Justin Chon will be a busy man at CAAMFest this year with two movies screening: Opening Night film Seoul Searching, directed by Benson Lee, and Man Up, Chon’s feature-length directorial and writing debut. The veteran Korean American actor, perhaps most known for his role in the Twilight series, has had a successful run of feature films including 21 & Over and Revenge of the Green Dragons. He’s also had hits on TV and YouTube, which led to his latest collaboration, Man Up, an ‘80s-flavored comedy. Chon will be in attendance at the film screenings.
One part Knocked Up and two parts Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Justin Chon teams up with Asian American YouTube sensation Kevin Wu, aka KevJumba, on Man Up. Although Chon has helped generate over a billion dollars in box office revenue and Wu has amassed over 3 million YouTube subscribers, the two director/writer/actors combined to create an Asian American independent comedy.
Set in Honolulu, Hawai’i, Man Up is a story about the friendship between Martin (Kevin Wu) and Randall (Justin Chon), two best friends enjoying life during that awkward period between high school and college. Everyday is like biking to a nearby shave ice stand on a Sunday afternoon for these two slackers, until Martin finds out he got his Mormon girlfriend pregnant. Randall responds by spending much of his brainpower trying to “help” his best friend and soon-to-be father. The slapstick humor in this ‘80s themed “bromedy” relies on Justin Chon’s over-the-top comedy stylings and Kevin Wu’s YouTube-crafted sense of humor.
We recently caught up with Justin Chon to chat about transitioning from an actor to an actor/director. Chon will be in attendance at the CAAMFest screenings.
—Cynthia Brothers & Vu-Bang Nguyen
What are you looking forward to while at CAAMFest?
I’m really excited not only about Man Up, but (CAAMFest Opening Night Film) Seoul Searching is the opening night film. I’ve never been to CAAMFest and it’s amazing that I’ll have two projects that I care about there at the same time. One I’m acting in and one I’m directing. My main producer, James Yi, is from Oakland and he’s in San Francisco now and it’ll be cool to have his family and friends at the screening to watch Man Up.
You wrote Man Up with Kevin Wu. What was the writing process like and how did the relationship come about?
It all started at an Asian American film festival and we saw a movie that felt like Joy Luck Club, part 20. Those stories are so important, but yo, Joy Luck Club was like 20 years ago! Where are the original stories? I want to see something that is about somebody I can relate to. It doesn’t always have to be about the tiger mom, which we do have in our film, but it doesn’t always have to be about struggling with identity. I wanted to write a movie that I related with. How it all came about was I’d been spending a lot of time with Kevin, we’d been doing a lot of writing together. I helped him along with acting and he helped show me the digital world and we thought let’s do something together, with Freddie Gutierrez, who I met on Just Jordan, as a third writer. The first idea was a stupid idea: a camping movie. We thoughts this was a stupid premise and no one would want to watch this. So then it became a movie about selling weed, which was stupid too—but knew we wanted a comedy. We outlined for a year and finally we just buckled down for three weeks and just finished a first draft and sent it to James Sereno, our producing partner in Hawai’i.
The genesis of this was, at the time I was dating a girl with a kid, and Kevin dated a Mormon girl in high school. And the premise was, what if you got your Mormon girlfriend pregnant? Kevin ended up talking to his ex-girlfriend who went to BYU in Hawai’i. We used her real name so Kevin went and had lunch with her, and we actually got it cleared.
How much was improv a part of the filming process?
Everything was written out. Everything was scripted, there was no improv at all.
This movie firmly sits in the bromedy category of buddy comedies along with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Harold & Kumar. Was Man Up inspired by these types of movies, or do you see it as a separate genre?
I grew up in the ‘80s, so absolutely. Bill and Ted, Dumb and Dumber, the buddy comedies about two guys that were two peas in a pod, I always found hilarious. Bill and Ted was a huge inspiration and if you noticed there’s a lot of ‘80s themes, even the music. But obviously, the budget was so tight, we couldn’t place it in the ‘80s. That was one of the reasons we picked Hawai’i, because some of the architecture feels a little dated.
Was it also intentional to set it the movie in Hawai’i, a location with one of the highest percentage of Asian American populations in the country?
I spent a lot of time in Hawai’i and Kevin did a project in Hawai’i and we built a lot of friendships and ties there. Like you said, the population is majority Asian, and we wanted Hawai’i to be a third character in the movie. We wanted to show Hawai’i but not glamorize it.
