The Merienda with… interview series is an interview with an actor, filmmaker, producer, writer or anyone else who wants to wants to hang out with me, eat some food and/or have some drinks. In Tagalog, “merienda” means afternoon snack, but to me, it encompasses any time of day and it doesn’t really need to be a snack. It can be a full meal, just coffee, or drinks. Most of all, it reminds me of the times when my family or friends would have “merienda” and talk about our days or just gossip. It was all about connection and catching up. Merienda with… reflects exactly that with cool people doing amazing things in the industry as we talk about their journeys, identity, hot topic issues or just random stuff. All the while, we eat and drink because food brings people closer together.
On today’s Merienda with Andrew Ahn, Joel Kim Booster, and Margaret Cho menu
Location: The Star Cafe in Montrose, CA
Andrew had a margherita pizza
Joel ordered a salad with an exotic mushroom soup
Margaret also had some sort of salad and the exotic mushroom soup
I ordered pasta puttanesca
We shared steamed artichokes and some sort of doughy garlicky bread product
When I arrived to The Star Cafe to meet Fire Island director Andrew Ahn, writer/star Joel Kim Booster and his co-star Margaret Cho, who was accompanied by the most precious doggo in the world Lucia, I am a bit late. I apologize to them when I arrive explaining to them that I couldn’t find a parking meter that accepted credit cards.
“It’s very Mayberry here,” Cho told me in regards to the town of Montrose, which is about half an hour drive from Los Angeles proper.
When I talked to the trio about the gay rom-com dropping on Hulu June 3, it was in the beginning of Asian Pacific American Heritage month but it was also right in the middle of the Netflix is a Joke festival. Booster and Cho were set perform at the taping of the comedy special “Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration at The Greek Theatre” which also featured some trailblazers including Rosie O’Donnell, Wanda Sykes, Lily Tomlin, Marsha Warfield, Eddie Izzard, and Sandra Bernhard.
Booster and Cho have been doing some interviews for the fest and Cho admits, “I’m really always trying to give Inside the Actors Studio energy, so I give really long answers — I’m not good with soundbites!”
The three discuss how they are like with interviews, whether it be talking heads for documentaries or interviews in general. As mentioned, Cho said she has a fantasy of being like Dr. Angela Davis with her answers while Ahn said, “You know who gives good soundbites? Michael Musto.” The Spa Night director found this out when he worked with Musto on the documentary Divine. “He will give you the perfect quote.”
And just like that… I was on journey to find the perfect soundbite from Booster, Cho, and Ahn (which sounds like a fun law firm). I’ll post the soundbites on social.
Noah vows to get Howie laid while on their vacay and promises that he won’t partake in any sexual activities until Howie gets some. This leads to Howie showing interest in Charlie (James Scully). Noah is immediately is at odds with his uptight friend Will (Conrad Ricamora) — who is basically Mr. Darcy. All the while, Noah and Howie along with their friends Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomas Matos), Max (Torian Miller) and their Fire Island “mother” Erin (Cho), navigate the uppers, downers, casually racist and white gay world of the queer destination.
Booster said that he wrote Fire Island as a result of a threat. “I went to Fire Island for the first time with Bowen in 2016, and I brought Pride and Prejudice as my beach reading,” he told DIASPORA. “I remember I would be reading it on the beach, and I would put it down, and I would be like, ‘My God, all the stuff she’s talking about in this book is so relevant to what we are experiencing on this island.’
He continued, “I remember every so often I would put it down and I’d be like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Mary was one of these types of gays?’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Darcy had a big dick, and that stood in for the tracts of land that he owns?'” Booster thought that the concept of this project wasn’t going to sell.
After his pilot wasn’t picked up at Comedy Central after two years of development, Booster said he felt lost. He would bring a Jane Austen book every time he went to Fire island and with each book, it deepened his observations. He saw so many gay correlations with the experiences in Austen’s stories. He wrote an essay for the now-defunct blog on Penguin Random House which was recently revived so that the essay could be read again.
