Contrary to the on-screen personas he often plays, Comedic actor Ken Jeong won’t be going on booze and cocaine binges, living in air vents, popping naked out of car trunks, or divorcing his wife to become a motivational speaker. In reality, the former doctor who found a creative outlet via stand-up comedy is actually pretty reserved. On the roof of the Thompson Hotel in Toronto, he’s laid back, but pointed and thoughtful in ways one might not expect.
He’s incredibly gracious, self-effacing, clean living, and down to Earth, four things his breakout character of Chow from Todd Phillips’ Hangover trilogy, of which the third and almost definitively final entry of the series releases in theatres everywhere this Friday. Thanks to his growing success and the desire to create a different kind of film than the two predecessors, Jeong now has an above the title credit alongside main stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis. This time out the three best friends who normally have to piece together their drunken escapades are stone sober and tasked with tracking down Chow – who recently escaped from a Thai prison – by a crime boss who had a large sum of gold stolen from him by the diminutive wildman.
Jeong sat down with Dork Shelf to talk about how he reconciles his big screen image with his real life attitude, what he finds funny, his chemistry with his co-stars, working with Judd Apatow and Michael Bay, and who would win in a fight: Chow or his equally beloved/feared Chang from TV’s Community.
Chow originally started out as a supporting character in the first film, and now he’s really blossomed into the core of this third film. What was it like to get to run with this guy a little bit more and how much input did you have into where he goes in this film?
KJ: For me the creation of Chow was always in that fever that I had in creating the first Hangover movie. It was my idea to jump out of that trunk completely naked. That was my first main contribution to anything because I remember in the script it called for Mr. Chow to have clothes on, and I remember while I was reading it thinking that this scene was screaming for Mr. Chow to be naked. Now, I’m not an exhibitionist at heart. I mean, look, I just put my sports jacket back on. (laughs) I’m all about putting clothes BACK ON. I’m a guy that’s so shy about his body that I don’t even like to take my shirt off at the beach. You can ask my wife. I’m pretty demure about these kinds of things. But because I’m an actor and because an actor acts and you want to inhabit that character I thought it was imperative that that was something that had to happen.
I think that kind of bonded me and Todd Phillips early on. He was amazed that a guy like me who was only working on this movie for a few days – and I wasn’t in that first movie too much – was willing to put himself on the line. In my mind I was making a character choice and not a personal choice. I think that definitely informed Todd and Craig Mazan, the two screenwriters, to kind of widen that spectrum of imagination for Chow, knowing that the actor behind it has just as good of an imagination as they do.
Are you surprised at how much these films have resonated with audiences from the first film to this one?
KJ: I think Todd’s vision of this movie and the structure of the movie itself was amazing, but more important with that, but his relationship with the three main leads – Ed, Bradley, and Zach – are what keeps bringing people back.
I can’t say enough nice things about those three guys. They are the nicest, most diva-free, egoless leads you could ever ask to work with. They set the tone of the whole movie, really. People are always shocked to see just how low key all of us are in real life. We really just save it all for the camera. We also have a free exchange of ideas because I think I can say anything to those guys. We’re friends and we’re co-workers and we trust each other and respect each other’s opinions. There’s a lot of collaboration that goes on, not only for us and each other’s characters. There was a trust there by the third movie where I felt like I could say anything and not worry about any ramifications, and vice versa from everyone else towards me. Just to have that complete trust more than anything is what I’m going to miss about the Hangover franchise and I think that really informed why people see these movies.
When I go see a comedy with an audience in general – even when you see a character like mine who’s playing an antagonist or a villain – you should always get the sense that everyone making it is having a good time. That’s why we all live to see blooper reels at the ends of films or on DVD. You want to see that they were getting along or that they were having fun. By my experience, at least with the one’s I have been a part of, the most successful ones are the ones where people are truly having the most fun they’ve ever had. And I can vouch from being inside that inner circle that it’s the most fun I’ve ever had making anything with these three Hangover movies. For sure.
Your character actually gets to do some crazier stuff in this one like parachuting over Las Vegas. Did you get to do any of these things yourself?
