Eddie Huang’s ‘Boogie’ Wonderland
It was shortly after Eddie Huang got out of an Italian jail cell and was in the doghouse with his third TV show that he thought: “Maybe it’s time to make that coming-of-age sports movie I’ve been thinking about.”
To hear the 39-year-old raconteur, Renaissance man, and director of the basketball drama Boogie tell it over Zoom while sitting in his book-cluttered office in Los Angeles, it sounds like the most natural decision in the world. As with so many transitions in Huang’s life, the shift from one thing to the next appears to be inevitable, even if the two elements feel worlds apart. The former Orlando, Florida, resident wasn’t feeling his law-firm job in New York, so of course he quit and sold pot in Washington Square Park. Despite having worked in his parents’ steakhouse as a manager in his early twenties, he had no idea how to run his own restaurant, so of course he opened Baohouse, a wildly successful Lower East Side eatery that served both traditional Asian pork buns and stoner-American variations on Taiwanese food (big up the Cheeto-fried chicken bao). He was lucky enough to get hired to host a cooking show on the Food Network’s next-big-thing offshoot, so of course he publicly beefed with his colleagues and royally pissed off his bosses. Huang then wrote Fresh Off the Boat, a memoir about his early life as a hip-hop loving Asian American that was optioned as a network TV show, which of course he trashed — in a magazine article, no less — as being a complete sitcom bastardization of what his book was about.
And by the time the world’s only self-proclaimed “human panda” was arrested in Sicily while filming Huang’s World, the Vice TV food-porn-meets-travel show he hosted from 2016 to 2017, and was subsequently suspended from his own gig, he was ready to switch lanes yet again. (Huang talked about the story behind his arrest on a Late Show with Stephen Colbert appearance; it loosely involved a white supremacist group, orange soda, and Dennis Hopper’s monologue from True Romance.) “When I came back [from Italy], I was just I was like: Man, it’s really hard to work for people,” he says, laughing. “I need more control of what I’m doing, because for me, it’s not about making money and it’s not about climbing the ladder. For me, it’s completely emotional. I’m just trying to aim for honesty.”
So, Huang turned to a script he’d originally started writing after he’d burned his bridges with ABC, a story of a young, Asian-American kid growing up in Queens. The kid’s name was Alfred Chin, but everybody called him by his “stripper name,” Boogie. He was an absolute dynamo on the basketball court. His dad was loving but violent, while his no-nonsense mom kept her eyes on the prize, i.e. getting Boogie a scholarship to a good college. Recruiters were already paying attention. All Boogie needed to do was beat Monk, New York’s reigning high-school hoops king, when their respective teams played, and his future would be set. Whether being Number One would help him navigate life as a 21st century American teenager and someone who wanted to uphold the traditions of his heritage, however, was anybody’s guess — including Boogie’s.
The idea was that Huang would get this film made the same way he’d accomplished everything else: through sheer determination, putting in the hours, and a hell of a lot of hustle. The fact that the first-time writer-director’s vision of a young man struggling to find his way in the world remained intact, ending up at Focus Features, feels like the sort of happily-ever-after story you associate with Nineties indie movies. (It hit theaters on March 5th, just as multiplexes were reopening across the country; Huang even greeted patrons at a Los Angeles screening the day California began easing restrictions. It’s available on PVOD beginning March 26th.) Once again, he started from scratch and somehow came out on top.
“I had almost zero juice in the industry at that point, which was something my agents would always remind me,” Huang jokes. “And this wasn’t a story people were exactly asking for, you know? Nobody in Hollywood was like, ‘Give me an Asian-American male lead that nobody knows, and also a basketball coming-of-age story — with teens!’ It was more like, ‘I don’t want this … why are you giving this to me?!’ So you have to be rough around the edges. You have to want to fight to push this boulder up the mountain.”
Long before he entertained thoughts of becoming a celebrity chef and a TV personality, or going from blogger to bestselling author, Eddie Huang wanted to make movies. He graduated from Orlando’s Rollins College with a degree in English and Film, and credits seeing Good Will Hunting when he was in high school as being an eye-opening moment in terms of the power of the medium. “I wrote about [this] in Fresh Off the Boat, but I had a lot of violence happening at home and didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it,” Huang says. “I remember seeing that film as a teenager and being amazed at how a movie could make you feel seen and heard. Even if you had nothing in common with those people, you felt understood, y’know? And I just said to myself, ‘Wow, I would love to make a film so that somebody else like me feels less alone.’”
