Ken Jeong Talks THE HANGOVER PART III, COMMUNITY’s Renewal, Dark and Subversive Humor, Stereotypes, Working with Todd Phillips, and More
With director Todd Phillips’ comedy sequel The Hangover Part III opening this week, I recently participated in a roundtable interview with Ken Jeong. In the final installment to the popular franchise, we find Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Doug (Justin Bartha) en route to taking Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to a psychiatric hospital when the gang is side-trekked by a mysterious man (John Goodman) who kidnaps Doug and forces the wolf pack to track down Mr. Chow (Jeong), who stole $21 million from Goodman’s character. As you might expect, chaos ensues. For more on the film, watch the red band trailer or check out over forty images.
During the interview, Jeong talked about Chow’s emotional journey, how the films have been getting darker, doing nude scenes, Chow’s accent, what fans always want to quote back to him, filming in Las Vegas, preparing for his big stunt in Part 3, and a lot more. In addition, he talked about Community‘s renewal, whether Dan Harmon might return, and how he’d prepared a few tweets in case the show had been cancelled. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Question: Were you shocked that Community got the renewal?
KEN JEONG: Yeah. I think the rest of the world is. I had concession Tweets ready to go if Community had gotten cancelled; no joke. I literally had three Tweets—one shoutout to the fans, shoutout to Dan Harmon, and shoutout to the cast. I literally had it all typed; it’s probably still on my email somewhere. And I was so ecstatic [when it was renewed]. And I’m just so grateful to Sony and NBC. I can’t even describe how grateful I am; I don’t even know what to say.
There are rumours that because Chevy [Chase] is probably not going to come back, there’s a chance that [Community creator] Dan Harmon could come back for next season, which could be the final season.
JEONG: I read about that.
Have you called Dan?
JEONG: I haven’t talked to anybody. That’s the thing about [news sites]; you guys are getting it [so quickly]. People assume that me or [Joel] McHale have some inside knowledge; we don’t. Remember in 2011, the third season, when they put Community on hold, and it didn’t come back until like March of 2012? None of us knew. And I got a Tweet from some guy just saying, “That’s really messed up, bro! Really, not ‘til March?”
I was like, “What’s going on?” I had to call my manager. And he’s like, “Are you kidding me? I didn’t know.” I found out on a Monday, and then I called the rest of the cast and I was like, “What’s going on?” And they said, “We just found out.” So I found out from @corvetteguy78; he told me.
Are you the only practicing medical doctor who’s a working comedian in movies and television? Is there a comedian doctor’s guild?
JEONG: [laughs.] Yeah, CDG. It’s me and a guy named Nestor. I’ll just say, “Hey, Nestor, what do you got going on? Oh cool, Abrams, huh? Awesome…” I do know of a British comedian—I forgot his name—but he was a practicing doctor in England…
JEONG: I think so, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Dr. Miller, yeah.
Looking at the Hangover [series] does your character have an emotional journey that he goes on or is staying the same the challenge that he faces?
JEONG: I think he has a huge arc. For me, and I might be wrong on this, but after watching the third movie… and I don’t know if this was initially envisioned, but it seems to me with the trilogy, it is kind of this metaphor of good vs. evil where Chow is basically the devil, he’s Lucifer. And the wolf pack, kind of in the first movie, does a deal with Chow to get Doug back. It’s kind of this loose metaphor for doing a deal with the devil.
But Chow and Alan are like best friends, and Chow keeps kind of popping in and out; I’m the face of consequence, he just keeps popping in and out of situations. And then by the third movie, everyone’s ready to move on with their lives. Alan needs to grow up, he needs to let go of the past. And the only way he can do that is to dance with [Chow] one more time. But just when you think the devil’s done and out, he’s back. You know, “just when you think the devil’s out, he pulls me back in,” or whatever. So it’s that kind of metaphor that fascinated me on an epic level. Almost on a Shakespearian level, in the third movie. That’s just my own interpretation; I might be wrong.
When you see Chow doing karaoke… the narcissistic actor in me, you give me a microphone, I’m gonna sing this bitch, I’m gonna sing this out. But that was all [director] Todd [Phillips]. Because I would sing it good, because I can. And Todd was like, “What the eff are you doing? Chow’s supposed to be vulnerable in this scene, he’s supposed to be nervous. You need to root for this guy.” And so that was all Todd. He was like, “Just do that song, and do it like you’re nervous. Don’t do it like you; you’ve gotta do it like Chow. And that’s all Todd.
