Sherry Cola Is Unlearning Scarcity And Embracing Abundance

The actor and comedian stars in both “Joy Ride” and “Shortcomings,” in theaters this summer.
Sherry Cola.
Sherry Cola.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photo: Getty

Sherry Cola’s stage name originated in a pretty mundane way.

“My legal first name is Sherry,” she told me in a recent interview. “Around 2011, I was making a Yelp account. I was asking my friend Kim from college — I was like: ‘What should my username be for Yelp? I want it to be food related.’ Immediately, after three seconds, she was like, ‘What about Sherry Cola?’ I was like: ‘Oh, that’s catchy. That’s cool. OK.’ So I put that as my Yelp username.”

She never ended up posting any Yelp reviews, but the name stuck. She started using it as her handle on social media and when breaking into stand-up comedy. The first time she performed, “the producer asked me what I wanted on the lineup,” she recalled. “I was like: ‘You know what? Let’s use Sherry Cola.’ Just because it’s fun, it’s bubbly, and when you think about stand-up comedy, people are named Cedric the Entertainer, Lil Rel [Howery] — it’s very nickname-based.”

It also ended up capturing her persona fairly well. “It was never intentional to not use my Chinese last name, but it just works out because ‘Sherry Cola’ really said it all,” she explained. “It’s caffeinated, it wakes you up, it’s sweet — it’s just all of these things.”

Now, her name is on marquees as a star of not one but two movies this summer: the broad and raunchy road trip studio comedy “Joy Ride,” premiering July 7, and the more understated, walking-and-talking indie comedy “Shortcomings,” out Aug. 4.

From left: Stephanie Hsu, Cola, Ashley Park and Sabrina Wu in "Joy Ride."
From left: Stephanie Hsu, Cola, Ashley Park and Sabrina Wu in "Joy Ride."
Ed Araquel/Lionsgate

Though the bar is low and it’s all extremely overdue, the fact that two very different movies featuring a lot of Asian talent — both in front of and behind the camera — can coexist and premiere in the same season does indicate something resembling progress.

“Joy Ride,” in which Cola stars alongside Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu and Sabrina Wu as a quartet of friends who encounter various shenanigans, marks the directorial debut of “Crazy Rich Asians” co-writer Adele Lim. “Shortcomings” is the feature directorial debut of “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Always Be My Maybe” star Randall Park, adapted from a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine. Cola plays Alice, the best friend to protagonist Ben (Justin H. Min). Alice is the kind of friend who tells you that you’re being “a piece of shit,” as she says when Ben goes through a bit of an existential crisis accelerated by his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), moving away for an internship.

Even as recently as five years ago, the rare movie or show starring Asian American actors carried an enormous weight and felt like a make-or-break moment. But now, as Asian Americans, we’ve got slightly more options to choose from and talk about, and each release no longer feels like it has to represent all things to all people. Perhaps we’re finally at a point where we can gradually let go of the scarcity mentality that comes with being excluded for so long. It’s a mindset that Cola is unlearning as well.

“I’m just over the moon. I could probably cry right now. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that I get to exist right now and tell these stories and make an impact and shift the narrative and unlearn scarcity and practice abundance, because that really is my energy,” she said. “The more the merrier. We don’t have to elbow each other to the top. We don’t have to compete. We’re all so different.”

Cola and Justin H. Min in "Shortcomings."
Cola and Justin H. Min in "Shortcomings."
Sony Pictures Classics

It’s not unlike the mentality that comes with being an immigrant. Cola and her family emigrated from China when she was 4. She was raised in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, where her parents ran and still run a restaurant. Cola, now 33, said that although she grew up as a pop culture obsessive, she had internalized the idea that “Hollywood is for ‘Americans’” — not including people like herself.

She always loved performing and found ways to do it any way she could, like hosting her high school’s talent show and making videos for the film club. But it never felt attainable as an actual career.

“It was always like a hobby, realistically, because to actually pursue this as a career — as endgame — it felt like such a gamble because there was such a lack of representation,” she said. “I figured: ‘Oh, Jackie Chan exists, Lucy Liu exists. There couldn’t be room for me.’”

In a similar vein, when I kicked off our conversation by wanting to know what movies and shows influenced her, she asked, “Are we talking just in general or through the Asian lens?” After I clarified that I meant generally, since many of us did not grow up seeing our faces on screen, she remembered how she would take note when catching the rare Asian person on a major TV show, like “The Joy Luck Club” star Lauren Tom playing Ross’ girlfriend Julie on “Friends.”

“We had such little representation in the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community on screen that when we saw it — Margaret Cho doing stand-up, Jet Li in ‘Romeo Must Die,’ Lucy Liu in ‘Charlie’s Angels’ — when we saw those faces, we held on even tighter,” Cola said, naming some of her pop culture heroes.

Like many kids in the ’90s and early 2000s, Cola devoured the sitcoms and teen soaps of the time, including “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “My Wife and Kids” and “Degrassi,” and she watched a lot of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. “One of my dreams is to play the live-action version of Phoebe from ‘Hey Arnold!’ How iconic would that be?” she said.