Even bigger influences on Huang’s formative years, however, were music and basketball. His love of hip-hop and how it helped him navigate a rough adolescence is well documented. As for basketball, the sport gave the teenage Eddie a much-needed outlet for his anger, and made him feel like he had a place to shine in what was, by all accounts, an unfriendly Sunshine State environment. He had posters of Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley on his bedroom wall. And he had decent enough skills to hold his own on the court. “Basketball, for me, is kind of the laboratory where all my ideas and values and philosophies get to play out,” he says. “Even as a kid, I genuinely saw it that way. I would notice the people that, as [legendary NBA coach] Larry Brown would say, weren’t ‘playing the right way.’ Like, Oh, that guy is winning a lot of games … but he doesn’t really pass the ball. He’s not setting folks up. I’d analyze how someone makes choices in life, and how you can then see those choices reflected in their game. I eventually realized that it wasn’t all about winning and losing. Sometimes I felt better if I just played the right way.”
Huang had played in a recreational league with a bunch of other twenty- and thirtysomething ballers for years, which is where he first met the then-23-year-old Taylor Takahashi. The Bay Area native was on his team, and Huang noticed that the youngster was, in his estimation, playing the right way. The two men hit it off over a mutual love of cooking and hoops, as well as what the filmmaker-to-be saw as a simpatico respect for the cultures they each came from. “He’s humble but very dynamic,” Huang says. “Taylor’s part of the younger generations of Asians in America, but he’s sort of a throwback — like, my mother likes Taylor! And to find your way now yet know that you’re carrying 5,000 years of culture on your back … I think that’s what really drew me to him was that he excelled at basketball, he excelled in this American wilderness, but he also took on the task and responsibility of representing some very old values.”
When Huang started to seriously throw his energy into getting Boogie made, he hired Takahashi along as his personal assistant. The two shared an apartment while things were getting set up; Taylor assumed he’d be helping whoever was cast in the lead role get the fundamentals of the game down well enough to fake it onscreen. Huang had another idea. “I didn’t see any actors out there who embodied what I thought Boogie was about,” he says. “I mean, I met with some famous people, invited a couple of them to come and play ball, and it wasn’t like they weren’t good. But it was a lot of, ‘Yeah, he’s not brooding in that certain way. He doesn’t have the sauce.’ Taylor did, though. He got what I was going for.”
So once again, Huang followed his instincts and did the counterintuitive, gamble-big-or-go-home thing: He had his friend, who had zero previous acting experience, test for the lead role, and asked the suits at Focus to sign off on casting him. Surprisingly, they did. Not surprisingly, given Huang’s history, it paid off.
“We’d joked about it,” Takahashi says, over the phone. “When I first signed on to work with him as his personal assistant, he’d always kind of nudge me and go, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to do it?’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, Eddie, I am one hundred thousand percent positive I do not want to do this!’ Every couple of months, he’d sort of throw that idea out there. Right before we were going to New York, when we officially got the greenlight and we heard that Focus was picking it up, he said, ‘I dunno, man, this is your last chance, you should really think about it.’ Nope, it’s all good, thank you, I’m just happy to be a part of this experience.
“Then I show up one day at the office,” he continues. “He takes my phone and my laptop, hands me some pages and says, ‘Read this.’ It’s the scene in the film where Boogie and his dad are watching the old footage of [tennis star] Michael Chang winning the 1989 French open — like pages of dialogue. Eddie gives me the background for what’s going on, helps get me into a mood that makes sense for the moment, then goes, ‘Take all the time you need.’ This was at our line producer’s office in Astoria on a Thursday. By Monday, it was, ‘Ok, you’re Boogie. This is happening. It’s go time.’ It was all downhill running from there.”
“Boogie is definitely an extension of what I’ve tried to do in my writing, my cooking, the fashion thing. But it’s also a bookend. It’s the end of Act One of my life and career.”—Eddie Huang
“Taylor would say, ‘I never wanted to be an actor, but, like, you’re important to me, and I’m going to do it for you,’” Huang recalls. “After the first week [of shooting], I took him to the Christie Street Courts. We had just wrapped around 11:00 p.m., we got some 40s, sat on the stairs, and I said to him, ‘I know you’re always saying that you’re doing this for me, and you never wanted to be an actor. But you just wrapped your first week carrying a feature film as the lead. You are an actor, my friend. And even if you weren’t doing it before, you have to start doing this for yourself.’ I think it sunk in after that. This role doesn’t work if he doesn’t do this for himself, too. And that’s what he did. It’s so gratifying to see your belief in somebody pay off.”
