In Netflix’s new animated movie Over the Moon, the Chinese legend of Chang’e becomes a launchpad for a young girl named Fei Fei, who travels to the moon in search of the legendary goddess. What she finds is a glowing, fantastical world full of strange creatures spun up by the all-powerful spirit herself.
Fei Fei’s journey isn’t motivated by curiosity, but by grief. She’s convinced that proving to her father the existence of Chang’e — who is trapped on the moon and pining for her lost love, the great warrior Hou Yi, after hundreds of years — will stop him from remarrying after her mother’s death. The legend was one of her mother’s favorites ,and Fei Fei believes it wholeheartedly, despite what her relatives tell her during the Mid-Autumn festival.
Representation in storytelling and casting is an urgent point of interest in mass entertainment, and in animation in particular, where characters of color are often voiced by white actors. Over the Moon makes it look easy; as Chang’e and Fei Fei, Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo and newcomer Cathy Ang lead an entirely Asian-American voice cast. The film also features the voices of comedian Ken Jeong as space dog Gobi, Margaret Cho as Auntie Ling, and Into the Spider-Verse’s Kimiko Glenn as Auntie Mei.
The Over the Moon ensemble isn’t as much of an anomaly these days as it was when Mulan boasted an Asian voice cast back in 1998, but voicing characters specifically written as Asian was still meaningful for the actors. In this roundtable, we spoke to the cast about material that spoke to an authentic experience, and their favorite scenes to bring to life.
Polygon: Besides incorporating a Chinese legend, what is a detail about Over the Moon that makes the story feel authentically Asian to you?
Cathy Ang: The dynamics of Fei Fei with the rest of the family felt so true. You see a lot in Asian media this version of respect and sometimes it doesn’t feel earned. But there’s a moment with Zhong Ai-Yi, actually, in the film, where Zhong Ai-Yi is presenting Fei-Fei with a gift, and Fei Fei is so torn, but she still says thank you in a really respectful way. There’s something about that, that just helps me understand Fei Fei because otherwise she’s so headstrong, and not afraid of anything. But there’s also something that is really honorable about the way that she approaches her problems that I just felt ... that moment felt very true to me.
You don’t have to worry about that, when you bring in a cast of Asian actors, when you’re making sure that the creative team has done their due diligence. They took a trip to China for research. The creative team is filled with Asian people who care about telling a true story. So you don’t actually have to worry that much about making sure you’re portraying something Asian, because it’s just a part of us. We’re just sharing ourselves. And that’s all that matters.
Phillipa Soo: The film does such a successful job exploring and portraying not only traditional values and aspects of Chinese culture — you know this myth of Chang’e — but also the modern take on it, and how we perceive it in a modern world and what that is filtered through the eyes of this little girl. And then even beyond that, her imagination. We see Asian culture and Chinese culture through many different facets. What’s so great is that all of these aspects have come together to create something greater than that each of them could do on their own.
Kimiko Glenn: It’s a modern take on the legendary folklore. The fact that the all Asian cast that we have voicing the movie ... it’s important that we are able to see that.
I think the food plays a huge part in it, too. The entire time, I was just drooling in the booth, because we just kept talking about mooncakes. And there was this whole section of improv, where Glen Keane, our director, had shown me some illustrations and pictures of the food and he’s like, Can you just kind of riff and talk about how delicious the food is? So for like 10 whole minutes, I was just talking to myself munching on these pancakes and dumplings, and I was like, I’m so starving now. Thank you, Over the Moon.
Margaret Cho: Oh, the festival! The food — all the crabs, the moon cakes! I wanted to eat everything! I wanted to eat Gobi [Jeong’s character]! Gobi looked very sour apple.
Ken Jeong: He’s a sour gummy.
Cho: I bet he’s like really sour in the middle and really fizzy and sour. I bet there’s going to be Gobi gummies. There should be Gobi gummies.
Jeong: Guys, we really need to get in front of these Gobi gummies. It’s so important to get the marketing behind this. Margaret and I, we get like a real significant percentage of the merch.
As a biracial person, I sometimes feel an insecurity in connecting with my Asian heritage. Have you experienced a similar feeling?
Soo: It’s such a tricky conversation to have with one’s self, let alone with other people. But I’ve always just seen it is not one, not the other, but all of it. The answer is not this or that. It’s “Yes.” Getting to be a part of this particular film was so incredible to me, because not only was I being asked to play a specifically written Asian Chinese character, but I got to be in a film where the entire cast was Asian. I can’t help but do anything except celebrate that.
