Christine Ko’s Path to Acting Began with a McDonald’s Commercial

Kimberly Truong

Christine Ko knows it’s a weird time to be promoting a movie.

After our plans to meet up were deflected by concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the 27-year-old actress calls me from her Los Angeles home, where she’s under California’s stay-at-home order. With so many film release dates getting postponed, and movie theaters temporarily shuttered, it feels like the industry is in a bit of a limbo.

It’s also a weird time for the both of us as Asian-American women existing in the world. With the uptick in harassment and hate crimes against Asian people around the world fueled by ignorance and fear-mongering surrounding COVID-19, we’re both feeling a little on edge during the rare occasions we leave our respective homes for essential errands.

“I was just walking down the street, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is so weird,’” Ko says of a recent trip to pick up dinner. “I've never felt unsafe to that degree. And now, it's just this very strange thing — I see people looking at me more, and I'm like, ‘Well, it's definitely not because I’m an actress, because I'm looking janky right now.’”

The way she sees it, though, maybe it is a good (if strange) time to discuss her upcoming movie, Tigertail. The film, which drops on Netflix on April 10, is screenwriter Alan Yang’s (Parks and Recreation, Master of None, The Good Place) first feature, an intergenerational family drama that happens to feature an all-Asian cast.

It’s her hope, she says, that the unintentional timeliness of Tigertail’s release will at least help provide respite from the racism Asian people are facing, and that the movie helps put forth a message of celebrating Asian-Americans.

Ahead, she discusses her nomadic upbringing, acting in Taiwan, and her most “personal” role yet.

You were born in Chicago, raised in Georgia, but you lived in Taiwan for a few years. What was your upbringing like?

I moved around a ton. I was adopted by my aunt and uncle in Georgia when I was three. My birth mom and my birth dad live in Taiwan, so I was constantly moving from home to home, just figuring out what was the best home to grow up [in].

My parents were really young when they had me. My mom was 24, and my dad was a singer who traveled a lot. After they divorced, they thought the best place for me was Acworth, Ga., with my aunt and uncle. Growing up, I would be the only Taiwanese-Chinese American girl in school. I very specifically remember them sitting a Korean kid next to me, and they were like, "Yeah, you guys can talk." I'm like, "What? We'll speak English to each other?" They're like, "Yeah, of course." [Laughs] We became best friends, but little did they know that probably wasn't the most correct thing.

In middle school, I really longed to have a connection with my birth mom, and so I moved to Taiwan for four years and learned a whole new language and culture. Then, I always knew I wanted to go to an American university, so I moved back to Georgia in high school and then went to [Georgia State University]. So, that's how I just flip-flopped around the world.

David Higgs

When did you first realize that you wanted to be an actor?

It's really interesting because I never knew that was my one thing I was going to be. But also, I was just not good at anything else. Looking back, the one thing that I loved to do was tell stories at the dinner table. It was a really strange thing, I saw my father [Taiwanese entertainer Frankie Kao] on TV, but I didn't really have a relationship with him growing up. So, this idea of performing felt like it was in my blood, and it felt like it was possible, but it wasn't like he came home every night and told me about his performance and all these things. It was just this weird, mythical idea that my parents did something in entertainment, and it could be a job, but I didn’t really know how to get there.

My aunt and uncle were very strict, and they very much focused on education. We didn't watch a ton of movies or listen to a lot of music. It wasn't until I was in high school that I took a drama class, and I just fell in love with it. I was like, "Oh, I don't love being in the spotlight, but I love playing different characters. It feels like a way for me to escape." And then I went to college for finance. [Laughs]

How did that happen?

I think my [uncle] really influenced me. I wasn't great in school, and I wasn't great with numbers, but I was definitely someone who worked really hard. And so he was like, "You know what? I feel like this is a really good field for you. I feel like you're very capable, and I think this is a stable job." I love him more than anything in the world, so, I was like, "Absolutely." But at the time, all I wanted to do is be an actress. In between classes, I started auditioning in Georgia for commercials — I did one McDonald's spicy chicken commercial, and I was hooked.

[Things] took a turn when I met my [birth] dad as an adult for the very first time when I was 21. I went to his concert in Shanghai, and he asked me what I was doing after college. I said, "I'm looking to get an internship with Merrill Lynch,” and he was like, "You don't sound like you're really excited about it. You always loved acting and performing, from what you've said."

And, I was like, "Yeah, but I'm not trained, and everybody tells me that you're supposed to do it as a kid, and I'm not a kid. I'm 21." He said, "It's never too late. If you really want to try it, I'll support you."

So I packed my bags, and I moved to Taiwan. It wasn't the most responsible move, but I think that was exactly what I needed. I learned on set doing my lines in Mandarin, and I couldn’t read the scripts because I couldn’t read Mandarin, but I can speak it.

Did you have any acting influences or inspirations growing up, people whose careers you really looked up to?

I loved romantic comedies. I remember watching Julia Roberts and being like, "Oh, my God. She's magnetic. She's vulnerable. She's charming." And I was like, "Man, I just want to do a romantic comedy like that one day." And then, I went and saw Erin Brockovich, and I was like, "Oh, she's so badass. I just want to be her."

When I moved to Taiwan, I saw just all these Asian faces as leads. It's this really strange idea, but I didn't think it was weird for an Asian-American or an Asian person to be a lead. And so, I was like, "Oh, okay. " I could definitely do this, you know?

