Ali Wong on Foodie Culture, Keanu Reeves, and the Return of Rom-Coms

The comedy star explains how their dirty banter came to be.

Always Be My Maybe
Ed Araquel / Netflix

There are plenty of reasons to watch Ali Wong’s latest project, Always Be My Maybe. For one, the Netflix rom-com has the comedian starring alongside Randall Park of Fresh Off the Boat fame and their banter is laughably, if not at times painfully, relatable. There is also the fact that the film doubles as a timely satire on foodie culture, placing a mirror up to the extreme lengths we collectively go to for tasting menus. (The scene where they dine in a science lab of a restaurant called Maximal, which pairs venison with headphones that allow you to hear your protein as it died, is too much for anyone who’s suffered through a pretentious meal before.) Then there is Keanu Reeves.

Without giving any more away than the trailer, The Matrix actor makes an appearance in Always Be My Maybe as Wong’s love interest and, wow, do these two have chemistry. As it turns out, their filthy banter was completely improvised, as Wong explains. “I was so into the moment and he was so committed,” she sad.. But Keanu’s self-referential cameo (he pays for said meal with his Speed royalties, as he brags) isn’t the only pop cultural tie-in throughout the film.

From the moment the first line of Souls of Mischief’s “93 ’til Infinity” plays in the opening scene, music grounds the narrative, which skips across years throughout the relationship of Sasha and her best friend Marcus, played by Park. Given all of the cultural touchstones in the film, from the R&B-heavy soundtrack to the food, what better candidate than Wong to do a Culture Diet? As for Wong’s thoughts on foodie culture, if you think we’ve reached the peak, think again.

There’s so many pop culture references in the film that do a great job of rooting the scenes in specific eras. How much did the music in the film mirror what you listened to while you were growing up?

So much. Of course, there’s D’Angelo—come on. That song “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” was huge when I was in high school. And that video, oh my gosh. I mean who can hold a video like that on the top half of their body like that? Woot. So there’s D’Angelo, and Souls of Mischief’s “93 ‘til Infinity,” Too Short —the whole vibe of the music in the movie is similar to what I listened to growing up.

With the D’Angelo reference in the film, had you been wanting to use that joke of not understanding the lyrics, for a while?

No, I think my husband had pitched that. We wanted to do something where Sasha is trying to make Marcus feel better and cheer him up. Originally it was another song but then when I was talking to my husband about it he pitched that song because at home I often fully commit to songs I don’t know the lyrics to. He thought it would be extra funny because nobody understands what D’Angelo is saying.

What song would you say that you know the lyrics to best?

Maybe “Nobody Knows” by The Tony Rich Project or “The Promise” by Tracy Chapman. I know a lot of Anita Baker songs. I love Anita Baker. I know a lot of Janet Jackson songs. I know a lot of Beyoncé songs.

Have you ever seen Beyoncé in concert?

I have —you know I have and you know it was amazing. I think I cried a bunch of times. I cried for sure when she’s barefoot, kicking in the water to that song “Freedom” that features Kendrick Lamar. I think I’ve watched Homecoming at least once a day. If I’m on the elliptical I will always watch Homecoming on my phone. I cried multiple times during the film, but for sure when she first comes out and there’s a shot of a girl in the audience and she has her hand on her chest and her mouth is wide open. When she says, “Thank you for making me the first black woman to headline Coachella,” I started crying then too. It’s such a celebration of so many things and all of her hard work, and her paying tribute to all of these black colleges, and being a mother —it’s all the feels. I’m a huge Beyoncé fan. But isn’t everyone a Beyoncé fan?

Always Be My Maybe

Ed Araquel / Netflix

I was going to ask you actually about a movie you could watch a million times and never get sick of, but Homecoming is that for you.

Yeah, and just because of my kids, I’ve been watching a lot of Hayao Miyazaki films like Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke, which I haven’t shown them yet. He’s a very iconic, legendary Japanese animator and director and his movies feature these little girls who are really strong and there’s hardly ever a love story. All of the little girls have work. So I’ve watched those movies quite a bit and could watch them over and over. I do love Big with Tom Hanks. That was my favorite movie growing up. I do really love Clueless. I’ve watched it recently and it still holds which is amazing. When Dionne gets on the freeway, I cry-laugh every time.

What are some of your favorite rom-coms?

I could watch Singing in the Rain over and over. Boomerang is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love When Harry Met Sally. Those are my top three.

Why do you think the rom-com went away for a little bit during the early part of this decade?

I think the comedy part is really tough. People don’t really know what to do and get really far away from their authentic voice and what they think is funny and they try to go for these big laughs that are really hack. It ran out of steam because there’s a whole testing process with movies. They screen these cuts to an audience and they record the laughs of the audience and what gets big laughs they leave in and what gets small laughs gets cut out. But now we consume content a lot of times by ourselves. We don’t have this big ruckus laugh of someone falling down the stairs. But you might laugh at a more subtle joke to yourself and enjoy it even more. I think streaming has given us the opportunity for those subtle jokes to resurrect.

