Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Nardos Haile

"Comedy should have intention"

Sherry Cola is an actor, a stand-up comic and a Scorpio – all of which may explain her air of intrigue and intensity. For her latest project, however, she's tapping into her mischievous side.

The charming, raspy-voiced performer has had a stellar past year. From starring in the delightful and raunchy road trip escapade "Joy Ride" and Randall Park's comedy-drama "Shortcomings" to wrapping up the final season of the GLAAD-nominated Freeform series "Good Trouble" — Cola is in high demand and shows no sign of slowing down.

She told me in an interview that her humble come-up working on a radio station's street team helped form her work ethic. "It taught me a lot about the hustle, something that's always in my blood. Nothing's overnight, and you really just have to go for it . . . Something I've always had is the lack of fear of rejection, which may be a toxic trait, but just go for it." 

Cola has definitely has gone for it. The multi-talented star is ushering in the Lunar New Year with Henry Golding, Sandra Oh and Michelle Yeoh in the Paramount+ animated film "The Tiger's Apprentice," based on the book series by Laurence Yep.

Cola spoke to Salon about her extensive work, her comedy career and what monkey business she gets up to in "The Tiger's Apprentice." 

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Congrats on the GLAAD nominations! What does it mean to you to be a part of film and TV that centers on queer stories and really does it successfully? 

I've been so lucky to portray characters with multi-dimensional identities, me being an immigrant, queer Chinese American woman – qualities that society never rooted for – the fact that I get to embrace them now, which was not overnight. I get to do it on the screen and represent that way and hopefully create a ripple effect for people who are inspired to do what I do. "Good Trouble" getting nominated by GLAAD is always such an honor. And I don't take it lightly because they show love every year, and it means the world because we are such an LGBTQ+ show that I'm just happy it gets recognized.

They also nominated "Shortcomings." We got the double nom! There was actually a queer character in that film as well directed by the one and only Randall Park based on the graphic novel of the same name. GLAAD nominated "Shortcomings" and "Good Trouble." In both projects, I play a character named Alice and they are both queer. And yet they have such different personalities like Alice in "Shortcomings," she got kicked out of grad school, she's in your face, unapologetic kind of a troublemaker and very liberated in her queerness. Whereas Alice in the five seasons, in the 88 glorious episodes [of "Good Trouble"], you've seen her evolution from being timid and uncomfortable in her own skin and finding her voice through that journey. And now, she's someone who stands up for herself and really just takes on being queer and is proud of it. So I'm just really lucky to portray all these characters that people can look up to.

Talking about one of your new projects, "The Tiger's Apprentice" is a new animated film. It's based on the books by Lawrence Yep. Can you tell us what the film is about and your role in it?

So in "The Tiger's Apprentice" premiering exclusively on Paramount+ on Feb. 2. . .

Nice plug!

I play Naomi the Monkey, who's such a prankster. She doesn't really take too much seriously. There are so many personalities with these 12 Chinese zodiac animals going on this mystic adventure with this young warrior. It's about embracing your individuality, and Monkey is definitely a good time and we have a star-studded cast. We have Henry Golding, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Bowen Yang, Leah Lewis and Brandon Soo Hoo, who literally went to the same high school as me. So Temple City represent! Temple City is out here.

It's just so fun, and animation is the dreamiest thing to do because we grew up watching cartoons. We grew up watching things that allowed us to open up our imagination and in a voice-over booth, anything's possible. I'm throwing my body around; I'm playing a monkey, just really taking on that character.

I can't wait to celebrate at the premiere because it's just in time for Lunar New Year, and that's such a big holiday, I think I celebrate that the most out of all holidays. Growing up, it's funny, being an immigrant, and obviously being American as well, it's interesting because there's some things we never fully embrace. I never had a Christmas tree growing up. But Lunar New Year, at midnight, my mom and I go to the Buddhist temple and we pray, we do the red envelope. We do all that. So this is definitely a tradition that we get to live on screen because it's part of the film.

What is your relationship to the Chinese zodiac and did you grow up talking about it, can you share a bit more about your heritage?

