The Los Angeles native has long entertained fans with scene-stealing spots on television, film and the web. Now, with two major studio projects to his name, the actor talks candidly about working in the industry, diversifying roles and playing the long game.
story by ADA TSENG
photographs by JACK BLIZZARD
Every once in a while, Randall Park is approached by fans who recognize him, but it’s rarely for the same reason. It could be for his prolific work in commercials (Chase, Verizon, HBO Go); for his one-time cameo as “Asian Jim” in NBC’s sitcom The Office; or for his recurring part on the HBO show Veep, where he plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ nemesis, Governor Danny Chung.
Among a smaller group, Park may be recognized for his work on Nickelodeon’s action-comedy series Supah Ninjas; Wong Fu Productions’ popular YouTube videos; or the web series IKEA Heights, a comedic melodrama filmed guerilla-style inside a Burbank, Calif., IKEA (one of many Park has done for Channel 101, an online outlet for short films).
Despite a diverse range of acting and creative projects, the lack of one defining high-profile role in Hollywood has kept Randall Park largely under the mainstream radar.
That may soon change. In The Interview, Sony Pictures’ big-budget comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, Park plays North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, in an eclectic role unlike any he’s played before. Furthermore, one could say Park’s most high-profile project to date is the much-anticipated ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, a show set to premiere Feb. 10 that is based on the bestselling memoir by Taiwanese American restaurateur and author Eddie Huang.
Park, who plays Huang’s immigrant father on the sitcom, has mostly avoided doing accents in his acting career (“It’s never been a strength or something I loved to do,” he says), but in both The Interview and Fresh Off the Boat, the actor has the challenge of turning accent-inflected characters “foreign” to most mainstream audiences into complex, relatable individuals.
When Park first saw the script for The Interview, he couldn’t believe there was going to be a big-budget Hollywood comedy about a tabloid television show host (Franco) and his best friend and producer (Rogen) who receive a rare invitation to travel to North Korea and interview Kim Jong-un, only to be enlisted by the CIA to assassinate the dictator during their visit.
The premise for the comedy seemed like such a risky move. Even more unbelievable: how smart the script was, says Park.
“It was not only smart, but extremely sensitive in a weird way,” Park elaborates in a sit-down interview with KoreAm at his home in Los Angeles. “[In] any movie where you have the white protagonist going into the Asian world, you run the risk of having an Oriental fantasy scenario. But the people [the characters] meet in North Korea are driving forces behind the story. At first, you’re seeing things through [the men played by] Seth and James, but at a certain point, you start seeing things through the eyes of the North Korean characters.”
While the film has drawn the wrath of North Korea’s government (which declared it “an act of war”), leading to at least one revised scene, a canceled theatrical release date and speculation that North Korea was behind a recent cyberattack on Sony’s computer networks, the storyline’s context did not go ignored.
“It’s something we talked a lot about,” says Rogen, who also co-produced, co-directed and co-wrote the film, in a phone interview with KoreAm. “We wanted to make sure we made that distinction—that we villainized the regime that rules North Korea, but not the North Korean people.”
The film’s North Korea scenes (shot in Vancouver, British Columbia) depict the social and militaristic fabric of the regime, with actors playing soldiers and armed bodyguards for Kim, including a female communications officer and the visitors’ tour guide, played by Korean Canadian actress Diana Bang.
When Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the film’s co-producer, co-director and co-screenwriter, were searching for someone to play Kim Jong-un, there weren’t a lot of obvious candidates for the role. They knew of Park from small roles in their friend Nicholas Stoller’s films, such as Neighbors, a comedy which also stars Rogen and in which Park plays an AT&T representative who insults Zac Efron’s character, and The Five-Year Engagement, where Park plays Ph.D. classmate Ming, in a part intended to last only a couple lines but which grew when Park’s improvised scenes made the final cut.
Rogen and Goldberg needed someone who could do more than just comedy. They needed someone who could turn a real-life North Korean dictator into a multidimensional, if unpredictable, character—charming one minute, capable of bombing America the next.
“We knew that, ideally, we’d get the audience to a place where they like him, but we weren’t sure if we’d be able to do it,” Rogen says. “And then with Randall, the problem, if anything, became, do they like him too much?”
Though Park is known for his crowd-pleasing comedy chops, it was his dramatic side that Rogen found most impressive; somehow, Park was able to make his character seem both evil and sympathetic at the same time.
