Interview: Jay Chandrasekhar Talks Directing ‘Easter Sunday’, Working With Jo Koy & Filipino Representation
[By Matt Fernandez]
Even among those who haven’t done their time in the trenches of a Manny Pacquiao boxing night watch party, certain staples of Filipino-American life are relatively well-known: lumpia, pancit, karaoke, and nursing. Jo Koy wants to grow that list.
After shining the light on Filipino-American culture with his Netflix stand-up specials, Koy seeks to do the same in movie theaters with his new film Easter Sunday.
Set primarily in the Fil-Am hub of Daly City, Calif., Easter Sunday is a loosely biographical film based on Koy’s life. He plays a fictionalized version of himself named Jo Valencia, a struggling actor who returns home to celebrate Easter and finds himself caught up in family drama while trying to advance his fledgling career.
Easter Sunday is also Koy’s film acting debut. Director Jay Chandrasekhar, a self-described “big Jo Koy fan,” said that he wanted to make the film a “soft landing” for the comedian’s established fan base by incorporating jokes and themes they have come to expect.
“[Jo’s] fans love him, but they’re used to him on a stage with a microphone, so let’s make him a stand-up trying to make it in Hollywood so that people are like, ‘yeah, this feels familiar,’” Chandrasekhar said. “We included his mother’s character…and partially built it out of his stand-up stories and his personal stories.”
Part of Chandrasekhar’s task was to channel the energy Koy exudes during his live shows and translate his style in a way that would play in a film. The same rhythm that Koy has perfected for a two-and-a-half-hour live show wouldn’t necessarily play well in a movie with an hour and 40-minute runtime.
“His comedic instincts are always right, but what he does on stage is he riffs and fills in and tries different things, and in a movie, you can do some of that, but…the rhythm has to be a lot more pure than in a stand-up show,” Chandrasekhar said. “I kind of got him to compress the sentences, say them faster and lose these pauses. He very quickly became a really good actor.”
Though the Philippines and its people have been deeply connected with American culture and history, especially following World War II, Filipino culture doesn’t seem to have broken into the mainstream the way other cultures have. Even as Filipino stars like Olivia Rodrigo, H.E.R., Hailee Steinfeld, and Darren Criss continue to win roles and lead the charts, only four productions in recent years have prominently featured Filipino culture: Diane Paragas’ Yellow Rose, Jay Oliva’s Trese, Dante Basco’s The Fabulous Filipino Brothers and Spider-Man: No Way Home which briefly has Ned’s lola speaking Tagalog.
Easter Sunday wants to be the film that breaks down the hyphen barrier between Filipino-Americans and appeals to the masses as an easily digestible crash course on Pinoy culture. Though this seems to be a daunting task, the quality of names attached to the production, like Steven Spielberg and Jimmy O. Yang, was a clear signal of the high hopes that the film carries and the cross-cultural appeal of Koy’s jokes.
“If you go to one of Jo’s acts in Florida or Nashville, the audience is 95 percent white, so different nationalities already love this guy. Show business is already one big hilarious, high-risk bet after another, so the idea of making a movie with a very charismatic comic who has never acted to me sounded like a fun challenge,” said Chandrasekhar. “At the end of the day, this movie doesn’t get made if Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t do as well as it does. If the market supports it, more will happen. You need to have an audience for show business to work.”
It was important for Chandrasekhar to do right by his cast and crew, who he relied upon to fill in the little details like the proper kinds of plates and the proper color of sauces, because if Filipinos feel that the film is genuine and authentic, then so will other audiences.
“My mailman is Filipino, and he’s excited for this movie,” Chandrasekhar said. “We put all these great Filipino actors in who usually don’t get to be in ten scenes; they’re usually in one scene as a cab driver. If the movie is funny and it works, then for these actors, it will be ‘they were funny in this, let’s put them in that,’ and the whole representation thing will happen naturally.”
Already, it seems that the commitment to authenticity has paid off.
“When I first saw the trailer, I couldn’t believe it was going to be a film, and I started tearing up. [My friends] said, ‘I just saw the trailer, and I started crying,’ so I said, ‘It’s supposed to be funny,” joked actor Lydia Gaston, who portrays Susan, a fictionalized version of Koy’s mother. “Like Jo says, we feel that our stories are worth hearing, which is a wonderful feeling. It’s also an American story.”
Though he comes from an Indian background, Chandrasekhar said he “never felt out of [his] depth” while making Easter Sunday that he has felt “connected” with Filipino culture ever since he dated a Filipina girl in high school and spent a lot of time with her family. (His favorite Filipino dish is lumpia.) He also drew the connection that since both India and the Philippines use English as the primary language, both of their peoples have been able to succeed in pop culture.
“I learned that Filipino men fancy themselves to be pretty macho guys, and when Smokey and the Bandit came out, all my uncles grew out Burt Reynolds mustaches, so it reminded me of that,” Chandrasekhar said. “And all the aunties bickering and fighting. A lot of it felt very Indian to me. I could see my story in this movie which is what I hope the audience will feel too.”