So in real life, I was born in 1989. So I'm the year of the snake. Shout out to Taylor's [Swift] work. But there are so many funny superstitions that my mom has forced me to embrace. For example, when it's your year, it's a very transformative year. So good things can happen. Bad things can happen. You have to be better ready for anything and protect yourself. So when it was the year, the same 12 years ago, because this year is the year of the dragon. So next year will be the year the same. So 12 years ago was a year the snake. And my mom made me wear red underwear [for] 365 days. So laundry was a common occurrence. 

How many pairs of red underwear did you have? 

Not even that many! I guess I was just doing laundry. But that's something because red is such a lucky color. It fights off the bad spirits. Whatever my mom says I do. I think it's just like vision boards, charging your crystals, manifesting, I think it is very much believing in something that is bigger than you. It's special, and I think it's necessary. It's very much a major part of my life to trust in a higher power and let that guide you. I go to the Buddhist temple, I pray and I wear Buddha beads. You can hear it from the temple. I don't feel complete if I leave these at home. I would have to go back and put them on. So there is that kind of energy that I really embraced. Yeah, something about it. But I mean, maybe it's all in our heads or maybe it's real?

So for this film, did you get to pick your zodiac animal to play? Was that a casting decision that was made for you?

For "The Tiger's Apprentice," it was definitely a casting decision for me to be Monkey. I actually auditioned for a couple of other animals before this one. I can't even remember which ones to be honest with you. This was in 2020. So I booked this in 2020. Because animation definitely takes forever to make all the visuals come alive. So I got the audition for Monkey. But Monkey really is a perfect fit because she's goofy. There are some exclusive clips that have aired now of me shrinking Rooster [Jo Koy] and Rat [Bowen Yang]. So it's just like this comedic cast, and it's so fun. Monkey is definitely the most magical of all the zodiac signs. I believe in the actual powers that monkey has. She has the shrinking abilities. She has really whimsical, mystical skills. I feel like Monkey's always up to no good. Monkey is just swinging all over the place.

This isn't your first animated feature film. What about the stories draw you in as an actor? And are there any challenges to voice acting versus doing it in person?

I gotta say something about the voice acting work was not necessarily challenging, but in voice acting a lot of the time you're by yourself in the booth. I think Henry and Brandon were together because obviously the Tiger and the Apprentice have such a special bond. I think they recorded a bunch together. But most of us other Chinese zodiacs, we did it individually. Which also is a good time because you're in there just doing whatever you want and finding the moment. You're really discovering the character and creatively collaborating with the directors and producers as you go which can be really fun. But of course, on set in a live-action project, you're bouncing energies off your scene partner, and I do stand-up as well. So that's a solo sport through and through and the audience is your scene partner. I'm really fortunate to explore all these different mediums and play around in that regard. But yeah, it's all collaborative at the end of the day so that's kind of cool. It's cool to see come alive because you really don't know what to expect like what they're gonna use. And it's always a fun surprise. 

You have a multi-skilled background, you were once an on-air radio host. What lessons did you learn about performance and trying to establish rapport with a subject? Does any of it apply to your stand-up?

Oh, absolutely. I think a lot of the just wonderful wizardry of wit. I love alliteration, comes from the in-the-moment interactions I have with people. And I remember being so proud of whether I was interviewing Khalid or Fifth Harmony or Noah Cyrus. Back in the radio days, there was something about making them feel comfortable to open up and not feel nervous or not feel threatened. I feel like I have this intriguing yet disarming quality. Like I said, zero to matching tattoos real quick. I learned a lot in the radio world.

I was there for over two years and I went from street teamer to on-air. With the street team experience, it was so humbling. Because on a Friday, you'd be escorting Ariana Grande to a meet and greet. And on a Tuesday, you'd be passing out stickers at Metro PCS. It was such a roller coaster of emotions; you're close to your dream, and then you're pulled back. It's so humbling. I mean, I'd be doing lunch runs, I've been doing social media stuff, I'd be doing trips to Palm Springs where we set up activations at a little pool party Coachella-adjacent. We did it all. And I truly did everything I could in that building, in order to be on air. That was my goal when I stepped my foot in that building.

