In a CNET Live Q&A, the cast members and author open up about making the film, the importance of diversity on screen, Riverdale and Bruce Lee.
The Sun Is Also A Star is a film based on the young adult book of the same name by New York Times Bestselling author Nicola Yoon. It's a love story that is simultaneously hopeful and grounded. It follows Natasha Kingsley, played by Grown-ish star Yara Shahidi, who was born in Jamaica and is fighting her family's impending deportation. She meets Daniel, played by Riverdale's Charles Melton, a first-generation Korean American who is torn between his parent's hopes and his dreams of being a poet.
The gorgeous film, directed by Ry Russo-Young and shot by Autumn Durald Arkapaw, captures New York in a uniquely modern light that feels timeless. There are echoes of the film West Side Story. But it's the onscreen love between Daniel and Natasha that really drives the story. Daniel describes it as the "X factor" and both he and Natasha have it.
Melton credits a pop tart Yashidi shared with him for breaking the ice during an onscreen chemistry test.
"She brought a pop tart. We shared the pop tart. It was a homemade pop tart. And this trust developed."
During a live CNET Q&A at our San Francisco headquarters last week, I spoke with Melton and Yoon along with Jake Choi (Single Parents) who plays Daniel's older brother Charlie. We discussed the film, Riverdale, Luke Perry's influence and the importance of having Korean and Jamaican characters as the leads in a big screen romance.
"You've seen this kind of love story before many times. It's just that you have two people of color now in the front and center of the narrative," said Choi.
Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
How would you describe The Sun Is Also A Star?
Charles Melton: It's an aspirational love story. Two diverse people meet on a single day. My character, Daniel Bae, he's a hopeless romantic. His parents have dreams for him to be a doctor so he's dealing with that. He meets this girl on the day of his alumni interview, Natasha, played by Yara Shahidi and uses the Times test to prove to her that love is real and it can be scientifically proven. If we asked each other 36 questions and then stared into each other's eyes for four minutes without saying a word, scientifically, we'd fall in love.
I'd pretty sure that would happen. Yeah.
Jake Choi: I could see it happening. I would put money on it. You two would fall in love.
CM: On this day Natasha is fighting to stay in America because her family's getting deported the next day. Everything becomes very time sensitive. She's very practical and logical.
Nicola Yoon: And scientific. And she does not think that Daniel will be able to convince her to fall in love in 24 hours. But Daniel's persuasive. He does alright.
Charles, how did you become part of this film?
CM: I believed in the script, and I was very passionate about it. And Nicola, 10 months prior, posted on Instagram asking who should play Daniel Bae. A bunch of people were tagging me from these fan accounts -- [joking] over 200 fan accounts that I created.
JC: Shh, you're not supposed to tell them that.
That's the part you leave out.
CM: That same day, I bought the book. I read it in two days. What's great is that as an actor, I can go beyond the script and understand the character more. When it came to the process of filming, our phenomenal director, Ry Russo-Young, really set the tone as far as creating a space that we felt comfortable in. It was very organic and seamless. We rehearsed for three weeks prior. Taking things out, changing things a little bit, understanding what's going on aside from all the personal things we brought to it being a first-generation American.
JC: If you read the book, you know the brother is a straight up asshole. He's very deplorable. The film adaptation was very close to the book so I spoke with the director and I said that we should really humanize this character because anyone can be a one dimensional dickhead. The movie is not about him but at least let's make him someone who we kind of like to hate as opposed to we just hate.
One thing that you hope for with an onscreen romance is that the actors have chemistry. How did you Yara find that chemistry?
CM: This is a script and a story that we both believed in. We met each other at the chemistry read. Basically what they do is you meet for the first time and we had two scenes. There was a scene where we're in this coffee shop and everything is very easy. Then we went from that to a very emotional, heavy scene. That was within the first 20 minutes of meeting each other. In between the scenes, she brought a pop tart. We shared the pop tart. It was a homemade pop tart. And this trust developed. We connected with our characters on so many levels.
The whole process for me was really embodying the character I was portraying. There was an aspirational love, romanticism that I do strive for. My eating habits changed. The music that I was listening to changed.
What you're listening to?
CM: I was listening to Tom Misch. I had a ritual every morning and listened to Say A Prayer For Me. I was listening to a lot of Frank Ocean. I wasn't eating as much. I was writing a lot. I've always been a writer, but the character really inspired me to do a lot of different things like that.
