“When the NBA season was canceled, there was nothing left for me in America.”
Eddie Huang left Los Angeles on March 14, 2020, and spent the rest of the year in Taiwan writing scripts and working on his new film “Boogie.” He finally returned Stateside in January; basketball was back in session, and Huang’s team — the Knicks — is poised for a strong season. (“I’m a New Yorker — I still got my crib in New York; I’m just [in L.A.] for the weather,” says Huang.)
Even more notable than basketball’s return to the court, however, is the release of Huang’s feature directorial debut. “Boogie” is a coming-of-age story about a top high school basketball player in New York, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, who hopes to play for the NBA.
It’s also a redemption story for Huang himself. He wrote the script in the aftermath of the TV series adaptation of his memoir “Fresh Off the Boat.”
“That book became a show that I didn’t love, and wasn’t the most proud of, because it didn’t go all the way,” Huang says. “The issue was that ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ really stripped the story, the Asian immigrant story, of a lot of pain and struggle. It made it a joke. And I really wrote ‘Boogie’ in the wake of that experience, watching my life become this TV show that I had no connection to.”
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“Boogie” was a film Huang had been wanting to make since he first saw “Goodwill Hunting” as a 17-year-old in Orlando, Fla. He realized that film could be an outlet to talk about difficult issues — for Huang, domestic violence. “It made me feel less alien, and it made me feel less alone,” he says. “I told myself that one day I would like to make a film that makes another kid like me feel less alien as well, and that he can talk about these things.”
While he had his sights on the big screen from a young age, Huang’s foray into the entertainment industry came through food, specifically through his popular downtown New York restaurant Baohaus, which closed last year. “I started telling my story through bao,” he says. “Baohaus was my way to tell my family story.”
While he made a name for himself in the food world, Huang’s first love was basketball. “My biggest, most important life lessons, were learned on the basketball court. And that’s also how I got close to my father; we bonded over basketball; we communicated through basketball. Basketball was always the spine of my life as an adolescent,” Huang says. “It’s also an arena where Asians seem to be disadvantaged, or at least not expected to do well in.”
Which led to his biggest hurdle in making “Boogie”: finding someone to realistically play the titular character. “The pool of age-appropriate Asian American male actors that can also play basketball is very small,” Huang says. “There were only a few viable options.”
The most viable option wasn’t even in the casting pool, or pursuing a career in the arts. He was Huang’s personal assistant and recreational basketball league teammate Taylor Takahashi.
“I met Taylor nine months before we even started casting the film. He is the all-time leading scorer at Alameda High School [in Oakland, Calif.],” Huang says. “There were not many Asian Americans that could play basketball at the level that he plays at. Not only that, but because of how big a part of his life basketball was, he encountered a lot of street culture.…He didn’t focus on education like a lot of other Asians. He really embodied the character and a lot of the interests and values that I had. So I started to mentor him, and I invited him to cook with me.”
Takahashi was responsible for training the actor originally cast to play “Boogie.” During pre-production in New York, Huang raised the idea of casting Takahashi — who’d never acted before — in the lead role.
Taylor Takahashi and writer/director Eddie Huang in a still from the film. Courtesy of Focus Features
“I said, look, you’ve been working on basketball with the person we cast to play Boogie, but you and I both know it’s not happening. The guy’s not going to learn how to play basketball in six weeks. I was like, you need to get on tape today,” Huang says. “From that moment there was just insane energy in the building. Because everyone was like, we found Boogie.”
Huang cast himself in a minor role, as Boogie’s uncle (“I see myself as the Asian Joe Pesci,” he says) as well as his own mother as a psychic and the late rapper Pop Smoke as the best New York City high school basketball player for Boogie to beat. “[My mom] and Pop Smoke were probably the easiest people to direct, to be honest. She just came in and just crushed her role,” Huang says. “My mom is phenomenal.”
Huang, a big hip-hop fan, cast Pop Smoke in what would be his first, and last, acting role. The rapper was killed in L.A. during a home-invasion in February 2020. The movie’s soundtrack features a previously unreleased track by the rapper, “AP.”
“I love Pop; I really miss my brother,” says Huang, who hoped to work with the rapper again; he pitched a remake of “The Last Dragon” with Pop Smoke playing Sho’nuff. “I have no doubt that Pop loves this film — I also know it, because I showed him the scenes. Before he passed, he was able to see his scenes and he loved it and he wanted to act more.”
Huang also loves “Boogie.” He watched the final cut of the film in the Hitchcock Theater on the Universal Studios lot, and was thrilled. After his disappointment over “Fresh Off the Boat,” he finally has an onscreen depiction he’s proud of.
“I walked out — I don’t know if I’m just a weirdo — but I was like, that film is f–king good,” Huang says. “And I felt great. I felt a huge weight off my shoulders. And I just went home, and I got really high.”
Actor Pop Smoke, director Eddie Huang and actor Taylor Takahashi on the set of their film “Boogie.” Courtesy of Nicole Rivelli / Focus Features
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