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In 2004, Chester Tam had plans to see the Wu-Tang Clan perform in San Bernardino, a city east of Los Angeles, when his car was stolen.
“I was like, ‘I’m broke. I can’t afford a Lincoln Navigator.’ And so I decided to sell it on Craigslist, and my car got stolen,” Tam told NBC News.
After discovering his buyer had given him a fake check, Tam called the police — and still managed to make it the concert.
“I had to be like, ‘I’m not casting two white leads for my movie.’ That’s not even interesting to me."
The experience inspired him to write his new movie, “Take the 10,” which he also directed and acted in. In the comedy, two buddies, played by Josh Peck (“Drake and Josh”) and Tony Revolori (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), have plans to attend a hip-hop concert in Southern California’s Inland Empire. But said plans go awry when one is carjacked and the other becomes entangled with a drug dealer, played by Tam. The movie’s title references the Interstate 10 freeway, which links LA and San Bernardino.
“Saturday Night Live” alumni Fred Armisen and Andy Samberg also make cameos in the comedy, which was made on a budget of $2 million and debuted on Netflix on Jan. 20.
Tam originally wrote the script in 2008. But with an economic recession looming and Hollywood’s slow recovery from the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike, major studios passed on the script, he said. It sat in his repertoire for years, until Netflix picked it up as part of a slate of original lower-budget comedies.
“There was a period of time where I just gave up on the script because I couldn’t get money for it, and I was like, ‘This is never gonna happen, and I’m cool with that.’ And I moved on to other things. It was all timing,” Tam said.
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Born in Queens, New York, to a hairstylist mother and accountant father from China and Hong Kong, Tam grew up in Great Neck on Long Island. The youngest of three brothers, his love of movies came at an early age when his father would rent movies on Betamax tape.
“I grew up watching a lot of inappropriate movies I shouldn’t have seen. I remember watching ‘Fatal Attraction’ with my parents, and I was, like, 5. I remember leaving the room, like, ‘This is making me feel weird,’” Tam said, laughing.
He also cultivated a love of hip-hop, something he shared with his older brother Donny. “My poor mother just had to listen to Hot 97 all the time,” he said. “It was a hip-hop full house — Wu-Tang, Dre, Snoop.”
For comedy fans, he is already a familiar face, as the dance-happy honorary fourth member of The Lonely Island, the comedy trio comprised of Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer.
Tam and Samberg met in film school at New York University, where they were roommates, and moved to L.A. together shortly after graduating in 2000.
Since then, Tam has built his resume as an actor, writer, and director, appearing on-screen in Lonely Island’s feature-length comedies “Hot Rod” and “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” writing for various TV shows, and directing shorts and music videos. So when it came to being at the helm of his first feature, Tam was ready for its challenges, including pushing for a non-white lead.
“Ultimately we want to be cast because we feel like we are valued, and we are part of this world, not because like, ‘Oh, s—t, Twitter’s gonna get at us if we don’t get an Asian woman in here.’”
“I had to be like, ‘I’m not casting two white leads for my movie.’ That’s not even interesting to me. And so after enough push, I finally met with Tony Revolori [who is of Guatemalan descent]. Right away I was like, ‘Oh, you’re the guy,’” Tam said.
Tam originally wrote the role of Jay — a drug dealer experiencing a sexual identity crisis — for an African-American actor but changed it during rewrites. He ended up casting himself in the part. “I had a problem casting a black actor as a drug dealer,” he said. “It felt so dated. It felt like I wasn’t pushing the envelope in anyway. It was something I saw so much of already.”
Another role that Tam would look to play on screen one day is something he said he hasn’t seen enough of: Asian-American superheroes.
“Within the comic book world, there are Asian-American superheroes that already exist, so it's not like they even have to be created,” Tam said.
Playing the first major Asian-American superhero would be a dream role, he added. And he feels like that possibility is more imminent than ever. “It feels like the wick has already been lit, and we're just waiting for the studios to catch up to what audiences want to see,” he said.
"I feel like politics also spills over into entertainment. We want to see inclusivity. It’s important to all of us.”
And thanks to social media, he doesn’t think the conversation about Asian-American visibility in Hollywood is going away anytime soon, especially against a wider backdrop of activism and coalition-building among minority groups — something he saw after attending the Women’s March on Jan. 21 in Downtown LA.
“It was the first time I saw people from other races speaking up for other people. I feel like politics also spills over into entertainment. We want to see inclusivity. It’s important to all of us,” he said.
The challenge for studios and networks, though, will be to cast diversity organically and not just as a reaction to social media pressure. “Ultimately we want to be cast because we feel like we are valued, and we are part of this world, not because like, ‘Oh, s—t, Twitter’s gonna get at us if we don’t get an Asian woman in here,’” he said.