And then my favourite sequence, which was all Todd, made me and my wife laugh so hard. At the very end, [Chow] just drops the mic. You know, like a guy who’s not used to doing karaoke and thinks he did a bad job, and you’re like, “Ah, screw it!” and goes off stage. I’ve worked with everybody in comedy, and Todd is my favourite director, because that guy knows tone more than anybody else.
This franchise has had an interesting evolution in terms of darkness, and your character has been a big part of that, because frankly as you get more involved, it gets darker and darker. First off, I’m just curious how that fits in with your own comedic sensibilities—the idea of the pitch black comedy. But also, working with Todd Phillips, what was your experience seeing him work through those darker and darker tonal shifts?
JEONG: Old School’s one of my favourite movies, and that’s kind of dark to me in many ways. In the first [Hangover] movie, as you guys know, it was my idea to do it naked in the trunk.
It was your idea to make your entrance naked?
JEONG: To make my entrance naked, because this is a Todd Phillips movie and I remember reading the script, and Chow just had slacks on in the script. I was telling my wife, “this is screaming for Chow to jump out naked.” I just know that after the tiger, after they get their car back, you just had a feeling. And then I told Todd that—and I didn’t know him at the time, so I very politely and nervously said, “Is it ok if I do it naked?” And he was like, “You don’t have to tell me twice”… [and] gets me a nudity waiver within half an hour. He doesn’t want me to change my mind! That was his concern. Most directors, when you say, “Can I do this naked?” they’re like “What are you talking about? Get out, just get out, don’t even talk to me anymore for the rest of the shoot!”
it was kismet, because I think Todd, probably deep down inside was thinking of that but would never ask an actor, especially a guy who’s only in the movie for like four minutes, to do that. But for an actor to volunteer that and know that this is fitting the tone of the movie… I think from there, Todd and I just bonded. Deep down inside, there’s this kind of love of chaos. You know, I like Pesci in Goodfellas; there’s something chaotic and completely funny about that. In the second movie, I would be in my trailer watching Pesci in Goodfellas a lot. So there’s a shared sensibility of a love of mayhem and things spiralling out of control that I actually do respond to comedically.
Do you now have it in your contract to be naked?
JEONG: [laughs.] No. Everything else since then just comes organically; I’m not like “Hey Todd, I think it would be great for the fans if…” That doesn’t happen at all; all that is storytelling at this point.
You’re not on a list of actors who will get naked.
JEONG: Exactly; even if Community were R-rated on HBO, I would never in a million years do that as Chang. I would refuse, because it doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t, at all.
Obviously, you’re happy that Community is coming back. But you’re in so many movies lately; Pain and Gain we just saw you in. Would it make your life a little easier if you could just concentrate on one thing for a while?
JEONG: I mean, no. Because I barely have a part on Community. Some episodes I’m not even in—which I love, because as an actor you want to do many different things. I love being a part of the Michael Bay family and getting to hang in Miami for a couple of days; what’s not to like? And then I get to do voiceover acting likeDespicable Me 2 and Turbo. It’s a dream right now, where I get to really rub elbows with some of my heroes. I think it’s the best job in the world on Community, because I’m not an integral part of the show, but I love being on that show so much.
I mean, Hangover people, they’re my favourite people in the world to work with. Period. Just period. There’s no ego, there’s no diva behaviour; everyone works for a common goal. I tell you, dude: you guys can see from your perspective all you want. But, being in the know, it is pure heaven working with guys like these because there’s just no attitude, man. No one’s competitive, no one’s jealous of each other, we’re just in for the greater good; look what happens when that happens. And to me, I would love to do Chow the rest of my life; Chow’s my favourite character I’ve ever done. Period.
JEONG: Period. Because I left my day job [as a doctor] to pursue imagination. You know what I mean? And what is a wider spectrum of imagination than Chow? You can literally do or say anything. I would love to find his origins in a spin-off. If you had like [Paul] Giamatti, who was in the second movie—who’s a friend of mine—and explore that, explore origins or whatever. There are just so many ways to go with Chow that I can’t explore with any other character I’ve ever played in anything.
What’s it been like doing the accent for this character? Because I remember when I saw the first Hangover, I was like “I know that guy does not have an accent…”
…and I was uncomfortable. But I was like, “Well, as long as he’s ok with it, then I guess it’s all right.”
