Randall Park: From Kim Jong Un to the Brave, New Asian-American Sitcom

After playing the supreme leader in ‘The Interview,’ Randall Park takes on an equally formidable challenge: ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ a sitcom with a predominantly Asian-American cast.

01.30.15 10:45 AM ET

Randall Park is excited to put Kim Jong Un behind him.

Last year, the 40-year-old Korean-American actor/comedian starred as a crybaby, Katy Perry-loving version of North Korea’s totalitarian dictator in the satirical comedy The Interview. The film ends with Kim Jong Un getting blown up in slow-mo.

You know the story: North Korea freaked out. Sony got hacked. Hollywood, too, freaked out. Threats were made. Major theater chains pulled the film. Sony caved—then sort of un-caved. President Obama weighed in. And government officials got to worry even more about cybersecurity.

This R-rated, butthole-joke-filled comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco actually managed to set off an international incident that dominated the news.

“It was insane,” Park tells The Daily Beast.

“When I first got approached with the project, I knew it was an extremely provocative subject matter. I knew that it was risky to portray an actual living person, especially one as controversial as him. But I never, ever expected for any of that to happen…And I don’t think anyone involved with the movie did…Not only [Obama talking about it], but I would never have expected to turn on the TV and see my face on every channel and [see news anchors] not even talking about me all the time, but talking about the actual Kim Jong Un—and they’d show a picture of me instead of the actual Kim Jong Un. And that was always pretty unnerving, and weird, and surreal…I’m just glad that people got a chance to see the movie, ultimately. I’m glad that people eventually had the choice to see this film instead of it just being gone. And as far as like kind of making sense of it all, I don’t know. It’s still such a surreal thing that I’m still trying to piece together.”

For all the stress, politics, and millions of dollars lost on the movie, Park still has his fond memories of the production. For instance, he and James Franco got to drive a tank.

“Man, was it fun,” Park says. “We literally had this open field to ourselves and we got to run over anything in that field that we wanted to…It was awesome—but also really cramped. I don’t see how these soldiers do it. They pack into this tiny, tiny compartment.” (Franco and Park had so much fun that they almost slammed into the van the film crew was following them in.)

With the Interview-related craziness having died down, Park (who you might remember from The Five-Year Engagement and HBO’s Veep) is focusing his energies on a new project: Fresh Off the Boat, an ABC sitcom that premieres in February. It is loosely based on the memoir by celebrity chef Eddie Huang, and fictionalizes his story of growing up in a Taiwanese family in Orlando, Florida. (Huang is a producer on the series.) Park plays the patriarch, with Constance Wu as the mother. “She’s so good,” he comments. “It was really a thrill to act with her.”

“One of [the scenes] that definitely spoke to me…was when [Eddie] was at the lunch table at school and he opens up the [Chinese] noodles, and the kids are completely weirded out,” Park says. “That was something that happened to me, for sure, growing up. It was Korean food…It was my version of that story, and me feeling embarrassed to bring that to school after that.”

Fresh Off the Boat is the first American series in decades to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast—and it’s the second ABC comedy series to air this season that expanded Asian-American representation on network TV. Selfie, starring John Cho and Karen Gillan, earned golf claps when it debuted last September for casting an Asian male as the romantic lead.

But Selfie was canceled after airing just a few episodes, leaving Fresh Off the Boat to fight on its own. If the latter fails to attract an audience in its inaugural season, that’s 0 for 2. It’s a fact Park is well aware of, and he’s feeling some pressure from it.

“I’m really one with the [Asian-American] community,” he says. “I want to see more Asians on TV. I want to see more faces like mine on TV. I want to see more people like me playing roles that are multi-faceted and layered and funny—[but] funny without being stereotypical. And that’s something we definitely don’t have…As far as the pressure is concerned, it’s definitely there because as a member of the community, I get it. You want to make sure the community is done right by this…Everyone has their expectations, everyone has their different needs and wants. And you cannot please everyone at the same time. All you can do is what you feel is right. And I feel like we did something right here.”

There’s one guy who was not nearly as pleased with how Fresh Off the Boat turned out—and that’s source-material author and producer Eddie Huang. (He also wasn’t thrilled with some of the “offensive and ridiculous” advertising for the show.)

Huang recently wrote a partly critical essay for New York magazine stating that, “the network tried to turn my memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America. I hated that.” In the sitcom, Park plays a heavily fictionalized take on Huang’s dad: meek and somewhat dorky. In real life, his father was an ex-member of a Taiwanese street gang.

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“Randall was neutered,” Huang wrote.

He subsequently insisted that there is no tension between him and the show’s cast and crew. And Park says he understands Huang’s objections.

“Because Eddie is so outspoken and because Eddie is so honest, that’s the reason why we have a show,” Park says. “I love Eddie. I think he is such an important piece of our community right now. And I think that he was just being honest about the show. And as far as referring to my character as ‘neutered,’ I don’t think Eddie feels my character is bad or stereotypical, but I do think his concerns with my character are that he’s not reflective of his actual father…He’s a badass. He’s a tough guy. And the father in the show is a very warm, lovable optimist. For Eddie to see that change, it’s difficult for him to process, and I totally, totally understand that…He’s not that tough, former gang member from Taiwan who we read about.”

Shortly after ABC picked up Fresh Off the Boat, Park flew to New York to hang out with Huang.

“Eddie’s my boy,” Park says. For one thing, both men grew up as Asian kids obsessed with hip-hop. “I mean, I am obsessed with rap music—it’s such a big part of my life,” he adds.

And whatever Huang’s concerns, Fresh Off the Boat’s pilot episode does contain a scene based on what the restaurateur called, “the most formative moment of my childhood.” In the first episode, a kid at school calls Eddie a chink, and the two children subsequently brawl over it.

Once again, Park can relate.

“There were numerous instances like that that happened in my life,” he recalls. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been called ‘chink.’ I’ve been called ‘Bruce Lee,’ I’ve been called other less offensive, but equally stupid, and racist kind of terms. Gosh, I mean, I’ve gotten into a few fights in my life, but I don’t think they were racially motivated like that in the show…It’s a really powerful moment in the show, and for me cathartic. The fact that he stands up to himself, and that his parents support him. That’s a real, real testament to how special this show is.”

Fresh Off the Boat has already snagged plenty of coverage for its ethnic makeup. The show “could change the game,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “Fresh off the Boat could be a disaster for Asian Americans,” Salon warned.

For now, Park and co. are keeping their fingers crossed that they can build an audience—and maybe even lead the charge for greater Asian-American representation on primetime television.

“My hope is that shows like Fresh Off the Boat open the door for even more of those kinds of characters for Asian actors and actresses.”