• Film

It Took Jo Koy and Steven Spielberg to Make “Easter Sunday” a Reality

This is a dream come true. Finally, our voices are being heard and not just by Filipinos but everyone. This is that chance that’s been offered and I’m not looking at me. I’m looking at everybody. All of us, we’re all in here and that’s us!” Filipino American comedian Jo Koy exclaimed before a jubilant audience right after a special screening of his film Easter Sunday in theater 6 of the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (TCL Chinese Theatre).

In the event presented by Gold House (HFPA’s Reimagine Coalition partner), HFPA grantee CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment), and Tremendous Communications, led by Founder/CEO Jeremiah Abraham, Easter Sunday had one of its first screenings.

Easter Sunday is the first major Hollywood studio film about Filipino Americans. Steven Spielberg decided to do a project with Koy after the filmmaker icon watched one of his stand-up comedy specials. Spielberg’s Amblin Partners produced the comedy that is distributed by Universal Pictures.


“We all deserve that spotlight,” the 51-year-old comedian said in the Q&A that followed the screening. “I’m not just saying Filipinos in general; I’m saying, everybody. We all get to say our story. And when you watch that story, you’re all going to go, ‘Hey, we’re the same. My mom is just like your mom.”

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar and written by Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo, Easter Sunday is inspired by Koy’s life experiences and career in stand-up comedy. As LA-based Joe Valencia, Koy is trying to land a role as his mom insists that he come home and spend the Easter weekend with the family in Northern California.

This Filipino family, like any clan around the world, has its share of colorful uncles (Titos), aunts (Titas), friends, and acquaintances.

The cast includes Filipino American actors Tia Carrere (Tita Theresa), Lou Diamond Phillips (as himself), Eva Noblezada (Ruth), Lydia Gaston (Tita Susan/Joe’s mom), Rodney To (Tito Arthur), Melody Butiu (Tita Yvonne), Eugene Cordero (Tito Eugene), Brandon Wardell (Junior/Joe’s son) and Joey Guila (Tito Manny).

Also in the cast are Tiffany Haddish (Vanessa), Jimmy O. Yang (as himself), and Asif Ali (Dev Deluxe), among others. Easter Sunday reflects the multi-racial America that is still not reflected in some films and TV shows.

Koy was joined by Carrere, Phillips, Yang, and Chandrasekhar in the Q and A panel moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas.


Vargas said, “I have a lot of nieces, nephews, and cousins – half Filipino, half Black, half Mexican. Sometimes racism is so screwed up, we can’t even do basic math. One plus one equals two, right? I had to tell this to my niece, ‘You’re not half of anything. You’re two. And seeing you being able to own your Filipino-ness and not have to say, I am just white.’ That, to me, was most incredible watching this. Because we live in a state where 40% of all new people in the state of California are multiracial. There’s a whole Mexipino movement of Mexicans and Filipinos marrying each other and all of that. So, in some way, seeing how this multiracial reality is a reality we’re all facing, it’s really special.”

“Thank you for saying that,” remarked Koy whose mother, Josie Harrison is Filipina, and whose father, divorced from Harrison, is American. Koy’s anecdotes about growing up with his mom fuel some of the funniest portions of his comedy specials, including the one that bowled over Spielberg, Comin’ in Hot.

Amblin Partners gave the green light after reading the script’s first draft.

“You’re not going to believe this, but Steven Spielberg was a big part of the casting as well,” Koy shared. “When Steven said he was involved, he was really involved. And that was a beautiful thing, that he loved this passionately just as much as we did.”

The comedian admitted that he was overwhelmed with the imminent opening of Easter Sunday, which Vargas described as “living history” for Filipino Americans. “I can’t believe it!” Koy exclaimed again. “Look at this [points to the movie poster being projected on the big screen]. You’d never think that something like this is going to happen, especially the time that I came with my mom. She came in 1969 where there was just no representation, no identity. So even when she watched TV, she didn’t see anything that looked like her or sounded like her.

“I did this joke on my show, on Life from Seattle, where I go, when my mom looked for other Filipinos, she would literally have to look for other Filipinos in person. She didn’t go to Instagram. There was no Facebook. There was none of that. She just looked for people who looked like her and just walked up to them and asked, ‘Are you Filipino?’ ‘I’m Mexican,’ ‘Oh, sorry.’ And as funny as that is, that was our reality. She had to live through that reality. So, for her and me to see this happen now, it’s unbelievable.”