And then, I came back to the States, and I was like, "Wait, what? We only get to play the best friend? No, that's not right."

When you picked up from Taiwan, came back to the US and started auditioning for roles, what was that like for you? What kind of parts were you going out for?

It was really difficult because I just didn't know how it worked here. I got my very first job on Craigslist and I don't suggest that for anybody else. I didn't know that there were casting websites, and I didn't know that you submitted a picture and a resume. So I went on Craigslist, and PetSmart was looking for a print model.

I showed up for casting and ended up booking the job. The next step was to do commercial auditions, and through my very first commercial audition, I found my very first agent. It was this weird, four-year, aimlessly roaming LA, waitressing, and doing commercial auditions and not really knowing what I was doing.

David Higgs

I'm not going to lie, my first couple roles were the [stereotypical] kung fu, karate, kicking gal that comes in and does a couple moves. Or the computer hacker. It's really weird because then I felt like I was hitting an identity crisis again. When I was working in Asia, I was the American. I didn't really fit in with the locals there. And then, here, I wasn't American enough to be Asian-American, but I wasn't Taiwanese-Chinese enough to play a foreign minister, some kind of politician. They were like, "Oh, no. We need an accent. We're looking for that." And so, I found it very difficult to find my role in things.

How did the role in Tigertail come about for you?

It just came through a regular audition, and I had auditioned for the casting director, Terri Taylor, for Crazy Rich Asians [for the lead role]. She's very supportive, and ultimately, I'm really happy with who they ended up casting [in that movie].

Unfortunately, my [uncle] passed away the day that I was supposed to go in for the [Tigertail] audition, so it halted my audition, but I got to fly back to Georgia and say goodbye.

I was really lucky that they were still casting a month later. At first, I was like, "I'm so sorry. I'm not ready to audition." So they said, "Well, would you be willing to just meet [Alan] in person?" We talked, and his experience as an Asian-American man being in entertainment, and his relationship with his parents, it resonated so much with me.

A lot of the movie hinges on your character Angela's relationship with her father. Did you draw from any of your own personal relationships to tap into it?

For sure, I feel like this is the most personal project I've ever worked on. Just the way this project started was so emotional for me. I told Alan, "I'm going through so many emotions. The most important person to me isn't here anymore, and this character is all about the distance between her and her dad. I don't know if I'm fully in control of my emotions."

Going back to Crazy Rich Asians a bit, there's been so much talk about representation getting better for Asian people after that. Is that something that you've experienced with roles you’re going out for now?

Absolutely. And I will say I feel like there was a collective effort to put Asian-Americans on the forefront, and I was really lucky Tigertail was written four years ago, during that Crazy Rich Asians wave. Whether it's influenced Tigertail directly or not, it's this idea that people will show up, and the community will show up for projects we do.

If that means that Crazy Rich Asians made other people realize, “hey, Asian-American leads absolutely can do well in the box office, and you should put money behind them,” then great. I'm here for it.

David Higgs

SMALL TALK:

What was the last thing that you binged watched?

Oh, my God. Love Is Blind.

Who have you been the most starstruck to meet?

When I was on The Great Indoors, I was asked to do their social media account for the People’s Choice awards. And, I somehow got stuck in a room with The Rock, Tom Hanks, J.Lo, and Priyanka Chopra. I was terrified because nobody knew who the hell I was, and I didn't really want to go up to them and ask to do a shout out on my phone.

And Tom actually looked over at me, and he was like, "Hi. How's it going?" And, they were all really nice, but he could tell I was uncomfortable and reached out. I was like, "Hi, I'm Christine. I'm doing this shout out thing. I know it's super weird, but do you mind doing it?" He goes, "Of course." I will say my one experience with him was absolutely wonderful. Everything you've heard about Tom Hanks is true. I know I only interacted with him for 10 seconds, but it is.

What was the worst audition you've ever had?

Oh, god. I was auditioning to play a Chinese politician, and I had to do the lines in both Mandarin and in English, and I felt like I really nailed it. I was also in this very fitted, very black suit that I loved, and I was like, "Oh yeah, I'm going to slay this part."

When I was done, they were like, "Do you know how to do any kung fu moves?" And... I mean, I've taken classes, and I know how to do Krav Maga. So, I was like, "Okay, I'm athletic. I can do this." And, they're like, "Well, great. Can you just show us some kicks on camera?"

I've never even tried to do a high kick. I'm in these pointed stilettos, so I'm like, "Good God. I don't know how this is going to work." I go for my first roundhouse kick, and I kid you not, my thigh gets caught in my pants because they were so tight, and I completely fall over.

And then, I was just flailing because I have no balance on my heels. But, I'm getting up, and I'm still trying to be this Congresswoman, and I'm trying to punch, but my blazer is a bit too tight. It is a hot mess. I'm laughing, but I'm also trying to keep it in. And, when I was done, he just looked at me, and he was like, "Okay. Thank you." [Laughs]

What is something that you're really excited about right now?

I just honestly can't wait to host a dance party with my friends. I'm definitely an introvert, for sure, but I just can't wait to go to a dance party, or just go to a Mexican restaurant and enjoy margaritas. I can't f—king wait for that. I didn't realize how much I miss that.

Oh and, also, Mulan. I'm so excited to see it.

What do you wish more people knew about you?

Oh ... my love for turtles. I love turtles so much, and I feel like they don't get enough praise. I need more posts of turtles on social media.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.