She watched stand-up specials as an adolescent, noticing the ways that trailblazing comedians could change people’s perceptions of themselves and puncture stereotypes.

“Margaret Cho was the vision board for the queer, female Asian American stand-up comic. That’s exactly what I am. So just watching her, I remember being so blown away by how outspoken she was. Everything that came out of her mouth proved someone wrong,” Cola said. “That’s the energy that I hope to carry as well, just because of all the boxes we’ve been forced in.”

Margaret Cho (right) has appeared as a guest star on "Good Trouble," Cola's show on Freeform.
Margaret Cho (right) has appeared as a guest star on "Good Trouble," Cola's show on Freeform.
Eric McCandless via Getty Images

In high school, she approached everything with a “you won’t know unless you try” enthusiasm and confidence, which still define her now.

“I’ve always been very passionate and very unafraid of rejection, to be honest. I remember running for [student body] president against someone who had been president for three years. I just thought: ‘Why not? Who knows? Let’s see what happens,’” she said.

“I tried out for the basketball team, the tennis team. I just went for it,” she added. “That’s still the energy I keep today: ‘Just go for it, because who knows? You won’t know unless you try.’ That is genuinely my mantra because I’ve always been very curious and I’ve always had, maybe, FOMO about the potential outcome. If I don’t get there, then how will I ever know?”

That continued in college at California State University, Fullerton, where she went through different phases and tried on many hats. It took her seven years to finish her degree, joking that she “was not your ‘model minority’ by any means” and that, in retrospect, this helped set modest expectations for her parents.

“My mom was so frustrated and so disappointed in my ‘careless lifestyle’ that the bar was set so low. Now in 2023, she is on cloud nine. She can’t believe her eyes,” Cola said. “That’s my trick. You got to set the bar low for the parents. One day, you’re in a big-studio, R-rated comedy in theaters everywhere this summer. One day, you can take Randall Park to her restaurant.”

Throughout college, Cola remembered, she was “this ball of fire that wanted to do the most, but just didn’t know how.” Out of curiosity, she joined the campus radio station, playing music and giving commentary on news and pop culture — and found that she had a knack for it.

After graduating, she got a job at 97.1 AMP Radio in Southern California, eventually becoming an on-air host. Among her mentors at the time was Carson Daly, who presented the station’s morning show from 2010 to 2017. Her work involved everything from “giving out T-shirts on a Tuesday, and then suddenly escorting Taylor Swift at the Forum [arena] on a Friday,” she said. “It was such a bizarre job.”

She also started doing stand-up, making viral videos and short films, and taking improv classes at the famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles — once again, trying to create whenever and wherever she could. She still thinks of herself as a comedian first, performing frequently as a stand-up and at UCB’s Asian AF variety show, a showcase of Asian American comics.

Cola at the Los Angeles premiere of the animated film "Elemental" at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on June 8.
Cola at the Los Angeles premiere of the animated film "Elemental" at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on June 8.
JC Olivera/GA via Getty Images

In 2017, Cola started acting on TV, landing a breakout role on the Amazon Prime Video series “I Love Dick,” followed by a bigger part on TNT’s “Claws.” For five seasons, she has starred on Freeform’s “Good Trouble” as Alice Kwan, a character with some similarities to herself as a queer Asian American comedian. And now, with two movies about to premiere and several projects cooking, Cola still embraces the same curiosity and go-getter approach that she’s leaned into all her life.

“When people ask me, ‘Oh, is there a moment when you thought, “I made it”’ — the ‘I made it’ feeling never ends, because you’re constantly unlocking new levels to this video game. You’re constantly realizing, ’Oh, I can do this too,’” Cola said. “You’re constantly elevating and evolving and just being more unlimited. Reaching your capacity and then breaking through, and creating another capacity and breaking through again.”

Cola is currently putting the finishing touches on an upcoming stand-up special. She’s also one of the voices in the Paramount Animation film “The Tiger’s Apprentice” — featuring another all-star Asian cast, including Sandra Oh, Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Bowen Yang — set for release in January. She hopes to direct someday, having shadowed a few of her directors on “Good Trouble.” And she’s developing a show called “Dead Air,” based on her time working in radio, saying it’s full of “friendship and fighting and tension” — which all happen to be ingredients for a juicy TV series.

“It was a rollercoaster of emotions because it was just a bunch of us in our 20s, messy love triangles, a lot of hustle. We all wanted to make it,” she said. “It was bananas, an absolutely unhinged chapter of my life while trying to pursue my dreams.”

These days, seeing her name and face on billboards is a reminder to unlearn the idea that Hollywood isn’t for people like her.

“For so long, we were defined by others. We were defined by Hollywood, we were defined by society, we were defined by this country. Now, we’re finally reclaiming our identities and redefining ourselves,” Cola said. “It feels really liberating: ‘Let me make fun of myself. I’m done being the punchline. We’ll tell the jokes.’”

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