KJ: The parachuting thing was actually MANY different stuntmen. I can’t take credit for that. (laughs) There are some close ups where I was elevated maybe 40 feet while I was outside to simulate some of that intensity.
There’s another part of the movie where Chow does a 30 foot free fall where there are hundreds of gallons of water coming out behind him, and I can say that was definitely all me. And it was crazy in a way because I was always deathly afraid of heights. But I worked with our stunt coordinator Jack Gill for about six months to sort of desensitize me. Once a week when I was done filming on Community I would go and work with Jack on being in a harness about ten feet in the air to the point where I wouldn’t freak out, and then we would go to fifteen feet, twenty feet, thirty feet. Then subsequently we would graduate to being in the harness and doing things at a fast rate. Then we actually went ahead and did the drop. That was the culmination of about eight weeks of me getting over my own mental block and then actually executing that. That was physically speaking probably the greatest day of my acting career, because just to be able to even for a day conquer some of your own demons for a bit was great and exciting.
Since you didn’t start off as a comedian and you started as a doctor, who were your biggest inspirations to make you want to pursue comedy?
KJ: I grew up loving Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, David Letterman. I remember for some reason those guys always sticking out the most, but I still know I’m really obviously nothing like those guys. Those guys are geniuses and I’m not, but there was something about how all three of them had this sense of fearlessness that I admired. I also really admired Dana Carvey and Will Ferrell on SNL. I really like Steve Carell and Sacha Baron Cohen. Those guys really knew how to find what was funny and they could stick really well to themes. I have so many influences that it’s kind of ridiculous.
Honestly, Zach and I have been friends for almost 15 years now, and in a way he’s been a really big influence. Even when we did stand up together he was always the funniest guy there. I have to say that the funniest actor working right now is Zach Galifianakis, and that’s not just because we’re friends or because I’ve worked with him. A good sign of how good he is would be that when I am having a bad day I would just go on Funny or Die and watch Between Two Ferns. (laughs) I’ve worked with just about everyone in comedy at one point or another and no one makes me laugh like Zach, and he knows that. I told him recently that I would gladly just give up my acting career to be his Ed McMahon. I would just get paid to laugh at Zach. That would be a great job, being able to laugh at Zach for the rest of my life
Since you guys know each other so well by this point is there a lot more adlibbing going on?
KJ: Yeah, and I mean Zach is easily the quickest when it comes to things like that. He’s just the quickest improviser out there. He’s just so quick to the draw with a line. There are so many great things that we’ve done in outtakes, and there are just too numerous, but let me just think of one that he did…
In the second movie when Chow is doing a bunch of cocaine and I turn to Bradley and say [in Chow’s voice] “You wanna hear the funniest fucking joke?” and then I just falls down. I’m sitting there and my character is technically dead and I can’t move, and Zach just adlibs this deadpan “I don’t get it.” (laughs) It was just an outtake because I am sitting there in just a pool of liquor and just shaking so hard because I’m trying not to laugh. He’s just one of those guys. You know how sometimes when you watch your favourite comedian and he might not be doing anything and he’s just walking and you’re just waiting to laugh? Every time I see Zach I feel like I’m a four year old kid.
Chow is a really perceptive jerk because he always finds way to insult and attack the guys in their own individual ways based on the personalities of their characters. Is that something that starts in the screenplay, something you come up with, or something that you work with the other guys on?
KJ: I think it all just came instinctively. (laughs) I think there was something in the first movie that I did improvise about why I liked and hated each one of those guys. I think I said to Cooper at first [in Chow voice] “Oh, you’re not my type. You’re too good looking.” Then with Ed, “Oh, I could like you. You have this really ethereal beauty.” (laughs) Then I look at Zach: “Oh, I like you. You’re fat.” (laughs) It was just all these things weren’t necessarily that personal, but they kinda were. It worked because we were all acquaintances prior to filming the first one. I had done All About Steve with Bradley the year before The Hangover. I knew Zach from stand-up. I had done a movie with Ed called The Goods. So I had a working knowledge of those guys going in, so there was already that instant comfort level and chemistry. But you’re right, Chow does pick on them really specifically. I think there’s an outtake in Hangover III where I just quickly go down the line of all three of them and just say “Hi nerd! Hi fatty! Hi Blue eyes!” He just has this specificity where he can just marginalize these guys in five words or less.