“On his very first day, we’re filming a scene where [Kim Jong-un] is at a banquet, screaming, and we thought, ‘Wow. Thank god Randall’s unbelievably talented,’” Rogen says.
“More than any other project I’ve ever done, this gave me the most range of emotions to go through,” Park says. “I got to be scary!”
For years, those familiar with his work saw Park as an example of how difficult it was to be an Asian American actor in Hollywood, in that a clearly talented actor who not only created great work but also showed versatility could still be hard pressed to land a high-profile role in Hollywood.
But 2015 could be the year that Park’s narrative changes.
“It’s not just that he’s paid his dues and has gradually ascended the ranks—even though he certainly has,” says Brian Hu, artistic director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. “I think Randall’s been lucky to have never had to be the ‘it’ guy. He’s never failed to live up to anybody’s expectations and has simply stuck to his craft and honed it to the point where he’s become pretty hard to ignore.”
To prepare for his role in The Interview, Park gained 20 pounds and binged on news about North Korea. His research included studying Kim Jong-un’s mannerisms in the HBO documentary seriesVice, when former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman traveled to North Korea in early 2013 to meet with the North Korean leader.
The trip was a media punchline at the time, but it gave The Interview script sudden credibility. The screenplay was written several years prior to the visit, so when Rodman buddied around with Kim, reportedly a big American basketball fan—and ended up liking him—it unexpectedly paralleled the film’s fictional storyline, in which Kim finds a shared connection with Franco’s character, Dave Skylark (including a taste for margaritas and Katy Perry’s music).
Park, who read the entire script before his audition, came prepared for every scene featuring Kim—good thing, because the producers auditioned him in each scene.
Park’s portrayal of Kim was more vulnerable than the producers envisioned, an acting choice Park made after noticing in the documentary that the North Korean leader was “almost shy” when he meets Rodman for the first time.
Playing a fictionalized version of a real-life dictator required treading a fine line, Park says. “I didn’t want to make [Kim] a one-note villain, but then, you think, ‘Does the real Kim Jong-un deserve that kind of portrayal?’
“But at the same time, a lot of people who watch this movie might not see the difference between Kim Jong-un and a regular Asian guy they see on the street in America,” Park adds. “So I didn’t want to do Asians or Asian Americans wrong by being a caricature, but I also didn’t want to humanize him to the point where people empathize with this guy who’s responsible for so much craziness.”
The result was a nuanced performance he’s really proud of. “I feel like [Rogen and Goldberg] are true masters of their art,” says Park. “For me to be in one of their movies is insane. It’s so great.”
Jacket by Jacob Holston, shirt by American Apparel, jeans by Duffie Jeans, shoes by Tsubo
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It’s been an incredibly long road on the acting trail for Park, who has had his share of stops and starts in the industry. He had been doing theater for almost a decade before he landed his first regular gig on Nick Cannon’s improvisational MTV comedy show, Wild ‘n Out, in 2006. While Park has been working as an actor for two decades, it’s hard to pinpoint a breakthrough role. “There have been a lot of things that put me out there but didn’t break me out,” he acknowledges.
“It’s been a very slow, steady progression. I don’t think it’s unusual, but it’s not written about that often because it’s so boring,” Park adds, sitting on a tiny baby seat in the home he shares with wife Jae Suh Park and their 2-year-old daughter, Ruby. (“It’s Ruby’s favorite,” he says, of the polka-dot chair. “Mine too.”)
“People love overnight successes, but mine was really that kind of bluecollar [grind]: start from nowhere and slowly build,” Park says.
Park, 40, was born and raised in Los Angeles, the second son of a mother who worked as an accountant at UCLA and a father who owned his own one-hour photo store. As a kid, Park liked making funny videos, but he never entertained dreams of working in Hollywood. “I always wanted to do something more creative, but it was nailed in my consciousness that it wasn’t possible,” Park says. So instead, acting became a hobby of his he was passionate about.
At UCLA, the English and creative writing major wrote plays. He and two friends started an Asian American theater group called Lapu the Coyote That Cares, known as LCC. (The name is an amalgamation of the three founders’ nicknames: Park’s was “CareMoose.” “Like Care Bear, but Moose,” Park says.)
Twenty years since its founding, LCC Theatre Company has become the country’s largest Asian American collegiate theater group.
