Jo Koy’s ‘Easter Sunday’ a groundbreaking milestone for Filipino actors, culture
“Finally our stories, our faces are front and center on the big screen,” said actress Tia Carrere, 55, known for movies like “Wayne’s World,” “True Lies” and “Lilo & Stitch.”
LOS ANGELES — For a comedy, Jo Koy’s new movie “Easter Sunday” had a lot of waterworks.
The film was no ordinary job for the comedian and the rest of the cast. The magnitude of being on a mostly Filipino set led to happy cryfests, Koy said. Emotions really hit when co-star Tia Carrere pointed out this was her first time playing a Filipino character in her 40-year career.
“To be able to be right there in a scene with five other Filipino actors and just doing a scene about a family... She never saw that before,” Koy, 51, told The Associated Press. “We all just kind of like teared up and just celebrated together because it’s like ‘OK, this is going to be one of many moments up here.’”
Koy, who is half Filipino and half white, is making his feature film debut in a movie largely inspired by the material from his Netflix stand-up specials. DreamWorks/Universal is touting “Easter Sunday,” which opens in theaters Friday, as the first big studio movie with an all-Filipino ensemble. Koy plays Joe Valencia, a comic and aspiring actor who goes home to the San Francisco Bay Area for the titular holiday. He attempts to bond with his teenage son while dealing with well-meaning but overbearing relatives. The production comes at a time when Filipino American food, history and advocacy are increasingly emerging into the zeitgeist.
“Finally our stories, our faces are front and center on the big screen,” said Carrere, 55, and known for movies like “Wayne’s World,” “True Lies” and “Lilo & Stitch.” “I have to pinch myself that I’m still here, still in the business and invited to the party.”
Jimmy O. Yang (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Love Hard”), who has a cameo in “Easter Sunday,” also served as a producer. That meant watching many, many audition tapes of actors of Filipino or Asian descent. Yang was blown away by the talent. It made casting 10 roles that much tougher. He thinks Hollywood claims that capable Asian actors are hard to find are just lazy excuses.
“As an actor, I’m like all of these guys are so good. How did I ever get a job?” Yang said. “Some of them I wanted to call them and be like ‘Hey, man! Please keep going OK? We just couldn’t hire you for this job but please keep going.’”
“Easter Sunday,” directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, is set in the heavily Filipino suburb of Daly City where screenwriter Ken Cheng immigrated to as a kid. He envisioned a mix of Ice Cube’s “Friday” and the holiday flick “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A producer, too, Cheng wrote it in 2020 during lockdown. He then turned to Steven Spielberg, whose Amblin Partners is co-producing. Within a few hours the legendary director read it and gave his approval, according to Cheng.
“From that day to the first day we started shooting was something like five and a half months. And that’s like insanely fast,” Cheng said. “A lot of that is how enthusiastic everyone was about building a movie around Jo.”
Hollywood is populated with notable half-Filipino actors like Vanessa Hudgens and Darren Criss. But Koy is the one leaning into his heritage in his work. For example, he wanted a scene in “Easter Sunday” showing the family packing customary balikbayan boxes. Filipinos, usually first-generation immigrants, typically send boxes with American goods to relatives in the Philippines. Mailing balikbayan boxes is practically its own industry.
“There’s this responsibility that they put on their shoulders when they make it to this country,” Koy said. “I see that with a lot of Filipino families and I wanted to show the world that’s how important this is to us.”
Today, Filipinos make up over 4 million of the country’s 23 million-plus Asian population, according to the U.S. Census. Only Chinese and Indians number more. Filipino culture and history have been gaining more mainstream visibility in recent years — mostly because of decades-long activism by Filipinos.
This year, a 30-foot-tall gateway arch was unveiled in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown and a street in New York City’s Queens was co-named Little Manila Avenue. A newly built Bay Area park was named for striking Filipino American farmworkers. For years, Filipino food has been hailed off and on as the next culinary trend. It seems to be having a moment again in the fine dining world. Chicago’s Kasama became the only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in the country.
“Easter Sunday” is coming during “this really amazing moment in Asian American history and Filipino American history, where political, social, and economic capital has all come together,” said Eric Pido, an Asian American Studies professor at San Francisco State University with a background in Filipina/o American Studies. He predicts younger generations will raise Filipinos’ profiles in the next few years.
“I think Filipino Americans are no longer shying away from sort of taking a representational role in American politics, which will bring up all sorts of interesting things about Filipino American culture that lots of folks just don’t think about,” Pido said.
Last month, Koy and Cheng attended a screening of “Easter Sunday” in Daly City. Among the people there was the director of Pixar’s “Turning Red,” Domee Shi. “Turning Red,” about a Chinese-Canadian teenage girl and her family, was a hit after its March release on Disney+. But a white film reviewer called the animated feature exhausting and only relatable for Shi’s Chinese family and friends. The review was later pulled over accusations of racism.
The idea that stories that focus on Asian ethnicities and cultures are too specific to be appealing is just outdated, Koy said.
“The relationship between a mother and son is the same no matter what ethnicity,” Koy said. “I hate ignorant people that don’t move forward... There’s a lot of people that live in this country that need to be heard and it’s time to hear it.”