Eventually, in 2016, I started doing stand-up, and I had some funny videos online, and Carson Daly, he got wind of me, and threw me on the morning show. Then eventually, I've got my own show on Sunday nights. It has really taught me a lot about the hustle, something that's always in my blood. Nothing's overnight, and you really just have to go for it. I think that something I've always had is the lack of fear of rejection, which may be a toxic trait, but just go for it. Find a way to do it, and here I am.

It's paid off.

It's bananas. 

Speaking about comedy, you've probably seen a lot of conversation about stand-up since the Katt Williams podcast episode. How challenging is it to keep comedy sets fresh in your opinion?

I've always been a big believer of not two people can write the same book – although we can all relate to dating in LA or having helicopter moms or things like that. I think we all have different perspectives on it and could still have a unique way of putting that into jokes. I also do believe that there's such a thing as creative coincidence. Sometimes we all absorb the same things growing up. How many of us quote "Mean Girls"? Sometimes it does get blurry and accidental. But I think it's truly case by case.

Depending on the situation, with comedy personally I just talk about things I know firsthand, and it can also be so random. Like I have a joke, making fun of EDM names. I have a joke talking about iPhones versus Androids, being a bridesmaid, personal experiences, just little things that are observational and also deep. I think comedy is so powerful because you're kind of tricking the audience into learning something. People can leave a show that they see me and they're laughing, but really, they just learned something about the queer Asian experience. I think that's something that is not lost on me that comedy should have intention to some degree . . . and also boob jokes.

Taylor Tomlinson just debuted as the only female late-night host. So what are your thoughts? Would you like to host a talk show at some point? And what would it be like?

First of all, I love Taylor Tomlinson. We met in 2017 on an unscripted show called "Safe Word" on MTV. So we've been rooting for each other for a long time. And to see her just thrive and thrive and thrive makes me so happy. I tuned in live to "After midnight." Literally, what was it 12:37 a.m. or something like that? I tune in live because I also love Stephen Colbert, and the people at "Funny or Die" who are producing it, and I'm just a big fan of Taylor. I know her. And I recently saw her and she showed me love for "Joy Ride." It's just supporting comics who are so funny and deserve to get the spotlight. I'm so stoked that she's the only female late-night host right now. She deserves it. She's so good at what she does.

Would you ever consider doing it yourself?

Absolutely. I love hosting and just being a stand-up. That's like, the natural thing to do — is to host a talk show one day. Absolutely. Hit me up.

The message of identity and found family seems to be heavily present in especially "The Tiger's Apprentice" and across all your work like "Joy Ride" and "Shortcomings" to "Good Trouble." Why do you think this is?

Community is everything, whether it be the queer community, whether it be the Asian community, whether it just be womanhood, whether it be just people trying to find their true passions in life, whether it's just people coming together because of trauma. I think having a support system and having real conversations and human connection, is the priority for the audience to feel seen and heard is everything to me. I've been spoiled, honestly being on a show, like "Good Trouble" for five seasons because no one is left out when you watch that show.

Moving forward as I embark on finding my next television show, it has to have the same intentional messages and the same importance and impact. I think I'm just really grateful to be in the industry right now, where we are having these conversations more and more and more. The themes are so prominently cohesive in every project that I've done because we are finally seeing it. Of course, something like "Crazy Rich Asians" changed the game for us. There's still extreme, dark and ugly things happening in the world, with the politics and a lot of states are not on the same page here, right? There's still so much to fight for. So the fact that I get to express that through my craft is not lost on me. I don't take it for granted that I get to touch people through storytelling. and just do what I can, because I'm not even doing the most, you know what I'm saying they're like people who are doing incredible work to try to make real change.

And to just be a part of that is a responsibility that I don't take lightly. Yeah, it's deep. It's really deep. Because I'm from comedy, and it wasn't until "Good Trouble" that I learned to be a dramatic actress and to learn to amplify my voice and other voices, to understand that everyone's experience is different but worthy of being heard and seen. I'm a better person because of "Good Trouble." I will always give "Good Trouble" its flowers. The fact that we're talking about trans rights, BLM, equal pay, etc. all these real-life topics in a natural way, in a human way. We were having these private conversations in public before it was trending. I'm so proud of that. I'm truly a better person from this television show, which is why it really is hard to let go. I know, we're all ready to spread our wings in whichever direction. I can't wait to see the next chapters of all my cast members and just continue to work together without working together.

