Randall Park and Ali Wong met in the late 1990s at a fried rice cooking competition hosted by a mutual friend from the LCC Theatre Company, an Asian American performance group Park co-founded while attending the University of California at Los Angeles. That’s what Wong would say, at least. Too much time has passed for Park to recall how they met, so he shares her story because, as he recently said over the phone, “she has a great memory.”
The pair hit it off creatively, collaborating a bunch throughout the years that followed. They performed in the same improv comedy group, and she used to take him around different venues in San Francisco when they both did stand-up. The notion of working on a movie together was something they only casually floated due to a shared love of romantic comedies. Then, Wong offhandedly mentioned in a 2016 interview with the New Yorker their desire to make “our version of ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ ”
The idea gained traction. Suddenly, strangers began to express how much they, too, wanted the movie: “Dear Hollywood, Please Make Ali Wong and Randall Park’s Dream Rom-Com,” Vulture pleaded.
“A lot of outlets picked up on that, and we got a lot of calls from studios and producers,” Park said. “We realized there was a demand for it. That’s when we kind of hunkered down and started working.”
The movie arrived on Friday in the form of “Always Be My Maybe,” which the close friends co-wrote, alongside former LCC member Michael Golamco, and also starred in for Netflix. They play childhood best pals Marcus Kim (Park) and Sasha Tran (Wong), who drift apart after a spat in high school and eventually reconnect as adults. Sasha, now a renowned celebrity chef, returns to her hometown of San Francisco for a few months to open a new restaurant. Marcus still lives there, a stoner who works for his father’s HVAC company while rapping with his band, Hello Peril, on the side.
“Always Be My Maybe” has earned buzz for several reasons, the most prominent of which might be the stars themselves. Park, who made an impression playing Kim Jong Un in “The Interview” and with the bit part of Asian Jim in “The Office,” is now known most for his lead role in ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first American sitcom to star an Asian family since Margaret Cho’s in the mid-1990s. (“Fresh Off the Boat” creator Nahnatchka Khan also directed “Always Be My Maybe.”) Wong’s star power shot up three years ago with the release of her raunchy Netflix special “Baby Cobra,” which she filmed while almost eight months pregnant. Park referred to it as “one of the greatest comedy stand-up specials of all time.”
Looped into all this is a growing hunger for on-screen representation among Asian Americans. Park, who was born to Korean immigrants in Los Angeles, and Wong, whose Vietnamese mother and Chinese American father raised her in San Francisco, both earned Asian American studies degrees from UCLA. They based much of the movie on their own experiences, such that the largely Asian cast — their on-screen parents, Sasha’s love interests Brandon (Daniel Dae Kim) and Keanu Reeves (yes, that one) and Randall’s girlfriend, Jenny (Vivian Bang) — which might stand out to viewers, just felt natural to them.
“It was a reflection of our lives and a very real thing, especially in a city like San Francisco,” Park said of the cast’s diversity. “It made sense to reflect the community in the story."
While their Asian heritage influences the ways in which the characters interact — the movie’s opening scene involves Marcus’s mother teaching Sasha how to make kimchi jjigae, for instance — it is by no means the story itself. “Always Be My Maybe” is about the one that got away, a familiar premise that might be the most radical thing about it. For these Asian American characters, the central questions of identity aren’t cultural, though the script tosses in jokes about Sasha code-switching while on the phone or jabs about her fancy restaurant menus “catering to rich white people.” The questions concern what it means for two people to have grown up, apart and then, perhaps, back together.
The movie also lacks the intergenerational culture clashes that often accompany Asian American stories. Park said he and Wong are especially proud of how they developed the relationship between Marcus and his father, Harry (James Saito), who speaks unaccented English — a minor but notable detail, straying from how Asian parents are generally depicted in Hollywood.
“We wanted to do things that felt new and exciting to us, especially in a rom-com, where so much of it is formula-based,” Park said. “There are some of those beats in our movie, but we really wanted to show something new in the relationships of these characters. That was an opportunity to show an Asian American dad that we hadn’t seen before."
Marcus’s mother dies early in the movie, and in one of his first scenes as an adult, we witness him giving Harry an insulin shot. Though Marcus’s emotional reliance on Harry and reluctance to leave San Francisco aren’t depicted in a negative light — perhaps because the latter reflects Park’s lifelong residence in Los Angeles — they do serve as a bit of a crutch. Even after reconnecting with the exceedingly ambitious Sasha, Marcus has little intention of altering his stay-at-home, wake-and-bake lifestyle. The character is authentic to many people’s experiences, Park said. But it’s rather rare to encounter a character like Marcus played by an Asian man.
“I really identify a lot with the character,” Park said. “I lived at home well into my adulthood — I moved out, but then I’d always move back because I was a struggling actor and I couldn’t afford rent. I was content with pursuing my dreams, and I understood that it was going to be a struggle. . . . Marcus is the same in the movie. He’s fine with where he’s at."
While he loved shooting the scene in which teenage Marcus and Sasha awkwardly lie in the back of his Corolla after losing their virginity to each other, Park said the most exciting scenes to write were those starring Keanu Reeves, who plays Sasha’s new beau and an outlandish parody of himself. (He tells Sasha, Marcus and Jenny that “the only stars that matter are the ones you look at when you dream” before paying for a dinner that costs $6,400, or “less than a residual paycheck from my hit movie ‘Speed.’ ”)
Park said they needed to find an actor who would be “Marcus’s worst nightmare,” given that the character comes into the picture soon after Marcus realizes he is in love with Sasha. So they sent the script to Reeves and crossed their fingers. It turned out the “John Wick” actor was a fan of them both — “in particular Ali, he was a fan of her special,” Park noted — and happily agreed to appear in the movie.
“The writing process of those scenes was so joyous and wild,” Park said. “We took it to places where we had to kind of rein it in because we were having so much fun."
“The whole production was a joy, really,” he continued, “and I think it was because you have Ali, a dear friend I’ve known for a real long time, and Nahnatchka Khan, who I’ve known for a long time now. . . . I really just want to keep working with my friends. This kind of set the precedent for me.”