Booster’s agent insisted that he write a show based on his essay. He thought it was a stupid idea — until he started to write a pilot version of the story.
For those following Fire Island‘s journey, it was initially supposed to be a series titled Trip that was going to live on Quibi — but we all know what happened to Quibi. Afterwards, Searchlight Pictures got a hold of it and the rest is history.
Within the first five minutes of the film, the group of friends are on their way to the island and they discuss gay identity politics for men. Howie talks about how no one would be interested in hooking up with him and Keegan brings up “No fats, no femmes, no Asians,” a Grindr mantra that is unfortunately popular and exposes the racism, body shaming, and fear of the feminine that lives in the queer community.
Booster said Fire Island started off as a platform to address the issues of being gay and Asian in the LGTBQIA+ community but it began to shift at one point when he was talking with Yang. More than representing a marginalized community within a marginalized community, Fire Island was an opportunity for Booster and Yang to do something together. “I think in this industry right now, unless it’s a project like Crazy Rich Asians or something like that, Bowen and I would probably go out for the same parts, but never get to co-lead a movie together. So it was this moment of like, ‘Well, fuck it. I’ll do it myself’,” said Booster.
To dive deeper into the queerness of it all, Booster not only wanted to explore his friendship with Yang, but also unpack how gay media and storytelling tends to gloss over the intricacies of gay interracial relationships, gay racism, body fascism, and things of the sort.
“We just want to pretend like it doesn’t exist,” he said of the aforementioned gay issues in storytelling. “We see a white guy and this Black guy together, and we’re supposed to just buy that it’s like any other relationship, when in fact, many of them are, but there are complications because of the way our community works. I really wanted to write a story that addressed those issues head on.”
I mention that this isn’t necessarily a movie to cry to because it’s a rom-com but Cho chimed in, “It is though… it’s because of the truth, genuine feelings and beauty of it.”
She continued, “We never get to see ourselves as beautiful, or that we can inhabit these archetypes that were set forth by Jane Austen. We’re trying to bust through class barriers with romance, which was never available to Asian Americans, as much as gay Asian Americans. So that’s why I was crying too — and I was in it!”
Ahn added, “I think the brilliance of the screenplay, and what I picked up on as a director that I wanted to continue to emphasize, was that this has a real heart and real soul to it. This isn’t a parody movie; it’s a real story. It’s grounded in relationships in a way that I grounded my previous films. So it wasn’t different in that way, and I think the strength of it was that we took it really seriously, while still having a ton of fun.”
Known for directing more dramatic films that are heavy with emotion, Ahn realized that a rom-com like Fire Island wasn’t something people would expect him to direct. In fact, people shared their skepticism online via social media because, well, people love sharing their opinions on Twitter.
When the project was at Quibi, Ahn wasn’t hired on as director. It’s no secret that Stephen Dunn (who is the creator of the Queer as Folk reboot) was attached to direct. Ahn knew that Quibi wanted someone with more comedy experience and at the time, Ahn admitted to not having much comedy experience. “After that point, I had directed some more television that I think proved I could do this movie,” he said.
“The man’s directed MacGyver!” Booster pointed out. “He’s a Renaissance man, he can do it all!”
Ahn laughed, “I understand the assignment, is what I’m trying to say…but yeah, I knew what my strengths were, and then I knew where I had less experience. But I had such an amazing cast and crew that it is impossible to make this cast not funny.”
As much as Booster loves Dunn and his work, it was really important for him to have a queer Asian man in the director’s chair for this film. “There’s a shorthand,” he explained. “There were so many things that we didn’t have to talk about throughout the story.”
When I asked Cho how she boarded Fire Island, she immediately answered, “I forced my way in.”
