'A Sugar & Spice Holiday' Stars on Giving Asian Romance the Spotlight

The holidays have never felt this sweet.

On Sunday, Lifetime debuts its first Asian American romantic comedy, A Sugar & Spice Holiday, taking a major step forward in expanding its call for diversity by making way for stories that shine a light on previously underrepresented communities. Starring Jacky Lai (V-Wars), Tony Giroux (Motherland: Fort Salem) and legendary actor Tzi Ma (Mulan), the significance of A Sugar & Spice Holiday — on the heels of box office success Crazy Rich Asians and critical darling Always Be My Maybe — isn’t lost on Lai and Giroux.

“I don’t think I’ve been able to fully wrap my head around what this project is going to do or how it will affect people,” Lai, who plays Suzie Yung (the “sugar”) in the film, exclusively tells ET. 

“I was so excited to join a project that is for Asian voices and an Asian story within the American context… Right away, I felt a certain responsibility for what this stands for,” Giroux, the French-born actor who portrays Suzie’s high school friend, Billy Martin (the “spice”), exclusively tells ET. “Lifetime, as much as I think the industry is moving that way, for any network, for any production to do that kind of shows it’s always a risk to go towards the change as opposed to what has already been working.”

The romantic sparks inevitably begin when Suzie, a rising young architect, returns to her small hometown in Maine for Christmas, where her Chinese American family runs the local lobster bar. Following the death of her grandmother, who was a star baker in their community, Suzie is guilted into following in her footsteps by entering the local gingerbread house competition. Teaming up with Billy, Suzie is tasked with finding the right recipes and mix of sugar and spice to win the competition and maybe find love in the process. (Watch an exclusive clip from A Sugar & Spice Holiday, featuring Suzie and Billy’s playful banter above.)

Written, directed and cast by Asian women, the film features a swath of culturally specific references and moments, from Suzie’s father learning English by watching Westerns to a meal featuring the divisive stinky tofu dish to the overly protective, unamused matriarch. “Having people behind the camera that are in the same culture, it allows for the storytelling to be even more authentic,” Lai notes.

During a joint interview over the phone, ET spoke with Lai and Giroux about taking part in Lifetime’s first Asian-centric movie, the authentic cultural references that hit home and what they hope the film does for future Asian representation in TV and film. 

ET: This is Lifetime’s first all-Asian holiday movie. What was your reaction when you first heard they were giving the spotlight to an Asian family and an Asian story?

Jacky Lai: Honestly, the first thing I did was I Googled to see if there was anything out there that was similar to this, and it’s incredible how few there were, other than Always Be My Maybe,Crazy Rich Asians and this. Even until now, I don’t think I’ve been able to fully wrap my head around what this project is going to do or how it will affect people. But I think, for me, just reading this story, especially the ending, which is very unique to a Lifetime romantic comedy, it’s really an honor to be a part of it. I love the story and I’m glad to be a part of it.

What made you want to be a part of this movie? Was it the character or the story? The overall package?

Lai: It was everything. It was the character. She represents a lot of Asian stereotypes in the sense of how hardworking and driven she is, and the story was very funny. It was very well-written and the ending is very empowering and different from what I’ve seen before. It tells a different story than any other romantic comedies I’ve seen on Lifetime.

Tony Giroux: I was so excited to join a project that is for Asian voices and an Asian story within the American context. Reading the script, I was ecstatic at those beautiful nuances of the story that really showcased Asian culture. Right away, I felt a certain responsibility for what this stands for. Lifetime, as much as I think the industry is moving that way, for any network, for any production to do that kind of shows it’s always a risk to go towards the change as opposed to what has already been working. It was an incredible honor and responsibility to take part in that kind of project. I definitely didn’t take it lightly, and really hope that it does well. I have a feeling that it really is going to and that the story is something very heartfelt that everybody can relate to as well, regardless of cultural heritage.

The film has a very strong Asian presence, not just in front of the camera but also behind it, with the director, writer and casting director all of Asian heritage. Was there a notable difference for you in the way the characters were written and their interactions with each other? 

Lai: Yeah, definitely. I think having people behind the camera that are in the same culture, it allows for the storytelling to be even more authentic. If there was anything that was missing in the script, we were all able to explore it more and correct things and give time to moments, or situations, or food, or whatever it is to make it more authentic. There was a really great scene with Suzie and her grandmother. We got a note that said, “When we pray, we actually pray three times.” I knew that to be fact, but a part of me was like, “Oh, it’s a movie. We’ll just do it one time and move on.” But that was so great for someone to step in and be like, “No, no, no. It’s usually three times. Give it that moment.” It was really wonderful to be able to do that.

Suzie is incredibly ambitious. She has a great job as an architect. She works hard and also has a penchant for baking. How are you similar to her and how are you different? 