JC: I met Charles and Keong [Sim], who plays our dad, the first day of the rehearsal. Keong is a theater actor like me. It was great to rehearse for a long time, break down the script and put it on our feet. That really helped a lot because there's a lot of scenes where we are on our feet and there's a lot of blocking. It was cool to have three Korean actors in one room with the director. There were moments where I'd be like, "Yo, Charles. Would your mom let you say that? I don't know if my mom would let me say." Or Keong would be like, "Well, I think like this in Korean... my father, I don't think he would say it like this, he would be more direct." So there were these back-and-forths where, if you grew up Korean-American and you have these shared experiences that you can only really understand as a Korean-American. You bring that to the table and you put it into the script. That specificity makes the audience's experience more relatable and universal.
CM: These are real relationships people have despite where you come from, the color of your skin or whatnot. The relationships with your parents. In certain households your parents, especially in Asian culture, they have this idea of what they want you to be. They have dreams and aspirations for you and that's all fine and dandy, but sometimes that might conflict with your own personal passion. How far am I willing to compromise what I want in order to accommodate what my parents want for me? You have that dynamic within the film that I believe that a lot of people relate to.
Also, there's Daniel Bae's older brother Charlie. Usually the oldest in the household sets the tone. He's supposed to be the leader and set the example but Charlie isn't that. He had his own personal things he was dealing with and that puts a lot of pressure on to Daniel to live up to his parents' expectations and wanting to make them proud.
JC: I think that was great on Nicola's part because it's so true, not just of Korean households, but a lot of households.
NY: Right. These are universal things. You don't have to be an immigrant to struggle with identity and to struggle with what your parents want for you versus what you want for yourself. Everyone can relate to having a sibling that's kind of a pain in the butt. Often when we talk about stories with minority characters people say they can't relate or it's not universal but it is universal. We're all people. We have a common humanity. If I can feel it, anyone can feel it.
In the film, Daniel is being pushed to be a doctor. In real life did your parents want you to pursue acting or being a novelist?
JC: My mom wanted me to pursue whatever made money. When I was a kid I wanted to be a firefighter. I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wanted to work with lizards and dog and snakes and stuff. And she said, "Son, there's no money in that." Be a doctor, be a lawyer, or a businessman because there's money in it. And there was this tension with my idea of money growing up. I wanted to just get away for money. And now, of course, you get older and you are making money and you're like, "This is nice. I kind of like money." Then Wu-Tang came out with a song called C.R.E.A.M. -- cash rules everything around me, cream -- and I'm like now I really got to get money.
So you're saying you became an actor because of Wu-Tang?
Yes, I did, that's exactly what I'm saying.
Stepping away from the film for just a moment. Charles, you were a college football player, then you became a model, and then you became an actor. How did you do that?
CM: I wanted to be an actor ever since I was in the third grade. When I was 21, I packed up my bags I told my parents I was moving out to Los Angeles. I didn't know anyone. But my parents were always supportive. My mom packed me 60 cans of chicken noodle soup, 60 packets of tuna and I had $500 in my account. And I made the drive out there with just a dream. It's funny when people ask me, when did you make it? It wasn't with Riverdale. It wasn't with Glee. It wasn't with anything that I've done. I made it the day that I drove out at 4 in the morning to Los Angeles.
Let's talk a little bit about Riverdale. You came on the second season as Reggie. What was it like taking over someone else's role?
CM: It was cool because Riverdale was such a hit show. I knew that I can never be anybody else as an actor. This is my take, this is my version. I'm going to bring what I can bring. I'm going to do the work that I need to do, and do a service to the character, Reggie Mantle, instead of doing a service to what the actor did prior.
And follow up question, what's going on between Reggie and Veronica this season?
CM: [long pause] A lot.
Luke Perry passed away early this year. Can you share what it was like to work with him and his influence on you?
CM: Luke Perry was a great man and his legacy will live on. Every person he met he treated the same. He affected people in a way that when you walked away you didn't just say that was Luke Perry but that's a great man. And he's a great man. He really is.
Jake, some people might know you from Single Parents which is hysterical. Is it hard playing someone that dumb?
JC: It's easy if you don't fall into the trap of playing dumb. The writers wrote this awesome character. What I lean into is how confident he is in thinking he knows everything and knows what he's talking about. That's why he comes across so dumb and clueless. To a person that's semi-conscious and aware you think this plan will never work, it's unfathomable. But he doesn't know that it's a dumb idea. When you see someone being fearless pursuing something, we relate to that more than actually what they're doing. It's the passion and intent behind the person.
