Driving down Santa Monica Boulevard last week, my jaw dropped open when I cruised past an enormous billboard hanging over the entrance to the 101 freeway, advertising ABC’s new sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, which stars actor Randall Park as the head of a Taiwanese American family. Park’s likeness had been reproduced as a parody of “American Gothic,” complete with denim overalls under an austere black coat and pitchfork in hand. While co-star Constance Wu gazes on with a stoic expression similar to the woman in the classic Americana painting, Park’s version of the farmer has on a guileless, toothy grin. My awestruck reaction was due to the billboard’s—and thus, Park’s and Wu’s—sheer massiveness, but perhaps also because this might be the first time I’d seen a billboard with Asians on it that didn’t feature kung fu, gambling, or a nude woman (or some combination of the three).
The highly anticipated network comedy, based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s 2013 memoir of the same name, has been hotly debated in recent months. Fresh Off the Boat features the antics of the Huangs, an immigrant family in Orlando, Florida. While many in the Asian American community and heyond are enthusiastic about the show, touted as the first sitcom in two decades that revolves an Asian American family since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, Fresh Off the Boat has also generated a healthy dose of guarded skepticism. Critics of the show have questioned whether its title is inherently racist and derogatory toward immigrants; and if Park, a Korean American, is the right choice to play Louis, a Taiwanese American character (not to mention, one who speaks English with a Taiwanese Mandarin-inflected accent).
Park has also been in the headlines for playing Kim Jong-un in Sony’s The Interview, a film released late last year that skewers America’s fascination with the “intimate” celebrity sit-down, as much as it’s a comedic satire about Communist North Korea and its enigmatic dictator. Park’s portrayal of Kim is hilarious, and endearingly human: a Katy Perry superfan with ruthless swagger in spades, whose only fault lies in trying to live up his dad’s impossible standards.
If Park managed to pull off that role—not the least of which, I must add, includes the confidence to sport Kim’s awful haircut—there can be little doubt that his upcoming turn as the Huang family’s patriarch will be one to watch in 2015. I spoke with Randall Park over the phone about the road from his collegiate theater days to a thriving professional career as a comedic actor, and his feelings about being labeled a sex symbol (I could practically hear him blushing!).
Fresh Off the Boat premieres with two episodes Wednesday, February 4 at 8:30|7:30 c. The show will continue the following week on its regular time and day, Tuesdays at 8|7 c.
Did you always want to be an actor?
No. Growing up, I didn’t even think about it. It was never even something I thought was a possibility. I mean, I always loved comedy, I was always kind of a comedy nerd as a kid. But really just as a fan, you know. It wasn’t until college that I truly fell in love with acting. We started a theater group at UCLA called LCC Theater. A bunch of writers—I was one of them—we put up original plays. In the process I ended up acting in the plays, and I realized, oh my gosh, I really love this. I kept acting from there.
“LCC” stands for “Lapu the Coyote that Cares” Theater. They’re in the 20th year this year. I’m dating myself! It’s an Asian American theater group. We started it way back when.
Was it important to you that it was an Asian American group?
Yeah, you know, at the time, I was at UCLA, meeting a lot of people who were similar to me and finding my community, forming my identity. It was important to me, because part of the reason why I never considered acting is because I didn’t think it was possible. We felt like there was a need to get Asian people involved in the arts. To get on stage and really have fun. That was important.
So, fast forward twenty years from that experience. What does it feel like to be a very visible, professional Asian American actor now?
Gosh, you know, it’s been great. It’s been really great. And a lot of what I wanted out of my career when I first embarked on this has been happening. But with that being said, a big part of being an actor is trying to just enjoy the ride. Just keep grinding away. So I never really—and maybe I should do this—stop and try to reflect on where I’m at. I’ve been sort of this blue-collar working actor for so long, it’s just kind of my journey, you know? And in a way I haven’t really fully registered it. I’m just having fun and trying my best to do good work.
You have a lot of Asian American fans.
I’ve always done a lot of web stuff, I’ve always worked with people in the community. It’s always been important to me, and it’s still important to me. Most people who come up to me on the street tend to be Asian. It’s who I am, and it’s great. I’m starting to be recognized, my work is starting to be recognized in the quote-unquote mainstream, but really my heart is with the community, for sure.
Do you feel the burden of having to represent?
Yeah, for sure. It is who I am, so it’s something I keep in mind. Especially with these roles that have come up lately, it definitely plays into my choices, and my approach to things. How I approach the characters. I always think of the community, for sure.
You’re starring in Fresh Off the Boat. Did you read the book?
I did. Yeah. I loved the book. I mean the book is a very specific story, but there are elements to it I can totally relate to, growing up as a kid in LA. The book is why the show exists.
The character of the father has an accent. Did you pause to think about that when you took the role, whether I should play this character with an accent?
It was something that I definitely thought a lot about. I even talked to the producers about it, like does he have to speak with an accent? And the fact of the matter is, Eddie [Huang]’s father speaks with an accent. It’s not a strong accent, so my character doesn’t speak with that strong an accent. But he has an accent. It’s true to the person. As far as the accuracy of the accent, that’s something I worked really hard on. I feel like I’ve gotten more confident with is, especially as the season progresses.
I feel like because the character speaks with an accent, it’s important to me the character not be stereotypical. I never want to play a caricature. I would never sign up to play a stereotype. Because the character speaks with an accent, I’m even more sensitive to that. I would never want to play a character who speaks with an accent, and is a one-note caricature. It was very important to me that this character be a human being, you know, and to approach the character with humanity. To make sure that—even though it’s a comedy, and he’s a funny character—the character has dignity. He has to be a fully-formed human who, yes, does make mistakes, but is not defined by those mistakes.
Randall, do you see yourself as a sex symbol?
Do I? No way! (laughs) Do I see myself as a sex symbol? That’s…uh….(laughs). I see myself as a character actor.
Any other projects you’re working on that we can see you in this year?
I pop up in Veep again, as the Governor of Minnesota. I love that character, a war hero, and he’s kind of a jerk. Great character to play. The Wet Hot American Summer, I show up in the series. I’m super excited about that because that movie is just such an important movie to me. To be a part of that is a dream come true. Other than that, parts in movies here and there, that haven’t come out yet. I’m just keeping at it, and working on trying to find my next gig.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The post is made possible by xfinity.
Main image: Fresh Off the Boat co-stars Constance Wu and Randall Park in an ad. (ABC).