Although Taiwanese-American actress Christine Ko didn’t exactly have formal acting training, she’s still taking over Hollywood with ease — especially as Emma in FXX’s hit comedy DAVE.
After being born into a very entertainment-driven family, one would think it would be natural for Christine Ko to follow suit. Instead, she pursued something that is the polar opposite — finance. Luckily for the rest of us, fate knew Ko was meant to be an actress and she found herself feverishly working in Taiwan doing anything she could do to break out. When she eventually came back to America to act, she dealt with more hurdles than most; feeling like she needed to be or act a certain way for the only roles that were available to her, which consisted solely of side characters or those seeped with stereotypes. It wasn’t until she read for a role in DAVE, a show that did not require any actress to physically look any certain way, that she felt like she found her home.
If you know nothing about DAVE, we will bring you up to speed — it stars a fictionalized version of rapper Lil Dicky, with Dave Burd obviously playing himself, and his friends and all of the antics they get up to due to Lil Dicky’s chaotic & hilarious life. With a slew of celebrity cameos and an incredible glimpse into the highs and lows of fame, DAVE has been acclaimed for its comedic touch on deeply sensitive and poignant topics, like mental health and racism. Christine plays Emma, Dave’s friend that doubles as his graphic designer. This season, viewers get what they’ve been waiting for: insight into the backstory of Emma.
Chatting all things DAVE, Christine Ko chats with 1883 to discuss Asian representation in film & tv, why DAVE is her dream show to work on, and what exactly she’s manifesting this year.
Your first credited role was back in 2012 and I know you worked in Taiwan even before that — how would you say you’ve grown as an actress between then and now?
Oh man, in a million ways. I didn’t get to experience theatre school the way I always wanted to, but growing up in an Asian American family acting wasn’t the ideal career path. I think because my birth parents were in entertainment, it made them steer even further away from the idea. They wanted a more stable environment for me. I went to school for finance because I didn’t ever think that this could be a thing, which is why I made such a big turn when I graduated and moved to Taiwan. I was very naive and did not know about the industry and what it involved. I would say now, 10 or 11 years later, I am so grateful for the way the industry has progressed because before I felt extremely limited with the roles that I could play and that really affected me as an actor. I started to think, I better learn how to do karate, I better learn how to not be so friendly and outspoken and maybe feel a little bit more on the quiet and reserved side. It wasn’t until other showrunners and directors could see me in roles that weren’t tied to race — that I could play the complex character — that allowed for me to come out of my shell. In the last two or three years, I feel so comfortable in my skin and the way I look. I feel like I can be when I approach these characters and I make suggestions, like trying a line a certain way or wearing my hair the way I want. That’s how Emma, my show on Dave, was created.
That is so wonderful.
Right? It came from the genius of Dave because he really wanted a female character that could realistically be friends with Allie, but also really good friends with GaTa. There was no physical description of her other than she’s the coolest person in the room. I remember walking in and we did a chemistry read together and our first interaction was me drawing dick logo! [Laughs] I thought about how I’ve never actually drawn one before and it ended up looking like a cactus and it started getting worse but he, apparently, loved it. He DM’d me that I got it.
Did he message you on Instagram about getting the part?
He did. My whole journey with Dave is everything you would never expect. I remember thinking, Shouldn’t my agents be the ones telling me I got the job? [Laughs] But I had a feeling that was a good sign and the show is the gift that keeps on giving.
I read a really beautiful profile of you in Character Media where you talk about how you were fighting an internal battle to pursue acting while you were in college studying something else. When you think back to that period in your life, what do you wish you could say to yourself back then?
I think everybody when you start out you can’t help but put yourself in a box. It’s not even anybody’s fault, it’s just what you’ve been told growing up and what you’ve seen on TV and in films. It’s changing so much, though. Girls get to see themselves as Disney princesses and in films like Raya. Instead of putting yourself in that box, you start to realize there are a lot of people that actually want to tell your story in different ways. It’s not about the way the person looks; it’s the feeling of someone coming in and embodying the character and you feel the essence of it in that room. You feel it in your bones. That’s why you’re starting to see so much diversity honestly as opposed to it seeming like you’re checking boxes. GaTa is the perfect example — he makes you feel like you’re the greatest living being on the planet. That’s why he’s so perfect for that role. I feel the same way about Taylor, who plays Ally, because she’s someone that I could talk to about anything. I didn’t even know her before this job and now I spill my guts out to her because she just has this warmth to her the same way Ally does.