In this film, the three guys have to now be a lot more serious about what they’ve done in the past, but your character still has to be as crazy as he ever was. How does that factor into how you deal with the guys this time out?
KJ: Yeah, it definitely changes things, but I have to give a lot of credit to Todd Phillips for that. With Chow, he’s the only character that you can go as far over the top as you want to go. Within the confines of that character, he’s never over the top just for the sake of being over the top, but he’s just always over the top as a person. It all kind of makes a perfect fit for him, but because in this movie Chow has such an expanded role in the story it changes things.
I really have to credit Todd this time for helping me shape my performance because sometimes I would just instinctively go for something bigger and he would just reign me in because the dynamics were different this time. In order to go from point A to point B in the plot he would just tell me, “You can’t put any mustard on this one.” Things had to really be a certain way in this one.
Like the karaoke scene in this one where I get up and sing. If you give any actor a karaoke mic, I don’t care who it is, they are going to try and sing good. That’s just the ego and the instinct of the actor. So my instinct on this one was to just knock this one out and it would be so great that maybe I would get a Grammy. (laughs) Then Todd just said, “What are you doing? Chow has got to be vulnerable right now.” He needs these guys and there’s a sense of desperation in Chow, and he thought it would be more interesting if he was just an international criminal with this big personality who just can’t go up on stage. Maybe he can sing great in the bathroom or the elevator with the Wolfpack like he did in Hangover II, but he’s completely scared here. That was all Todd, and at the end when Chow knows he did a bad job singing he just swats away the mic, that was all him beat for beat guiding me. I can’t take credit for any of that. When I watch him swat that mic away, I just laugh so hard.
That’s what I love about Todd and this specificity of genius he has. He’s my favourite director that I’ve worked with. He knows tone so well and he knows what he wants and he’s always right. He just has this sophistication that I really haven’t seen in comedy. He’s amazing.
What’s it like moving between a kind of comedic role in these films to working with people at other ends of the comedic spectrum like Judd Apatow on Knocked Up or Michael Bay on Pain and Gain?
KJ: Well, you just highlighted my proudest career moments right there. Knocked Up was the first film I had ever done, and Judd Apatow discovered me. I was still a doctor at the time and I was auditioning as a doctor. Seth Rogen had seen my audition tape and he was the one who told Judd about me, and then it was a three month or so auditioning process and search for someone to play that part. I was such a big Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared fan at the time and there were all these people from that at the table read. I still hadn’t gotten the part yet and this table read was my second audition. It was the most nerve wracking audition I had ever had because it was Judd, the studio, and all the actors were there. There was Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Seth, Jonah (Hill), all these people who have now become superstars are all in this room. I just remember being star struck. You remember your first moment of those things and in being something that groundbreaking, and I remember every moment I was there on set. It was beyond a dream come true to be a part of that cast. Knocked Up opened the doors for me and then Hangover just burst those doors open all the way.
By the time I did The Hangover it just changed my life from black and white to Technicolor. It was kind of like that story of Keith Richards listening to Chuck Berry for the first time. It was just this feeling and this explosion where things just changed and my view of everything just become so vibrant. Every bit of work I had done, including Community, is because I did The Hangover. It’s been amazing.
As for working with Michael Bay, we’ve become good friends, actually. He was a big fan of the Hangover movies, and he saw the first movie in Miami with his best friend and he told his buddy, “I gotta put this guy in my next Transformers movie.” A few months later I had a meeting with Michael and I went to meet him and I just couldn’t believe I was sitting in Michael Bay’s office. (laughs) There’s like a giant Bumblebee from Transformers in his office. It’s just so BIG and it was so amazing that this guy was calling me in for a meeting, and I just had so much fun working on Transformers. It was a career highlight for me simply because I never thought in a million years that I would ever be a part of a giant sci-fi franchise. I never thought I would work with a Decepticon. (laughs) It also taught me how to work with something that wasn’t actually there. It was all Michael and Shia (LaBeouf) really coached me on how to pretend there’s something invisible there. It’s harder than you think. It was so much fun. After that was when Michael wrote a part specifically for me in Pain and Gain. It’s just one of the most unexpected career bonuses to be buddies with Michael Bay. I love him. He comes to the Hangover premieres now, as a result. Todd actually at one point had recommended me to Michael for Transformers 3. There’s a lot of relationship between all three of them that have really gotten me where I am. I’m so very grateful to all three of them.
