyes closed, alongside Taylour Paige in a scene from the movie.

Huang cast first-time actor Taylor Takahashi, pictured with co-star Taylour Paige, as the lead in his feature film debut.

(Nicole Rivelli / Focus Features)

What were the challenges of getting this movie made? Not just to bring Focus on board but to get your first film as a writer and director greenlighted?

Focus believed in it from the beginning. They were the only ones that believed in it. We went all around town. Nobody raised their hand. Everyone was like, “We’re interested in you. We love what you did with ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ This feels a little less easy.” It was like, “You want to come back with something with an all-Asian cast? You want to give Awkwafina a call?” Nobody wanted this. I fought to get somebody to sign onto this, but once I was at Focus, there wasn’t that much fighting.

I do a lot of explaining about my culture and a lot of explaining about downtown New York culture, or Black or Latino culture, and I end up having to explain stuff. But that’s part of the job, and I accept that. And to be honest, I don’t complain about that. That is my journey and that is my experience. I had a lot of good partners at Focus who wanted to understand my journey and wanted to get in my head, and once I allowed them into my head and I wasn’t scared of explaining, things really took off.

Let’s talk about cultural specificity. Boogie is written as a Chinese Taiwanese American kid. How important was it to portray this specific identity in the story?

It’s important so people know that these customs and the way we do things is not just Asian American, it’s specific to Chinese Taiwanese people. Taylor’s Japanese, but he was my assistant for eight months and he picked up a lot of those values and customs, because if you come to my house, we’re going to do it my way. He lived with me for a while, and he’s seen how I do things, like pouring the tea [for elders]. He was around when I would cook for my parents. So he knew it and he was able to represent that. It’s like how Bruce Lee was able to teach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Chinese culture and kung fu. I was able to teach our specific stuff to Taylor, and Taylor was able to represent that, and I thought that was very beautiful.

Before casting Taylor, did you try to cast the character of Boogie authentically?

I think I did cast authentically. I’m going to honestly say that. I did. There’s also a part of me that is uniquely my value system and culture that I formulated in America that’s very inspired and influenced by participating in Black culture and Latino culture and Caribbean culture and people I grew up with. And Taylor lives that life as well, because so many of his friends he knows from playing basketball in Oakland.

We saw a lot of the Taiwanese Chinese kids that auditioned. You could tell they were more “Boba Asian.” They weren’t living that intersectional life that brought me and Taylor to some of these neighborhoods at times, and it’s hard to teach that to people. The scene I had a lot of kids audition for was the gym scene, where the Boogie character is pulling up on [Paige’s character] Eleanor for the first time. If you don’t do it correctly, it feels like it’s a bad AAVE [African American vernacular English] voice. I saw a lot of those auditions and thought, “Nah, this kid doesn’t have friends like Richie [played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.], and he’s never pulled up on a girl like Eleanor.” No matter what I tell him, this is going to feel wrong.

But Taylor … I’ve watched Taylor pull up on girls, you know what I mean? So I’m like, “He’s got this.” And that scene was a scene I was scared of putting in the film that [Focus Features Chairman Peter Kujawski] and other execs really fought for, like, “Eddie, you love that scene.” And yeah, it makes Boogie look like an asshole, but that’s part of this character.

Pop Smoke Jackson, Eddie Huang and Taylor Takahashi sit on a city park bench.

Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, left, director Eddie Huang and Taylor Takahashi on the film’s New York City set.

(Nicole Rivelli / Focus Features)

There’s a scene between Boogie and Eleanor that calls to mind the time in 2015 when you were criticized for comparing the experiences of Asian men to those of Black women.

I have no shame about that moment at all, because I said it in very good faith. People started to clip it and play it on a loop, and when it got taken out of context it was like, “Whoa, he just compared being an Asian male to being a Black woman.” And I was like, “Yes, I did.” But Issa Rae [in her 2015 autobiography “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”] had also just written an article about the statistics on OK Cupid that said the least desirable men were Asian and the least desirable women on OK Cupid were Black women. And I was like, this is bulls—. And that’s why I was comparing it, and I was like, “This is wrong.”

