Tigertail’s Christine Ko Didn’t Think She’d Get To Be A Leading Lady — Now She’s On Netflix

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Christine Ko barely speaks in Tigertail, premiering on Netflix on April 10. But her silences feel like screams. 
As Angela, Ko spends most of the movie reflecting on her relationship (or more accurately, the absence of one) with her father, Pin-Jui, played by Tzi Ma. Even when the two are in the same room, memories of past hurts and their mutual stubborn refusal to acknowledge each other’s needs stand in the way of any real communication. 
Written and directed by Alan Yang (Master of None) in tribute to his own family story, Tigertail toggles back and forth between Pin-Jui’s memories of life in Taiwan, and his present in America. We learn about his childhood on his grandmother’s rice farm, his first love, his relationship with his strong-minded mother, and the loveless marriage he enters into in order to seek opportunity abroad. Through his memories, we understand what Angela grew up with: Two parents who mostly didn’t speak to each other, separated by the ghosts of dashed hopes. 
For Ko, the story struck home. Adopted by her aunt and uncle at a young age, she didn’t have a relationship with her birth father, Taiwanese megastar Frankie Ko, until she turned 21. Still, she was nervous about the audition. 
“I was going through a very personal low,” she told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. “My father that adopted me had just passed. And so, going into this, I was like, I don't really know if I can control my emotions, I don't know if I'm ready.
But the opportunity to be in a movie that felt so close to her own personal experience was too good to pass up. So instead, she poured all her hurt and loss into the role, using it as a cathartic way to explore her own identity issues. “Alan and I just connected about what it was like to be Taiwanese American, and growing up feeling American, but also Asian,” she said. “What does that mean?”
That’s a question Ko has been asking — and answering — throughout her entire career. Her big break came in 2016, when she was cast as Emma in NBC’s The Great Indoors, a role originally written for a white blonde woman. Ko’s agent pushed for her to be considered, and she nailed the part. After appearing in short story arcs on shows like Hawaii Five-0 and Stumptown, she’s now a series regular on FX’s Dave — coincidentally playing another Emma —  but lead parts in mainstream films have so far eluded her. Until now.
“So much that happened when Crazy Rich Asians came out, and studios understood that people will show up at their box office,” she said. “These are stories that people want to see. There's not one movie that makes you understand what the Asian American story is.”
Ko actually auditioned for the Jon Chu rom-com based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel. She was up for the part of Rachel, which eventually went to Constance Wu. And though she didn’t get it, a year later, that same casting director suggested her for Tigertail. This time, she didn’t have to convince anyone that she might be right for the role. 
“I’m so happy that Alan Yang [decided to] build an Asian American story that starts from the ground up. That's how you give people their start: Put them in stories, write these roles for them.”
Refinery29: Your character has very little dialogue in the film, which is kind of the point given the lack of communication between Angela and her father. What’s that like to play as an actor?
Christine Ko: “I found it so difficult, to be totally honest. I don't think I really understood exactly what it meant to have that distance, until I fell in love with Tzi as an actor. The more I cared about him, and the more connected we felt, the easier it was to play that distance. The first scene with Angela and her dad, when they're driving home from the airport, there's barely anything said. And you feel that tension bubbling underneath. You know that all Angela wants to say is, ‘Why didn't you tell me about your trip?’ And she can't. She can't even muster the courage to ask that. The overall point to their relationship is that both people are so stubborn. They're just unwilling to extend that hand and say, Okay, I'll let you in. I feel hurt. The more time that passes, the harder it is for them to talk.”
Between this movie, and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Tzi Ma is really cornering the market on complicated dad characters! 
“He is the dad to strong daughters. It’s an incredible group of people to be with, between Awkwafina [in The Farewell] and Sandra Oh [in Meditation Park]. And what's so great is that in our film, he is the lead, he finally gets to be the main person that you focus on. To be in your 60s and have that moment as an actor, it's so wonderful. All the support we can give to Tzi Ma!”
You said you haven’t often been considered for lead roles — is that changing? Have you noticed a shift in the kinds of opportunities offered to Asian American actors?
“Just a month and a half ago, we celebrated Parasite winning Best Picture with a full Asian cast! It's just not something that we ever saw growing up. How lucky am I that this is happening in the beginning of my career? I'm just so thankful, because we clearly see that there's so many stories that need to be told, and that you don't have to be Asian American to relate to them.”
Women and people of color are so used to identifying with white male stories because for so long that’s all there was. But men are having to learn how to care about characters who might not look like them. 
“As women, we so rarely got to be the leads and tell our own story. I was watching Catch Me If You Can the other day, and I was like, I want to be Leo’ That's the next film I want to do." Or, I think about Bond, and I'm like, I want to be Bond. Why can't we? It's a really exciting time, because I think people are saying, ‘Yes, we can do that. It's limitless,’ about the stories that we can tell. I am really excited for the culture, and the movement, and everything that's happening. I am all here for it.”
Do you remember the first time you felt like you saw yourself on screen?
“I grew up in Georgia, and I didn't watch many films growing up, because that wasn't part of my family culture. And then, I moved to Taiwan, and everything I saw was just Asian people on screen. I thought that was really normal. It wasn't until I came back to the United States at 22, and started acting here that I was like, Wait a second. I don't see people that look like me. I love ice skating. Michelle Kwan was the only person that I saw, that I was like, Oh my god, that's me. And that's who I want to be. I would see her in interviews, and I think that was the first time that I felt like I could perform. I'm so excited for little girls to be able to see actors that they can relate with.”
People are less physically together than ever right now, but seeking social and emotional connections. What do you hope they take away from this movie?“This movie is like an opening to understanding what your parents' lives were before they had you. I hope it makes you want to call them, and maybe ask them about things that you've never asked about. And I really hope it goes the other way, too, so when parents watch this, they're like, Oh, I should call my kids more. It shouldn't just be them, checking in on me. I should check in on them, and make sure they're doing okay. The whole purpose of this film is just to appreciate the time that we have with the people we love, whether it's family, friends, coworkers, whatever it is, and especially in this time, to just be like, I'm going to say all the things that I want to say to you right now. And I can feel good inside, knowing that I expressed the love that I've always wanted to express.”
Related Content:

More from Movies

R29 Original Series