I think it went away for awhile because comedy isn’t a safe thing to invest in. Avengers movies are a much safer bet. But, yeah, Randall Park and Nahnatchka Khan and I really love them and have been wanting to do one. I think that there was good timing because of the cache that Randall and Nahnatchka had at that point. No one is a better candidate to direct a feature film than a showrunner. She has edited over 100 episodes of television and in less than a year had to churn out 24 episodes. A movie is shooting over six weeks and is an hour and a half. So being a showrunner is a much harder job.

How much eating out did you do when you were researching this role?

I do a lot of eating out in general. That’s always been a part of my life. So I didn’t have to do a lot of research. Niki Nakayama is the only female chef featured in the first season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table and I saw that episode and I fell in love with her and was so intrigued by her story. We became friends and when I asked her to do the food consulting on the movie she was nice enough to say yes.

The dinner at the douche-y restaurant in the scene with Keanu Reeves is all Niki designing that food. Those dishes were all her idea. It’s really cool because food is a way to express yourself and that’s her way of expressing her sense of humor and roasting people.

That scene was amazing. Do you feel like we’ve reached the peak of foodie culture?

I don’t think so because there’s still a lot of stuff I eat that’s not mainstream. One of my favorite things to eat with my husband, because he’s half-Filipino and I’m Vietnamese, is pigs feet. We specifically like the hoof. When I go to a restaurant, I say in Vietnamese, “I want the hoof only, I don’t want these other parts of the foot that get closer to the ankle.” That is something that hasn’t gone mainstream so, no, I don’t think we’ve reached the peak of foodie culture. Bone marrow is nothing. You are not adventurous for eating bone marrow. Like, my baby eats bone marrow.

Always Be My Maybe

Ed Araquel / Netflix

Where do you stand on food pics?

When I go to a restaurant, I always ask how they feel about me taking pictures, if we’re sitting at the bar where they make all the food. Because at my shows, I use this service called Yonder where people put their phones in bags because I find it very distracting when people are taking out their phones during my show. I don’t like it. So I always ask and, if they like it and I’m inspired, then maybe I’ll take pictures. Most of the time I’m probably too hungry and eager to eat the food and don’t end up taking a picture.

But I do like it, because over the years there has been these local restaurants that I wish I posted about more to make more of an effort to keep them in business. Because all of a sudden they would close down and I’m like, “This place was so good.” So now if I like a place, I will make an effort to post about it. For example, when I travel around the country and go on tour with my family, there are small Vietnamese or Chinese restaurants I go to and I’ll post and hear a day later that they ran out of Pho, which is crazy. I want these places that I like to stay in business. From that perspective, I think posting food pics is really good to keep these small businesses alive that don’t have a publicist.

Did you pick up any food recommendations from Keanu?

Hilarious. No. Not at all. But I did pick up on some lotion that helped relieve pain, because he was in a lot of pain since he was in the middle of shooting John Wick. He suggested some lotion that had really helped him out.

Was it a CBD cream?

Probably [laughs].

What was it like to film some of those steamier scenes with him?

You know what’s funny? All that back and forth that you see with me and him when he first greets me at the restaurant is all improvised. None of that is scripted. It was so funny, but I didn’t crack up once because I was so into it [laughs]. I was so into the moment and he was so committed. Whereas with Randall, I’ve known him for a long time. But Keanu, I didn’t know that well. I had met him before the movie, of course. Yeah man, it was really fun. We just had the premiere and he had not seen the movie at all. It’s been almost a year since we shot it. He was sitting behind me and I was like, “What is he going to think?” From his entrance, he was just cracking up.

That’s a great honor.

It was so great and his laugh—if you ever hear it—it’s very iconic. He’s a funny guy.

What would you say are your favorite Keanu movies?

My number one is Point Break. If that’s on TV, I will always watch that. My second favorite is Speed and my third favorite is The Matrix.

Always Be My Maybe

Doane Gregory / Netflix

Switching gears a little bit, do you remember the last thing you Googled?

I think it was, “What does SND mean?” You should Google it. I don’t want to say it. It’s dirty. There are a lot of things the kids say where I’m like, “I don’t know what that means,” and then I have to Google it. I’m like what does “We stan mean?” “What does bae mean?” That’s a lot of what I Google.

Do you remember the last YouTube video that you watched?

My daughter loves Alicia Keys and so it was probably her live performance on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. We love watching that video. She recognizes Alicia Keys right away.

Have you guys met her yet?

I haven’t. She reached out on Instagram which was really sweet.

What are you reading at the moment?

I have it in my bag: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. It’s really good. I just finished Michelle Obama’s Becoming so I wanted to go back to fiction. I’m a big fiction person but it was Michelle Obama so I read it.

How closely do you follow politics?

Not at all. I mean, hello, I don’t even know what bae means. I used to but I have two kids and this year is especially busy because I’m on tour, this movie is coming out, and I’m finishing my book which comes out in October. It’s called Dear Girls and it’s a bunch of letters to my daughters. They’re funny.

How do you chill out when you’re not working?

If my daughter wants to cuddle and I can sit still, she’s just sitting on my lap and we’re listening to a whole Sade album. I’ve trained my daughter to really like R&B. And I can just sit still and be present and sing along to the music while holding her. That’s a pretty good way to chill out.