It’s hard to watch Boogie and picture anyone but Takahashi in the role — there’s an openness to everything he does that fits the part, whether he’s arguing with his parents (played by Perry Yung and Pamelyn Chee), trying to woo a classmate (Taylour Paige), or hanging out with his best friend (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). As a former basketball high-school all-star while growing up in Alameda, California, he already had more than enough chops to pull off the complicated choreography in the basketball scenes, which Huang says he wanted “to film like kung fu scenes in a martial arts film: Let folks see the one-on-one, the game within the game. Make it kinetic, make it the Battle Royale of basketball. The dribble hand-off, the backdoor cuts — those are plays Taylor and I have run in games!” And he holds his own against the other charismatic nonprofessional actor cast in a big role, someone who had already proven he could command a crowd. Huang had seen this kid running the courts at his apartment building in Manhattan, got to know him a bit, and thought he’d be good for Monk, Boogie’s rival. His name was Bashar Jackson. Most people, however, knew him as Pop Smoke, the up-and-coming rap star whose single at the time, “Welcome to the Party,” was in the process of making him East Coast hip-hop’s new MVP.
When Pop Smoke’s name comes up, it’s one of the very few times the boisterous Huang gets quiet. On February 19th, 2020, the musician and some friends were in Los Angeles when gunmen broke into the apartment where Pop was staying and shot him. He was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center several hours later.
You can sense that Huang’s grief still feels fresh. He remembers seeing an Instagram post from Pop the day before he died, and realizing the rapper was in L.A.; he called Mike, Pop’s best friend, and invited them to come out and play basketball. “Mike said, ‘Nah, we’re gonna go party,’ and I was like, ‘OK, young guys, go do your thing,’” Huang recalls. “Even though I’m a big kid, I’m still 17, 18 years older than Pop, no matter how how close we were. When I was 20, I didn’t want to go play ball with my fucking crazy uncle, so, y’know… . But what was weird was, Pop was a real careful guy. When he’d leave the set after shooting, there would always be three Suburbans and tight security around. And now it’s like, he’s in Los Angeles and he’s casually posting that he’s out here? It just felt weird.
“So I went to sleep,” he continues, “and when I woke up at 6:30 a.m., I saw my phone and just … it’s all green. All texts. And I got triggered, because it was the same feeling I had the day I looked on my phone and there were all these texts about Anthony Bourdain. It was around the same time, in the early morning, and I’m telling you, without even reading them: I just knew.” Huang says a friend dragged him to the boxing gym he frequents right after Pop’s death was confirmed and, halfway through trying to spar his way through the pain, he stopped punching and just started crying.
“I still think about Pop every day, man,” he says. “I only knew him for a few months, but we always kept in touch, and he was just very special to me. To watch him grow and go from this kid I met playing basketball at my apartment building to the next big thing — I just felt a lot of joy in that. He reminded me a lot of Biggie, Fifty, and those hip-hop guys I idolized, but then it’s like: ‘That’s my little bro, and he’s suddenly this generation’s King of New York!’ And in a weird way, it was like I got to watch it as his uncle.” Boogie is dedicated to Pop. The last thing you hear as the credits roll is his posthumous new song “AP.”
There’s are many moments in Boogie that feel like you’re getting some elliptical yet extremely personal peeks into Huang’s experiences — as the child of immigrants, as a young man who’d mastered the art of lashing out, as someone still navigating the terrain between having 5,000 years of culture on your back and staking your claim in “the American Wilderness.” But two sequences in particular feel oddly revealing. The first involves Boogie sitting down with his mother and an interloping “uncle” (Mike Moh, a.k.a. Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood). The latter may have engineered a deal involving Boogie playing pro ball in China in lieu of going to college. The young man does not care for this proposition. He does not, in fact, care for a lot of things at this moment. Boogie is is the embodiment of petulance, frustration, and rage, everything barely held together by hormones and an endless supply of Haterade for his no-win situation. He is a walking, talking middle finger to the world. A teenager, in other words.