Carrere, 55, who got her first big break as a regular on the daytime soap opera General Hospital, revealed that this is her first time portraying a Filipina. “In my early days of acting, I did not see anyone who looked like me. I portrayed a Latina, Indian, and Hawaiian and this is the first time that I am portraying a Filipina. It feels like I finally can be myself and that’s enough. This business shows Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and African Americans. But there are more Filipinos that I know in hotels, hospitals and leaders in business and governments, and we haven’t been represented until now. It took Jo Koy to do it and just be funny. It seems like people don’t see how many Filipinos there are. Because we assimilate, we speak English and somehow, we fit in and all that stuff, but we haven’t been able to say, ‘No, come on. We are an individual.’

“When I was in General Hospital, I was in the Asian quarter, and I had the Asian doctor. We went off to help our people in the old land. But there was never any differentiation between each Asian background and to represent our Asian-ness. Our Filipino-ness was not even a thought. So, thank you, Jo Koy, for getting us up there.”

Phillips, whose breakthrough role came when he starred as Ritchie Valens in the biographical drama film La Bamba (1987) and is also well known for Stand and Deliver (1988) where he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award (Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture), agreed with Carrere.


“One hundred percent props to Jo,” he said. “I have portrayed a Filipino only twice in my career and I had to write one of them in the film Ambition (2005), in which I wrote myself as a Filipino American. What was wonderful – we couldn’t find anybody to play my dad and we got Oscar-winner, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, to do that. But I was trying to rep the Asian cred from way back but there just weren’t any roles. So, when I was reading a breakdown on this film and I saw a role that said, Lou Diamond Phillips, I thought I might be able to play that.”

He added, “Tia and I have similar experiences. I have proudly represented. My career is like the UPS logo, ‘what can brown do for you?’ I’ve represented the Latino community with much pride and much respect. To the Native American community, I’ve played many nations and done it with a lot of honor. I tell young actors to be the best actor that you can be and force them to deal with your talent, first and foremost. Don’t let them put you in a box. That said, this to me feels very much like when I did The King and I on Broadway. For the first time ever on Broadway, every person in an Asian role was of Asian descent. It did not happen until 1996.

It’s an arrival for the Filipino American community. We’ve all been allies. Whether it’s the Latino community, the Native American community, or the African American community, everybody has had their people at the forefront, like Jordan Peele right now, redefining what it is to be a writer and director in the horror genre.

“Jo Koy’s done that for the Filipino American community here. Because finally as Asians, we raised our hands. We’re all so used to being so polite and so quiet. For Tia and me, it’s been 40 years in coming. We’re in a place where we can own our power. We can own our voice and we can put it out there. If that empowers and passes the torch to other young writers, actors, filmmakers, whomever, that’s why this film is more important. I don’t mean to aggrandize it too much, but that’s why it makes it a cultural touchstone this year. And that’s a very important thing.”

Vargas pointed out that Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group and racial group in America. “There are 4.2 million Filipinos in America today that we know. There are 1.8 million Filipinos just in California. There are more Filipinos in California than there are people in New Hampshire, Delaware, and Rhode Island. So, I’m saying this as a context of what’s next. La Bamba opened 35 years ago. So, I feel like Easter Sunday gives us a whole new marker. So where do we go from here?”

“The doors are wide open,” Phillips remarked. “Let’s just keep it open and let’s have a community and not just like Filipinos, just all of us in general. Sometimes we hurt ourselves. Understand the struggle to attain success for all of us on this panel. It didn’t happen overnight. We had struggles getting here and now that we’re here, for some reason, our own community likes to hold us back or bring it back a couple of notches because they weren’t happy with certain things or whatever. Don’t do that. Support and keep that movement going because it takes a lot. It took 35 years, and if you’re going to make it close again, it’s going to take another 35 years to open it. So, let’s all keep the door wide open.”

In closing, Koy stressed, “Like I said earlier, it’s all about that representation. It’s like learning little tidbits about someone’s culture but then also realizing that we’re all the same. A family is a family. Yeah, my mom has an accent, but she’s a mom. She’s just like your mom. That’s why people relate to some of these jokes.”