He just hosted the Billboard Music Awards, wrapped the second season of his critically lauded NBC sitcom Community, and this Friday, will be seen in Todd Phillips' soon-to-be blockbuster sequel, The Hangover: Part II. Suffice it to say that Ken Jeong is "having a moment." But, success didn't come easily for the 41-year-old Korean-American actor.
In 1996, while serving his internal-medicine residency in New Orleans, Jeong won the Big Easy Laff-Off—a standup comedy competition judged by the then-president of NBC, Brandon Tartikoff, and The Improv founder Budd Friedman. The winner got to perform at the legendary Hollywood Improv, so Jeong packed up and moved to L.A. Before long, he signed with an agent and was going on auditions, eventually making his feature-film debut as Katherine Heigl's prickly obstetrician in 2007's Knocked Up. He followed this with appearances in Pineapple Express and Role Models, before his breakout role as Mr. Chow—a flamboyant, cackling gangster in the 2009 smash hit, The Hangover.
The Hangover: Part II sees the Vegas-conquering Wolf Pack (Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms) unleash their unique brand of mayhem on the streets of Bangkok. And, if you thought Mr. Chow's introduction in the first film—popping out of the trunk of a Mercedes naked, fists flying—was something, you ain't seen nothing yet. In a wide-ranging conversation with The Daily Beast, Jeong opened up about showing full frontal, Bradley Cooper's raunchy game of ping-pong, his own Vegas bachelor party, and how filming The Hangover saved his life.
I'm actually part Korean.
Oh, finally a brother! The revolution has begun! We're taking over, man.
Your role really got beefed up in The Hangover Part II.
When Todd told me in the summer that I would be part of the second one, that was enough for me. I would do anything for Todd. All of my success in the last few years is due to The Hangover. That made me. But the fact that it was an expanded role was just a priceless bonus. The script was funnier than the first one, and that was what was exciting for me.
Did it afford you a lot more hang time with the guys, since you're basically the fourth member of the Wolf Pack in this movie?
The cool thing about it is, we're friends in real life—Bradley, Ed, Zach, Justin [Bartha], and me. In comedy, you really want to see people having a good time and, honestly, this is my favorite group of people to work with. Zach Galifianakis is the funniest man alive, Bradley is a great guy, and Ed and me have grown to become great friends. We were working during the Christmas holidays, so Ed and I went to Cambodia with Ed's friends and did a bicycle tour of the temples there. The hang time was just great.
“As Ken Jeong, I don’t even like to take my shirt off at the beach… But as an actor, I’m in the zone and if that character is capable of anything, I just follow along to that rhythm.”
I've been to Thailand before, albeit with my family, so under very, very different circumstances. What were some of the craziest things you witnessed while filming there?
To be honest, I was pretty much just into the work, so anything wild I witnessed was through the work. Not only me, but the rest of the cast is pretty mild-mannered. It wasn't like in our off time we would set garbage fires. I'm a father of twin 3-year-old girls, so when you're a dad, your energy is already sucked up with your family.
Bradley recently shared an interesting story about catching a ping-pong ball in his mouth that was ejected from, shall we say, an interesting place. Were you there for that?
[Laughs] Yeah. I can't reveal it for the purposes of the movie, but once you see it, it will be very, very evident what Bradley was alluding to.
Apparently, it made Ed nauseous and he started throwing up.
[Laughs] I didn't know he said that! That's hilarious! OK, that… this was the wildest thing I saw. I'm still laughing thinking about it, man!
So you weren't getting in on that?
I think Zach Galifianakis describes me best, that I'm mild-mannered in real life, but on the screen, I'm a different animal. In reality, I have more elements of Ed Helms' Stu character—in the very beginning. My bachelor party in Vegas was really a low-key affair, and my friends probably had a more exciting time than I did. In my real wolf pack, all the guys around me are a lot wilder than I am.
Did your friends get in any crazy situations during your Vegas bachelor party?
Nothing bizarre. But I think because I'm an actor already, I've had this tremendous privilege of being around exciting people and things, so I think it's almost reflexive for me, outside of work, just to be really low-key.
Speaking of Vegas, you recently hosted the Billboard Music Awards, and I saw that at the end of the opening number, you copped a feel of Nicki Minaj's infamous behind. And there's been a lot of speculation as to how "real" it is.
[Laughs] Um… I almost blacked out in that moment because it was improvised, and I can't even confirm to myself if I actually touched it or not. It was just in the moment and… Nicki Minaj... I can't say enough great things about her. For me to serenade Nicki Minaj while playing piano and singing Coldplay while Nicki Minaj is lying on the piano, was just the coolest thing ever.
Back to Hangover II. Who did you base your Mr. Chow character on?
There's a little bit of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, a little bit of Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, and everything else is just kind of in my head. Mr. Chow's voice is a little Vietnamese [like his in-laws], a little Korean, and a lot of mayhem.
I understand your wife was going through a very difficult time while you were filming the first Hangover film.
My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago and I'm happy to say she's cancer-free. She was going through chemotherapy when I was offered the job for The Hangover, and I almost turned it down, and it was Tran, my wife, who insisted that I do it. I wouldn't have done it without her blessing. We live in L.A. and I was only in Vegas a few days, and all of my off days, the studio, Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, and everyone couldn't have been more supportive. Every day, Todd was like, "How's she doing? Is there anything we could do?" And Bradley even drove me back from Vegas to L.A. to see how Tran was doing. I think the reason I played Chow so aggressively and over-the-top in the first movie was, for me, a catharsis. If I had not done that, I would have had a nervous breakdown in real life. Even if The Hangover wasn't a success, it's the best project I've ever been a part of because it got me through the worst period of my life. It saved me.
It must have been a very different experience filming the second Hangover.
Tran coming out to Thailand was emotional for me because she got to hang out with everybody, so we'd all go out to dinner—Todd, Ed, Zach, Bradley, Tran, and me. For me, I was just so happy that Tran was there, I was working with my "family," and… I felt like an Asian Rick James. "It's a celebration, bitches!"
On the subject of being Asian, there's always been a lack of Asian Americans—particularly Asian-American males—in film and television.
I'd actually say there's a movement now, and I'm very excited that there's people like Justin Lin [ Fast Five director], Sung Kang, who's in Fast Five, John Cho, Maggie Q, Jamie Chung from Hangover II. I think what's really important for the Asian-American community to know is, it's so important for us to express our individuality. My abilities are so different from a Sung Kang or a Jamie Chung. We're all different, and that's what I love about the community we have now—that we're so diverse. It's so important for the Asian-American community to recognize, and celebrate our diversity, because it will dispel the notion that all Asians act, or look, the same. Because we don't.
Has there been talk of more Hangover films?
I will do whatever Todd tells me to do, whether it's a Chow spinoff or more Hangover films. We have a mutual love of mayhem in our comedy, and a commitment to the mayhem. I had a career prior to acting, as a full-time physician, and the only reason I do this is because I love what I do.
We did a big story on this, but men dropping trou on film is really one of Hollywood's last taboos.
As Mr. Chow, he's proven he'll do anything. But as Ken Jeong, I don't even like to take my shirt off at the beach. I don't like my body. I'm just like everybody else. But as an actor, I'm in the zone and if that character is capable of anything, I just follow along to that rhythm. In the first Hangover, it was my idea to do it naked because it served the story and raised the ante. Being a fan of Todd Phillips' movies, it felt right. In Transformers 3, I don't jump out of Bumblebee naked. [Laughs] It's not a thing that I do. For me, it's all about servicing the story.
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and hold's a master's from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, as an editor at Amplifier magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.