Film

Interview: In His First Starring Role, Taylor Takahashi Talks Playing Basketball in Boogie and Eddie Huang’s Mentorship

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: I love talking to first-time actors because they’re less guarded in interviews than their more seasoned colleagues. They haven’t been coached as to what to say about themselves or their movie as much as a veteran actor, or if they have, they don’t realize that the studio publicists don’t want you to stray from the script, so they do just that. One of the more promising debuts I’ve seen in recent memory belongs to Taylor Takahashi in Boogie, in which he plays Chinese-American high school basketball phenom Alfred ‘Boogie’ Chin, who is torn between his dreams of going to an elite college to play in the NBA and his parents’ expectations. Making it worse, his parents (Pamelyn Chee as Mom, Perry Yung as Dad) don’t agree on what’s best for him.

Boogie is a passion project from writer/director Eddie Huang, the author, chef, restaurateur, food personality, producer, and attorney who is best known for the Viceland series “Huang’s World” and the long-running ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” which was based on his life (read the full review here). Huang met Takahashi during a pickup basketball game in the Bay Area and the two became fast friends, with Huang even hiring Takahashi to be his personal assistant before casting him in the film.

Boogie

Image Credit: Nicole Rivelli / Focus Features

Takahashi was born and raised in the Bay Area, where he explored his identity through the avenue of sports. His love for the game of basketball taught him life’s basic lessons and ultimately, led him to meeting Huang in a basketball league. Boogie is Taylor Takahashi’s feature film debut, and his character is required to balance the burden of familial expectations, high school, a new girlfriend in Eleanor (Taylour Paige), and vicious on-court rival Monk (the late rapper Pop Smoke). For a newcomer, Takahashi handles the emotional range of Boogie remarkably well. I had the chance to talk with him recently about the film and his journey to it. Please enjoy…

Taylor Takahashi: Hey, Steve. How’s it going?

Good, Taylor. Good to talk to you.

You as well.

I’m a big “Fresh Off the Boat” fan, so I was ready to watch anything Eddie was a part of, but I wasn’t quite prepared for this movie. Your story in really unique, and I read that you two met on the court. Is that accurate?

Correct. He and I play [in] a rec basketball league in the San Gabriel Valley. We met through a mutual friend that I grew up with, and Eddie had been on podcasts and heard about this guy who played like James Harden and he hogs the ball all the time. So I’d been down in Orange County for about a year and a half, but I’m from the Bay Area and I always played in a rec basketball league, and I was missing playing with that group of friends that you hang out with and eat with and bond with. So I hit up our mutual friend, and he’s like, “Yeah, some days we play Sunday mornings. Come down.” But I didn’t want to drive an hour just to play a game for 45 minutes and drive an hour home, because I’m used to making a day of it hanging out. So I walk into the gym, and Eddie’s there. I’d watched “Huang’s World” and read a couple of his books, so I felt like I knew him in a way, but I obviously didn’t know him. And the moment I said “Hello” to him, he was the exact same as he was on his show, and I was like “Wow, this is amazing.” We bonded over food, basketball, and as our relationship has grown, he’s become like a mentor, and we’ve gone through different phases: friendship, I worked for him. I was his personal assistant beginning in 2019, so technically he was my boss, although he never treated me like an employee. Now he’s switched over into the mentor side. I’m going to call him a genius [laughs], because he is one, and it’s awesome to be in his presence day to day.

Is acting something you wanted to do, or did he suggest it for this role? How did that even come up?

I had no intention of being in the entertainment industry, so I got to cook at a couple of events with him in early 2018, and he called me after one of the events—we’d just cooked for Union, which is like a men’s boutique store; they had their holiday party—and Eddie’s parents came in and we cooked a traditional Taiwanese menu. I think it was his mom [who] said, “Eddie, this kid follows your directions and doesn’t have an ego in the kitchen.” With cooking, basketball, and life, you have to figure out how to work with each other, and there’s a sense of teamwork that goes on in the kitchen or in any sport. So he called me a couple days after the event, and asked “Have you ever thought about working in the entertainment industry?” “Not a day in my life.” But he was trying to ask me to be his assistant, and doing that was my introduction to what the entertainment industry was like, experiencing his stuff, through his lens, and being point man to get him where he needed to go.

