Jimmy Wong, co-creator of YouTube pop culture cooking series Feast of Fiction, talks to us about creating his own content for the video platform, taking the lead in new animated feature Wish Dragon alongside John Cho and Constance Wu, plus starring in the live-action remake of Disney's Mulan.
For many, the period of lockdown caused by Coronavirus brought productivity to a grinding halt - not least of all film and television production. For YouTube content creators such as Jimmy Wong, it meant an extended time at home with more freedom to create without any of the constraints facing regular on-set/in-studio productions with large cast and crew.
What has made the shutdown of U.S. productions different to those in many other countries, such as here in the UK, is that the rest of the country didn't entirely follow suit in locking down to control the spread of the virus. The distinction is not lost on Wong.
"[laughs] It's certainly a lot more relevant in the United States. I have a lot of friends that live in parts of Asia, I've a lot of friends in Europe, and hearing the severity of their quarantine compared to mine, or I guess, their need for quarantine compared to ours, has been a little bit eye-opening.
"I think I'm lucky because I am a digital content creator, so a lot of the work I do can be done from the comfort of my own home. There is a lot of freedom I have when it comes to that. For me, it's been a lot of fun to find new ways to work, but also a bit horrific, just seeing the state of the world around me and particularly how slowly things are progressing in our country in particular."
One of those horrific elements to come out of the pandemic, particularly in the United States (exacerbated by language used by President Trump), is that of racism and looking to blame the Asian community for the 'Chinese Virus'. Wong very quickly responded to this growing, ugly sentiment by releasing a parody song and music video with the same title.
"It's funny because usually when you do stuff on the internet, you have a very limited amount of time, otherwise things aren't as relevant even just a couple of days later. That for me was something I knew I had to rush out. Funnily enough, it turns out that the issue, the reason why I wrote the song in the first place, didn't go away. Normally I would think 'Cool, I dealt with the situation, hopefully, it won't be as prominent anymore'. However, the issue continued to be relevant months and months later."
"I guess you learn that videos can only do so much at the end of the day. That song was very much inspired by the increasing amount of racism against pretty much anyone that looked Asian across the world due to the impact of COVID-19. One of the best ways to describe it is to blame someone that looks different from you for something that is not their problem. In the video, I address it as scapegoating.
"People have so many things to worry about every day now, thanks to the impact of the pandemic, that being a better person isn't necessarily the highest priority. I can't blame someone for wanting to prioritise providing for their family over any of that. It's one of those situations where I think all we can do is put our best foot forward, lead by example as much as we can, and just hope that has a ripple effect to the people that do listen and do care and are able to take that message and spread it further, regardless of whether or not it's going to solve a systemic issue or stop racism happening to people across the world. At the very least, it's a step in the direction. The most I can hope for as a creator is just to have other people follow in that pattern."
With a platform of over 250K subscribers on YouTube, and the means to create his own content at home, as well as over 300K across social media, Wong used his time in lockdown to keep creating content that was his followers have come to expect from him. One of those series is Feast of Fiction, a cooking show that recreates famous dishes from pop culture that is so popular - evidenced by 1.33M subscribers on YouTube - Wong and his co-creator Ashley Adams even released their own cookbook, The Feast of Fiction Kitchen.
"Yes, it's been going for almost 10 years. It started as a passion project between myself and my co-host, where we just asked ourselves, 'What's a show that doesn't exist, but should exist'? Feast of Fiction was the answer for that. It ended up being a fun process for us to start creating the foods that we thought would make for awesome, fictional feasts.
"At first, I thought to myself, 'there is no way that this is going to last', but I very quickly learned that there are so many different foods that have been made in fiction. It’s been really fun diving into that and seeing what people recommend and what people want to see get made. As long as our fans have things that they want to show us and want to send to us and tell us to make, we will be happy to do so. For me in particular, it's been such a fun journey being able to fulfil all of their desires and things that they want to do."
It's good to know his time in the kitchen hasn't come to an end just yet, despite the upcoming movie projects he's also involved with. The first is the live-action remake of Disney's Mulan, playing the character of Ling, one of the few characters from the animated movie that returns for this live-action remake.