That has been the greatest thing I’ve learned throughout my career; it’s really not about the specific things, like being 5’4 and having long hair because those things change, but the essence never does. That’s why I’m so excited about season 2 because the writers write for you and they know who you are. There is an episode that airs today that focuses on Emma and because I’m from Georgia they let me talk about Atlanta sports teams. I’ve never been able to do that! Dave just said throw in whatever you want and it’s really fun and makes it even more special to me.
Yeah, that must be so fun for you as an actress because you’re not just getting a script and reading another person’s thoughts — these are things that matter to you!
Yeah, the show has been great at focusing certain episodes on characters. I think he realized that if you care about the characters, you root for them. That’s why episode five Hype Man is so beautiful because it’s GaTa’s story and he took some of the personal things he experienced and then wrote it into the show. This is what it feels to be a true ensemble! Yes, it’s called Dave and he approved every single thing, but he is open to the process of making the show and listening to ideas and allowing things to change. I think that’s what makes our show so great.
I love that you brought up the Hype Man episode because it’s a really sensitive topic that’s done in a really incredible way because even though it’s a comedy show, you guys are navigating really sensitive and tough topics.
Yeah, it’s what I love about the show. There’s a lot of personal things that get put into the show but then because it is acting, we get to really dive into that world of what it would have been like had this happened. I love that it’s a comedy because it is so layered and there are so many things that if you watch closely, you pick up on little details. In episode 2 when I’m running after the guy for saying I’m a bad driver, you start to see these layers to Emma that you haven’t seen yet. The episode tonight where it shows how Dave and Emma met in their corporate ad jobs discusses being a woman in a corporate world. You see the difference between being this middle-class Jewish white boy that doesn’t have to worry about money and then you see Emma, who really doesn’t know her identity but she’s trying to be successful. There are little microaggressions that she gets just from being female, for being a person of colour. I feel so lucky that the writer who wrote the episode is Asian American and we had four other Asian American writers on staff.
What an amazing collaborative process. It sounds so authentic.
Yeah, the entire day was asking Would he say this to her? What about that? The great part about the show is we’re not scared of talking about certain topics. It’s a true, honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a white male living in this world and just being oblivious to how other people live their lives. I enjoy working on this show because as much as it focuses on Dave, you get a glimpse of all of our lives.
It just made me think — Dave obviously is revisiting moments in his own life that he’s able to redo in his own way, almost as if he could’ve handled it differently. Is that something you talk about?
Definitely, because so much of it is improv that when we go and do the scenes, Dave will always say if that’s not something you would do, do it differently. A great example is that car scene where we did so many scenes of me screaming and yelling, but there were a few moments where I ran out of breath because I was running so much and I couldn’t even get the word fuck you out. I said to Dave that I’ve been in so many situations where that’s happened and I can’t think of a comeback that fast cause I’m not like you — as a woman if someone yells at me I close off and shut down. We did the scene and the take we chose was the one where I just couldn’t get it out; it was almost as if I was biting the second sentence down. I can’t wait to see the reaction to Emma’s episode because we had a huge conversation about working in corporate, something I did that made me so miserable, as a woman and as a woman of colour. Dave talked to me about his experience working in an ad agency and I spoke about my experience working in an actuarial firm and that really peppered in what that episode then becomes. Dave really cares about us as people and wants us to feel comfortable and wants us to grow with the characters.
Lastly, if you could manifest one thing for yourself this year, what would it be?
In my career, I have always wanted to do an action film. Growing up I wanted to be Angelina Jolie and seeing every single one of her action films would always make me think that’s what I want to do when I grow up. That’s why all of those running takes were so important, I’m building my stamina! [Laughs] In my personal life, I hope I find a really good balance between my work and seeing my friends and my family. Last year really taught me how much I missed my family. I’ve always been someone who’s constantly pursuing my career, but during the pandemic, I got to spend a lot of time with my mom over Zoom and she taught me how to cook a lot of the recipes that I grew up eating. I needed to learn them because she doesn’t write them down! She just throws a bunch of things together and it works, which does not happen when I do it! [Laughs] Basically, I hope that I get to a point where I can choose these complex & incredible leading lady characters and be able to see my family and spend time with my dog! That sounds like heaven and it may not ever exist, but I am striving for that.
Interview: Kelsey Barnes
Makeup: Kindra Mann
Hair: Derek Yuen
Stylist: Katie Bofshever
Photographer: Shanna Fisher
Season 2 of DAVE is airing now on FXX.