But as they start to negotiate, Boogie pours tea for all of them. I’m the youngest, he says, and tradition dictates that he fill their cups. The scene is filmed with the sort of attention to detail and care that makes you think it was plucked out of a movie by Edward Yang, the Taiwanese director of Yi-Yi who Huang has name-checked in past interviews, rather than something from a sports-underdog flick. We’ve seen this ritual before, notably in the movie’s flashback prologue involving a fortune teller and his parents. To see how seriously Boogie takes this notion even as he’s on the cusp of losing his cool, however, is new, and suggests that he not only recognizes the cultural lineage he is part of but deeply respects it. He is not just the kid who swaggers around Queens, who takes pride in his wet-ass jumper, who rolls his eyes as his father endlessly rewatches a Chinese-American tennis champ make history. Boogie is not just a typical American youth in that moment. He is a young Asian American who clearly embraces both halves of that phrase.
The other scene involves a standoff between Boogie and his new coach, played by The Wire‘s Domenick Lombardozzi. The senior has transferred to this particular high school to increase his visibility and set himself up to face Monk. He is definitely not “playing the right way.” The coach needs him to be part of a team instead of a showboat. If he keeps ignoring the plays Coach is calling, Boogie is getting benched. They may end up losing the game if the kid gets pulled, but so be it. Neither of them wants to give an inch.
When you watch that exchange, it’s easy to see it as two different voices in Huang’s head, battling it out courtside. There’s the rebellious kid, the anti-authoritarian who knows he’s got talent and vision to spare, and is ready — eager, even — to step to anybody who wants to hold him back. Maybe he’s his own worst enemy. Maybe it’s basketball, or a TV show, or a restaurant that serves Four Loko even when that risks getting your liquor license taken away. But it’s his way or the go-fuck-yourself way.
And then there’s the authority figure, the guy who’s a natural leader and wants to marshal everyone together in the name of a greater good. The one who understands that teamwork makes the dream work. Maybe he’s a coach, or the guy running a kitchen, or a film director. But he’s the person who not only sees the big picture but knows how to pull it off if everyone plays their part.
“I mean … yeah,” Huang says, thinking about the idea for a second. “Yeah. I remember reading Mark Twain’s autobiography, and coming across the part where he says that every character he writes is ‘somebody I know well.’ I always loved that idea. I’ve been that undisciplined kid, and I’ve been the guy who, when I was managing Cattleman’s [the restaurant owned by his father], kept asking, ‘How do I get everyone personally invested in this?’ OK, it’s just a restaurant, and maybe they’re only making $5.25 an hour plus tips, but how do I get them to believe in what they’re doing?”
“Like, I learned how to set up shots and work with a director of photography by doing Huang’s World,” he adds. “But I learned how to be a director by managing a steakhouse when I was 22. And there’s a conversation happening between these characters in my head.” (Takahashi later echoes the sentiment: “Being a director is like being a head coach — you have to know where to put people, how to put the pieces together and how to get people to be part of a team. Eddie totally is the guy you see in those YouTube videos and on his Vice show. But he’s also Phil Jackson.”)
It’s that first scene, however, that feels like it might be Boogie‘s purest distillation of what Huang is aiming for, or at least the central conflict that seems to have driven so much of his career to date. It’s deeper than the old world vs. new world dilemma that you hear about from a lot of second- or third-generation people. It’s Huang’s desire to balance all of the factors that come with both of those worlds, to use that as the foundation for his own turf — Huang’s world — and then share it with everyone. It’s the basketball trash-talking and the tea ritual. It’s reclaiming Taiwanese cuisine as part of a rich, deep, centuries old-culture and also remaking it as fusion-run-amuck comfort food. It’s a universal sports coming-of-age movie and a story that feels like a continuation of specific artist’s sensibility.
“Continuation and culmination,” Huang says, smiling. “I’m so glad you saw it that way, because this movie is definitely an extension of what I’ve tried to do in my writing, my cooking, the fashion thing. It absolutely is. But it’s also a bookend. I came into the public sphere wanting to represent — to tell our story because no one else was. I didn’t have the opportunity or space yet to do it in storytelling, so I did it with a sandwich in a 400-square-foot basement — and that became Baohaus. And then with the notoriety of the restaurant, the plan was to spin that into a bigger platform. So I wrote Fresh Off the Boat. But at every turn, I never felt like I got the freedom and support. I mean, that’s not quite true … my book editor for Boat, Chris Jackson, is one of my greatest friends and teachers and collaborators.
“But Boogie is really all of that,” he adds, “and I think of it as the end of Act One of my life and career, where I feel like I have fully realized my vision of childhood and coming of age. I have now told that story, yeah … and I don’t think I would come back to this genre again. I feel complete. And that is an incredible feeling, as both a person and as artist.”