"Ling, Yao and Po make up the original iconic triplet of friends to Mulan, who has a lot of trials and tribulations to go through on her way to saving the Chinese Kingdom from the northern invaders. We are all these characters that get to be alongside her for that journey and help provide assistance and sometimes a couple of laughs or a camaraderie along the way.
"That was a really fun process, finding the camaraderie between us, as actors as well as people that are supposed to treat this person as both their fellow soldier recruit, and a man that reveals himself to actually be a woman. There's a lot of fun stuff that we got to do in the movie and a big part of it was just being able to work with so many other people as part of a collective of friends. Training and doing all that stuff together really brought us together in a way that was very rewarding."
In fact, it was camaraderie developed during these training sessions, particularly with horse-riding, that were the most memorable and enjoyable experiences for Wong.
"We were cast separately but at around the same time. A lot of credit goes to the director, Niki Caro, for being able to see each of our characters and really recognise how we would work with each other, and being able to realise that over training was a lot of fun. We had martial arts training, physical training, and horse riding.
"Horse riding was something that I was just absolutely fascinated by. I'd never done anything like it before. It was something that was just such a wild adventure and a really scary one too, because horses are just these massive, majestic creatures. You really don't want to make them mad. The horse is very much in touch with your emotions as well. It knows if you're scared. For me, that was a lot of fun to get that bond or connection between myself and the horse. There were a lot of times I got to do stuff I had never done before, but horse training was one of the more visceral and adrenaline-rush activities that I got to partake in."
Another of his upcoming feature projects wouldn't require quite as much horseplay, but it would be lead role for the actor. Wong plays Din in the animated adventure Wish Dragon, alongside John Cho and Constance Wu, which meant swapping location filming for the voice-over booth.
"Wish Dragon is another movie with some really heavy hitters in the Asian acting world. It's a fun, modern retelling of the classic Aladdin tale. Aladdin, as we all know, is a story of a boy that finds a genie lamp and gets through himself three wishes. That's very much the same here where I play the main character who finds a green teapot. Inside the teapot is a magical wish dragon, which is voiced by John Cho."
"It's a really fun adventure, animated beautifully and I think it's one of those very family-friendly, very entertaining movies that is going to delight a lot of people. Plus the dragon is big, pink and fluffy, so you got to watch it for just that."
How did he find swapping the camaraderie of his co-stars in a physical sense on the set of Mulan to working in the recording studio to record the character of Din in near-total isolation?
"Voice-over, I've realised, requires such a high amount of precision that it was really, really useful to have someone like the director there reading it with you. They would know exactly what you needed to have in each scene in terms of what to emote, what to project, what to hold back, what to hide. Sometimes you gloss over those details if you're doing it live with someone else in the room with you. We did get to have a couple of sessions where we were recording with the person right there and that was great for timing, but having a director just on top of what needs to happen in each scene and why characters are feeling certain ways or doing certain things is really valuable."
"After doing both voice performance and live action, I will say there is a lot of comfort and ease of doing voice-over because you get to just sit in a booth or stand in a booth in a nice air conditioned room, 20 minutes from your house whereas for Mulan, I had to fly 12 hours and spend six months away from home, so there's a bit of ups and downs both ways, I can't overstate just how nice the convenience of doing voice-over was comparatively."
To bring an element of food back to the conversation, I mention that between his animated feature, live-action feature, YouTube series and song-writing, he has his fingers in many pies. Are any of those pies becoming more appealing than the others, or is he still happy dipping in wherever he can?
"I think the classic problem of having your fingers in too many pies, or trying to spin too many plates at once, is that you can't do everything perfectly and you're going to feel the burden of doing it all over time. For me, the big thing I really love about making videos and making content, is the connection that you get with the community, the connection that you get with your fans. I think no matter what I do, as long as the project can help foster that connection and help bring me closer to the world at large, it's something that I'm going to be inherently interested in.
"I've been doing a lot of creative development at a new network called VENN TV, and that's been really fulfilling because it's given me a platform to be able to provide my perspective on the news and talk about current, pressing issues of which there are many. That combined with a social media presence means I can have some really great conversations with people all around the world about really deep issues, and that to me is really exciting."
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