A Dictator and a Dad: How ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Star Randall Park Went From Kim Jong-un to Sitcom PaterfamiliasABC/Bob D'Amico
Look up from the traffic on Ventura Boulevard, and there he is: Randall Park, several stories high, holding a pitchfork, on an American Gothic–inspired billboard for his new ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. It’s based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir; Park plays a version of Huang’s father, Louis; it’s the first attempt in 20 years to plug an Asian American family into the network-sitcom template — perhaps you’ve read about it. The billboard on Ventura looks like this.
And then a few minutes later, here’s Randall Park again, in a Studio City brewpub not far from his house, CEO-casual in a blazer and loafers, eating a chicken sandwich, insisting that he can drive by that billboard “and not even look at it.” He’s 40. He’s been at this a while, remembers being a “blue-collar actor” like it was yesterday, which for all intents and purposes it was, understands that billboards and all they signify are temporary. Sure, he’s had a few good years, IMDb-wise — before Fresh Off the Boat happened, he recurred on The Mindy Project and Veep (on the latter, as smarmy Minnesota governor and beatboxing Selina Meyer nemesis Danny Chung) and popped up for a line or two in movies like Sex Tape and Neighbors and The Five-Year Engagement, whose director, Nicholas Stoller, subsequently urged Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to think about Park for a pivotal role in a film called The Interview, which you may also have read about.
But all that happened only after years of acting and writing and doing stand-up and making web shorts just to stay busy and creating. Park, 40, has plenty of blue-collar-actor stories. He’s been in commercials for all the big banks. He knows what it’s like to walk around town as the guy from the K-Y Jelly ad, to worry about being recognized from your job as part of the improv troupe on MTV’s Wild ’N Out when you’re at your other job tamping shots at Starbucks. It happened occasionally; people were mostly confused. “They think if you’ve been on TV, you’re a millionaire.” This was not the case for cast members on Nick Cannon variety shows, plus Park had student loans.
And if things go south, he can always return to the fast-paced world of graphic design (for a while, he held a day job at the now-defunct New Times LA). “Escort ads, massage ads. I made a few futon ads, but I feel like half of every issue was escort ads. Prostitution, basically. A lot of them were stock-photo images, which is sad, for these poor stock-photo models. Sometimes they’d put the black bar over [the model’s] eyes, and sometimes they wouldn’t. But we’d also have literal pimps come in with a stack of Polaroids for us to scan. It was really sad. Sometimes I’d be like, ‘You should use a stock photo. There’s a kid in the background of this photo, come on.’ Good experience.”
There was value in those lean years. Park met his wife, who’s also an actor, in a waiting room before an audition for the U.S. remake of Spaced, which never made it to air. (“It was a horrible audition, for a pretty bad project, that [led to] a really great thing.”) But it was still satisfying when the stretches of time between day jobs got shorter. “It was like swimming,” Park says. “All of a sudden I realized I was doing it without the floaties. I’m not holding on to the edge of the pool anymore. That was a good moment.”
This is more or less how it usually goes. One day you’re hustling for TV parts and shooting ridiculous comedy videos with your friends — catch Park working alongside his then-infant daughter Ruby in his Channel 101 police procedural Baby Mentalist — and then you catch somebody’s eye, and soon you’re getting called in for bigger things. You read for a Seth Rogen–Evan Goldberg movie after Nicholas Stoller tells them You’ve gotta look at Randall, trust me, you won’t want to see anybody else. You get the part. So far, so good. You’re swimming.
It wasn’t that Park didn’t consider the implications of playing a sitting head of state in a movie that ends with that character’s fiery death at the hands of two American assassins. Before he took the role, he ran the concept by his Korean American parents (who thought it was hilarious) and talked to advocates from Korean causes (who told him to go for it). But he also did due diligence on Kim himself, researching the dictator’s life, his relationship with his father — the infamous Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011 — and his love of basketball. “There are accounts of him sitting for hours doodling pictures of Michael Jordan,” Park says, “which is the kind of thing I would have done as a kid.”
The result is one of 2014’s best, most perfectly calibrated comedic performances; Park’s Kim is a convincingly deranged figure who still aches to be loved, a dweeb turned bully who’s insecure about his drink of choice because his father once told him “margaritas are gay.” The movie is also preoccupied with gayness. It hinges on what’s essentially a bromantic love triangle between Rogen, Franco, and Park; Franco’s bubblehead TV host becomes so bro-smitten with Kim that he’s ready to blow the mission on purpose, a plotline that wouldn’t have worked had Park not rendered the dictator so oddly appealing.
