Christine Ko Talks 'Tigertail' and the Reality of Auditioning as an Asian Actress (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Christine Ko is seeing all of her hard work pay off at once. In the past three months, the actress had three projects come out one after another: A film in which she plays her first lead role, as well as two TV shows on which she's a series regular. That this is happening amid a global pandemic? Well, that wasn't part of the plan.
"It's been bittersweet," Ko says by phone from L.A., where she's quarantined at home with her rescue dog. To celebrate her movie, Tigertail, premiering on Netflix, she spent the day cooking an especially decadent dish for herself. "I would never do that on any other day," she laughs. "But I had the time, so I treated myself to some orange wine and a delicious bowl of beef noodle soup."
The shows, Dave and Upload, not only debuted during all this, but were also renewed by FXX and Amazon, respectively, for second seasons. "I wish so badly that I could celebrate with the cast and the creators," Ko says. "At the same time, to even have something to celebrate, I'm so insanely lucky. I've just added more cocktails to my normal happy hour routine."
In another life, none of this would have come to pass and Ko, who's 31, would have followed college with a career in finance. That was her chosen major, having grown up in the greater Atlanta area and never having imagined herself working as an actress. Which, for Ko, was not exactly because of the sentiment you often hear of an Asian-American kid -- never seeing themselves represented onscreen and thus, never thinking it possible.
Both of Ko's birth parents are performers: Her birth father is Taiwanese megastar Frankie Kao, while her mother was a working actress in Asia. Yet Ko was adopted by her aunt and uncle at age three and raised stateside.
"I remember watching my birth dad for the first time on TV. He was onstage, he had a feather blazer on and he was singing rock and roll, and it was this really strange thing where I looked at him and felt like, 'Wow, this is possible,'" Ko tells ET. "And at the same time, I didn't grow up in that environment at all. Living in Kennesaw, Georgia, and being one of two Asian kids in school, I don't think I ever thought it could be a real career."
As it were, when Ko graduated college, she reconnected with her birth father for the first time and moved to Taiwan. Because she was her parents' child, she was quickly signed to a studio contract. "It's so unfair and ridiculous, in a way, because I had no experience," she admits. But on set, she learned to act.
"[In Asia], everybody that I saw on TV or in movies were all Asian. All the leads were Asian," Ko points out. Not yet fluent in Mandarin, she booked the roles of the American friend on two television dramas. Then she moved to L.A. "And I didn't understand why I could only go in for side characters," she says. "Or if it wasn't specifically written Asian, why couldn't this character be Asian?"
"For five years, I was going in for that karate-kicking girl," she remembers. "Many times, I felt like I wasn't Asian enough for certain roles. You know, I wasn't trained in martial arts. I didn't have an accent when I spoke English. I spoke Mandarin, so then it would be like, 'Well, we love that you can speak Mandarin, but we want you to speak English with an accent.' Or, 'We need you to be more American.' And I was like, 'I am American. I was born in Chicago.' It was a fight."
She fought for the chance to audition, to even be considered for a character written as blonde and white -- and she booked one, on the CBS sitcom The Great Indoors, followed by a stint on Hawaii Five-0. Then came a casting call specifically searching for a Taiwanese-American lead for a studio film: Crazy Rich Asians.
Ko went in to audition, so that when the next call for a Taiwanese-American lead came -- the second in Ko's entire career -- it was from the same casting director. The project was Tigertail, the feature debut from Master of None co-creator Alan Yang. The film tells the story of Pin-Jui over three generations: First, as a boy living in the rice fields of Taiwan, then a young man moving to America and finally, as an estranged father (played by Tzi Ma) attempting to connect with his daughter, Angela (Ko).
"They were willing to take a chance on an unknown," Ko says. "That's a whole thing, too. Not only is it so hard for Asian actors to even get a part, but to have an unknown get a lead in a film is beyond imaginable. So I really felt like I won the lottery when that call came through that I got it."
Tigertail is now streaming on Netflix, a gentle, meditative film for which Ko says she's received the most "personal, visceral" response from viewers. Which isn't a knock on any of the other projects. Dickheads -- as Lil Dicky's fanbase is called -- and critics alike raved over Dave, the semi-autobiographical dramedy about an aspiring rapper. Ko plays his most blunt and stylish friend, Emma, a role that was cast color blind.
"I thought it was so cool that Dave Burd was just so open," Ko shares of the man behind the Lil Dicky persona. That she wound up reminding Burd of his real-life good pal, Chloe Bennet, was the cherry on top. The same goes for Upload, creator Greg Daniels' comedy about the virtual afterlife. "I auditioned for a different character," she says, "and we just have such a connection that he was like, 'I wrote this part, Mandy, [for you]."
That the projects came out amid the pandemic may be bittersweet, but the significance of each arriving for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is not lost on Ko. "Between Angela in Tigertail, Mandy on Upload and Emma on Dave, they're three completely different characters," she says.
"What I love is that for anybody watching these, they're seeing Asian faces in these roles. And I love that there is no Christine Ko type," Ko explains. "When you see an audition and it's like, 'This is a so-and-so type,' I love that nobody can put 'This is a Christine Ko type.' My whole goal is for any Asian actress coming up, that she's like, 'Well, sh*t! She can do a quiet, beautiful art film. And then also talk about eating butt on an FX comedy. And then also do a sci-fi thing.' And why not?"
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S., which celebrates the contributions and influences of the Asian community. To capture the current state of representation in entertainment, ET Online will be spotlighting Asian performers and projects all month long.