That's what I told Zuri [Adele] when we weren't getting a sixth season. First of all, we were crying on the phone, just bawling, tears. That's my sister. We're gonna work together forever. Even if it's not on screen, we are in this together. That's the family that "Good Trouble" has given me. But yeah, I think we're only now seeing these stories come to life on the screen. And I'm lucky to be a part of it right now. In real-time, we're shifting the narrative as we speak.

In "The Tiger's Apprentice," the main character, Tom (Brandon Soo Hoo) has a complicated relationship with his identity, especially having been descended from immigrants, but also wanting to assimilate to American culture. He says his grandmother is embarrassing and cool. In what ways were you able to relate to him or not?

I was born in Shanghai. And we came to the United States, and I was four, and I went back to Shanghai a bunch as a kid, and there were a lot of American things I guess you could say that we had to get used to. I remember this experience, the first apartment we lived in Alhambra [California]. I remember at recess the older kids. I was like maybe five, six. And these kids were maybe teenagers and they were in the parking lot. I was lingering. I don't know if they thought I was creepy and annoying or something or they just thought I wasn't cool. They flipped me off. They gave me the middle finger. And I remember thinking, what is that? I did not know what that meant. I didn't know what that meant. I was like, well, that's not the peace sign. That's not quite a thumbs up. What is that? I quickly found out what it meant when I did it to my mom's co-worker. I remember everyone was outraged. My mom just pulls me to this walk-in refrigerator and spanks me.

I quickly learned that lesson, but there were a lot of moments like that where whether it was like kids on the playground calling me Chino you know what I'm saying or me even being ashamed of the fact that my parents had an accent. I'm ashamed that I ever felt that way. Because back then you were brainwashed into thinking that the other was less than, you felt like a foreigner – because society made you believe that.  Embracing all of my identities as I said, queer immigrant, Chinese-American woman — that was not overnight. It's because of representation and these opportunities to play these characters. It's allowed me to feel liberated in my own life as well. So Tom's story, I think is so specific yet universal because we're constantly trying to figure out where we belong and embrace our individuality and feel comfortable in our own skin and it's hard especially because high school is tough. 

"Joy Ride" was one of the funniest movies of 2023 and it deserves a sequel. And I know that sequel conversation probably keeps coming up for y'all. Ideally, where would be the best place for you to film in the world if you had the chance of doing it again?

Well, I gotta say, I'd love to do a sequel. If the opportunity presents itself. I think the film really set itself up for a sequel. No spoilers. Since we went to Asia, maybe we'll go somewhere where we are a fish out of water. I mean, we kind of were in Asia as well, but maybe we go into Europe. Obviously, we're we ended up in Paris, which was hilarious. I don't know . . . Space! Honestly, the possibilities are endless. I really would love to do a sequel. I'm down to go anywhere because people are amazing.

Can you share your parting words for your character Alice in "Good Trouble" as you are wrapping up your final season?

Alice has been my rock. Alice has been my reflection. Alice has been my best friend. I evolved with her because I booked the show and I thought this character might be a potential role model. I came out to my mom in real life and since then I've had so many open conversations about queerness. This show has taught me how to fight for something real. To have important conversations, even though it can be uncomfortable, even though it can be tough. 2020 was the first time my mom ever voted. She has been an American citizen since I was in seventh grade because I started to speak up and speak out about so many things.

Alice has taught me to prioritize myself, I guess all the characters have, to just not be a people pleaser, to just be unapologetic, and own up to you know your actions and be proud of who you are. Alice has just taught me so much, and I learned so much from this girl, sweet Alice Kwan. I think about her evolution of being comfortable in our own skin and being deviant. Being that same girl deep down though, that fire, that awkwardness will never go away, but now just being proud of it. There's so much to say in this love letter to Alice. It's infinite, and I'm always gonna remember her. I'm always gonna carry what I learned on "Good Trouble."

"The Tiger's Apprentice" begins streaming Friday, Feb. 2 on Paramount+. "Good Trouble" airs weekly on Freeform and is streaming on Hulu.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.