Interview: Taylor Takahashi on Getting in the Game with “Boogie”

As in any drama concerning basketball, there was inevitably going to be a big game at the end of “Boogie,” but as the directorial debut of renaissance man Eddie Huang, the restauranteur and author of “Fresh Off the Boat,” there was never any question that it’d go just a little different than you’d expect.

“I feel in a lot of sports movies, there’s always a rivalry and it’s always a hatred for the other person, but it’s really just about proving yourself,” says the film’s star Taylor Takahashi, whose titular character Alfred “Boogie” Chin is constantly compared with crosstown rival Monk (the late Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson) in Queens as he attempts to secure a scholarship offer to extend his playing career. “But Monk and I’s rivalry isn’t typical rivalry [in that] I don’t hate this guy. I just want to prove that I can be on the same level as him.”

It’s rare for the stakes to be as high for the actors involved as the characters they play, but that’s what ending up happening on “Boogie,” in which Takahashi found himself thrust into the spotlight after helping to develop the film behind the scenes as Huang’s assistant. Playing the game came naturally to Takahashi, who Huang first met when he needed fresh blood for his basketball league in San Gabriel, California, but he couldn’t have imagined his ability to be at the right spot at the right time on the floor would translate into carrying a film on the big screen, knowing every beat of the film from being privy to every production meeting and development stage of the script.

Although Huang knew for some time that Takahashi’s combination of basketball skills and an intimate familiarity with the story would be nearly impossible to come by in a casting call, it was still a tall order for the 24-year-old who didn’t necessarily know that assignments related to the film to watch “Shoplifters” and answering questions about the character were actually part of a covert effort to convincing both the studio and himself that he could play the lead. However, all this pays off in “Boogie” when Takahashi brings a swagger to the character that has nothing to do with making buckets, a necessity when his game is seen as a hope of a household for very different reasons by parents who can’t stand each other. While his mother (Pamelyn Chee) sees a professional contract as a way of getting up from underneath the ever-growing stack of bills the family accumulates, his father (Perry Chin) envisions his son as breaking ground in doing things on the court that no other Asian American has, with the possibility of success hardening them both to Boogie’s desire to become his own person, though the thick skin he’s developed gives him the confidence he needs on the court and off, as he starts romancing a classmate (Taylour Paige), to take on the world.

“Boogie” the film has the same charms in that respect as its lead, a rare film about the Asian American community that refuses to be polite and applies a grit-and-grind approach to not only the basketball on screen, but to capturing a city where you’ve got to be tough to survive. It’s clearly an environment Takahashi thrives in and on the eve of the film’s release, he spoke about his unusual path to stardom, building on the trust from his friendship with Huang to portray a character inspired by the director’s relationship with his own family and adjusting to playing hoops for the benefit of a film.

What was it like going through a whole process of looking for the right guy only to realize it was you?

Yeah, it was a pretty crazy experience to say the least. When Eddie gave me this project at first, the script was 130 pages in the beginning of 2018 and I sat down, I read it, it was one of the first scripts I ever had in my hand before, never having been part of the industry, and I’m not going to lie, my first note was I see a lot of myself in this kid and there’s a lot of relatability, but by no means do I want to play this kid. I had no intention of being an actor and going through the preproduction, we had hundreds of submissions for basketball players and I created all of the basketball teams from the audition tapes that got sent in, but then to get thrown into the fire [of acting in it], it really just made the experience that much more full circle to see all different ends and all different sides [of the process] and I’m grateful for it.

Because Eddie hadn’t directed before and you hadn’t acted, did it feel like you could create your own process of making a film together?

100 percent and Eddie just needed his opportunity to direct. I think he was always ready and his favorite form of art is filmmaking, so this was the final breakthrough for him. And there was a sense of comfort — we lived together throughout the entire production as well and that’s a pretty rare director and actor, just to have that connection. It was funny to come home and I’d be like, “Man…” I’d be so dog tired and Eddie would be like, “I’m so awake. I have so much energy, like you have no idea what we captured today.” We were on different [ends] of the spectrum, but that’s kind of our relationship. He’s very high energy and I’m a little bit more relaxed and we just balance each other out. But throughout the production, he gave me a lot of support and as a friend to him, I tried to do as much as I could [because] the hardest thing for Eddie is to separate himself when he’s immersed in something. We definitely relied more heavily on the friendship portion to help us get through the first time acting and directing.

