Jimmy O. Yang’s dad is finally proud of him, and all it took was for word of his latest role in Netflix’s Christmas rom-com Love Hard to be picked up by a newspaper in China. “That was a freaking big deal. I’m pretty sure my dad posted a screenshot of it on Instagram,” Yang laughs, seated at the dining table in his beautiful home as we chat over Zoom. He bought this new house right at the start of the pandemic, and is now settled in with his girlfriend and a special but occasional visitor—his family pug Toffee.
“It’s Toffee’s birthday tomorrow, so she’s going to come over and we’re going to have a nice little party. I’m going to get her a treat, like a doggy cake, or maybe a piece of steak,” Yang relays excitedly. Toffee lives with Yang’s parents full-time, and like any Asian parent, his father was initially resistant to the idea of getting a puppy. “He used to say ‘No, dogs are stupid. If we get a dog, we get an attack dog.’ I was like, what are you talking about? Why do we need an attack dog?”
Yang’s natural comedic timing and delivery pulls easy laughs from anybody he speaks to—whether that’s me during our interview, the audiences who watch his stand-up sets (much of which is centred around his dad) or the millions of viewers that quickly propelled his new project Love Hard to the top of Netflix’s charts. In the so-silly-it’s-sweet film (some might describe it as a guilty pleasure), Yang plays the role of the underdog romantic lead, Josh Lin, paired with Nina Dobrev’s portrayal of dating columnist Natalie Bauer.
He throws his arms up when I ask him what he thinks Josh’s character—he plays an insecure internet catfish who has never managed to get a girlfriend—does for Asian representation in Hollywood. Does the role serve to reinforce negative stereotypes about Asian men, as some theorised when the film’s initial trailer was released? Yang doesn’t think so.
“When I took the role, it was important to me that Tag’s character (Tag plays the conventionally attractive heartthrob whose pictures are stolen by Josh) was also played by an actor of Asian descent. So the audience gets a whole spectrum of Asian actors to look at. You’ve got Darren Barnet as Tag, then my brother’s character—which Harry Shum Jr. plays so brilliantly. Josh himself turns out to be incredibly sweet and lovable by the end of the movie. There was a knee-jerk reaction to the trailer of the movie, but by the end, there’s a nice lesson about giving the short guy with glasses who wasn’t very popular in high school a chance.”
Now, with his first proper foray into the romance genre complete (his last role in a romantic film was as obnoxious playboy Bernard Tai in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians), what’s next for Yang? “I don’t have a solid plan. I try to not do that, I think that’s the fun of being in a creative field. There’s a couple projects I’m really excited about—one of them is Warner Bros. movie my production company Crab Club is writing with director John M. Chu attached, about a great Chinese art heist. That’s going to be really fun, exciting and culturally relevant for us.”
Here, the comedian and actor peers into the future, reflects on the past two years of the pandemic and answers all our burning questions about both Love Hard and his new cooking channel on Youtube.
Was getting into acting and comedy always the dream? What has the journey been like?
No, not at all. I grew up in Hong Kong, so stand up wasn’t even really an option. We didn’t see it on TV. Growing up, I studied Economics like a good Asian kid does. But I had no interest in it so I graduated college and just fell into the stand-up community. I was doing open mics seven times a week but didn’t think it was going to be a career or anything like that. Little by little it grew into something bigger. When I got into acting, I took it very seriously and started taking classes, making sure I was doing well in my auditions. I went from very small comedic roles at first to Silicon Valley.
It has been a slow but gratefully steady road. In between the first and second season Silicon Valley, I was driving Uber. I wasn’t making any money and I was struggling. I thought to myself, if comedy fails, I’ll keep doing it for fun. But at least I have a Prius and I can drive Uber and make rent. But when the second season came and I became a series regular, I felt like ok, this is real. And then came Crazy Rich Asians, and of course, now Love Hard.
How has your Asian immigrant background influenced the path of your career and how does it play into the performances that you give?
When you grow up with Asian parents there is a different set of expectations. There are jobs that are considered real, like finance, engineering or medicine. Art or music? Not so much. I definitely had to stand up for myself and have some tough conversations. Beyond that, I think my background actually helped inform my comedy and my point of view. Having lived in two different continents gave me a very fresh perspective—I don’t think like everyone else that grew up here in America. But at the same time, I’m also very American. This duality helps with observational humour and with the characters that I play—essentially it has broadened my study of the human condition, which is important as an actor.
“You don’t have to be super macho with a six pack who plays football everyday. You can be a nice sensitive guy who likes candles”
Do you think your identity as an Asian-American actor has affected the opportunities you have had?
In the beginning, roles available for people who looked like me were more limited for sure. It just gave me more motivation to go back to acting class, study more and be better. It was about taking ownership of my work—if they aren’t going to hire me because I’m Asian, I’ve got to leave them no choice but to hire me because I’m that good. And now, since Crazy Rich Asians and everything else, opportunities for Asian-American actors are definitely getting better.