So to answer your question, I think it has a lot to do with just being able to celebrate all parts of yourself. All parts of yourself are all encompassing. And they make up everything that we are. It’s an interesting experience to be a biracial person. It feels unique, but at the same time, I know that a lot of people have unique experiences, whether they’re biracial or not. I just take it as one more thing about myself that maybe is giving me some perspective that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And can I share that with people and can I, as an actor, try and tell stories that explore all facets of who I am?
Glenn: I grew up in Arizona. It felt very American, I guess you would say, but my mom, as a first-generation Japanese woman, she always made sure that I had my culture. She would have me go to Japanese school, she would take me to Japan every summer and I would be immersed in the children of the neighborhood and of the town. I had that experience, but I also had a bit of insecurity. I encountered it a lot in the entertainment industry, actually.
People didn’t know exactly where to place me. I felt uncomfortable playing certain characters that could speak certain languages and maybe had accents and stuff because I felt I am a representative of someone who is an Asian American. It was this very confusing thing for me, and it still sort of plays a part and in my life. I think now because we are starting to be more true to the characters, casting people who are actually Chinese speaking and etc. for roles that are meant that way, it’s gotten a little less, but it was a very confusing process. Obviously, I present Asian, so I’m never gonna be seen as a white person, though I am as white as I am Asian. It’s an interesting experience.
Cathy, what was it like working with this all-star Asian American cast in one of your first feature-length films?
Ang: I feel excited because, being the least experienced person in the room can be really nerve-wracking, but also you just get to learn so much from them. I didn’t get to see all of them in the studio. But listening to Glen and our creative team talk about animation, I just felt like I now understood so much more about this section of the industry. It’s a new art form. It’s so cool to be able to learn more about something I don’t have experience in. And then with Phillipa, it was like a masterclass watching her inhabit this goddess. It’s crazy. I just feel like I learned!
Soo: Cathy was my beacon the whole time, though. She doesn’t know this, but whenever I was, like, I’m not sure — because this is also one of my first animated films — I was like, I’m a little confused. Like, are we just supposed to give these takes? How many times? I would turn to Cathy and hear her take or I would watch some stuff that they had been working on, and they put the animation on Cathy’s voice and I was like, I’ll just do what Cathy’s doing, clearly she knows what she’s doing.
There have been conversations lately about getting actors of color to voice characters of color in animation, including some recasting of shows. Is it important for an actor’s background to reflect the character on screen?
Soo: I think it’s important because it’s not so often that these stories get told in the first place. To be able to utilize voices and bodies and minds that have experience and come from the cultures and heritage of these places of these stories ... I think it’s really important that we, as a people, not only connect to the stories, but connect to the people who tell them, which means connecting with someone who might have a very different experience than your own. For me, if I were a little girl, and I got to see Fei Fei and her journey, how amazing that would have been for me and all the paths that it could have taken me on, in terms of my hopes and dreams and aspirations. When you see yourself on screen on stage, your mind starts to open up a little bit. I hope that for all the young people who get to see this particular film.
Ang: Telling authentic stories requires you to be able to let yourself be the character a lot of the time. It’s exactly what Phillipa said — it’s really important to just be able to trust that the story is true so that people can relate to it. It’s actually in the specificity of stories that we find ways to connect to things and understand that, oh, that part of their heritage and tradition is actually kind of like mine. It’s when you bring these very specific differences to the table, to the screen, in whatever way, that’s when people learn more and get excited about people’s cultures. It makes the world so much more interesting when we have all these differences that we can share with each other.
Glenn: It’s a certain perspective that you bring. There’s a certain lived experience that someone who is in that ethnicity doesn’t have and it’s not to the fault of them, but it just is a matter of experience. And that’s missing elements sometimes. I think adding as many voices to these roles, and the stories that can understand the experience of being an Asian American is important. Whether it be a voice of an actor, or be a writer in the room, or a producer, it’s just important to have these perspectives. Because you can do the research, you can sort of immerse yourself in it, but the day-to-day lived experience is the most valuable in my eyes.
Cho: We need jobs! I would like a job! That’s kinda the only reason for me, I mean, everyone else might have other reasons. No, no, we need representation — and we just need jobs! Mostly, it’s like, why not?
Jeong: I have two daughters. If they want to get into the business of entertainment, it’s just so important to see Margaret on screen, to see really talented people of color, to inspire future generations of artistry. As I get older, it’s so important to see people who look like us on the screen. I can’t describe how fulfilling that is. When I’m watching movies, like Tigertail — it’s just one of my favorite movies of the year — it’s so beautiful. And John Cho’s Searching was just such an important film, one of the best films of that year. You want it evolved to a point where it’s just not a big deal anymore. This is just a great film or a great project with a great cast.