“Even though he is who he is, I still wanted to portray him as a human being first,” Park says. “A human being who’s kind of a psychopath — but I didn’t want to lead with that. As an Asian American actor, I didn’t want to play a caricature. [Rogen and Goldberg] were completely onboard with that. It helps the story, too — he’s luring Franco in and he’s luring the audience in, too.”
It should have been a triumph — an actor coming more or less out of nowhere and sticking an impossible landing. You know the rest: Hackers breached Sony Pictures’ defenses, leaking emails that revealed movie-business people on their worst behavior, and suddenly a movie in which James Franco laments a case of “stank dick” became a geopolitical flashpoint. When a subsequent hacker communication alluded to 9/11-style attacks on movie theaters, Sony canceled the film’s theatrical release. The absurdity mounted from there. “America has lost its first cyberwar,” tweeted Newt Gingrich the day Sony capitulated. “This is a very, very dangerous precedent.” Park started seeing his face on the news. Reporters began calling his cell phone; one day, when he arrived home with his wife and daughter, paparazzi swarmed his car. (To repeat: During the period when Park was theoretically persona non grata to an Axis of Evil state, the scariest moments he experienced were courtesy of the American media. Make of this what you will.)
Eventually Sony reversed course, releasing the film online and to theaters brave enough to run it; although North Korea has yet to take its revenge, many critics went nuclear, weighing the film against the fuss, something Park says was disappointing if not surprising.
“A big part of the negativity toward this movie wasn’t ‘This movie sucks.’ It was ‘We went through that, for this?’” Park says. “What’s interesting is we did a ton of screenings before all this happened, and the movie was hitting every mark. Audiences were loving it. But you can’t see a movie without its context, and the context was insane.”
Someday, Park says, “I want to do a project that’s just a project.” It’ll have to wait. This week he’s making TV history with Fresh Off the Boat, a show he auditioned for despite firmly believing there was no chance it would make it to air. “Aside from it being all Asian Americans, there’s nobody famous in the cast,” he points out, “and that’s unheard of nowadays. This was before The Interview even came out, so people knew me from Veep and from a bunch of commercials. I’m still surprised.”
He’s sure some Asian viewers will love it and some will hate it. Would it be easier if it weren’t the only Asian-led sitcom on the air, if they didn’t have to carry that representational burden by themselves? Of course. Would he be breathing easier if they weren’t airing opposite the unstoppable NCIS on Tuesday nights? Well, obviously. But he’s optimistic. They’ve got a great writing staff, including graduates from How I Met Your Mother and The Daily Show, the most diverse room Park’s ever experienced. So, not the usual white Harvard guys? “We’ve got our white Harvard guys, too. But everyone’s really smart, and they didn’t go for those easy jokes. If a character’s the butt of a joke, it’s never because of their race. The joke is never the accent.”
As for creator Eddie Huang, who’s spent the weeks leading up to the show’s premiere airing a few grievances with the network in various public forums — well, look. Park says he loves Eddie, that they were sounding boards for each other throughout production, that he understands Huang’s struggles.
“When you write a memoir, and it’s your life, and you’re exposing things that are close to home, it’s hard to see it changed. And there’s no way it’s not going to change for network TV. My character is different from the character in the book. [Huang’s] dad is a badass. He was a thug back in Taiwan. There are parts of his dad’s story that are really dark and troubling, and you’re not going to see those parts on the TV show. But we did go out to Orlando and meet his parents. I got to meet the actual Louis Huang, and there were a lot of elements of his dad that I did use. He’s a man of the people — he took us on a tour of Orlando and showed us the old restaurant, and people came out of the woodwork to shake his hand. Everybody loved him. We ate a lot of really good food, and we drank a lot and sang karaoke. In the pilot, he’s kind of a fun, goofy dad, but it was really important to me that during the series we got to see that he’s good at what he does. He ended up owning 13 or 14 restaurants in the area and becoming kind of a mogul in Orlando. So during the course of the series, they start showing that.”
If the show lasts long enough, we may see Park’s version of Louis Huang build an empire; even if it doesn’t, Park is probably done appearing in bank commercials. Or almost done. “There’s still a Chase ad running with me in it, from two years ago,” he admits. It’s one of those real-people ads; he plays “Chris Park, Dog Day Care Owner,” and talks about the rewards points he earns on phone service and office supplies. “I’m sure people are like, Wait — is that Kim Jong-un?”