Joel Kim Booster on His First Asian Friend and an “Invaluable” Fight With Bowen Yang

Jeong Park/Searchlight Nelson Huang Photo Illustration by Becky Jiras

Joel Kim Booster knows a thing or two about friendship – he wrote, produced, and starred in 2022’s “Fire Island,” a rom-com that follows a group of queer friends vacationing on the titular New York island. In the movie, he stars alongside his real-life best friend, comedian Bowen Yang, making for a portrayal of gay Asian friendship that feels incredibly genuine. Booster has regularly talked about being adopted from South Korea by white parents and growing up in a predominantly white community in the Midwest, where he had few other Asian friends.

As part of our APIA Heritage Month package celebrating friendship, Booster spoke to us about the very first Asian friend he made, what it’s been like to navigate Hollywood, and more. He even shared a story he’s “never told anyone” about a pivotal moment in his friendship with Yang. Read on, all in his words, ahead.

I made my first close Asian friend in the seventh or eighth grade – that’s when I met Cassie. She was the first other Asian girl at my church, in my youth group. I think there’s this thing when you are that young, and you immediately latch onto the only other person you find. Regardless of your shared interests or whether or not you mesh well personality-wise, you just hold onto each other for dear life, because you’re the only two. And I think Cassie and I did get along pretty well; we had enough shared interests. But I remember the friendship less as a really deep one and more as one where we sort of held onto each other out of necessity, out of survival.

Related: Letter From the Editor: This APIA Heritage Month, We’re Celebrating Friendship

Back then, my racial identity was used mostly as a joke. I wasn’t connecting with it at home, and then at school and at church, it was mostly used against me because I was the butt of a lot of jokes. I was the only Asian person that a lot of these kids knew, so any time anything related to Asia was brought up in conversation, they would turn to me and be like, “Oh, just like Joel” – whether it was karate, math, bad at driving, d*ck size. All of this was filtered through me and my life experience because of my racial identity and because I was the only Asian that they knew. So it was nice to share that burden with Cassie a little bit when she came. It was different, obviously, because she was a girl, but for the most part, I saw her as more of an ally than a friend in some ways.

We sort of held onto each other out of necessity, out of survival.

My high school was also predominantly white, so most of my friends through high school and college were white – the diversity at both my high school and my college was not anything to write home about. I really was surrounded primarily by white students for most of my education.

It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago, where I was exposed to a lot more diversity in my social circles, that I started forming closer friendships with people of color. I think there was so much I wasn’t processing up until that point. So much about my life experience was invisible to my friends, and it wasn’t until I started developing these closer relationships to people of color that – you know, it’s such a cliché – you start to feel seen. And you start to develop parts of your identity that were dormant. Looking back on it, I think I suppressed a lot and pushed a lot down because I didn’t want to feel different. So I didn’t speak up, I didn’t draw attention to my race. I wanted to feel as “normal” as possible. And for me for a long time that meant not necessarily being white, but at least being as nonracialized as possible.

I just realize how really, really lucky I was to make my first movie with my best friend.

Becoming friends with Bowen is the stuff of legends now thanks to our “Fire Island” press tour. When I first moved to New York, we had a mutual friend who I talked to one night on the subway. And he was like, “Oh, you know who you should meet? You should meet Bowen Yang. You’re both gay Asian comedians.” And he put us in a Facebook group message together, and both of us were a little put off by the way we were being sort of forced together and the way he led with two of our identities rather than anything we might have in common with one another beyond that. So we were really resistant to being friends and meeting for a long time. And of course when we did finally meet at a show, it was almost immediate that we realized, “Oh my god, this is the person that sees me and understands me,” in a very specific way that I don’t think either one of us had ever really encountered before.

Ultimately, I feel really, really lucky that I got to make “Fire Island” with him. Especially now as I’m moving into other projects and working on new things that are away from that film, I just realize how really, really lucky I was to make my first movie with my best friend and have it be so intrinsically about our friendship – it was really powerful for us, and I think it brought us together even closer. Who knows how the movie will hold up in 10 years, if people will like it as much. But for me, I will always have this testament and this love letter to my friendship with Bowen, and nothing is going to take away from that.

There are so many memories from filming that stand out. There’s this one scene in the bathroom with Bowen and me where we fight, and I think that was the second or third day shooting. It was a big acting moment for both of us, because we were so much more comfortable as comedians than actors in a lot of ways. That’s a serious scene requiring serious actors, and there was no comedy for us to hide behind; all of our insecurities were laid there in that scene. I don’t know if I could’ve done that scene with anyone but Bowen. We had each other to lean on, and we were supportive of each other. It was just really, really important for us as people to do that scene together. It was intense and wonderful and a mix of a lot of other things.

All in all, shooting “Fire Island” was a really stressful experience for me as the writer, star, creator, producer, etc. And it really took its toll on my mental health near the end of shooting. I was feeling a little unstable, cycling through ups and downs and really trying to get a handle on my medication for my bipolar [disorder]. And I got in this huge fight with Bowen. It was my fault and triggered by nothing other than my own mental disease. I remember going to bed and thinking, “Oh my god, did I just ruin my friendship with Bowen?” And the next day, I went into his room, intending to have this really serious discussion and trying to figure out if we were still going to be friends, and he just immediately said, “It’s OK,” and both of us sort of broke down.

I feel like we’re all seniors getting ready to graduate to the next big thing.

In that moment, his grace and understanding and seeing who I was in those uglier moments and understanding that those uglier moments weren’t me – it’s something I will never be able to repay him for, is seeing past those ugly moments and being able to forgive and see me for who I really am. I don’t think I’ve ever told that story before. But it’s a really powerful moment for me and solidifies my friendship with Bowen and how important he is. For him to have that amount of grace and just to know who I am inside and out like that, it’s something invaluable for me to have in my life.

Right now in general, it’s a really incredible time to be an Asian American working in Hollywood. There are so many of us coming up; I feel like I’m a part of this generation of Asian American, AAPI talent in Hollywood. Stephanie Hsu, Sherry Cola, Dylan Adler, Bowen. There are just so many people coming up right now who are so exciting. I feel really blessed to be in this class. I feel like we’re all seniors getting ready to graduate to the next big thing and graduating into taking over this industry. Every time I run into somebody like Steph or Sherry or Bowen, it’s this giddy feeling of like, we are doing it. We are taking over. It’s a really fun time to be Asian.

– As told to Lena Felton

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