In a way, we—you, me, America, the internet, everybody—are responsible for “Always Be My Maybe,” the new romantic comedy starring Randall Park and Ali Wong. We willed it into existence. Our collective spiritual desire to see these two comedic forces as a cinematic couple was so powerful, the universe made it happen.
In September 2016, hot off the breakthrough success of her stand-up special “Baby Cobra,” Wong was profiled by “The New Yorker.” Amid the insights about her comedy, craft and personal life, Wong mentioned that she and Park had been talking for years about wanting to make a romantic comedy—“our version of ‘When Harry Met Sally.’” It was a single sentence near the end of a 4,000-word piece; but it was enough. Fans found the prospect irresistible, prompting a barrage of tweets about posts about articles highlighting the hypothetical project—at this point, still just an idea between friends—and inspiring impassioned pleas to someone, anyone, out there in Hollywood who could make this dream pairing a reality.
Surprisingly, Hollywood actually answered the call. Interested parties approached Park and Wong’s reps, asking if they had a script. They had no script. But they had both reached a point in their respective careers where the mere possibility of a rom-com starring Park opposite Wong was compelling enough to get the right people to pick up the phone and just maybe get this thing made. “It was a very unexpected outcome,” Park says. “But it motivated us to start writing it.” Presented with the rare opportunity to make their dream project, they enlisted the help of Park’s longtime friend and collaborator, screenwriter Michael Golamco, and got to work.
“It’s been kind of a charmed process,” says Golamco, whose credits include the TV series “Grimm” and “Nightflyers.” “Usually, it takes forever to make a movie, but this one came together so fast. This is the fastest I’ve ever seen Hollywood work. In my life. All the right pieces came together.”
The result, which premiered on May 31 on Netflix with a limited theatrical run, is the Asian American romantic comedy you never realized you’ve always wanted. “Always Be My Maybe” feels at once familiar, refreshing and quietly revolutionary. Park and Wong are your funniest best friends and favorite new screen couple, telling a time-tested tale of modern will-they-or-won’t-they that is somehow universal yet effortlessly Asian American.
The plot: Wong and Park are Sasha and Marcus, the kind of childhood sweethearts who everyone assumed would end up together. But when tragedy and hormones put a rift between them, they don’t speak for 15 years. Reconnecting as adults, Sasha is now a celebrity chef opening a restaurant in San Francisco, while Marcus is a happily struggling musician still living at home and working for his dad. The old sparks are still there, but their lives may have diverged too far to make it work. Together, Wong and Park are smart, funny and undeniably charming, very much in the tradition of Hollywood’s most beloved onscreen couples—that is, if traditional Hollywood rom-coms weren’t so overwhelmingly white.
But the stars have aligned for Park, Wong and Co. They’ve made the romantic comedy we need right now, homegrown and cultivated from community—and they’ve made it look easy. It makes you question why it hadn’t been done sooner. “It’s a testament to Ali and Randall, and what they mean to the audience,” Golamco says. “We want to see Asian Americans falling in love. We want to see them as romantic leads going through the emotions that we all go through, so we see ourselves reflected in them.”
Experts say that “overnight success” actually takes somewhere in the ballpark of 10 to 20 years. In some ways, Park and Wong have been laying the groundwork for this movie for over two decades. Their friendship began at UCLA, where they both cultivated a love of writing and performing as members of Lapu, the Coyote That Cares (LCC), the Asian American college theater company Park co-founded in 1995. A popular misconception is that they went to school together, but Wong is quick to point out that she is significantly younger than Park.
“I was like 21. He was like 30. That’s not a joke,” Wong says, laughing. “Some of the LCC alumni had a hard time letting go of their college years. Randall and a couple of other guys who had graduated from UCLA started this improv group called Stage Ninjas. I don’t even remember how it happened, but I joined up with them, and we would do these shows. And that’s how I really got to know Randall.”
If you ask anyone who knew Park in college, they’ll tell you that “Randy,” as his friends called him, was already a star—or at least, already possessed the unique star qualities that he’s recognized for today: razor-sharp wit, ridiculous comic timing, irrepressible charm and an incredible work ethic. The actual star part would come later. But his earliest collaborators knew he had it.
“He is the most talented person I personally know,” says Golamco, who was an original member of LCC. “He’s incredibly talented—writing, music, breakdancing. He can do all this stuff. He’s always been like that.”