Now that the Hangover films are over, would you want to maybe do a Chow spin-off movie?
KJ: (laughs) From your mouth to God’s ears. I’d love that. I’ve been on the record on saying that before, and I’ve told Todd about it, too. I would love to do a Chow spin-off, but I guess the only possible problem would that it wouldn’t be a Hangover movie. But I think if we assured to everyone that there wouldn’t be a Hangover movie we could do it. I would be curious to see if that’s possible to do. I have confidence that it could be possible because Chow is my favourite character that I’ve ever played. I quit my medical day job to pursue imagination, and Chow is the embodiment of the widest spectrum of imagination that I could possibly say. I could say or do anything as that character. That element of unpredictability is right up my alley. I would do any project that Chow shows up in. That character just makes me laugh.
Community just got renewed for another season, so congrats on that…
KJ: Oh, thanks! Thank you! We’re so happy about that.
Chang from Community and Chow are different characters, but they’re both pretty equally unbalanced. What do you think it is about these types of characters that you find yourself drawn to?
KJ: I think Chang is a more pathetic version of Chow. Chow is a well dressed bad ass. Chang wears this Spanish Fly kind of stuff. They’re iconic for different reasons. People ask me all the time who would win in a fight between Chang and Chow. Chow would physically EAT Chang. That’s how dark Chow is. Chang wouldn’t even know what to do. That guy lives in the air vents! Chow lives large.
I find myself drawn to villains with a sense of humour. Chow is kind of like Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, or something like that. To me, that makes me laugh. Any villain that can make me laugh is something that I’m just instinctively drawn to for some reason.
When it comes to Chang, it’s a bit more of a difficult question to answer because Chang’s been so many different characters. He’s been Kevin. He’s been a teacher. Sometimes I just wonder where these guys are going with this, but the reason I never complain about it is because to me Community has kind of been my own little Steppenwolf theatre. It’s been my acting studio. I’ve learned how to play all sorts of things, I’m glad I never played security guard Chang for four years. I’m glad I never played Spanish teacher Chang for four years. That would be boring. Every year I get to learn how to play someone new! It’s always a different incarnation of Chang, and it’s a real testament to the writers that they’re always able to come up with new things for Chang to do. It’s really hard, and one of the dangers of television is that you’re literally playing the same guy for ten years. No actor really wants to do that unless you’re really in love with the character.
Chow is really the only character that I could play life long and never get sick of. There’s just something about him that’s already wide ranging about him. You could have him work at a Kinkos or just do something in a totally different element and I would still be stimulated by the possibilities of it. That’s the exception, but on television with Chang, I just love that I never know what’s going on or what’s going to happen. That’s so much fun and so dangerous.
It made me a better actor and it’s only widened my range. Even Todd noticed it between Hangover movies. He said he could see me every year picking up new moves and he said I was a lot more seasoned than the previous movie, and I tell him, “Yeah, that’s Community, man.” When you’re hanging out with Joel McHale and Jim Rash and Danny Pudi and Gillian Jacobs and all these guys, you just can’t help but feel like you’re a part of the most talented cast on TV. Any one of those guys could handle their own sitcom.
It’s also amazing that you’re a part of a show that you’re ultimately a fan of. That timeline episode might be my favourite episode of the whole series. That’s such a genius episode.
Were you a funny doctor before you became an actor?
KJ: No! Actually, I was really serious. I keep in touch with some of my patients and none of them when I was still practicing knew that I was doing comedy outside of the hospital. When they found out ten years ago that I was doing stand up one of them said, “I’m so happy for you because you were so serious! I’m just glad that you had an outlet and a hobby!” They were so afraid. I was almost too intense for my own good. People kind of hear that now and they’re surprised. I’m not Patch Adams. I didn’t come in with a clown suit. I just wasn’t that guy. Kinda surprisingly I was a really intense doctor. (laughs)