Jo Koy’s Easter Sunday and the visibility of Filipinos in Hollywood

BRANDON WARDELL and Jo Koy in Easter Sunday

RECONNECTING with family, getting tangled in an unusual situation, and referencing Pinoy culture, all happen in the film Easter Sunday, which features a nearly all-Filipino American cast.

That makes it unusual as Filipinos can be considered the “invisible” minority in the US, blending in so well that they are nearly unnoticed even though, with an estimated population of 3.4 million, Filipino Americans are the third largest ethnic minority group in the US.

Filipino American actors are rarely seen playing their own ethnicity on television or films, as two of the film’s cast members told media. Speaking of her role in Easter Sunday, Tia Carrere told the San Francisco Chronicle recently, “I love that I got to finally play Filipino, because I’ve played Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, all these different ethnic backgrounds. I finally get to play Filipino…” A big-name star, Lou Diamond Philips has only played a Filipino American three times: in the 1991 film Ambition (he wrote the script himself), in the TV show Prodigal Son (he requested his character be changed from Latino to Filipino American), and now in Easter Sunday. As he told Esquire in an interview: “This will be one of the first representative films of the Filipino diaspora in America, with a largely Filipino cast, and that’s how long it’s taken since I wrote Ambition.”

The man behind Easter Sunday is Filipino-American stand-up comedian Jo Koy (real name: Joseph Glenn Herbert, Sr.)., who moved to the United States as a child with his family. He began as a stand-up comic in 1989, performing at a Las Vegas coffee house in 1994. In 2017, the comedian had 11 sold-out shows at The Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall in Honolulu (selling 23,000 tickets). This led to comedy specials on Netflix: Live from Seattle in 2017, Comin’ in Hot in 2018, then a variety special, In His Elements, in 2020. The comedy specials led to Easter Sunday after Steven Spielberg saw Comin’ in Hot.

The 51-year-old stand-up comic got a call from Amblin Entertainment Inc., Spielberg’s entertainment company. “We pitched this movie and the first thing that we thought of was not only was [there going to be] a theatrical release but a global release and it’s [going to be] in the Philippines in a theater,” the comic said at a press conference at S Maison’s Director’s Club in Pasay City on Aug. 30.

“The whole reason [that Spielberg was] involved was because of the standup. He related to the stories that I was talking about onstage. So, now he just wanted to make a movie and get that out to everybody,” he said.

In Easter Sunday, the comic plays a struggling actor and comedian, Joe, who drives his son to a weekend reunion with his family. While reconnecting with his mother and other relatives, Joe ignores his son’s concerns and becomes preoccupied with attempts to save his opportunity for a big break on television while saving the day for his cousin at the same time. The film includes scenarios based on the stand-up comic’s experiences and his comedy shows.

“The reason I picked Easter Sunday is that was the holiday that everybody was there,” he said. “That’s when the chaos happened. That’s when the talent show happened, and the karaoke happened.”

The film is directed by Jay Chandrasekhar and written by Ken Cheng.

“I told my stories, as many stories as I could. And they wrote that into the into the movie,” he said.

Aside from Jo Koy, Tia Carrere, and Lou Diamond Phillips, the movie’s cast includes Jimmy Yang, Eva Noblezada, Lydia Gaston, and Eugene Cordero.

THE STRUGGLE FOR OPPORTUNITIES“There are no such thing as offers especially when you’re not the majority color,” the comedian told the Philippine press. “If you’re Filipino, there are no offers, so you’ve got to create an idea and you’ve got to come up with a pitch and figure out a story that they’re willing to back and then it still has to make sense because it’s a business.”

He has had his share of rejections.

He recalled that his Netflix Original Comedy Special Live from Seattle was turned down eight times and he was told that the story was “too specific.”

“When you hear that in Hollywood, you replace the word ‘specific’ with ‘racism.’ Because what does ‘specific’ mean? That doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“They turned it down like eight times and kept saying ‘no’ to me,” he said, adding that he resorted to funding and shooting the project himself.

“Netflix called my team and said ‘Hey, we’ve heard Jo Koy trying to shoot the special. We just want you to know that we don’t want it’…That’s the pressure I had. The only person who we wanted to sell it to was saying ‘no’ already before I even shot it,” he said.

“I paid for that special and I sold it to Netflix and if that didn’t happen then Steven Spielberg would have never seen the second one,” he said.

He was given the green light to shoot the sequel, Comin’ in Hot —  but he also ended up digging into his own pocket.

“I shot it in Hawaii, and it was too expensive. And they told me not to shoot in Hawaii. But I had to shoot in Hawaii,” he said.

ON FILIPINO VISIBILITYAs a comedian, he said that the Filipino diaspora is free to talk about Filipino culture responsibly despite living overseas.

“There’s a belief system that everybody has. We all have the right to say what we want to say, but we also have to be careful with our words. Not everybody’s opinions are right also. I also do believe that [we have to] be very responsible with your words, and those specific platforms,” he said.

As for the future, he said he plans to produce more shows.

“I want to also have my hand not only in front of the camera behind the camera…” he said. “I don’t want to just open doors for Filipinos, I want to open doors for everyone.”

Jo Koy was in Manila for his show Funny is Funny, held at the SM MOA Arena on Aug. 31 — his second show in Manila following Just Kidding in 2020.

Easter Sunday, distributed by Universal Pictures, is opening in Philippine theaters this weekend.  — Michelle Anne P. Soliman

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