Winner of Best Director at the American Black Film Festival and the Robert Rodriguez Indie Auteur Of The Year Award at Bare Bones Film Festival, Take Out Girl garnered critical acclaim for its portrayal of a Chinese American woman’s hustle to support her family’s struggling restaurant through a drug ring. APA spoke with co-writer and lead actress Hedy Wong about the meaning and inspiration behind the film, vulnerability in acting and the complexity of Asian American stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
APA: Could you tell me more about how you and/or the team decided on the title “Take Out Girl” for this film? What significance does that phrase have in the context of the film and/or to you personally?
Wong: Growing up, one of my favorite actresses was Michelle Rodriguez, and her movie was called Girl Fight. And just being a tomboy [when I was younger], I didn’t see a lot of girls onscreen that in the ‘90s had a personality I could relate to. So when she broke out with that role, I was like, ‘Oh gosh, she’s amazing at it.’ That always stuck with me. When I first started out writing the first draft of Take Out Girl, before I even wrote the story, I already knew the movie was going to be called Take Out Girl because my parents used to run a Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area for pretty much all my life, so it was just automatic. I knew it was going to be called Take Out Girl and part of that was because of the Michelle Rodriguez movie Girl Fight.
APA: You’re originally from the Bay Area. How did you and/or the team come to the decision of making Los Angeles the setting for this story?
Wong: I was raised and grew up in the Bay, but I’ve been in LA for ten years now, and LA is really where I found myself, where I had to grow into myself a lot more away from family. Before I met Hisonni [Johnson], I thought I would have to figure out how to make the film myself. I already knew where to go, so I just set it in an area that I knew. I would just like to place that area on the map for me because that particular area has also had so much influence on me. But I never forgot about the Bay, I never forgot about my family, and so that’s why I included my family in the Bay Area into this LA story as well.
APA: Given how you mentioned that “Take Out Girl” was primarily inspired by your own story growing up, how much of the film and Tera’s character was based on your real experiences and how much of it was fiction?
Wong: Pretty much a lot of the characters and experiences were inspired by real [life]…Wavy, the mom’s name, that’s my mom’s real name. [The character] Nate was based on a real Nate, and the real Nate appears on the balcony when he was the shirtless guy with the dreads. That’s Nate. [The story] just comes from a lot of real places, real people that I know. Of course we change the names, we change the ethnicities sometimes. But the core characters definitely come from things that I’ve seen and experienced.
APA: You were a co-writer on this film. In what ways was Tera the character on the page different from Tera the character onscreen? What considerations did you have while playing Tera psychologically or emotionally?
Wong: By the time I [started working with] Hisonni, I already had the original draft. Hisonni’s been in this industry for ten plus years, he has so much knowledge about pacing and storytelling and so with him, [the team] pretty much started to revamp the script and rewrite some, adjust some things, cut some things out and amplify some things. Tera started to change a little bit, but the core of Tera is really still that girl I wrote in the original script. And under Hisonni’s direction, all of [Tera’s] colors came alive, even when we were filming. There were certain scenes where I could have played [Tera] tough, and Hisonni would give me notes and be like, ‘Hey, maybe in this moment it doesn’t always have to be tough,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re absolutely right.” So we played all of the colors onscreen.
This is just part of the creative process, and that’s the thing about art. As you’re making it, it just keeps evolving. Even in the very moment of shooting, the scene is always evolving.
APA: What I really liked about the film was its hybridity. It features the emotional heart of an immigrant family but also subverts these more traditional understandings of the American Dream and what it means to survive as an Asian American by exploring Tera’s involvement in a local drug ring. What difficulties did you have as Tera balancing the more emotional family story with the action-packed crime drama?
Wong: Because Take Out Girl was my first feature film, I think I was influenced by watching the people I look up to like Michelle Rodriguez, how she expresses herself fully in her own way. And for me, Hedy, people see Tera as a tough girl. That’s cool but everybody’s got all sides to them… that should be the case for Tera as well. No matter how tough and guarded she is, [at the] end of the day, we’re somebody’s daughter or somebody’s friend. It’s really important if you want to portray reality, you have to portray all the complicated nuances onscreen. That was what I told myself, [that] even if I look ugly while doing it, I’m not going to shy away from [being] real.
I have to be real…as someone who’s not a celebrity—I’m not a celebrity, I’m not a known actress, I have nearly no experience—the only way I was going to make people feel what I’m saying is by keeping it really real. And under the guidance of Hisonni’s direction, we’re able to present all those nuances and colors in such an authentic way.
APA: To have that vulnerability.
Wong: Yeah, you have to. Sometimes people go like, ‘This is great, we’re seeing another representation of Asian Americans, but aren’t you a little worried about how this [film] might make some Asians come off?’ and I said no, because what’s wrong with showing stories that show our grace and our mistakes? We already have a Crazy Rich Asians story. For [my story], I have to write what I know. And what was important for me and Lorin [who plays Saren] was that we show what we know because what we know and what we’re going to portray, that’s going to be felt by a lot of people.
I grew up in the Oakland Chinatown community, and my generation had a lot of immigrants and refugees. Where we come from, working-class, we’ve seen our parents do backbreaking work, working 24/7 for themselves. I just want to see some of those stories onscreen or out there in the world. I’m really happy I was able to accomplish that with Hisonni.
APA: Asian American stories often have this burden of representation for all Asian Americans and being positive representation for everyone. What do you hope viewers take away from the film in relation to being Asian American?
Wong: I think whether we like it or not, we’re always going to be the representative for a community. So when the spotlight is on us, I feel like it’s important to tell people that ‘Hey, this is just one little story amongst a whole bunch of experiences that Asians in America face.’ I’m just adding one more texture to the narrative. We’re not a monolith, there’s so many different types of Asians coming from different areas and depending on where we land in the U.S., we have a different blend of cultural identities. I hope cinema really just opens the door for all minorities, to show we’re not the “Other,” and we can come in all sorts of flavors.