Ken Jeong may often play a lunatic on both big and small screen, but in person it's quite disarming to see just how calm and considerate he comes across. While he got his big screen start in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, Jeong's real breakthrough was taking a small-on-paper role of Chow in the first Hangover film and ratcheting things up many, many notches from the character on the page. Between Chow and his Señor Chang / Kevin role on Community, Jeong has established himself as a fearless, unique comedic actor unafraid to throw himself completely into the characters he plays.
The third Hangover film provides an epic, worthy finale for the Wolf Pack, with Ken Jeong's Chow again stealing the show in his inimitable way.
I sat down with Jeong at a Hotel in Toronto as part of a roundtable discussion. Given that we were a big group, it all could have gone quite badly, but Jeong was a real sport, taking the time to address all of our questions. It's clear that he's a genuinely eager participant in this whole Hollywood thing, hitting his stardom with enough maturity that none of the fame and fortune has gone to his head.
Chow started off as a minor character, yet has blossomed into the core of the third HANGOVER film. You've taken this character and just run with it. Could you please talk about process, how much you played in the role of developing this character into what it has become.
For me, the seeds were planted in the first Hangover movie. Honestly, it was just my idea to jump naked out of that trunk. That pretty much was my main contribution to the thing!
I remember in the script it was calling for Mr. Chow to have clothes on. I remember reading the script and that scene is screaming for Mr. Chow to be naked! I'm not an exhibitionist at heart - I don't want to take clothes off, you know, and I'm the kind of guy that's so shy about his body I don't like to take off my shirt at the beach! You can ask my wife, I'm pretty demure about those things I did feel, because I'm an actor and because an actor acts and you want to inhabit that character, I just felt it was imperative that that had to happen.
I think that really kind of bonded me and Todd Phillips early on. He was amazed that a guy like me who was only working on the movie for a few days - I wasn't in the first movie that much - was willing to put himself on the line. In my head I was making a character choice, not a personal choice. I think that definitely informed Todd and Craig Mason, the screenwriters, to widen the spectrum of imagination for Chow knowing that the actor behind it has just as vivid an imagination as they do.
What do you think is the secret behind these movies? Why do they resonate, beyond just a simple comedy?
I think [it's down to] Todd's vision of this movie and the structure of the movie itself. [Even] more important than that, I think, is Todd's relationship with the main three leads, Ed, Bradley and Zach.
I can't say enough great things about them - they are the most ego-less, diva-free leads you could ask to work with. They set the tone of the whole movie in terms of actors.
People are always shocked to see how low key we all are in real life, and we really just save it all for the camera. We have a free exchange of ideas - I feel I can say anything to those guys because we're friends and we're coworkers that trust each other. We respect each others' opinions so there's a lot of collaboration that goes on and a lot of free flow of ideas, not only for us but for each others' characters.
There's a trust by the third movie, I felt like I could say anything and not worry about any ramifications and vice versa. Just to have that complete trust, that's what I'm going to miss about the Hangover.
You always get the sense in a great comedy that everyone's having so much fun doing it. That's why we all love to see blooper reels at the end, because you want to see if they having fun, do they get along. By my experience, at least the ones I've been a part of, every single successful movie is everyone just truly had the most fun they've ever had. I can vouch being inside that circle that making these three Hangover movies it's the most fun I've ever had, for sure.
Speaking of fun, how many of the stunts did you do yourself? I'm assuming you didn't parachute yourself onto the Las Vegas Strip?
Yeah, the parachute gag was many different stuntmen, I can't take credit for that. There are some close-ups where I was elevated 30-40 feet outside, to simulate some of that intensity.
I can say there's another point in the movie where Chow does a freefall 30 foot drop with hundreds of gallons of water behind his back - that was me! That was all me, it wasn't a double. I was massively afraid of heights, but I worked with the stunt coordinator Jack Gill for six weeks to kind of desensitize me. I would film Community, and at the end of the week I would go work with Jack on being in a harness 10 feet in the air, not being freaked out, then 15 feet, 20 feet 30 feet, and then subsequently being in a harness and moving at a fast rate.
So that was the culmination of about 6-8 weeks of me getting over my mental block and then actually executing that. Physically speaking, that was the greatest day of my acting career! Just to be able, at least for a day, to conquer your demons for a bit was great!