That gave me the first lay of the land into the industry, and right before I started, he gave me Boogie to read and told me “I don’t care if I do anything else this year, all I want to do is make this movie. I wrote it, I want to direct it, I have this vision for it. Let me know what you think.” And it was the first script I’ve ever had in my hands. It was 125 pages at the time, which is long, but I told him “I like this and not just because I like your writing style, but because it’s about an Asian-American kid playing basketball. I see myself in it a little bit. This is great.”

So when we got the movie greenlit, he and I moved to New York together; we were living together through the entire production in Brooklyn. And like any other day, I show up three weeks before to the studio, and he’s standing at the front door, which never happens, and he’s like “Give me your phone and your laptop,” and I’m like “Shit, am I fired? What did I do?” And he’s like, “No, dummy.” He gave me scene 44 and said “I want you to sit down and memorize as much as you can, take as much time as you need, we’re going to record this later.” I didn’t think a whole lot about it but I took a couple of hours, and in our line producer’s office, we recorded that scene and sent it to the studio. I think that was on a Thursday; I took the weekend to really consider whether I was capable of doing this, and by Monday, I had three weeks to be Boogie.

Eddie has worked with actors before, but did he have any practical advice to give you to get through the task of being the title character in a feature film?

It really was like jumping in the deep end, but he told me from the jump, “This is a basketball movie, so regardless of how you think you’re going to do, you’re going to have the highlight of your basketball career. And I was sold [laughs]. I think he had a master plan all along; Eddie is always three steps ahead of everybody. But unbeknownst to me, he was like “I will support you, I’ve got you, I will do everything I can to get you ready and prepared, and give you all the resources that are available to me. But ultimately, I can lead you to the lake but you’re going to drink the water yourself.” So he did everything he could, and that really pushed me forward. When I look back, it’s the truest for of having someone believe in you before you believe in yourself, and the power in being able to accomplish something. We made a movie.

That’s also the lesson of the movie: there are other people who believe in Boogie before he believes in himself. You said you saw some of this character in yourself. What were those things, and did seeing them make it easier or harder to play a version of you?

I saw the high school kid trying to make his dreams of playing in the NBA [come true]. I didn’t grow up in New York City, but I know the world of basketball and how basketball and hip-hop culture coincide with each other. I don’t come from an immigrant family, but I understand the world that it was in. It wasn’t too far of a stretch for me. The hardest part was remembering what it was like to be 18. You have to tap back into being young, [an] adolescent who hasn’t quite figured things out yet. You’re expected to run into a wall and pick yourself back up and move on; that’s how you learn. And I had to remember what it was like to not have certain life experiences that I do have now. It was a really fun, cool experience to have.

One of the themes that run through a lot of what Eddie writes about and shows us in all of his projects is that burden of expectation that families put on us. Could you identify with that at all?

Absolutely. My parents were actually very different—it might be a generational thing and the fact that they weren’t immigrants. My parents never put pressure on me to be a doctor or dentist or something. They wanted me to take the principles that we had as a family and carry them into whatever career path that I chose. Dedicating yourself, putting in the work, enjoying what you do, being a good person. As long as I was comfortable and okay, they didn’t care what I did. It was kind of the opposite of Boogie, but one of my best friends grew up the same way as Boogie, with all of those expectations piled on. “We came to this country for a reason. You are going to succeed, and you’re going to figure it out a little bit on your own.” But he was 50/50 on how to lead his life, do you follow the parents’ dreams, my dream, where do I go? So I was familiar with it, but I did not grow up the same way.

What were those first couple days on the set like for you? Were you terrified? Was it easy?

