Tsai plays “C-dub”, a grown man perpetually stuck in a juvenile state, dreaming of ballin’ in the NBA, dunking on five-year olds, and avoiding responsibility. When his brother and mother both suffer sprained wrists (!) putting the family’s ping pong store business and professional reputation on the line, can C-dub step up? Can he save the family store and face at the National Golden Cock ping pong competition?
Jessica Yu and Jimmy Tsai sat down to answer a few questions about their unique collaboration and the birth of “C-dub”.
“Ping Pong Playa” was directed by Jessica, and co-written by Jessica and Jimmy Tsai, who also is the film’s lead actor, playing the role of “C-Dub”. Can the two of you tell us a bit about how this collaboration came about? How was C-Dub born?
JT: At Cherry Sky Films, where I work as an in-house producer, we (producers Joan Huang, Jeffrey Gou, and myself) had had such a great time working with Jessica on her film “In the Realms of the Unreal” that we all agreed we absolutely had to find another project to work on with her again. Three things led to what ultimately culminated as the movie “Ping Pong Playa”: 1) I shot these spots for this online clothing company that some friends and I created, Venom Sportswear that featured C-dub as the clothing line’s spokesperson; 2) Joan came up with the idea of doing a ping pong comedy (this is before any of the recent rash of ping pong movies came out); and 3) when Joan mentioned aforementioned ping pong idea to Jessica, Jessica said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if C-dub was the central character in the movie?” C-dub and his attitude were such great contrasts to the stereotypical ping pong world that we all thought it would make for amazing hilarity. And “Ping Pong Playa” was the result.
JY: I had seen Jimmy’s Venom promos at a short film screening and thought C-dub was the smartest and funniest Asian-American character I had seen in ages. Meeting Jimmy at that time, when he was essentially a production accountant, I found it was hard to believe that he could morph into this in-your-face, trash-talking, unapologetic NBA wannabe. (Turns out you don’t have to scratch the surface very hard, he’s basically Jimmy’s alter-ego.) Anyway, when Joan suggested the idea of a ping pong movie, my first thought was to give C-dub the spotlight.
Jessica: you are best known as a documentary filmmaker, with works such as “Protagonist,” “In the Realms of the Unreal” and the Academy Award-winning “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” What inspired you to make “Ping Pong Playa” your first feature narrative film?
JY: Really, it was because Joan asked! I’ve made a lot of pretty heavy documentaries, but I also work in episodic TV and commercials. Usually, though, industry people only look at my work in the area of the industry that they work in. I had worked with Cherry Sky before, and Joan, Jeff and Jimmy (yes, there are a lot of “J” names in this story… it’s an Asian thing) had the imagination to think I could crossover to a feature comedy. I always wanted to do an Asian-American themed film, but not something too earnest… I like that this project was taking on issues of prejudice in a subversively-comedic way.
Jimmy, in addition to being a co-writer and star of the film, you are also one of its producers, and you have an extensive production history. Can you tell us how you made the leap into these other creative realms of filmmaking, writing and acting?
JT: I’ve actually always been doing the creative stuff as well but just never had an opportunity to do it on such a grand stage as with “Ping Pong Playa”. I’d written, directed and produced a number of things in the short-form realm (short films, commercials, etc.) since high school, but this was the first produced project in the realm of the long form.
The real big “leap” (if you can call it that) was probably in the realm of acting. I certainly don’t mind acting and usually have a fun time doing it, but the only reason I acted in this role was because I had played the character before. The funny thing was that when we were developing the movie, Joan and I always had the idea that we would cast a “real” actor to play C-dub but Jessica had always just assumed I would play him since I had played him before. It came out a few months before we were to start prepping when Jessica said to me, “Jimmy, when we’re shooting, I don’t want you to worry about tweaking dialogue, re-writing scenes, etc.” And, of course, not realizing I would be doing much of anything else outside of writing, I replied, “Why not?” And Jessica said, “Well, because I want you to focus on acting.”
And that was that.
JY: I mean seriously, who else was gonna play C-dub? Jimmy IS C-dub. I know it hurt Jimmy to leave the exciting world of production accounting, but the man stepped up.
Jessica, it seems that in many of your films, whether documentary or fiction, you are attracted to stories of individuals who operate outside of social norms; from the outsider artist Harvey Darger in “In the Realms of the Unreal” to the writer Mark O’Brien who spent much of his life in an iron lung. The protagonist of “Ping Pong Playa”, C-Dub is an adult stuck in juvenile state, dreaming of becoming a pro basketball player. Can you tell us a bit more about what kinds of stories you wish to explore in your films?
JY: You know, it’s hard to figure out exactly why one is drawn to certain themes, or even what those themes are. My films are an odd mix, to be sure, and I can’t say what will be up next in terms of a scripted film. I’d love to revive C-dub in some way… he’s not the only one stuck in a juvenile state. My inner teen needs to bust out every once in a while.
What are you both working on now?
JT: I’m still doing more things behind the scenes than in front of the camera, producing and working for Cherry Sky Films. We have a couple of films coming out in the next few months that I’m really excited about, including “Dirty Girl” (starring Juno Temple, Milla Jovovich, and William H. Macy) as well as “Puncture” (starring Chris Evans). Otherwise, I’m still open to opportunities, especially in the realm of endorsements. If there’s anyone out there at Nike or Adidas that wants to show C-dub some love, my door is wide open. Holla!
JY: I am just finishing a feature doc on the current water crisis for Participant Media. Tomorrow I’m leaving for Mozambique to finish shooting on a documentary there. This fall I’ll be directing “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Parenthood”… and possibly starting another project which is too early to talk about. Nothing that involves ping pong but one can always hope.