“I just heard about it, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m doing this. I’m in this’,” she jokingly recalled. “I just talked my way into this movie. I told Andrew that I had been going to Fire Island since 2008. Although I’m a Provincetown gay, I have a lot of history with Fire Island, and it was perfect — but we couldn’t figure out a cameo role that would work.”
Booster said that when Cho talked to Ahn about the movie, it was perfect timing. The part of Erin was originally supposed to be for an older gay man. They had cast the role, but the actor had to step down due to other obligations. A day or two around the time he dropped out, Cho’s team reached out and said, “She will do whatever you want in this movie.”
“Andrew and I just looked at each other, and it was not even really a question,” Booster said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this could be rewritten very easily.'”
The script didn’t change much from the original character. There is a moment when Cho tells a story during dinner — which was true, but there were only minor adjustments to the character. Booster said, “The role was always supposed to bring motherly energy, whether or not it was an older gay man or Margaret, and she brought that in such a beautiful way.”
He added, “I think there was some question, on paper, of why these 30-year-old guys would be hanging out with Margaret Cho? And the question in the script that’s asked is answered; it’s because it’s fucking Margaret Cho, that’s why.”
“I 100% agree,” Ahn supported. “It made so much sense. Joel had gender-swapped the character from Mrs. Bennett to Aaron, A-A-R-O-N. And then, when Margaret reached out, we were like, ‘Oh no, she’s Erin, E-R-I-N.’ It’s so simple, so easy. And I think for me, having more Asian American people in the film was a mission of mine.”
Cho, a legend to the Asian and LGBTQIA+ communities and beyond, loved the opportunity to play a character like Erin. “Sometimes when you’re gay for a long time, you lose all your friends, and you have to mine the younger generation for new ones,” she explained. “You have to wait for the gays to be born and come out, so you can have people around you. I think that’s a very true thing, and you see some of these people do that, over and over and over — but I think that’s what makes it believable.”
A film like Fire Island probably couldn’t have been made by a major studio 10 years ago. Hell, it probably wouldn’t have been made five years ago. Prior to Fire Island, Ahn thought that the only way to make a film about being gay and Asian was to make it an independent project. When he heard that Searchlight was on board, he was pleasantly surprised.
“I think it’s a real testament to the quality of the screenplay; to the talent that is finally getting recognized and given the opportunities,” he said.
“I will say too, though, it was the perfect storm of timing,” Booster tagged on. “The timing of Bowen’s star really being on the rise, Happiest Season had just come out and done really well for [Hulu], so I think that they were primed to take a chance on something like this. I think it was still a risk, and who knows? It’s harder to gauge how much it’s going to pay off. It’s too soon.”
When Crazy Rich Asians was released, it seemed like all was good with Asian and Asian American representation in Hollywood. The community was finally being represented and being seen on screen in a major studio film that had nothing to do with martial arts or any other Hollywood orientalism. Fire Island continues to add to representation of the community bringing a queer story into focus and tackling subject matter about gay Asian identity and its relationship to the dominant white LGBTQIA+ culture — that is seldom told in mainstream films and TV. It’s a big move forward — but there will always be someone who won’t like how a certain piece of art or story represents them. Somebody will always demand to speak to a manager.
As Asian Hollywood continues to flourish, this newfound gift of inclusion in film, TV, and media comes with growing pains because its something the community is not used to having. And with that, comes speed bumps and — dare I say — misdirected hatred.
When Simu Liu was announced as the lead character in Marvel Studios’s Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, trolls immediately came for him on social media calling him “too ugly” to play the superhero. He was also put on blast for some controversial Reddit posts that many said were homophobic and sexist. The latter was quite the scandal and should not necessarily be overlooked (Liu has since addressed them).