“Randall was like a deity when I was in college,” Wong recalls. “People worshipped him. I remember thinking, I can’t believe this guy’s my friend.” The two kept in touch and collaborated as they both embarked on careers in entertainment. Wong moved back home to San Francisco, where she quickly established herself in the ballrooms and basements of the city’s comedy scene. Park, who also did stand-up at the time, crashed on her couch when he performed in San Francisco. “I would go up there, and she would immediately know the lay of the land—all the clubs, all the rooms to perform in,” Park says. “She had a fanbase right away. She would just take me under her wing in San Francisco. I’d get to perform in these rooms that I would not have access to otherwise.”
Wong remembers one of Park’s first visits to San Francisco. “I brought him to the Mission,” Wong says. “We were doing some sh-tty spots in some sh-tty rooms around the 16th Street BART station. Like really, really grimy. I remember he was like, ‘That’s a crack pipe. Is that guy smoking crack? Oh my God, that’s a crack pipe.’ I was like, ‘Welcome to the San Francisco comedy scene! Isn’t it glamorous?’”
In the years leading up to her first special, Wong threw herself into the sweaty hustle of stand-up comedy, going up almost every night, often multiple times a night. “You have to really love the process,” Wong says. “People focus too much on the result. I just really like chasing after that joke, figuring out what I want to say and finding the joke in that.” It’s the comedy grind cycle of performing, writing, failing, keeping what works, then doing it all over again—especially the failing part.
“The thing about Ali, and this is true of a lot of great comedians I know, is that she loves to eat it,” Park says. “When I was doing stand-up, I would bomb a lot, and I’d be devastated. I would never want to perform again. I couldn’t get out of bed the next day. But Ali is not thrown off by that. It’s part of the process, and in a way, she gets exhilarated by it.”
While Wong focused on stand-up, Park pieced together a solid career as a working actor, racking up dozens of small, but memorable, guest roles in feature films, TV shows, shorts and commercials, as well as a cult following around his own prolific oeuvre of web-based comedy. Whether it’s Danny Chung on “Veep,” Asian Jim on “The Office,” or “Baby Mentalist” (co-starring his then-8-month-old daughter Ruby as the crime-solving title character), everybody’s got a favorite Randall Park joint.
Then, in 2014, came the one-two punch of “The Interview” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” the roles that arguably thrust Park into real, honest-to-goodness stardom—though not without some controversy. “The Interview,” in which Park played North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, was branded as either the latest dumbass comedy from James Franco and Seth Rogen, or an international act of aggression that would surely ignite World War III, depending on who you asked. It turned out to be much ado about nothing, and we’re all still here, relatively safe.
For a minute, every journalist writing about “Fresh Off the Boat”’s premiere was legally required to remind you that it was the first show featuring an Asian American family on network television in over 20 years. Far less publicized is the fact that “Fresh Off the Boat,” which recently celebrated its landmark 100th episode, employs one of the most diverse writers rooms on television. When Park landed the lead role as Louis, patriarch of the Huang family, he saw an opportunity to work with Wong again and recommended her for a job on the writing staff.
But while Wong was building a significant following in comedy circles, her resume wasn’t necessarily bursting with credits that got her recognized on the street, aside from short-lived series regular roles on a Chelsea Handler sitcom and the medical drama “Black Box.” Wong doesn’t blame you if don’t remember it. “I played an agoraphobic radiologist,” she says. “I had to say things like, ‘The amygdala is getting very active in the occipital lobe.’”
“Baby Cobra” changed everything. When the 60-minute special dropped on Netflix in 2016, it was a revelation. Infamously filmed while she was seven months pregnant, standing 5-foot-even and wearing a now-iconic bargain H&M striped dress and signature red spectacles—have you seen the Halloween costume tributes?—Wong delivers a gut-busting, star-making proclamation of her identity and comic voice. “Baby Cobra” didn’t herald the arrival of a fresh new talent—she was already here, had been here all along, a fully formed master of her craft. It was the most authentic way to introduce herself to the world, in her element and on her own terms.
“I’m really glad it happened that way,” Wong reflects. “I didn’t mean for it to happen on my terms, but I take a lot of pride in ownership of that. I wrote every single word. I didn’t know any of this was going to happen. It’s still surprising to me. It’s still weird.”
