Jo Koy is part of a small group of Filipino Americans in Hollywood who have been grinding and doing the work to represent a community of Asians that make up over 4 million of the country’s 23 million-plus Asian population. He, along with his Easter Sunday co-stars Tia Carrere and Lou Diamond Phillips and actors like Dante Basco played roles in some of the most iconic movies (Wayne’s World, La Bamba, Hook, respectively) but somehow we never got a major studio film that spotlighted the culture. Now, Easter Sunday serves as a benchmark for not only Filipino representation, but inclusive storytelling in Hollywood as a whole.
“I’ve been wanting to tell this story for 33 years, but unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t caught up until now,” Koy told DIASPORA during a recent interview. “The cool thing about this whole journey is it took someone like Steven Spielberg to finally [say], I want to make this movie — and you know, he did that.”
In 2019, Koy struck a deal with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment to make Easter Sunday. When the COVID struck the world it didn’t necessarily speed things up, but the film was shot during pandemic. When all is said and done Koy said it’s “beautiful” to see the project come full circle. “We get to have a voice and finally we get to tell this story,” he said. “We get to learn about other people’s ethnicities and cultures and and also realize that we’re all the same.”
Written by Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo and directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, Easter Sunday is tapestry of characters with Koy’s Joe Valencia at the center. Joe is navigating his acting career in Hollywood while trying to maintain his relationship with his son (Brandon Wardell). He attempts to bond with his son by taking a road trip to the San Francisco Bay Area to spend Easter Sunday with his demanding mom (Lydia Gaston) who is at odds with Tita Theresa (Tia Carrere). There’s also Joe’s cousin with misplaced entrepreneurial energy Eugene (Eugene Cordero) who pulls him into some bad business with a guy named Dev Deluxe (Asif Ali) which then leads him to an underground broker of stuff (Jimmy O. Yang) and then a reconnection to an old flame (Tiffany Haddish) and then to… Lou Diamond Phillips?
For Koy, he knew he didn’t want to tell a story about the struggle for success. Even though, it’s part of the movie’s plot, it was important to spotlight his family which included roles filled by more Filipino talent including Eva Noblezada, Rodney To, Melody Butiu, Joey Guila, and Elena Juatco.
As Asian representation makes its way to the front of Hollywood, we are beginning to see more diverse stories within marginalized communities to reiterate that these cultures are not a monolith. Koy said he is not necessarily representing all Filipinos — but he is acknowledging the culture and family that made him who he is. “This is me and this is my version of my family,” he said. “You’re either going to relate to the family aspect, or you’re going to relate to who I am as a Filipino.”
There may be a case of art imitating life in more ways than one considering Koy is playing a guy named Joe who is an actor. As a stand-up for over three decades, Koy has been patiently doing the work — but his journey has had its obstacles and moments of doubt.
“There were so many times I wanted to quit,” Koy admitted. “Even when I shot my first Netflix special, I wanted to quit because no one wanted to buy it. It was like, ‘What’s the point of continuing?’ Maybe I should just quit because I plateaued.”
He continued, “I didn’t want to quit because no matter what I was gonna do stand-up. I was gonna die doing stand-up, but I wasn’t gonna give up on telling my story. So I just kept pressing forward. I think that was my only motivation: that I love stand up and I was going to continue telling my story and if it happens, it happens. But no matter what, I’m still going to tell my story on stage.”
Easter Sunday is essentially a reflection of Koy’s stand-up and the movie is long overdue. As his stand-up comedy peers were getting their films and TV series, Koy kept patiently on pushing forward, selling out arenas and thriving as a stand-up comedian. It was only a matter of time before his story would hit the big screen — and now that it’s here, Koy makes sure not to take it for granted.
“You know, my mom got here in 1969 and it took her son 51 one years make a movie about her — and in 51 years she’s never seen anyone that looked like her on the big screen, let alone a whole family,” said Koy. “So if you can think of that, just realize how important that is. I want to keep the door open instead of trying to close it or else we’re gonna have to wait another 51 years for something like this to happen again.”
Easter Sunday hopes to be a substantial contribution to Asian representation in film and TV. Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S. and makes up roughly 6% of the country’s total — and that 6% has a lot of story to tell.
As box office numbers still remain arbitrary barometer for the success of films, Hollywood will be looking at the performance of Easter Sunday. As much as the industry doesn’t want to admit it, films from intentionally exploited communities are held to a different standard — especially if its the first of its kind. That said, I admit to Koy that I am being cautiously optimistic about how Hollywood will respond to Easter Sunday as a foundation of Filipino representation in a major studio film.
“Get rid of that,” Koy said in regards to my cautious optimism. “There’s no such thing! We’ve already won, man.”
Koy said he just wants all kinds of stories out there and insists that audiences having been waiting to hear stories like Easter Sunday. “I’m not just saying Filipinos, because if you go to my shows, you’ll see every demo in there,” he said. “I want to see everyone get a chance to tell their story and be heard. That’s how important this movie is to me.