Even with Blue Bayou, Justin Chon’s film about an adoptee in danger of being deported, he was accused of stealing the story from an adoptee. And many Asians immediately began attacking Chon in blatant and subtle ways. (Believe me, within the community things are said that are never printed. The community tends to keep this kind of trash-talking within the community) Things got messy and it eventually eclipsed the film’s chances of any chance of an awards season campaign. Again, whether it was right or wrong, navigating this terrain in a community that is scarce with representation is tricky. Holding them accountable is one thing, but mindlessly overpolicing them and putting them on blast because you can is another — and that’s this thing society is trying to grapple with: cancel culture.
It’s difficult for any historically marginalized community in Hollywood to find looking for affirmation in the bigger scope of the industry and when you can’t get it there, you look within your own community. And when you can’t get it within your own community, that’s where problems and crab mentality begin to make things toxic.
“it’s very true, because it’s a natural impulse,” said Cho about the topic. “This is how white supremacy really hurts us. It makes us believe that we’re doing this to ourselves, but we’re really not. This is just generations, generations of systemic racism invading our psyche. So it has nothing to do with self-hate. Self-hate doesn’t come from within. It’s taught, but in subtle ways that are so removed from our own logic. What we really want we can’t recognize so it’s really hard to separate from that.”
“It’s like when I was in high school, and the Asian kids were trying to form an Asian Student Union, because we didn’t have one,” Cho recalled. “They passed me a flyer, and I was like, ‘Why does it have to be yellow paper?’ They were like, ‘It was the only paper they had. We didn’t do that on purpose’. It was my own self-hatred coming out and criticizing, but trying to make a joke of it, and making fun of them. We didn’t have an Asian Student Union. These people were actually trying to do something.”
As a filmmaker, Ahn said that he learned you can’t control how people are going to interpret what you create and he understands negative reactions. He said, “I think it’s exactly what Margaret said — they’ve lived in a racist country, consumed media that’s built in a racist system and so my only thing is, how can what we do open up additional avenues for more so that our cinema culture seems as rich and diverse as the community that exists?”
It shouldn’t go overlooked that Cho is an icon when it comes to Asian as well as queer representation in film and TV. In fact, I mentioned to her that when I was younger, I read her book I’m the One That I Want and told her that I gravitated towards this and her trailblazing sitcom All-American Girl, which ran for one season in 1994 on ABC. This was before I came out to which Booster joked, “Honey, you were reading Margaret Cho’s book. I think people could guess.”
That said, Cho, along with a handful of Asian and Asian American actors and creators like Ke Huy Quan, Tzi Ma, Tamilyn Tomita, Bernard White, and Tia Carrerre, walked so many after them could run. Cho has been excited to see the growth of Asian representation since the early days of her career. She turned to Booster and said, “I’m so excited for your comedy special because it’ll be the first time I’ve seen a queer Asian comedy special that’s on a big platform. It’s really incredible. It’s taken me 20 years to be able to see it happen after I started. So to me, I’m like, ‘This is so exciting. Finally, comedy for me’.”
Booster stepped in to praise Cho, “To be perfectly honest, I can draw a straight line from All-American Girl to Fire Island/ It showed me the possibility that I did not know existed for me in this industry before I saw your show. I would sit inches away from the TV screen, and especially, to see Asians in a comedy space where the Asian-ness wasn’t the joke. It really did transform the way I saw my own possibilities going forward as a creator. I didn’t even have the words for it when I was a kid, but I was like, ‘Oh, I want to do that’ and it just never felt like something that was for me before your show. So to have you in this movie, it’s such a full circle moment. It’s unreal.”
“I think, my greatest achievement, is to have inspired people like you and Bowen to just go for it,” Cho responded. “When you see that it’s possible, then anything’s possible. So it’s really gratifying for me, and good job security for the future.”
As a gay rom-com led by two queer Asian men, written by a queer writer, directed by a gay man and cast that includes a rainbow coalition of queers, Fire Island is definitely going balls to the wall when it comes to LGBTQIA+ representation. However, as much as I want it to, it is not getting a theatrical release.