While Netflix never publicizes streaming numbers for its content, the release of “Baby Cobra” and Wong’s follow-up special, “Hard Knock Wife,” have had a direct impact on her profile, her fanbase and, significantly, ticket sales. “Right before I went to film ‘Baby Cobra’ in Seattle, I was in San Francisco—my hometown—warming up, doing four shows at Cobb’s Comedy Club, which is like a 400-seat venue,” Wong recalls. “And I couldn’t sell it out. My best friend told me that she got tickets to see me on Groupon. It was so depressing.” After “Baby Cobra,” her shows sell out in minutes.
We now find ourselves in a post-“Fresh Off The Boat,” post-“Baby Cobra” world, where Asian Americans don’t have to squint so hard at the screen to see their own stories. Where it gets a little easier to tell a story on our own terms. Where two appealing, talented and hardworking individuals can publicly express a desire to work together on something as simple as a romantic comedy, and the universe somehow makes room for it.
“Always Be My Maybe” offers an opportunity to tell a story with elements and characters from the Asian American community you might know really well, but have never quite seen depicted before—and maybe even see yourself. “You know these people,” Golamco says. “They’re you. It’s weird, but it’s fulfilling to look in the mirror and see yourself. For marginalized people, it’s like you forgot what your reflection looked like, even though you live with it every day. And it’s important for other people in America and the world to see that because it shows that, hey, you matter.”
“It doesn’t come from saying, ‘I want to make this authentic Asian American film with great subtle nuanced touches,’ or whatever,” Wong says. “When you go for that, you’re going to lose. But when you go after what you think is going to be fun, what’s going to be great storytelling, that’s the best you can do. And hopefully people can relate to that.”
To create their characters, Park and Wong drew from their own lives. Marcus, a talented rapper who never got it together, regularly smokes pot and still lives with his dad (played by James Saito), is partially based on Park’s own experience as a struggling artist. Marcus’ band, Hello Peril, is inspired by Park’s past stint as front man for his own hip-hop group, Ill Again. (For the record, Park wrote and rapped on all of Hello Peril’s songs in the film.) “I felt like I identified with that character a lot because I lived at home into my 30s,” Park says. “Had my acting career not taken off, I’d probably still be living at home, and I’d be that guy. If our band were to have gotten older and stayed together, that’s where we’d probably be. So, it was very real.”
The character of Sasha, a celebrity chef, is inspired by Wong’s real-life friendship with Niki Nakayama, chef and owner of n/naka restaurant in Los Angeles. Wong says, as a comic, she related to Nakayama’s work ethic and crazy hours, and their shared frustration over being repeatedly asked about what it’s like to be Asian American women in a white, male-dominated field. “I just bonded with her,” Wong says. “I bonded with her more than I bonded with a lot of female stand-up comics. I had never thought about how much being a stand-up comic was kind of analog to being a chef in terms of putting your voice out there, through food or jokes.”
The film was also a great excuse to work with people Park and Wong admired—including director Nahnatchka Khan, creator and showrunner of “Fresh Off the Boat,” making her feature directorial debut. “It made complete sense,” Park says. “We love her. She’s so good. She’s so funny and smart. We felt really lucky to have her first movie be ours.”
Having worked closely with Khan for several years, they’d already developed a creative shorthand. “She’s an incredible storyteller,” Wong says. “At the end of the day, you just want to work with another good storyteller.”
Golamco insists the same goes for Park and Wong, the kind of collaborators that made “Always Be My Maybe” an easy process, from start to finish. “Making anything in TV or film is hard,” he says. “So, you can either make it harder, or you can get together and just be like, one for all and all for one, let’s do our best. This is why you really want to hold on to people that you care about and believe in, because Ali and Randall are those people.”
They have great chemistry, they work well together, and they make a damn cute pair. History has shown that Hollywood’s greatest on-screen couples had repeat outings, making multiple movies together, à la Hanks and Ryan. Could Park and Wong be up for giving it another go? Wong is optimistic, but is waiting to see if people will actually show up for “Always Be My Maybe.” “I mean, let’s see if people like this movie enough for that to happen!” she says. “But yeah, of course. He’s my dear friend, and I love working with him.”
Park, however, is already churning out future movie ideas. “Of course, I’d work with Ali again,” he says. “Maybe another rom-com, but it might be more fun for us to do something different, like a buddy cop film or a ‘Step Up 2: The Streets’ dance-battle type movie.”
Here we go again—are you reading this, Hollywood? Let’s make it happen.
This article will appear in Character Media’s Summer 2019 issue. Subscribe here.