CM: That's dumb, but I respect you. But you're dumb.
NY: Dumb people don't know they're dumb.
Going back to The Sun Is Also A Star. Nicola, is it based off a true story?
NY: You know everyone always asks that. I am Jamaican American and Natasha in the film is. My husband in real life is Korean American and also in the film. But it is not based on real life. I was not almost deported. A lot of the cultural stuff, in the book and in the film, is based on my real life. I love karaoke. My husband sings me Japanese love songs strangely in karaoke.
How closely were you involved with the film?
NY: Once you sell your book to a studio, no one has to pay attention to you. Seriously, the rights are gone. But fortunately, between my previous book [Everything, Everything] and this one, Warner Brothers has been really gracious. I got to give notes on the script which was nice because no one really has to listen, but they did. Then, I met Ry and we just got along very well.
In the film there's so many beautiful and unique shots of New York. The DP was Autumn Durald Arkapaw. What was it like filming with her in New York?
CM: Autumn is Filipino and she is such a talent with the work that she did with this project. The city of New York is another character. It's great to see the diversity, from shooting in Harlem to Koreatown to Grand Central, Chinatown. You see all these different elements that are representative of what this country is. The melting pot of America. I fell in love with New York City filming there every day. There's just something about the atmosphere of the whole city that really is very romantic and beautiful.
Obviously, this film is about love. Do you believe in love at first sight?
CM: Yes, I do. Love at first sight... it's a hopeful curiosity, you know. It's something you really can't explain. There's no method to love at first sight. It's just… there's this moment of "Who is?" It's this sense. [quietly] Yes, I believe in love at first sight.
Nicola, how about you?
NY: I mean I definitely do. But I believe more in love at second sight which is something I talk about in the book. It happens with friendships, too. You have a sense of someone else that you just know there's a connection. And I believe it because I've experienced that and then I married the boy that I experience it with. And it's been 17 years.
What about you, Jake?
JC: I am going to quote the late great Bruce Lee who once said: I do believe in love at first sight, but I also believe in taking a second look. I'll never forget that quote.
Why do you think people should see this film especially considering what's going on in our society and politics right now?
NY: We often think that because we don't share the same race or religion or sexuality with someone else, that we are so different. But it is not true. We live in a world right now that's telling you that these things make you so different and so far apart. But we share a common humanity. As Maya Angelou says in Human Family, "We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike." I hope that from the book and the movie that we can see that. That we can open ourselves up to the world, and treat each other with a little bit of grace and kindness (I will not stop saying this) see the connections between us and really see each other as people.
CM: That's amazing.
JC: First and foremost it really helps to bring empathy and compassion to someone who's going through this conflict of deportation. This is very timely and very real and reflects what's going on in our world right now. But, also, you've seen this kind of love story before many times. It's just that you have two people of color now in the front and center of the narrative. We're people, too. We fall in love in real life. And it's nice to see us. It's centered on our story and I think that's big.
NY: Once I was doing a book signing and there was this Chinese American man, he was maybe 45 to 50. He came up to me and he was quite complimentary about the book. Then he said, "You know I never see Asian guys get the girl. It just doesn't happen in books and movies." And then he started crying. It was a disaster because then I started crying. And there were people around us and they started crying. And I was like my God, what is happening?
But just to go on about what Jake was saying, it's true. Everyone gets to fall in love. Everyone gets to see themselves as the hero of the story. That's how it should be.
Daniel is the poet. The artist who's being driven to be a doctor. Natasha is a scientist. She's pragmatic. It's a reversal of what's normally portrayed in a romance on screen. How aware were you about balancing the two characters?
NY: I was definitely conscious of flipping the stereotype, but I was also an electrical engineering major in college. I knew girls who loved science and loved that world. I am one of them. Then I went to graduate school for writing and I knew a lot of poetic boys. So these people exist. We just don't see them in media. I just wrote them down.
My last question is actually for Charles. At some point in The Sun Is Also A Star, you wear glasses. I'm wondering if you're aware that, the DC Extended Universe is without a Superman right now. Would you consider playing Clark Kent and Superman?
CM: 100 percent. I'm from Kansas, too so… But that would be cool.