“I’m torn, obviously,” said Booster about not getting a theatrical release. “There’s an element where I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to see it on the big screen,’ but at the same time, I’m glad we don’t have to worry about fucking box office numbers.”
He explained, “At the end of the day, it is a gay Asian movie. So who knows how it will do? I think it’s a lovely film. I think we got away with a lot more because it’s streaming. I think we would’ve had to make a lot more content cuts if it were theatrical. I think we would’ve been pressured to make it PG-13 even. I think there’s a lot of things that would’ve come into play that would’ve made this movie a lot more difficult to make if it were going to big screens, but of course it’s a bummer. I’m glad that we have the screenings that we have in theaters because I will say, having watched it at home with people, I just hope people are not on their phones the whole time.”
When it drops on June 3 on Hulu, Fire Island will certainly be embraced by the LGBTQIA+ community and it definitely deserves a spot in the canon of queer cinema. It will take Ahn, Booster, Cho and the rest of the cast to another level of notoriety (Cho will just add to her legendary status). That said, with the scarcity of queer Asian films in Hollywood, the spotlight will shine bright on them and people will have their eyes glued to them to see how they will represent the community.
“I just try to do all that I can,” said Cho when it comes to representing the Asian community. “There’s only so much we can do. But, it’s also trying to get others in the picture. I always really push (comedians) Atsuko Okatsuka, Irene Tu, and Robin Tran, who I think are really just so exciting.”
Cho asks the question “Why is there only space for one Asian?” when it comes to film and TV. “If we did this to white people, we would only have 100% Joe Rogan all the time,” she said. “It would just not be right, so we can’t just have one. I want more diversity from all of the communities that are from the Asian American community. I want all of us up.”
“Which is why I hope the reaction becomes less, ‘Ugh, this is what we get?’ and more like, “Who else can I support to get what I want?’ Booster added.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge why people are critical of the work made within the community, but it’s also so important, as artists, that we focus on just making the work because that’s how you make something the best.,” said Ahn. “You’re not worried about its perception; you’re focused on the creation of it. For me, it’s impossible to tell every story in one film. I think of my career not as just the work that I make, but the work that I can help other people make. Hearing Margaret mention Atsuko, Robin, and Irene — it’s just something that we’re constantly doing as a community. We help other people get their stuff made because we can’t tell that story.”
Booster said candidly, “I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of resentment that comes with that too. Because listen, at the end of the day, I wanted to make a movie about Bowen and I’s friendship, and I think that I’m being asked to answer for a lot of gaps in representation that haven’t happened before, and it’s not fair that I’m getting asked, ‘How does this represent the universal gay Asian experience?’ when white guys do not get asked to represent all white guys in their experiences in their movies.”
“Werk,” I respond.
“When someone’s told, ‘This is for you. You must like this, because this is for you’ — and I’ve reacted this way to other things that have been supposedly for me as a gay man, or an Asian person — it breeds resentment,” he continued. “It’s an unfair thing, because a straight white guy makes a movie, and I see it, and I say, ‘That’s not for me.’ I just move on. I don’t think about it but every gay Asian person is going to feel like they have to see this movie and make a judgment about it because it’s the first of its kind. That’s an honor, and it’s also a huge burden at the same time.”
Booster said that Andrew had to remind him constantly on set that he isn’t making this movie for Twitter and told him, “We just have to tell this honest story the best that we can, and people will receive it how they’ll receive it.” He doesn’t take his responsibility as a storyteller lightly. He points out that if you constantly are looking to make sure everyone is represented and happy, it can way you down and impede creativity.
“I hope that Fire Island inspires people to tell their own story,” he said. “It’s a very specific story about a very specific friendship between me and Bowen through the lens of our own experiences, navigating this community as gay Asian men, and how they’re similar, and how they’re different. I know that there are Asian people who are going to watch this movie and not relate. What I hope the impulse is, is not to tear down, but to go and figure out a way to get their own story told if they don’t see it in this.”