Following his undergraduate years, Park obtained his master’s degree in Asian American studies at UCLA, thinking he might want to become a history professor. When he realized academia was not for him, Park worked a day job in graphic design, a skill he picked up creating flyers for LCC shows. All the while, Park continued to participate in low-budget theater on the side for fun.
In 2002, Quan Phung, a television executive then working for Fox, pulled Park aside after one of his comedy sketch shows and told him he should consider acting as a career. “He said, ‘I gotta introduce you to some people,’ and that’s what got me thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” Park says.
Thus, Park began doing stand-up and improv in clubs around Los Angeles, but years went by with few signs of progress. Not only was he not landing parts, he was barely getting any auditions.
“I was working part-time jobs and just struggling,” Park recalls. “I was pursuing [acting], but always having one foot out the door because it was so hard.”
Four years into his decision to pursue acting full-time, Park nearly gave up: “I thought, ‘My parents are right; this is not a viable career path,’” Park recalls.
There was a brief stint in which Park considered architecture but couldn’t pass his physics prerequisite class. “I had been out of school for so long that I was out of practice!” Park says with a laugh. “So, in part, that kept me stuck, but in a good way, because I kept at [acting], and at a certain point, there was no turning back.”
If he merely waited around to be offered roles, Park probably would have had no choice but to accept small parts. However, by writing his own comedy sketches, stand-up routines and short films for the web, Park got a second wind and eventually found his unique voice and style.
Soon, others filmmakers took notice and started casting him. Nowadays, even if Park is in a small, supporting role, he tends to steal every scene he’s in.
Melvin Mar, co-producer of Fresh Off the Boat, remembers casting the actor for a scene in 2014’s Sex Tape, the Jason Segel/Cameron Diaz film directed by Jake Kasdan, his co-producer on the sitcom. “We were looking for a guy who could do one scene with Rob Lowe and just kill [it],” Mar says. They flew Park in one day to shoot, and by lunchtime, Mar knew he wanted him to star in their next TV project.
In his own scripted work, Park usually plays the eccentric lead, whether it’s the doctor who saves dying patients with his healing bodily fluids (Dr. Miracles); a struggling restaurant owner who puts drugs in his Chinese food to compete with the chain P.F. Chang’s (The Food); a scientist who accidentally gets conjoined to his father (Siamese Dad); or a cop who catches criminals with the help of his crimefighting baby, played by Park’s real-life daughter, Ruby (Baby Mentalist). Some of these short films have drawn an online cult following.
“Grounded absurdism became my thing—taking dumb things really seriously,” Park says. Yet, there’s the sense that he’s just a big softie at heart. “Looking back to the plays I wrote with my theater group, everything I wrote seemed to always end with people hugging each other,” he says, with a laugh.
In the world of Randall Park shorts, love is more important than anything else. “I think I believe that in real life, so that must translate,” Park says. (Fans of Park’s online work will know many of his web series co-star his wife, who plays the love interest his character is trying to win over.)
Within Asian American entertainment circles, Park is beloved. Hu tells KoreAm that any time he receives film submissions starring Park, there is a guaranteed comedic payoff. (Park was a regularKoreAm columnist for three years, where he wrote candidly about work and family, and has been a popular choice to emcee Asian American galas for his quick wit and self-deprecating humor.)
“I think he really thrives on that very subtle, awkward humor, but it comes from an endearing, innocent place that people can relate to,” his wife says. “I always feel like he can say more with just a shift of his eyeball than most actors or comedians can do in a monologue.”
Shirt by Jacob Holston, tie by Original Penguin
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The true test of Park’s mass appeal may be the upcoming debut of Fresh Off the Boat, shot at Los Angeles’ Fox Studios. The show takes place in the 1990s and chronicles the misadventures of 11-year-old Eddie Huang (played by actor Hudson Yang) as he and his family move from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Florida. Park plays Eddie’s Taiwanese immigrant father Louis Huang, who is banking on the hope that his new steakhouse restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch, will build his family a better life.
The show’s three-minute trailer has already generated a wide spectrum of reactions from Asian Americans—some more wary than others regarding the show’s themes on cultural dissonance and the pitfalls of assimilation.
Yet, Wall Street Journal columnist and culture writer Jeff Yang (incidentally, Hudson’s father) calls the show a “game-changer” for Asian Americans, saying the show’s diverse roster of writers (including Kourtney Kang, Sanjay Shah, Jeff Chiang and Ali Wong) keeps the humor provocative and authentic.