Who are your comedy heroes that have inspired you?
I grew up loving Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, David Letterman - I'm obviously nothing like those guys, I mean, they're geniuses and I'm not, but they're... There was something about all of them, they have a sense of fearlessness that I definitely admired.
I grew up loving Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live. Later in life I'm admiring people like Will Ferrell and Steve Carell, Sasha Baron Cohen - there are just so many different people!
I'd have to say the funniest actor working right now is Zach Galifianakis. Zach and I have been friends for going on 15 years, and in many ways he's a big influence. Even when we did stand up together, he's always the funniest guy. A good sign is when I'm having a bad day, I'll go on Funny or Die and watch Between 2 Ferns. I've worked with just about everybody in comedy, and I tell you, no one makes me laugh harder than Zach.
Zach knows that, I've told him recently, I would give up my acting career and just be his Ed McMahon. I would just get paid to laugh at Zach. I could do that, that would be a good job, laughing at Zach for the rest of my life.
That clearly must shape the type of improvisation that's allowed to occur on set.
Zach is the quickest ad libber I've ever worked with - he's the quickest improviser, he's so quick to the draw with the lines. There's just so many funny things that we've done in outtakes.
One that I absolutely loved in Hangover II is where when Chow is doing so much cocaine. I ad lib, "You want to hear the funniest fucking joke of all?", and then Chow falls into the pile of coke. So I'm sitting there, my character's dead I can't move, and then Zack just says, "I don't get it."
I'm sitting there in a pool of liquor and like shaking because I'm laughing.
Even when your favourite comedian is not doing anything, you just see them walking and you're like "Oh, he's so funny" you're just waiting to laugh even if he's not doing anything funny. Every time I see Zach, I feel like I'm always "Heh" like a 4 year old kid.
Your character is kind of a perceptive jerk. He attacks all three of the guys in very specific ways that are different from all of the rest of them because their personalities are all so different. Was that something in the screenplay, or if that's something that you come up with on your own?
I think that just came instinctively. There was something in the first movie that I think I did improvise of why I liked or hated each one of those guys, where I think I said to [Bradley] Cooper [speaking in Chow's voice] "Oh, you're not my type, you're too good looking." To Ed [Helms], I said "I like you, you have this approachable beauty," or I looked at Zach and said, "You're fat!"
There are all these different things where we would just personalize [the humour]. The fact is that we were all acquaintances before we started filming. I had done a movie with Bradley, we had done All About Steve the year before The Hangover. I knew Zach from standup, and Ed and I had done a movie together, The Goods, about a year before. I had some working knowledge of all of those guys, so I think there was some instant comfort level and chemistry. Chow does specifically, you just like have the specificity to marginalize those guys into like five words.
I'm still actually wrestling with the demure you and the character of Chow.
Honestly, so am I, it's an ongoing struggle.
There is now a certain resignation from the Wolf Pack, a coming-to-terms as they've aged over the three films. Chow, however, is still very much bigger than life. How do you keep that balance still sensible?
I have to really credit Todd Phillip for that. Chow's the only character that you can really go as over-the-top as you want to go and it's still within the confines of that character. He's not over-the-top for over-the-top's sake, he's over-the-top because Chow was over the top! It was the perfect fit.
In this movie, because Chow's such an expanded role in this story, I have to credit Todd for finessing my performance. There were a lot of times instinctively I would go for something bigger and he would just reign me in to go from point A to point B in a plot, saying "You can't put any mustard on this one," because we need to convey the audience this way.
For example, there's the karaoke scene where Todd was genius. Give any actor a karaoke mic, they're going to try to sing well. That's just the ego and the instinct of the actor, and just like every other actor, my instinct was "Ok, I'm gonna knock this out, I'm gonna sing this great, maybe get a Grammy." Todd was like, "What are you doing? Chow has gotta be vulnerable right now, there's a vulnerability where he needs these guys. There's a sense of desperation in Chow, and don't you think it's a bit more interesting if you're playing it as he's a criminal, an international criminal who's afraid to go up on stage." Maybe he can sing great in real life in the bathroom, or in the elevator with the Wolfpack in Hangover 2, but maybe in public he's completely scared. That was all Todd.
