Eight years after appearing in one of the most controversial Real World houses ever, Jamie Chung has made the transition from reality-show castmate to film star with a breakout role in Premium Rush. She talks to Marlow Stern about her uphill climb as a Korean-American actress, how real MTV’s flagship show is—and the role she refuses to tell her parents about.
“Don't you guys ever get tired of this Real World shit you keep playin’?”
It seems like a throwaway joke early on in Premium Rush, a high-octane two-wheelin’ action film starring the eminently likable Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a thrill-seeking bicycle messenger who finds himself in possession of very precious cargo, and is chased all over Manhattan by a maniac cop desperate to get his dirty hands on it, played by the oft-unhinged Michael Shannon.
But it’s actually cheeky nod by writer-director David Koepp to actress Jamie Chung, who plays Nima, a Columbia University grad student whose valuable missive kicks off the whole shebang. Chung appeared on The Real World: San Diego, the 14th season of MTV’s long-running reality TV series, and has since become a star on the rise in Hollywood, with roles as an ass-kicking dame in Sucker Punch, Stu’s (Ed Helms) bride-to-be in The Hangover Part II, and a venomous henchwoman in the upcoming kung-fu flick The Man With the Iron Fists, opposite Russell Crowe.
“I certainly got a kick out of that,” she says with a laugh.
Chung was born and raised in San Francisco, and grew up with traditional Korean parents who emigrated to the U.S. in 1980. The couple ran a burger joint called Tony’s in the predominantly Italian neighborhood of North Beach, and her father took on the American name of “Tony” to help the restaurant’s image. When they weren’t working hard at the restaurant, Chung’s parents ran a very strict household.
“We’d only speak Korean at home, they wouldn’t let us have sleepovers, and sent us away to Korean church camp during the summers,” says Chung. “We had weird food concoctions, too, so instead of spaghetti bolognese, we had rice bolognese with kimchi.”
It was at Korean church camp that Chung discovered her love of acting, appearing in various “embarrassing” skits, including a dance-heavy one set to the song “Tootsee Roll” by 69 Boyz.
“I didn’t want to be known as the reality-show star trying to be an actress, so I kept a lot of the failed auditions to myself.”
After high school, she attended the University of California–Riverside and was working two jobs to help pay her way through school, including one as a waitress at what she calls a “shitty little bar” in Riverside. One day, MTV held a casting call there for The Real World and the casting director approached Chung and encouraged her to participate. She ended up getting cast in the San Diego house, taking a quarter off of school to participate. The show aired in 2004, with 4 million people watching its season premiere.
“It’s pretty real!” she says. “Luckily, I didn’t do anything too much to embarrass myself. My dad found out about The Real World: Las Vegas and how everyone was having sex, so he warned me before we started: ‘Do not have sex with American boys on TV!’” She laughs. “That was his farewell to me.”
Despite a squeaky-clean stint in front of the Real World cameras, Chung found herself involved in the worst incident in The Real World’s 20-year history. On the night of Nov. 14, 2003, a 22-year-old woman claimed she was raped in the Real World house by a friend of cast member Randy Barry’s. She was discovered the following morning by Chung, who then counseled the alleged victim.
“This guy we didn’t even know took her to the bathroom—which is the one place we don’t have cameras—and then we found her,” says Chung. “We talked to her about what she’d seen and our advice to the girl was, ‘if it feels weird down there, you should get checked.’ She was wasted. Wasted. And we thought they knew each other but they didn’t.” She pauses. “It was just super shady.”
The accused was ultimately exonerated due to lack of evidence, including nearly a month of Real World footage that was confiscated by police. Despite that scary episode, Chung says she doesn’t have any regrets about her MTV days. She still keeps in touch with some former cast members, and the $30,000 (after taxes) she earned from winning the spin-off reality TV competition, Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Inferno II, helped pay off all her student loans.
After MTV, Chung attempted to follow in the footsteps of fellow Real World cast member turned actress Jacinda Barrett (The Real World: London), who went on to star in the films Ladder 49 and The Namesake.
“It was only once I graduated college that I decided to fully go for it when I moved to L.A.,” she said. “The casting directors that were aware of The Real World looked at me as a joke. It was so hard to get away from that. And I didn’t even tell my parents because I didn’t want to fail, and I didn’t want to be known as the reality-show star trying to be an actress, so I kept a lot of the failed auditions to myself.”
After bit parts on the TV shows Veronica Mars and Greek, followed by a 10-episode arc on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, Chung landed her first film role—as an extra—in the Adam Sandler comedy, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
“I was ‘Hooters Girl No. 6’ and other ridiculous parts early on, basically a glorified extra,” says Chung.
Her big break was supposed to be in Sucker Punch, Zach Snyder’s (300, the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel) 2011 steampunk action flick featuring a group of young women committed to a mental institution who retreat into a fantasy world where they’re action heroes. The film, however, was savaged by critics and earned a paltry $36 million at the domestic box office.
“To have such an amazing experience, it was devastating that it wasn’t so well received,” she says.
As a Korean-American actress, it’s been tough at times for Chung to navigate Hollywood. She says it’s “extremely hard to even get the Asian roles” since casting directors are looking for authentic Asian actors and—of course—there still aren’t too many roles for Asian actresses in mainstream Hollywood fare divorced from the usual archetypes. Chung finally managed to break through in 2011’s The Hangover Part II, play Lauren, Stu’s (Ed Helms) fiancée, a part she calls “quite rare.”
“The Hangover Part II was a pain in the ass to get, but I’m very grateful because now I get to do The Hangover III,” Chung said. “We start in less than two weeks, and the first table read is Sept. 4. I have no idea what it’s about—we’re all in the dark!”
The role definitely got her noticed: The Hangover Part II grossed more than $581 million worldwide. Chung went on to star in Premium Rush, where she struck up a friendship with one of Hollywood’s biggest It boys right now: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“He’s so down to earth though and cool,” she said. “We filmed for a bit and Inception came out, and he bought a bunch of tickets and invited me and Dania [Ramirez] to come. It was fun to hang out, sneak a bunch of beers into the theater, and watch his expressions as he watched the film.”
After they wrapped on Premium Rush, Chung was filming the indie drama Eden in Seattle when she got a call from Gordon-Levitt, who said he’d written a part for her in his debut short film.
“He sent it over and the title of the piece was The Blue Dildo. I was like, ‘What the fuck? Really?” said Chung. “And then I read it and yes, it’s about a blue dildo, but it’s mostly about a mother-daughter relationship. I thought it was really entertaining and funny.” She paused, adding, “My parents have no idea I filmed this.”
Chung will next star in The Man With the Iron Fists, a highly anticipated kung-fu action film written, directed by, and starring rapper RZA, as well as Russell Crowe as the villain.
“Madame Blossom, played by Lucy Liu, and the other girls in the house—we’re our own clan, and we all have poisonous tips on our thumbs,” said Chung. “I saw it recently and, oh my god, RZA is a genius.”
She’ll also appear in Knife Fight, playing an assistant to Rob Lowe’s political strategist; a lead role in Takashi Shimizu’s (The Grudge) horror film 7500, and a multi-episode arc as Mulan on the hit ABC series Once Upon A Time.
“I view my career like a rubber-band ball in that every role is a new experience building toward something bigger,” she said.