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Rich Brian and director Justin Chon talk ‘Jamojaya,’ the rapper’s acting debut

At just 16-years-old in 2016, rapper Rich Brian burst onto the hip-hop scene when he uploaded his debut single “Dat $tick” to Soundcloud and YouTube and it went viral — almost instantly prompting a deal with the label 88rising and a remix featuring an assist from rap luminary Ghostface Killah. The Jakarta-born rapper, birth name Brian Imanuel, has since become the first Asian rapper to hit No. 1 on iTunes’ hip-hop charts with his 2018 debut Amen, released several other projects, including last year’s Brightside EP, and worked with the likes of 21 Savage and Joji. But this year, he’s tackling his latest feat: acting.

Before Imanuel wanted to be a recording artist, he actually wanted to pursue filmmaking — and he shows some very real acting chops in his film debut, Jamojoya, which just premiered at Sundance Film Festival. In the film co-written and directed by Justin Chon (Blue Bayou, Pachinko), he plays James, an Indonesian rapper struggling with family tragedy, pressure from his manager and father, and difficulties in dealing with the music industry.

Read more: My Animal is the sapphic werewolf movie coming out of Sundance that you need to see

Jamojoya is a drama that largely centers around James’ relationship with his father (played by Yayu A.W. Unru). His father has managed his career for some time and a gulf of sorrow has opened between them since James’ brother’s death, giving rise to anger and resentment in their relationship. James also desperately wants to become a successful rapper in the U.S., but feels stymied in his attempts to express himself as an artist and an Indonesian. He struggles to balance his identity and familial obligations on his path as a musician in the face of pressure from those within the industry who seek to take advantage of him.

At the film’s helm is an emotional story and performances that are deeply affecting, funny, and touching. It also really makes an effort to accurately portray Indonesian culture and family structure with humor and uncomfortable truths — even its title draws from the Indonesian myth of Prince Jamojaya, about a prince who is poisoned and turned into a bayan tree and his brother who turns himself into a bird in an attempt to find him.

At Sundance Film Festival, AltPress spoke with the Jamojaya star and filmmaker about the project and Imanuel’s transition into acting.

[Yayu A.W. Unru in Jamojaya/Courtesy of Sundance Institute]

Brian, you’re a rapper and you’re very skilled at that. How did you become an actor? 

Brian Imanuel: This movie is how I became an actor. But before this, before music, I had experiences with cinematography and stuff like that. That was my main passion. I would act in my own little short films because I didn’t know anyone else to act in them. I’ve always known that I wanted to get into film one day, whether it be acting or behind the scenes.

How did the two of you decide to work together?

Imanuel: This film came out of my meeting Justin for the first time. Justin happened to be friends with my manager for over 20 years and I happened to be a fan of Justin’s already. So we hung out one day — not having any expectations, or any projects in mind yet — but we just happened to really click creatively and as a people. That was when we’re like, “Okay, we can really make something here.”

How long did the entire process take? 

Imanuel: After that, we talked for two years. Justin would text me a lot about random questions about life, and anything related to Indonesia. He wanted to make sure everything was [accurate] down to the details.

Justin, what drew you to make Jamojoya, a film about Indonesians, as a Korean-American writer-director?

Justin Chon: One of my main goals is trying to bring empathy to the AAPI community. Southeast Asians don’t get any representation. I repped my community, the Korean American community, several times, and now it’s time for me to start venturing out of that [space]. In Blue Bayou, my last film, I included the Vietnamese community in New Orleans in the film. So with [Jamajoya], it’s Indonesia, Southeast Asia. 60-70% of the film is in Bahasa Indonesia, their native language, so I am just trying to represent them [on film].

Why did this story, in particular, about a rapper appeal to you?

Chon: It was over a course of five years and, basically, I talked to Brian for so many hours and tried to figure out what was engaging and what would engage him — make him feel some sort of connection. I realized that he had a very close relationship with his father. His relationship with his father is great, which is not like the film, but I think that was a good starting point.

What was the process like filming the movie? 

Imanuel: A big part of how I became an actor in this movie was the fact that Justin was willing to do such large amounts of rehearsal. We had a month where we kept rehearsing and reading the script. During the rehearsals, we not only read the script but also retranslated a lot of the Indonesian part of the script, as well, to match our tongue a lot better. Whenever there are super long monologues between me and my dad, we would work out the pacing of it. There are some scenes that are supposed to be funny, and there are some scenes that are supposed to be really uncomfortable, and we went over it, over and over again without a camera so that on the day that we finally shot, we’re so good at it.

What is the most important thing that you want the audience to understand about the story?

Chon: That grief is hard. But ultimately, life goes on and hopefully you can heal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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