Here's a guy that's singing his favourite song and at the end he just he knows he did a bad job singing and he just swats that microphone away at the end. That was Todd that just guided me, I can't take any credit for that. When I watch Chow swat away at the mic, that makes me laugh so hard!
That's what I like about Todd's specificity of genius. He just knows tone. He's my favourite director I've ever worked with because he knows tone so well, he knows what he wants and he's always right. He's got the sophistication that I really haven't seen in comedy. He's amazing.
So people really love this character in the films. What is your personal favourite Chow moment?
In the first movie, Zach falls out of the car and I do a fat joke and Chow goes "Yeah, fat guy fall down, funny!" There was a whole extended run where I was pointing out to my bodyguards, when they punched him in the stomach earlier I said "It's funny because he's fat," and I said that like twice and I explained to the bodyguards the second time Zach falls down, I say "Ha, ha, fat guy fall down, funny," I look at my bodyguard and say "In comedy, that's called a call back," and I do a whole thing where I'm analyzing that whole thing, like "This fat guy's so funny." I'm really mimicking what the audience is actually thinking. In comedy, it's a meta joke.
Chow is a meta-joke. Chow is making fun of the Asian movie accent! There's a lot of in-jokes I'm doing to Asian actors and my wife in particular where in that same scene I'm going [he says something vaguely Asian sounding] and it's actually yelling in Vietnamese!
I'm Korean and my wife is Vietnamese, it just means "chicken guy," it doesn't mean "release the prisoner." I was just poking fun at all of the stereotypes and all of the archetypes in movies and comedy.
What is it like to work with a comedy specialist director like Judd Apatow or Todd Phillips, versus a director like Michael Bay?
You just highlighted three of my big, proudest career moments. Knocked Up was the first movie I had ever done and Judd Apatow discovered me. I was still working as a doctor and auditioning, and I think it was Seth Rogen who saw my audition tape and I think he told Judd about me. It was like a three-month long search for that character for that part. I was such a big Freaks and Geeks fan, and Undeclared fan. It was the most nerve-wracking audition I've ever had, because it's Judd and the studio and everybody and all the actors who have now become superstars - you had Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill ... I just remember being star struck. It's one of those things, you remember your first moment in something that was groundbreaking, and I still remember every minute I was on set. It was really like beyond a dream come true to be a part of that cast, and Knocked Up opened the doors.
Hangover just burst those doors wide open. It just changed my life from black and white to Technicolor. That's a famous quote from Keith Richards listening to Chuck Berry, it's that same thing, that same feeling, where everything just changed and my whole view of everything just became so vibrant. It just changed, every bit of work I've done, including Community, has just been solely due to The Hangover because people knew me from there. It's just been amazing.
Working with Michael Bay, we've become good friends actually, he's a big fan of The Hangover movies. He saw the first Hangover in Miami with his best friend, and he told his buddy, "I gotta put that guy in my next Transformers movie!" A few months later I had a meeting with Michael and he wrote this role with me in mind. I'm like, "I can't believe I'm sitting in Michael Bay's office!" There's a big Bumblebee Transformer in the corner.
I had so much fun working on Transformers, it was a career highlight for me simply because I never thought in a million years I'd be part of a sci-fi franchise. I got to work with a Decepticon! Michael and Shia Labeouf kind of coached me to react to something that was invisible, on how to keep a scene vivid and react to something you can't see. It's harder than you think!
Michael wrote a role for me in Pain & Gain, so it really has been the biggest career bonus, one of the most unexpected career bonuses to just be buddies with Michael Bay. I love him. He comes to The Hangover premieres as a result. Todd actually recommended me to Michael for Transformers 3, so there's a lot of relationship between the three people that have gotten me where I am, so I'm very grateful to all three of them.
Is there any chance we'll see Mr. Chow in a spinoff or prequel?
From your mouth to God's ear!
I'd love that. He's my favourite character. On the record I'll say that, and I told Todd about it too, I would love to do a Chow spinoff. The only problem is it wouldn't be a Hangover movie, it would be a completely different thing. I'm curious to see if that's possible to do, and I think that I have confidence that it could be possible because Chow is my favourite character I've ever played.