I’ll always remember it. If I’d had more time to prepare, I don’t think it would have come out as well. I think I would have overthought things. I think it was the right amount of time to get my footing and learn enough. I’d taken just enough swimming lessons, and now it was time to swim. But that first day, I only had one line. It was the scene where I go in the restaurant and see my Uncle Melvin and see the contract he has. I got to set at 9am, but my call time wasn’t until 11:30am or noon, but I spent two hours in my trailer, pacing back and forth. I had a mirror in there, and I was looking at myself saying, “Can I do this? Can I say this word? It’s one line; can I do it?” That first take, I’ll never forget how hard my heart was beating. I’m glad I wasn’t wearing a heart monitor because they’d probably think I was having a heart attack. After the first couple of takes, you settle in, and as days progressed, I felt more and more comfortable each day. And by week two or three, I understood the lay of the land, and it was no longer frightening or surprising. For me, what makes me comfortable is making friends with people, so I spent a lot of energy trying to get to know everybody on set. I think that really helped me.

Many of your scenes are with Taylour Paige, who’s been working a lot in the last couple of years, and has a very memorable role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and another film called Zola that I saw at Sundance last year, and she’s so good in it. What do you learn from working side by side with someone with that level of experience and talent?

Like you said, she’s a monster. Things got put on pause, but 2020 was so good for her. She’s a rising star. We never had a lot of pressure. She wasn’t one of those actors who was like “I want to do it this way, and it has to be this way” to force it down your throat. She and I spent a lot of time between takes talking to each other like friends, and that really helped me a lot. She was never like “You’re a first-time actor, so this is my suggestion on how to do this.” She was just very much like “This is an amazing opportunity for you, and I’m here for you while you play your part.” It showed me the respect for the craft that she has and her dedication. She loves the acting world, and she’s very good at it. I would love to be able to sit behind the camera and watch her process, but being in front of her and seeing it, it was amazing, and now I understand what a high-level person goes through, and all you can do is respect it. Plus, she has such a fun energy and spirit to her, and you’d try really hard to match it and be a part of it. I’m really thankful that she was as cool as she was.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is that pre-sex scene, where you’re really nervous. That is such an honest, natural, hilarious moment. Was that tough to get through?

And very real [laughs]! In the beginning, we would do a take, and Eddie would come in “Dude, you’ve never had sex before, so you can’t play it cool or too hard.” “I know. I’m trying. It’s hard to tap back into the idea that I’ve never done this before.” But the nervousness that came with that really plays in that scene. Obviously, I’ve never been a part of a sex scene or intimate moment on camera, so it matched the nerves I had in real life. But that was one of the big moments where I had to remember that he’d never had sex before, and how awkward and different it is. I really wanted to take the relationship to the next level with this girl, but am I ready? And I’m looking at everything that’s in the room, trying to avoid what I really want. They were playing music on some of the takes that we did, and it got into a fun vibe. It was a challenging moment. I haven’t actually seen the movie yet; I don’t want to until March 5, but I remember that scene; I’ve seen it cut, and that also sticks out for me.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so well done. Was it tough shooting basketball in a movie setting? I assume you don’t get to just play for long stretches. It seems orchestrated and choreographed.

That’s right, it’s totally different because if I’m playing pick-up basketball with friends, I rely on my natural rhythm and flow that goes through the game—a sort of back and forth, picking your spots, figuring out where your teammates are going to go, how to best utilize them. And when you’re shooting [a movie], there’s a choreographed play but we also try to capture the natural flow, but it’s hard to start-stop, start-stop, reset, and you don’t get me just running around. Some plays you take off and some plays you’re on, you have to make this shot, you have to make this pass, you have to be in this place. It’s a lot more stiff than natural basketball. So there’s a challenge in that, because I would consider myself someone with a fairly high basketball IQ, so I see these things happening and I want to respond, but you don’t have time for that. You have to shoot this play and move onto the next thing. Alright, fine. But I think the basketball [scenes] came out great, and that’s what I was looking forward to the most. But as I went through the process, the acting portion was so much fun to tap into and a great discovery for myself.

Well best of luck, and I hope this did spark something in you, and you get to do more acting.

Thank you so much. I appreciate it, Steve.

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