When we spoke to your Crazy Rich Asians cast mate Gemma Chan for our November/December issue, she echoed a similar sentiment. She also shared that you guys are all still in touch. What was the Crazy Rich Asians experience like for you?
It was one of the best experiences of my life. Usually when you shoot a movie or do a show, you become very close friends with the rest of the cast for two or three months, because it’s like summer camp. And then you go home and life gets in the way. But there was something very special about Crazy Rich Asians. When we were in Singapore, there was just no explanation needed between us. None of us had to be the only Asian person on the cast explaining to the others where we came from, what kind of food we like or whatever. It felt like we were brothers and sisters. Afterwards, we all went to get oyster omelette or chilli crab, and everyone just loved it. And then we went to karaoke. You just feel very normal and seen, you know? When you talk about Gemma, Awkwafina, Constance, Henry, Harry, Ronnie—I could go on and on. We became real friends, not just set friends. That’s why the WhatsApp group is still going, so we can keep up with each other. It was so nice hearing words of congratulations from the Singapore actors and the American actors when Eternals came out or when Love Hard came out. It’s truly a special group of people.
Tell us about Love Hard. How did you choose to take on your role as Josh Lin?
When I was sent the script, I was told, don’t be offended, but we think you’d be really right for the role. Just read it all the way through. I read it, and I think in the first 30 pages, I had the knee jerk reaction that people might get from the trailer. It’s like, wait what, why am I the catfish?! You know, I’m not that bad looking. [Laughs] What’s going on? But you realise as the movie progresses that it’s not about that, right? It’s just about a guy who’s quite insecure and has to learn to love himself. And I do feel like throughout the movie, Josh turns out to be very loveable. That was very special to me—it was reminiscent of my old days in high school where I didn’t get a lot of girls and had to learn to accept myself.
It’s a different representation of masculinity as well.
Yeah, it’s basically saying, you don’t have to be super macho with a six pack who plays football everyday. You can be a nice sensitive guy who likes candles. At the end of the day, girls will like that, as long as you’re honest. Josh learns that throughout the movie. To be honest, this movie is just for all the underdogs, Asian or not. And I also knew that taking the role meant that my brother’s character will be Asian, my father’s character will be Asian, my grandmother, you know what I mean? Those are jobs, man. At the end of the day, we just want jobs.
How has the pandemic been for you? We’ve seen your cooking channel. Was that a pandemic project?
Yes, I’ve gotten a lot into housework and cooking. Now, every time I leave my house is agony. I’m just so comfortable here. Sure, pre-pandemic I would have been able to go to Singapore and do this interview, but everything just happens over Zoom now. It’s so great. So aside from the uncertainty and the scariness of the virus, I enjoy staying at home quite a lot. It’s given me time to truly find myself and do certain creative projects like making those cooking videos. They’re a great outlet. Now, as you saw in the latest video, it’s getting better. I bought a new camera, I got a camera man. And I’m also going to start cooking with friends, like a podcast, except we are cooking.
And how about your garden? When did that start?
That was pretty recent. So when I first bought the house, my garden was very nicely done, but there were no fruits—it was like more just like a trees and stuff. And I’m like, man, if you’re gonna grow something, why don’t you grow something you can eat? So I tried to grow things that you can’t really buy at regular grocery stores, like Thai chilli peppers, good basil and tomatoes—because tomatoes in America don’t taste right for some reason. I have had some success and I’ve got a very healthy Thai chilli plant growing. It’s just something to do every day. I’m turning into an Asian dad.
Yes, and it sounds great. When you’re in quarantine, if you can learn to love staying at home I think you’re pretty much set.
Exactly! And now I’m very lucky to have my wonderful girlfriend that I cook with. She tolerates my jokes and lets me garden. So what reason do I have to go out?
That’s sweet. Did you guys meet on a dating app, like in Love Hard?
We did not. [Laughs] We met at the Hollywood Improv—a stand up comedy club that I go to. I guess you go out to meet people, and then once you meet someone, you stop going out. That’s how it is, right?
Looking forward, which direction do you see your career going in?
With the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time to stay home and think, and it really makes you realise who you care about—my family, my pug, my close friends. You also realise what doesn’t really matter, the events, parties, photo shoots, who cares? As long as I can spend time with my loved ones, have my health and and go on my own creative endeavours, I’m happy.
So yeah, I love acting, I love comedy, but I am lucky enough to only do the jobs I want. I’m not trying to kill myself working every day of the week. I’m becoming more and more selective and I’m grateful that I’m able to do that. I think that’s very true for everyone—there are a lot of people reevaluating the careers. I’d love to do something else unexpected, who knows, maybe an action film? I’m just waiting for the right project that excites me.