We talk with Tony- and Grammy Award-winning producer Jhett Tolentino about his first full-length feature film "Asian Persuasion", starring Toni Gonzaga and Dante Basco, and what inspired him to take the reins as its director

Aside from the ongoing pandemic, the past year has been tumultuous with intensified discrimination towards people of colour in the United States. The rising number of AAPI hate crimes, as well as inhumane treatment towards the Black and Latino community, wielded Americans to come together and speak up. The support from other countries was overwhelming too, as seen on social and mass media.

Somehow, this propelled the Tony and Grammy-winning producer Jhett Tolentino to helm the makings of a new script by his friend Mike Ang and turn it into a film. Entitled, Asian Persuasion, the film is scheduled to begin production next year and will be putting Asian-American characters and cast members at the forefront.

But this is not a protest film. Rather, it is an endearing romantic-comedy film that Tolentino and Ang hope the international audience would appreciate and love as they do with Hollywood films of the same genre. We chatted with the Iloilo-born acclaimed producer about the film and its confirmed cast, as well as his thoughts on Asian representation in Hollywood.

Read more: Jhett In The Limelight

Congratulations on your directorial debut!

It is amazing. I never thought I would ever take the plunge but here I am! 

When will production start? 

Right now we are scheduled to shoot in Spring next year (April 2022).

How do you feel about putting on a different hat now by taking this project as its director as well? 

Taking the helm certainly commands more responsibilities. It's not that I am coming from nowhere... I have produced 19 theatrical productions in seven years. I have directed a short documentary (Life As You Make It) and produced a feature film (Lingua Franca). I'm more excited than pressured to be a director.

Tell us more about the plot of the film and why a story like this is so relevant now? 

Asian Persuasion is a story about a newly divorced underachiever, Mickey, who came up with an outlandish plot to marry off his ex-wife, Avery, by coming up with a fake online dating profile to relieve himself from alimony and child support. The plan goes so well with an unwitting suitor, Lee, until Mickey realises he wants a second chance with Avery. He might be too late.

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Was there anything from real life that inspired Mike Ang to write this? And what's your take about the script he wrote, which made you say yes to become its director and producer?

The story is purely coincidental with Mike's recent divorce. When he sent me the script last March, I was doing the final edits of Life Is What You Make It in his studios in Brooklyn. I told him I was swamped with over two dozen projects I am developing but he used the "friend card" and I knew what that meant. After reading the script, I texted him "we need to talk." We Zoomed on March 14th to discuss. The guy is so sweet he sent me (via Uber) a chicken adobo meal all the way from Jersey that he cooked himself! And I got to keep the multi-purpose Japanese picnic bag. I gave him quite a few suggestions that led to a version that we were both happy with and registered it with WGA. The original script had significantly strong language that can easily be misconstrued as misogynistic if a straight guy would direct it, and could be a sell-out if a straight female were to direct it. Knowing Mike personally, gave me the courage to step up to make sure that the film's intention is neither from those POVs. And the rising Asian hate crimes solidified my decision to direct this film.

Why is it entitled Asian Persuasion? What elements or values unique to our ethnicity you would like to highlight in the film? 

Mike and I actually never discussed that. When I saw the title in the script, I instantly loved it. It speaks volumes on the very skill Asians have. I personally can be persuasive if I want to.

What's the kind of love story audiences should expect with this film? 

We are trying to normalise the narrative that Asian Americans are also going through the same struggles as other races. It is not as extreme as Crazy Rich Asians or a superpower-themed or zombies film. I mean, they were great films but very few people can relate to those.

Tell us about the confirmed lead cast members, Toni Gonzaga and Dante Basco.  How did they land their roles?

As a producer, my practice has always been casting while I'm reading the script. It was part of my discussion with Mike as to whom to offer the roles. I was pretty spot on that Mickey will be Dante Basco, and Avery will be Toni Gonzaga.

Mike and I Zoomed with Dante on March 24th to officially pitch the film and discuss how am I to direct the film. This is after he read the script. He pretty much connected with the role and the whole story. Two days later, he was in to do Mickey, making him the first cast to confirm. Toni was the fourth cast to be on board. I've talked with Paul Soriano to make that possible.

I also cast Kevin Kreider (Netflix's Bling Empire) as Caspian, Paolo Montalban as Lee, and Jax Bacani as Jovy. Celia Au (Netflix's Wu Assassins) was a recommendation from our Executive Producer Victoria Hsu. Out of the seven adult main casts, we have yet to lock in the very actor Mike wrote a particular character as inspiration for the role of Lisa. She's a big Asian Hollywood star, we are still in talks with her agents. 

What can you say about Asian representation in Hollywood cinema and television? Why is it important for us to start doing projects like these? 

I have realised to change the trajectory of my career and focus on our representation. I vowed to bring our great Filipino actors in the Philippines to star in my films, and merge them with both my Hollywood and Broadway connections. I believe it is a great platform for them to experience how films are done here in the US, for them to showcase their talent, and enhance their craft. I have said it before—"It is for the Filipino artist that I remain."

Update: KC Concepcion has replaced Toni Gonzaga in the female lead role of Avery due to conflicts with Gonzaga's schedule. Production for the said film has already begun.

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