Park understands why Fresh Off the Boat has generated so much excitement, worry, hope and skepticism. While there have been other recent groundbreaking television shows starring Asian Americans—Sullivan& Son, Supah Ninjas, Selfie—never before has a U.S. sitcom on network television portrayed an all Asian American cast, with the exception of All-American Girl,the mid-’90s show starring Margaret Cho that tanked.
Park says he was shocked the Fresh Off the Boat pilot was even picked up. “You just don’t expect that from this industry,” he says. “People won’t invest in an Asian American family.”
The show nearly lost Park from the cast at a pivotal time: the actor wanted to back out of the role because he felt it should go to a Taiwanese actor. “After the pilot got picked up, it all came into perspective for me, and it just didn’t feel right. Plus, the accents, and having to play an immigrant, even though I wasn’t one,” Park says. “I called Eddie Huang in a panic, and he said, ‘Come over, let’s talk about this.’”
According to Park, who has since learned some Mandarin to hone a Taiwanese accent, Huang told him that he was the only one who could play the part.
“I still felt weird about it, but as I was talking to [Huang], I thought, ‘I must be doing this for a reason,’” Park says. “You think about your entire life, and [wonder], why did it take me so long to get here? Why did I have to build so slowly to get here? I think going on this journey made me better. It made me a stronger performer, more confident and more humble, and it made me understand things for what they are.”
If it seems unusual an actor would do so much soul-searching about a role, it’s because Park feels a great deal of responsibility toward a community that has always supported him in the past.
“Why did I go into Asian American studies? Because these issues are important to me,” Park says. “I looked at all my experiences and thought, ‘Maybe I am the right one for the job.’ And as long as Eddie’s cool with it—because I’m playing a version of his father— then I’m just going to try my best.”
Park is aware how much of a gamble Fresh Off the Boat is. Despite top-notch talent behind the scenes—the show’s creator is Nahnatchka Khan (American Dad, Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23) and its executive producers’ credits include New Girl (Kasdan) and Bad Teacher(Mar)—it’s absent of any established stars.
The big question is, can an Asian American story draw enough viewers to keep it on air?
“Every Asian [American] could watch, but if nobody outside the community watches, then the show will probably get canceled,” Park says. “That’s one of the challenges of making a show like this. It chooses to be mindful of the community that it represents, but it has to be entertaining for everybody.”
Regardless of how well The Interview and Fresh Off the Boat perform with audiences, Park has already gotten farther than he ever expected. Back around 2002, when Park first decided to pursue acting against the wishes of his parents, he didn’t imagine success as a hit TV show or a starring role in a film.
“I just wanted to be a working actor, to be able to pay my rent and get by,” Park says. “I figured I’d make my own projects on the side and that would be my real creative outlet.
“And if I could have a family one day, to be able to take care of my family. That’s all I wanted,” Park adds.
Using Park’s own definition of success, he’s already made it. “I’d say five or six years ago, there was a day when I looked at myself, and thought ‘Oh my God, I’m actually doing it. It’s amazing,’” he says.
What was that moment? One might venture to guess it was the Supah Ninjas’ pilot getting picked up as a series. Or Park’s involvement in Get Him To the Greek, the 2010 film project he worked on with Nicholas Stoller, who would eventually recommend him to Seth Rogen.
“No, it was before that,” says Park. “It was when I got married. After I got married, my life started coming together in a lot of ways.”
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One December afternoon, on the set of Fresh Off the Boat, Park—decked out in ’90s gear for his part, including a checkered gray polo shirt, jean shorts that hang to his knees, athletic socks hiked up mid-shin and a jade necklace—talks about meeting Louis Huang in Orlando for the first time. Eleven episodes into shooting, all of Park’s initial reservations about the show have melted away.
“He gave us a tour, we went to the old Cattleman’s Ranch—which is now a Hooters, by the way—and his old coworkers, employees or even people who worked nearby would all stop and want to shake his hand,” Park recalls. “He was so personable. You could see how much people in the community loved him.”
Little does Park know he could be talking about himself. The off-screen dad (who, following a daylong KoreAm cover photo shoot after filming all week for the sitcom, still had time to take his wife and daughter to Disneyland), may just be what America, more specifically, Asian America, needs: an on-screen dad who chases his dreams, makes us laugh and slowly and surely earns the love and respect of his community and beyond.
styling by REICHELLE PALO
grooming by LINA HANSON
This article was published in the December/January 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December/January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).