Sherry Cola spent the summer of 2021 waiting to find out if she'd booked Joy Ride. The stand-up comedian-turned-actress auditioned, and then spent months doing chemistry reads, and then more chemistry reads as director Adele Lim assembled her dream cast. "This is what blue balls must feel like, you know what I mean?" Cola cracks. In the end, she booked the part of Lolo. Cola spent the summer of 2022 shooting another leading role in Randall Park's indie comedy, Shortcomings. This summer, both movies arrive in theaters within one month of each other.
"It's the summer of Sherry Cola," she proclaims. "The Sherry Cola sauce, it's runneth over!"
The Sherry Cola sauce comes in different flavors, too, as Joy Ride and Shortcomings are as different as two comedies could get: The former is an R-rated studio comedy in which Cola stars alongside Ashley Park, Sabrina Wu and Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu as four unlikely friends on a trip to China gone awry. The movie is big, ballsy, and full of heart. Shortcomings is a classic Sundance dramedy, about flawed millennials dealing with the milieu of existing. It's acerbically witty and introspective. Or as Cola puts it, "Joy Ride is blue wigs, drugs on a train, threesomes. Shortcomings is a lot of sitting and talking, and a lot of walking and talking, and a lot of standing and fighting." Notably, they are both top-lined by Asian-American casts.
"And I'm on the posters!" Cola told A.frame in a June interview. She is front and center on the one-sheet for Shortcomings, and her neighborhood on Los Angeles' Eastside had recently been wallpapered with Joy Ride character posters. (Cola's character poster shows her tonguing a beer bottle, and thus, she is labeled "The Mouthy One.") She admits she still hasn't gotten used to walking past her own face on the sides of buildings, and bus stops, and billboards; she's loving it nonetheless.
"If this isn't the American Dream, I don't know what is," Cola says. "I mean, I'm an immigrant — I was born in Shanghai; I grew up in a bubble in the San Gabriel Valley — and suddenly I'm spreading my wings in such a major way. I just can't believe I get to do what I love. I'm still unpacking it in real time."
Sherriña Colada immigrated to the States as a preschooler, though she often returned to China during her summer and winter breaks from school. "I'm so grateful that I went back to Shanghai so much as a kid, because it kept me close to my roots," she reflects, "because anyone who comes here at the age of four, you risk losing sight of your culture and where you come from." Her family settled in Temple City, outside L.A., where Cola's parents opened a Chinese restaurant. She spoke Shanghainese at home and practiced her Mandarin at the restaurant. "That kept me grounded in where I'm from, and I'm so thrilled that I get to say that. I'm proud of being Asian. Of course, that wasn't overnight, with the societal brainwashing and the Hollywood trickery."
She did know that she was funny though, from as far back as she can remember.
"I wasn't the girl that people had crushes on. I wasn't the girl that people approached at bars. So I really had to gamble on this personality. This is all I got! Let me just dive into the jokes, and the comic relief, and the class clown, and the person who says the darnedest things," Cola says. Now? "I'm getting used to being funny and hot."
Cola pursued comedy through classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade and began doing stand-up. In 2019, she opened for Ronny Chieng, the comedian and Crazy Rich Asians actor, when he recorded his Netflix special, which is where Adele Lim first noticed her. Years passed before Lim slid into Cola's DMs to pitch her directorial debut, which at the time was titled Joy F**k Club.
"I read the script and it was just such a breath of fresh air, because it has simply never been done. I was like, 'What?! This is bananas! Are you kidding me? This is too good to be true.'" In conversation, Cola oscillates between hamming it up then getting suddenly philosophical, as when she seamlessly expounds: "We have these thoughts of 'too good to be true' because we weren't allowed to tell these stories. We never felt seen or heard. We're finally coming into a place of progress, where we are being loud and proud about our perspectives and our experiences."
In Joy Ride, Cola's Lolo forms a lifelong friendship with Park's Audrey when they bond over being the only two Asian girls in their small town. As adults, Audrey is an overachieving lawyer and Lolo is a layabout creative type, intent on breaking boundaries with her sex-positive and stereotype-subverting artwork. When Audrey is sent to Beijing to close a business deal, Lolo tags along as her translator — as do Audrey's college roommate, Kat (Hsu), now a famous soap star, and Lolo's oddball cousin, Deadeye (Wu). A shenanigan-filled odyssey ensues.
The same night that Lim saw Cola perform at Ronny Chang's stand-up show, Cola met Randall Park for the first time backstage. ("Ronny Chang, I owe you 10 percent!") Park kept her in mind for his own directorial debut, Shortcomings. An adaptation of Adrian Tomine's graphic novel of the same name, the film centers on a trio of thirtysomethings — Ben (Justin H. Min), his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), and his gay best friend, Alice (Cola) — as they grapple with the complexities of modern relationships, identity, and culture.
"I hate the way this sounds, but Sherry's a real star," Park tells A.frame. "It feels weird saying that — it feels so old Hollywood talent agent — but I really do think that she's a star. She is just a beacon of positive energy and just a lovely, lovely human being. And it's all well-deserved. She's a force and I'm so excited for her future, because she deserves the world."
Growing up, Cola never thought there would be a place for her in Hollywood, let alone that she could be a star. "It just felt so farfetched because of the lack of representation." Which isn't to discount the Asian actresses who came before her — including Margaret Cho, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Ming-Na Wen, and newly-minted Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh — on whose shoulders she proudly stands.
"I feel very lucky to be in the industry in this time," Cola says, "because those trailblazers, they probably went through way more problematic s**t so that I could freely preach on a red carpet today. That society was not rooting for people like us and they prevailed, so I have to give them their flowers."
For Lim and Park, Joy Ride and Shortcomings were opportunities to make their own version of the type of films they love most — for Lim, a raunchy comedy in the vein of The Hangover and Bridesmaids; for Park, an independent comedy a la Frances Ha or Sideways — with characters who in this case happen to be Asian. And in both cases, the representation wasn't just on-screen. On set, Cola wasn't the only Asian person, nor was she the only Asian woman. She wasn't even the only queer Asian person. She never had to be the only voice in the room.
"It means everything to see people who look like you on a set," Cola says. "To not be the token anything, it really meant the world." Shooting Joy Ride, "There was so much trust between the actors and the producers, and the director, and the people behind the scenes, because come on! Even three years ago, this film felt like impossible, right? To have four Asian leads that are so different from each other? It is the first of its kind. It's never been done."
Shortcomings debuted at Sundance earlier this year, with a subsequent showing at Tribeca Festival. In the interim, Cola traveled to South by Southwest for the world premiere of Joy Ride. By that time, she'd already gotten a private showing of the latter; Cola, Hsu and Park were shown a rough cut at the Lionsgate headquarters. "It was like we were watching the Lakers in the Finals," she says. "We were on our feet, screaming at the screen the whole time. We were laughing and saying the lines — it was like karaoke."
"I walked away and I was like, 'That is good f**king stuff,'" she says. What Cola felt leaving the theater that day wasn't some overwhelming sense of pride — though she couldn't be more proud of the movie they made — but of gratitude. "I'm just so incredibly grateful that it's just too much to put into words," she stammers. "I don't take these moments for granted. These moments, these magical moments, it's not lost on me that they're rare — especially for people like me. A queer, immigrant, Chinese-American woman. Like, what?!"
By John Boone
This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-Aftra strike.