Sherry Cola Explains Why “Joy Ride” Is Such a Pivotal Moment For the APIA Community

Jonny Marlow / Photo Illustration by Aly Lim

Image Source: Jonny Marlow / Photo Illustration by Aly Lim

Diversity does not equal representation, an unfortunate truth many Asian and Asian American actors in Hollywood have grappled with for decades. When Sherry Cola realized she’d been cast as a lead actor in “Joy Ride,” which hit theaters on July 7, the mental shift required to process the reality of the situation was jarring.

“There was a moment where Ashley [Park] and I had a really long day, and the two of us were in the van, going back to our hotel, and we were so tired because it’d been like 12 hours of filming this incredible, rare film,” Cola tells POPSUGAR. “And I tell Ashley, ‘Wow, everything we’ve filmed so far is important, like every scene is a big scene.’ I was just in shock, reflecting, and she looks at me and says, ‘I guess this is what it’s like to be a lead.'”

“Not often do Asian actors get to do that: to be multidimensional and do various things in one project.”

For Cola and Park, who are both in their early 30s and whose previous acting résumés had primarily consisted of supporting roles, the realization was weighty. “It was such an epiphany and such a moment of gratitude that we get to be a part of a film that’s never been done,” Cola says. “We just kept wrapping our heads around the fact that everything in this film is a big moment, from the nightclub to the K-pop dance to doing drugs on the train, the scene with the hot basketball boys – literally everything was such a big moment. It’s such a wake-up call when you’re still surprised that people want to see this [story] because I think we’ve been so brainwashed by the industry and by this country, to be frank, that our stories aren’t important that we almost started to believe it. So in those moments when we see representation on the page, we have to pinch ourselves and do a double-take.”

That epiphany resonated with the entire lead cast, including Cola, Park, Stephanie Hsu, and Sabrina Wu, who carried the impact of their roles with them into every scene. “We didn’t take it lightly, and we absolutely gave it our all,” Cola says. To be given the opportunity to ad-lib, sing with one another in the recording studio, and “shine in such a brightly comedic way” was “liberating.” Cola adds, “Not often do Asian actors get to do that: to be multidimensional and do various things in one project.”

For the uninitiated, “Joy Ride” is the story of four friends who find themselves on an unapologetically explicit journey of self-discovery as they travel across Asia. At its core, the film is about friendship, but the trailer boasts a drug-smuggling escapade infused with moments of hilarity, including a K-pop rap scene complete with colorful costumes. So why does being part of such a comical, chaotic movie hold so much resonance for Cola and her castmates?

“When I got the call that I booked [the role], the tears were just overflowing, because the journey is simply not overnight,” Cola explains. “I can’t believe I get to be a part of this film that is gonna make history in a lot of ways because of what it is and what it represents and how wild it is, how messy it is, and how imperfect all the characters are. It really is the journey of discovering who your chosen family is, discovering how to be comfortable in your own skin.”

Alongside the film’s “humor, heart, and horniness,” “Joy Ride” is among the rare instances in which APIA actors have been given depth on screen. “That’s everything we’ve ever wanted as actors, and more,” Cola says. “As fans of TV and film, we want characters that you can relate to and aren’t a monolith, and are multidimensional. All we want to do is tell universal stories, and if we happen to be representing our people, then hell yeah.”

Related: Ashley Park Unpacks the Joys of Playing Mindy Chen and Starring in Women-Led Projects

Cola acknowledges, though, that this moment of celebration and progress was not easy to achieve. “I want the younger generation to know that it’s OK to be friends with each other,” Cola says, referring to the fact that Asian actors, specifically Asian women, have historically been forced to elbow each other away to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. “There doesn’t need to be any beef. We can just all shine in our own ways.”

This toxic work environment has created unnecessary rivalries that further limit the representation of Asian actors on screen and curb the possibility of creating friendships with fellow actors. But that’s changing. “We’re seeing that collective group-project energy,” she says. “We’re really all in this together, and we realize that we’re stronger together. We can’t settle for anything less than what we deserve.”

Cola continues, “I feel really lucky that I’m in the industry right now where we are putting competition behind us, we’re supporting each other, rooting for each other, and uplifting each other. It’s because of the trailblazers, whose shoulders we stand on, that I’m able to amplify my own voice and other voices today. I feel so grateful and fortunate that, because of the inspiring icons – like Michelle Yeoh, Margaret Cho, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Ming-Na Wen, etc. – I’m able to now carry that energy of making sure everyone gets some shine.”

In addition to filming “Joy Ride,” Cola, Park, Hsu, and Wu had the honor of presenting the cast of 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” with an award at the second annual Gold Gala in May. For Cola, the honor of presenting for her heroes was a surreal experience. “They’re sisters for life, and they will always have the special thing that they made, that impacted the culture,” she says. In filming “Joy Ride,” Cola and her castmates have re-created that sisterhood dynamic, further paving the road for future generations of APIA actors. “Hopefully, this will create a ripple effect where the industry has no choice but to make more films and TV shows like this,” Cola says. “Representation brought us together; a script that had these characters brought us together; a studio that believed in change brought us together. It really is so special.”

“Joy Ride” is truly a wild ride from start to finish, but the film’s humor is nothing compared to the agency it gives back to its actors. “I can’t wait for the world to be blown away,” she says. “I can’t wait for all the audiences to have their jaws dropped and walk out of that theater dying to tell their friends about it, dying to go back and watch it again, dying to just make more of this kind of art that represents us in a way that breaks stereotypes, shatters any type of stigmas, and helps reclaim our identities and redefine ourselves for ourselves.”

As Cola concludes: “I think this film is the best example of making fun of ourselves, because, for so long, society has made fun of us. But now it’s like, ‘Oh honey, sweetie pie, we’ll take it from here.'”

Related: How Ally Maki’s Asian American Girl Club Led to Cultivating Her Own Friendships

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