With younger people, teenage to college, they don’t really have a voice, and when we screened it for younger kids, they loved it. I feel like entertainment is dictated by older people with money who make decisions, and I’m really happy this film was made. It’s about young kids and they don’t have to have an accent—we didn’t really mention being Asian except once or twice, and that’s the way it is in Hawai’i, because we’re not a minority.
Can you tell us more about Kinetic Films? What was it like working them and are there plans to do more projects under this production company?
They’re a production company based out of Hawai’i and they do a lot of commercial work there. They did a film with Dante Basco, Paradise Broken. They also do a lot of local movies. They did a movie with Kevin Wu and Dante, Hang Loose. One of the team members directed that—I came and did a bit part on that and I met James Sereno and we just talked. He wants to do more films about people from Hawai’i and spread the word about their experience. He’s from Hawai’i and wanted to represent Asian Americans in Hawai’i.
You have another film at CAAMFest, Seoul Searching, which is the opening night film. What’s your role in the film?
I play a character named Sid Park, I model myself after Sid Vicious. I’m a punk rocker from Los Angeles and the movie’s lead. Sid’s based off of Benson Lee, the director, and it’s about a summer camp put on in 1986 by the Korean government to educate second generation Koreans from around the world about their culture and heritage. They go to this and teachers can’t control them. It’s very John Hughes-esque and I have this facade of being a tough guy and I’m like Bender (Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club) bad boy of the film.
What was it like filming in Korea with a cast of Koreans from around the world?
The cast is completely mixed, I play a Korean American and my love interest is also Korean American. But we also have a Korean Mexican and Korean German. Its about second generation Koreans having grown up around the world and learning about their heritage. We have a Korean Italian guy at one point. The Korean Mexican character is played by a Korean Spanish guy who grew up in the Canary Islands. The Korean German is from Cologne, Germany and he’s an actor who’s been in movies in Korea. The teacher is played by a veteran actor from Korea named Cha In-pyo and he’s been around since the ‘90s and he’s well known.
In the Twilight series, you played Eric Yorkie, a character who 99% of the time wouldn’t be portrayed by an Asian American actor. What happens when a role is seemingly for a non-Asian American actor and Justin Chon shows up for an audition?
I just have to act my ass off. It happens to me all the time. I guess in the long run it helps me grow. But for them to take me seriously, I have to be three times better, five times better. It can be frustrating at times, but when I go to an audition like that, it’s pretty intimidating, but I just know I gotta outperform them. This is crazy, but they’ll consider me for stuff that kind of makes sense, but then I walk into a room—one time it was me and Brandon Routh. You know Brandon Routh? He’s Superman. In what universe am I in the same casting circle? It’s pretty discouraging because I walk in and I know I have no chance—they just want to see, I’m just the wild card. Let’s just bring Justin Chon in and see what he does with it. But at the same time, if I have no chance, why am I here?
What’s next for you, what other projects do you have coming up?
Sin City Saints, a Yahoo! series with Malin Akerman, Tom Arnold, and Andrew Santino. And then I got offered three movies in the spring, I’m just deciding which one is most interesting. And I’m developing something with Ryan Higa, and I’m also developing a movie about the true story of a Korean kid going to Libya to join rebel fighting.
This year’s festival theme is Destination: CAAMFest. What are your favorite Bay Area spots?
When I was 18, I did an internship in Cupertino. I love that area—Los Altos, Santa Clara—because I grew up in Irvine, it’s got a similar vibe. A&J Restaurant, that boba place Fantasia. The Bay feels like home to me. Haight Street and the Castro. San Francisco is great because it doesn’t feel like home when I’m here; it feels like I’m on vacation.
What are your travel essentials?
The essentials—obviously toothbrush and toothpaste. Literally, I can travel as long as I have a warm coat and a few pairs of socks and underwear. If I’m trying to get all fancy, then I take ear plugs, noise cancelling headphones, eye mask, neck pillow and an iPad stocked with programming so I’m not bored.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The interview is made possible by xfinity.
Seoul Searching, CAAMFest 2015’s opening night film, premieres at 6:30PM at the Castro Theater on Thursday, March 12.
Man Up screens at CAAMFest Friday March 13, 9:45PM (New People), Sunday March 15, 12:10PM (New People) and Saturday March 21, 5:30PM (New Parkway).