In many ways, the stereotypes in America desexualize and emasculate the Asian man and they hypersexualize the Black woman. We know what these stereotypes are and it’s bulls—, because it’s just trying to fragment us and prevent us from being the whole humans that we are. I was saying that using the data from these apps you can see the work of stereotypes and how it is ingrained in our heads. How in a Malcolm Gladwell way, like he talks about in [his book] “Blink,” it affects the choices we make on an everyday basis. And I will stand by that forever, because I was actually sticking up for both communities.

In this scene in “Boogie,” Boogie similarly compares his own experiences to Eleanor’s as a Black woman [complaining that Asian Americans are reduced to “beef and broccoli” stereotypes in the mainstream gaze]. Were you referencing the criticisms you received in 2015?

I actually was not thinking about anyone from 2015, because I took none of them seriously. I don’t even know if that’s OK to say. I just got caught up in this thing where people twisted what I was saying and my intent. Even when it was twisted, I trusted my African American feminist literature professor from college [Jennifer Henton]. I sent it to her like, “Hey, Dr. Henton. Talk to me. Did I f— up? If you tell me I f— up I will bow, I will apologize, I will do the right thing because I care about this.” And she was like, “No, you’re trying to create solidarity. You’re trying to show connection. And you’re trying to show how the Man is doing the same thing to all of us, which is playing the barbarians against each other and dividing and conquering.”

My inspiration for the “beef and broccoli” scene was because when I was writing this, there were Asians protesting affirmative action and saying affirmative action hurts Asians trying to get into college. And I was like, “Yo, think about it. The Black cause, the Black movement for justice and equality in this country, benefits all of us.” And we don’t really pay into that movement many times. For decades, Asian Americans have not been involved in this fight nearly as much as we should have. We’re better off economically. We have more opportunity. So if we have to get dinged up a little bit because of affirmative action that will help our brothers and sisters, I was like, “This is the right thing to do.”

Boogie’s in his head and he’s like, “Man, it’s so hard to be Asian in this country” — and it is…. But it is exponentially harder to be Black.

Eddie Huang

I think it sucks that we get dinged up and we have to pay in, but that’s our existence here, and I think it’s the right thing to do. That’s where that scene comes from, where Boogie’s in his head and he’s like, “Man, it’s so hard to be Asian in this country” — and it is. It is very hard, and I don’t take anything away from Asians. But it is exponentially harder to be Black. It really is. And I’ve always felt that way.

I left “Fresh Off the Boat” [the series] in large part because it was using Black culture to attract viewers, but then Black people weren’t making money from it. There weren’t many Black people on that cast or set at all. And they had me say that line, “Isn’t America great,” and had the kids go to the Beastie Boys show. I was like, “Why can’t they go to a Black artist’s rap show?”

Like the actual musicians and rappers you listened to as a kid?

Yeah. My first show was Outkast after “Aquemini.” Outkast would have been a great show [for the characters] to go to.

It would be a lot easier if I was just all Asian, all the time, but I’m not. Black culture has meant a lot to me, and it’s informed who I am and provided a lot of the answers to things I couldn’t understand or disagreed with, being Asian. A lot of the things our parents said to us or hurt us with, I was like, “There’s no answer for this.” But reading Black literature, listening to Black music, watching Black films, I was like, “No, it’s OK to feel the way I do.” There’s an entire group of people in America that feel this way.

“Boogie” is your first move into filmmaking. What’s the vision behind your production company, Color Correct, and the projects you’re focused on next?

My feeling post-“Fresh Off the Boat” was there were all these things that were, “Representation, representation, representation,” but it’s different than representation; we need the correct representation. And more than representation, I want us to put humanity first. I think what’s drawn people to projects like “Boogie” are race, identity, social issues, but I hope what keeps them is our humanity, and in watching these stories, seeing a reflection of themselves as well, even if they’re of a different race than the main character or supporting characters.

I want to produce with the people I know that are 10 toes down. There’s a lot of money to be made in representation now and I’m like, “Who’s for real?” Because I’ve seen some people that are Asian, but 10 years ago, they had no interest in making Asian stuff. I’m going to stick to the people I know that have been fighting and trying to do this.

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