Lai: She’s a planner. I can be more “go with the flow.” There’s good and bad with everything because I feel like I’m much more comfortable with uncertainty, whereas for Suzie, it would be a lot more nerve-wracking. In terms of similarities, our drive and our passion for what we do, as well as our love and respect for family and our culture — those are our similarities.

A romantic comedy lives or dies by the chemistry between the two leads. It’s crucial that people believe that they like each other and that connection is there. How did you guys form that connection? Sets are a bit different with the pandemic, but curious how you guys created that feeling at least.

Lai: I just want to say thank you for that because yeah, you’re so right. The connection is so important, so I’m glad that that plays. During this time, everything is through Zoom. We were fortunate enough to be able to get connected beforehand because we’re both represented by the same agent. God, I hate talking nice things about Tony in front of Tony. It’s so hard. (Laughs.) No, but he’s such a lovely person. His thing is trying to get everyone to laugh and he definitely achieved that. With laughter, it made everyone just so much more comfortable. That’s definitely what it did for me.

Giroux: Oh, thanks. On that, I love to try and create a fun atmosphere on set, but more importantly, I think Jacky’s so talented and she came so prepared. The whole crew was thanking her really, because she was on top of her game and she was such a delight to work with and at the same time, allowed for space for there to be so much fun. It was really a privilege to work with Jacky Lai.

Lai: Oh, man. This is so weird because normally, all we do is make fun of each other!

Tony, it sounds like you’re very similar to Billy in a lot of ways personality-wise. How are you similar to him? How are you opposite?

Giroux: I definitely leaned into my goofier, fun side with Billy. The script called for that and it’s so fun to bring that kind of energy to set. I also relate because he’s been through a lot career-wise and has kind of been thirsting to see different things that didn’t work. And I think it’s really time in my life, also turning 30, it definitely will bring up some good questions about where I’m at and what I want. In terms of differences, maybe Jacky can jump in real quick. I don’t know, I’m blanking right now. Well, I’m French, so that’s a difference. But I think he’s definitely goofier than I am, he was a class clown and I was very, very different. Growing up, I was very shy, very reserved. I was terrified of public speaking or calling attention to myself. So I’d say that’s a major difference. I brought it out for this role, but I think on a day to day, I also enjoy being curious or talking without humor always being there.

There are so many distinctly Asian scenes that Asian families will understand. Like, Suzie’s mom is so anti-Billy. Everyone has an Asian mother or grandmother who is exactly like that. Then there’s the stinky tofu scene, which is very culturally specific. Was there an Asian moment or reference that really hit home for you?

Lai: I had a really great moment with Suzie and her grandmother at the altar. I felt like that moment was filled with so much love and respect for the culture and for family and I felt so grateful to be able to have that scene and for people to be able to see that. I think that’s a very authentic Asian cultural thing that we do that I’m just really excited that we were able to show the world. On top of all the food, and of course, like you said, Mimi, everyone in Asian culture knows someone like that.

Giroux: And for me, Mimi Yung, the mother, I definitely relate to that as well with my mother being Chinese and especially my grandma. A lot of similar traits in terms of being extremely protective. I would say also the lunch scene, definitely having all that food and meat. Having grown up in France, when I used to come here in Vancouver to visit my grandparents, the food that would come up, I hadn’t been exposed to that kind of food before, like tongue or like you said, stinky tofu. Definitely at the beginning, I was kind of freaked out, but now that I’m a lot more in the culture, I absolutely love it. Whenever I introduce friends who aren’t exposed to that, there’s that same reaction of, “What? You eat that?” I think it’s a great aspect to Chinese culture that is showcased in this film, the love of food and sharing.

Did you have a favorite scene to film or that you loved getting to do? 

Lai: It was the scene where Billy and Suzie first meet, and the first time they banter. I really enjoyed because that’s what Tony and I have off-screen. It later translated into this baking scene that we had and we had a moment of improv where we were just punning each other. That was really nice. Those are my favorite scenes.

Giroux: For me, there’s something that I personally relate to. Sometimes I enjoy doing big gestures for family, friends or romantic partners. When Billy sets up the dance that they never had in high school, that moment I thought was really touching and it shows how much he cares beneath all the goofiness, which is a really beautiful human trait — that as much as we can joke around just to show care through thoughts is something I think is really beautiful.

Jacky, you mentioned the ending, which felt refreshingly progressive when it comes to giving the lead female character agency in making a major decision about her personal life and career. Without spoiling what happens, can you talk about the significance of the ending and what it meant to you? 

Lai: I think that really helps to open the conversation for women and young girls to be able to find the confidence to say, “I love what I do and I love you. Hopefully I don’t have to choose.” I think sometimes, we’re really afraid to express our wants and needs as a woman because we feel fulfilled when we can make others happy. I think having a scene like that really helps open the conversation and the possibilities for us to be able to explore that and express that, and hopefully be able to have what Suzie and Billy have, which is that supportive relationship.