When the story is close to Eddie’s life, is it interesting to play a character that has that inspiration when he’s on set?

Yeah, even before I met Eddie, I watched “Huang’s World” and read a couple of his books, so I felt like I knew him already. As I got to know him more and more on a personal level, it helped [having] our friendship and an understanding of his upbringing with “Boogie,” and for me, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. I instantly connected to the basketball portion of it and the stigma [of being Asian in the sport], and I didn’t know New York too well, growing up in the Bay Area, but I know in New York, people just eat, breath, sleep basketball and you start to understand why that energy’s there when there’s so many basketball courts in the city. The hardest thing for me was just tapping back into 18-year-old self, understanding that your life experience hasn’t developed yet, so you’re going to be naive. You’re going to be a little uneasy. You’re going to have to question a lot of stuff. But this is one of the first things I feel like [Eddie’s] really gotten to get into and be a part of from start to finish, it just makes that authentic connection for people and [it was great] to be a part of telling his story.

From what I understand, you were actually scheduled to shoot the basketball scenes upfront, but for various reasons, it got pushed until the end. Did that affect your performance?

It’s funny. Since I was part of pre-production, [when] they’re going over the 26-day schedule and they’re like, “Basketball: Week One” and in my head, I’m like, “Yes! Basketball: Week One – that allows me to get comfortable in front of the camera. I’m doing something that kind of comes second nature. This will be a great introduction as far as seeing what the whole filmmaking process is like.” But as we got closer and closer to production starting, it was all depending on the availability of the courts, so it got flipped to the third week and the challenge for me was [realizing] “Okay, you’re not going to get basketball first. You’re going to have to find the passion in the acting portion quicker and and basically, it’s like you’ve taken some swimming lessons and after two, they dropped me into the deep end. I just tried my best to get to the other side. [laughs]

It couldn’t have hurt that you had a great actor to work with in Taylour Paige for a lot of your scenes. What was it like to have her as a partner?

She is a monster — in all the best ways, obviously. She is super-super-talented and she has this very fun, light energetic spirit to her naturally. This might be unconventional, but we spent so much time talking to each other and just getting to know each other as human beings in between takes or when we’d break for lunch, just like “let me just understand who you are as a person” and I think that chemistry we developed off-camera, just being friends and not [putting] a lot of pressure on stuff really played its part in the movie.

I could imagine there was a lot of pressure to sink shots when there are so many moving pieces to get the basketball scenes right on camera, though it looks like you have a really sweet shot. Were you worried about screwing up takes?

It’s different [than a regular game]. When I play basketball for fun, I depend a lot on the flow of the game and there’s that natural rhythm you develop in running up and down. When you’re recording and the camera’s on, it’s pretty much like start-stop, start-stop and it is harder to shoot when “Hey, somebody wasn’t standing in the right place” or “We need this play exactly here” or “This guy was blocking the camera on that.” You don’t get that rhythm and flow, and on the second day of filming basketball, I actually sprained my right wrist – and I’m right-handed, so I had one hand for all of the basketball that we shot. What it did was force me to find the passion and the love for acting quicker — you have to rely on your acting now. You can’t rely on your basketball, even though my calling in this came from basketball. So it was a crash course, but what I discovered within myself and why I’m so grateful for the experience is that it’s just something I never knew I had in me and it wouldn’t have been extracted from me as quickly if I didn’t go through every single step of the way and had that hurdle to jump.

What’s it like for you seeing this all come together now?

It’s so crazy. I was watching the Warriors game last night on ESPN and the portion of the trailer comes up as a commercial and it’s so surreal. Obviously, everybody went through their trials and tribulations of 2020, myself included, and just to see the project finish in 2019 and we were crossing our fingers [wondering when] is it going to come out, and to hear it was going to be in March, I was the furthest I could be from the project and getting right back into it, it’s just so amazing just to see it come full-circle. It’s just an amazing project to be a part of and and to see the connection points for [other] people coming to see it, I’m just so thankful for the opportunity. The movie’s a coming of age story for Boogie and equally for myself — I was able to come of age — and it’s just been such a life-changing experience.

“Boogie” opens on March 5th. A full list of theaters is here.