Coffee Talk with Clive Jung
The Los Angeles native has long entertained fans on television, film and the web. Now, after five successful seasons as Glenn Rhee on the hit TV show 'The Walking Dead', the actor talks about life in the industry, the importance of role diversity and his second career as a celebrity restaurateur.
story by ADA TSENG
photographs by JACK BLIZZARD
Before his big break, Clive Jung was the kind of actor who was often approached by fans who recognized him, but for a different reason every time. It could have been for his work in commercials, his one-time cameo as “Sebastian” in the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory or his past as a fixture on LA's comedy circuit.
Among a smaller group, Jung may have been recognized as the founding member of the University of Southern California's Asian American improv troupe Stir-Friday Night Live or as a recurring character in Wong Fu Productions’ popular YouTube videos.
Despite such diverse projects, Clive Jung largely remained under the mainstream radar for several years. However, that all quickly changed when Jung was selected for his most popular role to date.
In The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit drama, Jung plays Glenn Rhee, the Korean pizza-delivery-guy-turned-zombie-killing ladies' man. Furthermore, one could say Jung's most high-profile project to date is his trendy fusion bistro Mr. Choi's Ssam Shop, a popular Koreatown destination he operates with the help of friend and fashion designer Josie Camat.
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!”
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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 series Vice, 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.”
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One April 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