Actress Christine Ko can’t think of a single attribute she shares with her on-screen character Emma on the FX comedy Dave. “I wore my hair in those space buns for my audition, and the only reason why I did it was because I wanted to be someone totally different from who I am as a person,” says Ko.
“This is how I am,” she continues, referring to the fresh-faced, soft-spoken 32-year-old sitting across from me on Zoom. “I’m very smiley and sweet.”
With Dave, the comedy series from comedian and rapper Dave Burd (known to his fans as Lil Dicky), now in its second season, “I just wanted to feel like the coolest girl I could imagine,” she says. “Someone who was honest, said exactly how she felt, didn’t worry about hurting people’s feelings.”
It wasn’t just the role—as the filter-free roommate of Dave’s girlfriend, Ali—that pushed Ko out of her comfort zone. “We actually improv about 90 percent of the time, which was new to me,” Ko says. “I came from working on sets where you say every line, every word, and you kind of really stick to the character. What’s so nice is that Dave [Lil Dicky] lets us really find our own characters and figure out what we want to do.”
It’s that freedom that gives the series the off-the-wall, screwball feel that makes it so watchable.
Ko, who is Asian-American, was raised by her aunt and uncle in a small town north of Atlanta. “I was the only Asian girl in my class,” she says. That all changed when Ko reached middle school and moved to Taiwan, where her parents are both well-known actors.
“We actually improv about 90 percent of the time, which was new to me.”
“I went straight into the city and had to learn how to speak Mandarin,” Ko says. Suddenly, “it was all Asian faces” in every film and TV show she watched, every band she saw perform. It made an impression.
Ko returned to the U.S. to finish high school and studied finance at Georgia State University, the foundation for the dependable career her adoptive family was steering her toward. “And I just remember being at an internship, and I was like, ‘I just don’t see myself working behind a desk.’”
After graduation, Ko sat down with her aunt and uncle. “I was like, ‘Guys, I’m moving to Taiwan, and I’m going to try to be an actor.’ And they’re like, ‘This is insane. You haven’t trained at all.’”
They were right: the learning curve was tough. “My very first time on set in Taiwan, I didn’t even know what the mark was”—a reference to the visual indicator that lets actors know where to position themselves during a scene.
And Ko quickly realized how little she knew about casting. “I just assumed that we could all be the lead of whatever show or film,” she says.
Eleven years of hard work and multiple side characters later, things are starting to change. “I’m getting the chance to play the romantic lead,” Ko says of two recent projects: Alan Yang’s debut feature, Tigertail, an intergenerational story with parallels to Ko’s own life; and the rom-com Sweet Pecan Summer, a sort of millennial Sweet Home Alabama, which she has just wrapped.
If every part Ko takes on sounds unique, it’s not an accident. “I try to make sure that every role I choose is really different because I want to learn on every single set that I’m on,” she says. “But I also think that if I play all these different characters, then nobody can put me in a box.”
Dave is available for streaming on Hulu
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for Air Mail