Before comedian Jo Koy secured a theatrical release for his first feature film, it was on its way to Netflix.
“I love Netflix,” he said. “But I felt like if it’d been on Netflix, it wouldn’t do it any justice.”
Although he has multiple comedy specials on the streaming service, it was important to him that the film, “Easter Sunday,” debuted on the big screen for the sake of Filipino American representation. It’s also his first starring role in a feature film.
“I wasn’t gonna have it any other way. Because if it’s not this [film], then how much longer are we going to wait?” he said.
“Easter Sunday,” which hits theaters Aug. 5, tells the story of a family gathering for Easter that’s based on Koy’s life. The cast includes Lou Diamond Phillips, Eva Noblezada, Tia Carrere and comedian Joey Guila.
A 2021 study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California found that Asian American and Pacific Islanders accounted for 5.9% of characters overall across the 1,300 top movies from 2007 through 2019. Of those films, about 3.3% had Asian American or Pacific Islander leads or co-leads.
Koy remembered the impact that seeing other Filipino Americans in films had on him while he was growing up. All he remembered caring about in the 1991 film “Hook” was the actor who played Rufio. “I remember looking at him and going, ‘Man, that looks like my cousin. That’s definitely an Asian, and it definitely looks like a Filipino,’” he said.
Koy described learning that the actor, Dante Basco, shared his ethnicity as one of the greatest moments of his life. “I was finally seen,” he said. “There’s another American right there on the big screen. He just happens to be Filipino.”
He also remembered how meaningful it was to hear Rob Schneider refer to “raspberry bibingka” in the 2005 film “Deuce Bigalow.” It had a profound impact on Koy, who struggled as a kid with his identity and didn’t see people who looked like him in the media.
“That one word in the movie changed my ... life,” he said. “I went crazy. I couldn’t even watch the movie. I was like, ‘Yo, he’s Filipino.’”
“So that’s why ‘Easter Sunday’ had to be in the theater,” he said. “You need that representation. You need Filipinos that live in America to have a voice and be inspired, indirectly giving a shot to all the Filipinos that are struggling just to make it in this business. And this movie is to show that it can be done.”
References to Filipino American culture abound in the film, from a Santo Niño statue to halo-halo and karaoke. Koy’s favorite scene is when the family fills up a balikbayan box with goods that would be sent to their family in the Philippines. He said it brought him back to his childhood in the ’80s, when his mom would pack balikbayan boxes with candy, toys, health products and an assortment of other goods for her relatives in her home country.
“When we shot that, I started tearing up,” he said. “It’s very emotional to see that, and you want other people to see that. Like, look: This is what we do. These people that live in this country, they’re taking care of other families. And that’s why that scene was so important. It’s more than just getting a job in America. It’s also being a breadwinner. It’s also helping and providing for other families that can’t make it.”
The film also explores family relationships that can be challenging to talk about. Conflicts between Koy’s character, Joseph, and his son, between Joseph and his mom and between his mom and his aunt are key parts of the story.
Using humor to shine light on difficult situations, Koy said, is like therapy for him.
“The cool thing about my therapy is I don’t have to go to a therapist,” he said. “People actually pay to come see me talk, and I get to release it and take it off my chest.”
Although the film revolves around a Filipino American family, Koy said it was important that audiences of all backgrounds learn about his family and culture through “Easter Sunday.”
“I think the minute we put race in anything, we have to separate ourselves,” he said. “Family is family no matter what ethnicity you are. We do some things different, but overall it’s the same thing. It’s just a story about a family that happens to Filipino.”
Koy said there appears to be a tendency to differentiate ethnicities when certain groups make it to the big screen: “Like, the words and the verbiage can only be for whoever it is,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that. I want to represent our culture, yes. But overall, it’s a struggle between mother and son, father and son.”
He said he hopes that “Easter Sunday” will make audiences laugh and cry and that they’ll find it relatable.
“It doesn’t matter who’s on the screen. We’re all the same,” he said. “Like, yeah, I’m Filipino, but you’ll get it.”