Three Great Things: Sherry Cola

The breakout star of Joy Ride and the new dramedy Shortcomings on Romeo Must Die, the San Gabriel Valley and her "superpower."

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the August 4 release in theaters of Shortcomings, the new comedy-drama from director Randall Park starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan and Tavi Gevinson, rising comedian and actress Cola – who’s flying high after the success of her other summer movie, Joy Ride shared some of the things that she loves the most in life. N.B. This piece was completed in late June, before the current SAG-AFTRA strike began. — N.D.

Romeo Must Die
I have a deep, devastating memory about this, one of my favorite movies. It was the summer of 2001, I was about to start seventh grade and I was watching MTV News when Sway announced the tragic death of Aaliyah. I remember being so incredibly heartbroken because I was a huge Aaliyah fan. I cried for such a long time, my parents asked, “What’s going on? Are you OK?” Aaliyah and Kobe Bryant are the only two celebrities that I’ve bawled over when they passed.

After Aaliyah died, I remember watching Romeo Must Die repeatedly; I am obsessed with that film, which I think is underrated and very much ahead of its time. The actors are amazing, from Aaliyah and Jet Li and to the supporting cast of Russell Wong and Anthony Anderson. I look back at that film and think how far we’ve come in terms of representation. Because at that time when I first watched Romeo Must Die, it was one of the rare films that gave people like me hope.

When I was watching movies as a kid, I didn’t think, “I’m going to be an actress,” because that just didn’t seem realistic. Aside from films like Romeo Must Die, The Joy Luck Club and Better Luck Tomorrow – or even Lucy Liu being cast as one of the leads in Charlie’s Angels – I didn’t even realize how much representation was missing for people like me. But I think I was obsessed with Romeo Must Die because it showed two worlds that were very underrepresented. It was also a breath of fresh air because of the way it was shot, the soundtrack, the action and the romance. I even heard there was a version where Aaliyah and Jet Li kissed at the end, but apparently it tested poorly with audiences – the world wasn’t ready.

Romeo Must Die really made an impact on me and made me think, “I want to do stuff that has an impact, too.” I think with Joy Ride and Shortcomings, things are moving forward and maybe there can be a ripple effect where a seventh grader today can watch a movie with Asian characters and not feel that film is a unicorn, because it has been normalized. It’s cool to come full circle like this and be able to tell these stories today.

Growing Up in the 626
I was born in Shanghai, so that has a very dear place in my soul, my mind, my heart. But I grew up in Alhambra and Temple City in the San Gabriel Valley, the 626, the motherland.

I’m very lucky that growing up I learned to speak the asShanghai dialect in the house. My mom has a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, where I would peel potatoes after school and talk to the customers in Mandarin. I felt really connected to my Asianness, but being proud of it definitely did not come overnight, because society brainwashed us to believe we were foreigners. I was even ashamed of the fact that my parents had accents. I’m really mad at myself for that now.

I feel really lucky I grew up in a place where Asianness was normalized, but the San Gabriel Valley was also such a bubble. I always knew I wanted more out of life than just staying there, but it’s still home. My mom still lives there, and on every corner, you can find the best Asian food. Summer Rolls is one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants. There’s Din Tai Fung – the original, before it moved locations and swept the nation – with its soup dumplings. Little Skewer in Monterey Park sells lamb skewers, a very Shanghainese thing. The smell of cumin still brings me back to the night markets in Shanghai, which I remember from when I went back there as a kid. I feel really fortunate that I did that and embraced my roots, as a lot of other kids who were born there and moved to the U.S. when they were babies lose sight of where they came from or don’t speak the language of their parents.

Now that I live outside the 626, whenever I go back to the San Gabriel Valley, it always makes me so nostalgic. The 626 has always been a best kept secret and I’m proud of it. I’m almost possessive over the San Gabriel Valley, because I’m so true to that lifestyle of loitering at boba shops until 3 a.m., smoking cigarettes and playing claw machines. I literally had a gambling addiction to claw machines. I won so many plushies of Hello Kitty and all her friends – Keroppi, Badtz-Maru, the whole gang – plus Rilakkuma, Domo, Gudetama. I would have maybe $100 to my name, and then spend $60 on a claw machine and get nothing.

The San Gabriel Valley is still deeply rooted in my soul. I really connect with those roots, and those memories in the San Gabriel Valley just feel like home. They will definitely be part of the next thing I create, because that’s literally who I am and where I come from.

My Superpower
I’ve played a large number of queer characters in the handful of credits I have. I’ve been on the television show Good Trouble for five seasons now and the moment I booked it, I came out to my mom. I play a queer character in the show and I’d been freely bisexual in my life, but I wasn’t a public figure before, so I had never felt the need to break that barrier with my mom. Being a queer, immigrant, Chinese-American woman, dating just isn’t talked about in a lot of immigrant households, so when I realized I could potentially be a role model by portraying the character of Alice on Good Trouble, I thought, “OK, I need to spread my wings in my real life, too.”

When I sat my mom down, she was shocked. I was shocked that she was shocked! But she’s just a classic immigrant Asian mother who kept her head down and works hard as hell to this day, busting her ass at her restaurant with the pure motivation of survival. She’s not immersed herself in pop culture and never got the chance to embrace these contemporary concepts, so I’ve been very patient and empathetic to the fact that she’s going to have to process this, and it won’t be overnight. We’ve had many conversations since; I currently have a girlfriend who I’ve been dating for over a year and we’ve made more progress in that time.

When I started Good Trouble and came out to my mom, it was a special time in my life because I felt liberated. After that, I could openly talk about anything, even in my stand-up comedy. I just felt so wholeheartedly myself.

Queerness has always been a superpower. I just didn’t know it until the last five years. I see it when people are inspired by Alice’s coming-out scene in Good Trouble or my character in Shortcomings, who’s essentially a queer “fuckgirl.” She is just playing the field, and it’s just so liberating. My character in Joy Ride, Lolo, is also bisexual in a very normalized way.

I think my mom is also starting to understand that a lot of the opportunities in front of me are because I’m unapologetically myself. And she is so proud of me. It’s shocking to my entire family tree that I have found a way to be in TV and films, and I think my mom is starting to see that this loud and proud version of myself is the reason why.

Actress, comedian and writer Sherry Cola is currently starring in the hit comedy Joy Ride and the comedy drama Shortcomimgs, which hits theaters on August 4. She will also appear in the upcoming Netflix film A Family Affair opposite Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, and Joey King and she will lend her voice to Paramount Animation’s upcoming feature The Tigers Apprentice, opposite Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, and Sandra Oh. On the television front, Cola currently stars on the hit drama series Good Trouble as Alice Kwan, a queer first-generation Chinese American who manages the apartment complex the ladies are living in and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. Cola got her break in television in 2017, landing a seven-episode arc on Amazon’s I Love Dick, opposite Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Hahn, then in 2018 booked a recurring role on TNT’s Claws opposite Niecy Nash, Carrie Preston, and Judy Reyes. (Photo by Nat Lim.)