When you do voice-acting, you don’t necessarily have a sense of what the performance will play like on screen. What was your favorite scene to see fully animated?
Soo: I have two scenes: One is Fei-Fei’s actual building of the rocket ship to get to the moon. Because this is the thing in the story where you’re like, OK, cool, she takes a journey to the moon … how? And not only do we get to see it, we get to see it through a song and Cathy, so beautifully, sings this wonderful song. My second favorite was getting to see Chang’e — her entrance for the first time. You have an idea in your mind, like who these characters are and what they’re doing. It was beyond my wildest imagination, what Chang’e is capable of in terms of her dance abilities and the choreography. It was just stunning.
Ang: Agreed! The scene where you get to meet Chang’e is like the concert of my wildest dreams. There’s no way that I’m ever going to be able to see a performance like that. So that was pretty amazing. I can’t help but dance whenever that song comes up in the movie. And it’s so beautiful. She is incredibly powerful, but you know she’s a goddess, when you see the song.
Glenn: Mine are probably ones that I wasn’t in! Honestly, the entire movie, let’s be real. I thought the end product as a whole was just so not only impressive, but so moving. I bawled my eyes out within the first five minutes, and I wasn’t expecting it. I knew I was going to be emotional, because I always get a bit emotional with these stories, especially when there’s beautiful music involved. But I think the entire thing really moved me.
Cho: I saw the drawings and I heard the songs actually much earlier on. And so, for me, it was really meaningful to actually like, see the project all the way through. To be part of this huge thing was so beautiful and exciting, and really gratifying.
Jeong: My favorite thing to see animated was the rocket to the moon. I really just loved the connection and just the vivid imagery, having that almost tunnel of light that’s going from the Earth to the Moon. It was my favorite scene in the movie visually, just to watch and that song is incredible. It pretty much defines that movie for me in terms of what the story is all about.
Was there a specific instance of Asian-American representation that inspired you to go into the arts?
Ang: Mulan! When I was growing up, it was so exciting to see this really strong woman who’s just motivated by her love for her family — she saves an entire country! She’s a hero! I wanted to see women like that. And also to be able to see myself in her. It was easy for me to imagine her as my role model, because she looked like me in a way that other characters didn’t. That moment was a big one for me growing up for sure.
Soo: Mulan is key. I also, like many young, Asian musical theater actresses, was blessed with Lea Salonga. She really was at the helm of this awakening that so many young Asian women had, where they finally were like, Oh, my God, someone who looks like me. That definitely inspired me and I’m sure thousands, if not millions of other young Asian women in the world. I have such gratitude for her work and her career. I feel like it was really an integral part of why I wanted to pursue musical theater.
Glenn: I didn’t have much to be honest. And so as a child, I really attached myself to characters like Mulan, because she was so strong and because she was like, one of the only Asian leads there was. I was very inspired by Lea Salonga, who’s a Broadway legend. That kind of inspired me to get involved. You can’t really be it till you see it. Because I was able to see myself in them, it really drove me and inspired me to believe that I can be at their level. They were able to accomplish it. I believed in myself that I could. But had they not been there as role models, I don’t know what I would have thought, it’s very important to see yourself in someone as a young kid. That’s why I love this movie, because we are giving young Asian American something that I wished — that I yearned for as a child. That’s going to shape them. These are really strong, empowering characters that are going through very human things.
Jeong: For me, it was Margaret. Because when I was starting out doing stand up comedy, I was in med school. I went to Duke undergrad, and when we had booked Margaret as our headliner comic. I begged everybody and manipulated my way to be her opening act to do so. Margaret, for sure, was the reason why I got into comedy. Then to meet her, and then to hang out now, and to call her a friend, to be friends with her, this is a full circle moment that we can do together. Every Asian American comedian and actor has those moments. So actually, Margaret, what was your moment?
Cho: I want to say someone probably like Jack Soo in Flower Drum Song. He’s great in Flower Drum Song. Flower Drum Song was really quite an incredible production, because it’s set in San Francisco, and it’s a musical and it’s an Asian-American musical. And it’s like the ’60s! There’s definitely, like, problems with it, but it’s what we had. Certainly there was so little we could like point to.
Bruce Lee. Nancy Kwan. Rosalind Chao. The whole generation of the Joy Luck Club. That’s my generation. BD Wong, Ming Na Wen, Kelly Hu. That’s my era. Right now there’s like you [Jeong] doing comedy, Jo Koy, Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjani, Awkwafina. Everybody from Crazy Rich Asians. There’s a really rich field of Asian Americans and Asian comedians out there, it’s incredible.
Over the Moon hits Netflix on Oct. 23.