I quit my medical day job to pursue imagination, and Chow is the embodiment of the widest spectrum of imagination of any role I could possibly play. You could say or do anything as that character, and that element of unpredictability is just right up my alley, that's what I thrive on. So I would love to do a Chow spinoff, absolutely.
I would do any Chow project. I just love that character, he just makes me laugh.
COMMUNITY just got renewed for a fifth season. Do you find that there are many parallels between Señor Chang and Chow, and if so, what is it about these unbalanced characters that always keeps you coming back?
I think Chang is a more pathetic version of Chow. Chow is a well-dressed bad ass. Chang wears his Spanish fly shirt and he's comic for different reasons.
People ask me all the time, who would win a fight, Chang or Chow. Chow would physically eat Chang. That's how dark Chow is. Chang... I mean he lives in the air vents for God's sake! Chow lives large.
It's like cockfighting, you just don't want that to happen.
I find myself drawn to kind of I guess villains with a sense of humour. Pesci's character in Goodfellas is a great example. To me, that makes me laugh. Any villain that can make me laugh, I'm definitely just instinctively drawn to for some reason.
Chang does so many different characters, like "Kevin," and sometimes I wonder myself, OK, where are you guys [the show's writers] going with this? The reason I never complain about it is because, to me, Community has been my Steppenwolf Theatre. It's been my acting studio because I learned how to play.
I'm glad I wasn't like Professor Chang for four years, that would be boring, and I'm glad I wasn't student Chang for 4 years, that would be boring, and I'm glad I'm not security guard Chang for 4 years, that would be boring. Every year I get to learn to play someone new and it's a different incarnation of Chang, and I think that it's really a testament to the writers to always think of something new for him.
Some of the dangers of being on television are that you're literally playing the same guy for like 10 years and no actor really wants that unless you're in love with it.
Chow's different. Chow's the only character I could play lifelong. I would never get sick of him, because there's just something about Chow, there's an imagination there, he's so wide-ranging. You could have Chow work at Kinko's, or be a criminal, or all of these different elements that would make me laugh. I would be still elated. But that's a rare exception,
If you wanted to do the same thing all the time on some bad sitcom you would have stayed being a doctor.
Well, if I wanted to do the same thing all the time, yeah.
On television, I'm just grateful I'm on a show where every year I don't know what's going on. I love that element of danger because it's made me a better actor, I know how to play better stashes of emotions and it's only widened my range.
Todd notices it, Todd feels, in between Hangover movies, he says he says "I just see you every year picking up new moves, you're way more seasoned than the previous movie," and I tell him, yeah, it's Community, it just stimulates me. When you're hanging out with Joel McHale, Jim Rash, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Donald Glover... all these guys, you just can't help but [learn]. I mean, it's the most talented cast on TV, any one of those guys could lead a sitcom, their own show, you know?
Were you a funny doctor?
No, I was pretty serious. I keep in touch with some of my patients, and none of them knew I did comedy. Ten years ago, when they found out I was a standup comic they said "I'm so happy for you because you're so serious, I didn't know if you had an outlet, I'm glad you have a hobby!" They thought I was almost too intense for my own good. I think that's why everyone was surprised, like I'm not Patch Adams, I didn't come in with a clown suit or anything. I wasn't that guy, I was a very intense doctor.
You show a tremendous amount of commitment to your roles, are you looking to do something completely left field, say a Woody Allen film? In other words, are you explicitly looking for more of a staid, slightly more straightforward comedic setting in contrast to the more manic roles you've become known for?
You're always looking to challenge yourself. I'm definitely into projects where as the lead I would be something close to myself, you know, a parent with kids. There's other project where I'd be a completely different character. So, absolutely, yes, I'm just drawn to it. An actor acts, and you want to keep challenging yourself and do different things.
There have been projects, even guest-star roles on friends of mine's sitcoms that I've done that are coming out that I just did it out of curiosity, for fun, to play something different.
I think that's important, to always keep on finding out where your imagination [will take you].
Thanks to Ken Jeong, Waner Brothers Canada and my fellow roundtable colleagues for the conversation. The Hangover Opens in theatres on May 23, 2013.