Giroux: It’s a great little note on the film that really gives agency to women. And personally, I want to give support in my career of strong female voices and strong female leaders. I think the world we are in right now has enough male leaders, maybe way too much. Us looking to the future, I do think we need balance that’s going to come with more women in power. I love that there’s that message of being able to maintain a relationship whilst pursuing their dreams. My ideal of a relationship is that it’s a motivation to both pursue their dreams, not something that you have to give up in order to make it work.

Because Suzie equates her friends and loved ones to pastries and pies in the movie, what kind of dessert would you be? 

Giroux: On set, I said that [Jacky] is a peanut butter crunch bar. Here [in Canada], we have a restaurant called Cactus Club, which I don’t know if you have in the States, but they have this dessert which is a peanut butter crunch bar. First of all, on the outside, it looks amazing. It’s clean and it’s there on the plate with ice cream. But then when you eat it, it’s got this chocolatey, deep sweetness, yet with the crisp of a peanut butter crunch of the crunch bar. And it’s absolutely delicious. I don’t know how to say it. It’s got a nice crunch, like Jacky does. Yet, it’s extremely sweet.

Lai: (Laughs.) What does it mean for one to be crunchy, Tony?

Giroux: It’s got spices. I guess a certain spice or something that lights things up in a fun way, when I think of a crunch, personally. Thanks for asking for the clarification.

Lai: Crunch equals fun is what you’re saying.

Giroux: You’ve never said that about someone? “Oh yeah. That person’s got a crunch.” I guess that sounds kind of weird. (Laughs.)

Lai: I’m going to say Tony is an Oreo ice cream cone. There is the comfort of the vanilla in the cookies and cream, but then there’s pieces of surprise from the Oreo. And then when you’re finished with ice cream and at the very bottom, you have that cone and a bit of ice cream inside and it’s like the perfect last bite? I feel like, for me, that resembles all the things that are underneath Tony. To get to the deeper parts of him is really quite rewarding.

Giroux: Aww, thanks.

The opportunities for Asian leads and Asian-centric story stories seems to be steadily growing over the past couple of years especially. What are you actively looking for in a role now and what are you trying to avoid?

Lai: In terms of the materials that I’ve been getting recently, there’s not a lot of roles that I would say that I avoid. I think that’s due to the team that I have. I have really good people looking out for me. Personally, a role that I would want next is the opposite of Suzie, someone that is more broken and flawed. I want to explore that side of humanity. In terms of avoiding any characters, I haven’t had to make that decision.

Giroux: Yeah, and I’m going to speak more on the macro level. I’m always delighted when it’s a project that supports strong female voices or diversity, or that represents rather than falling into the typical stereotypes of what a culture or individual can be represented like. I love it when there are a lot of nuances to any character that brings them back to being a human. We’re in an industry where there can be a lot of stereotypes or a lot of quick definitions about who people can be depending on their heritage and I try to avoid that. Definitely wanting to bring balance and equality. So ideally, staying away from overly male dominant voices, unless the purpose is to actually critique that. Ideally, in an ideal world.

When it comes to Asian storytelling, hopefully the industry is moving away from the perception that the Asian community is a monolith.

Giroux: I completely agree.

Lai: I think we’re really lucky in terms of where the industry is at now and we get to be a part of that. I feel like a few years back, we may have seen a lot more of the stereotype, but yeah, it’s wonderful to see that the roles in the industry are opening up to Asians and other minorities to be more than just a nerd or a karate fighter.

Giroux: Mhm, agreed.

What’s next for you guys? 

Giroux: I’m working on the new season of Motherland [: Fort Salem on Freeform], and we’re working on that until the spring. Just cracking away at that.

Lai: I’m auditioning right now… After filming this movie and having that karaoke scene, I realized I really do want to work on the singing, yet I am so frightened by it. That’s what I’m working on. I’m making a 30-day challenge for me to work on my voice, get a vocal coach and I want to get into music. I love it so much. I can’t believe that I’m so afraid of it.

Giroux: The next thing you’re going to see Jacky in is a musical.

Lai: Broadway, here I come!

Giroux: Crazy Rich Asians: The Musical, featuring Jacky Lai.

I was wondering about that scene because it takes skill to play a bad singer if you’re good in real life, so it’s funny that you mention that.

Lai: No! That was life imitating art. I was actually that afraid. We redid the better part of that scene in the studio, so hopefully it turns out better. I just don’t sing in public, and to do that in front of everyone and knowing that the scene is going to be seen by North America gave me all the fears in the world.

A Sugar & Spice Holiday premieres Sunday, Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.

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