JEONG: Well, let me tell you a secret about the business, man. Every Asian actor has auditioned for a role that requires an accent; that’s just kind of the system you guys designed, you know what I mean? [laughs.] And I’m a doctor, I’m not an idiot, I know what I’m doing; when it comes to stereotypes, if you talk comedy, Chow is a meta-joke on that stereotype. Why do you call a guy “black Doug?” Just call him “Doug,” [but] he’s “black Doug.” There are so many tropes that you’re puncturing; you’re not doing it on a Community-type level, you’re not being that academic about it. But you’re doing it definitely on a subversive level; especially with Zach [Galifianakis] and his brand of comedy. You know, when Zach’s falling out of a car—my favourite scene in all three movies is [adopts Chow voice] “Ha, ha, fat guy fall down, funny.” It’s a meta joke; it’s just like Abed [on Community], it’s just like anybody else. So you’ve got the Asian guy mocking that stereotype, the fat guy mocking that stereotype—there’s so many levels. Me and Zack, we bonded over that in the first movie. Because that was an ad-lib of mine, and it just totally validated that character for me.
Trust me, I’ve done several movies where I’ve never had an accent, and they are truly more offensive to me. Because those parts were boring and they sucked, and it was like, I can’t do anything with this character. And the director doesn’t know what to do with me and it doesn’t matter if it has an accent or not, it just sucks. You know, I’d rather do something that’s amazing and be remembered and have an impact than do something that’s by-the-book and suck [laughs.]
What lines of Chow’s do the fans quote to you the most?
JEONG: “Toodaloo, motherfucker.” All the time. [Adopts Chow voice] “Toodaloo, motherfucker” is like once a week.
In weird places?
JEONG: At an ATM. I was at a Wells-Fargo ATM. Middle-aged white dude in a convertible, staring at me for the longest time. And as he drives away, he says [adopts Chow voice] “Toodaloo, motherfucker.” And I’ve said this on talk shows before, but what I haven’t said is that that happened to me three months ago with a different white guy, a different convertible, yelling “Toodaloo, motherfucker” again. Same ATM. I’m like, “What the fuck is this? Groundhog Day meets Wells-Fargo?”
I think you’re on the star map.
JEONG: Yeah, I’m on the star map, apparently. It was amazing.
Talk about filming the parachute scenes you guys shot over Vegas for the Hangover—Part III.
JEONG: Oh yeah, those were incredible stunt doubles. I have nothing to do with that. Except, there are close-ups where I’m suspended 40 feet in the air, and I’m uncomfortable, in a real parachute harness, in pain, saying “I love cocaine” or whatever. That is me. I’m not sitting in a La-Z-Boy with my latte and a green screen, [saying] “I love cocaine”; you’ve got to sell the metal. You’re like 40 feet, you’re still high above, and I have a massive fear of heights. Like, legit. I’m the kind of guy that would cry at roller coasts and Ferris wheels.
I worked with Jack Gill—he was the stunt coordinator for H3, stunt coordinator for Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible 4. He found a way to desensitize me. I worked with him for six weeks. So I’d work on Community, and then every Friday night, I’d go to Warner’s and be in a harness 10 feet above the air—and the next week 15 feet, 20 feet—and then learn how to move on that, because I was scared, you know? But that was the greatest day of my life, where I do a 30-foot free fall drop with hundreds of gallons of water falling behind my back. And then I’ve gotta act? I mean, that was the greatest moment of my acting career, because I was able to conquer that legit fear of heights. He cured me, kind of. That was a personal triumph for me; whether people know about it or not…
You never thought of trying hypnosis [to cure yourself]?
JEONG: No, no. No, I’m a doctor. [laughs.]
You mentioned you’re doing voices in Turbo and Despicable Me 2. How much are they looking for you to improv your character vs. sticking to the script and adding a little bit of improv?
JEONG: Voiceover is difficult. It’s very exact, but then, yes, you are allowed to ad-lib and honestly, the approach is very similar to live-action comedic acting. There’s a script, you’ve got to stick to it and then—at least, the stuff that I’ve done—they’ll provide four or five alts that they’ve already written, because they don’t know what lines they’re going to use yet. And then I may have to come back four or five months later [because] they have to rewrite it again. “Oh, none of that worked,” and we’ll just read some more alts. And then I also will improvise too; since I’m known for that anyway, they’ll always give me three or four free takes. But the amazing thing about it is, [the actors are] just talking props.
That stuff is just an added bonus to my career. I’m not great at it; I won’t even pretend that I’m good at it. I’m just psyched that I can do stuff on that level.
Who do you play in Turbo?
JEONG: I don’t know if I can reveal exactly who I play. It’s a small role; it’s part of the crew that kind of knows the Ryan Reynolds snail character.
But to me, those things are academic exercises. I really haven’t had much voiceover experience. The opportunity presented itself to me. They’re like, “You wanna do it?” I’m like “Yes! I would love to.” It doesn’t matter if it’s one line or… I would just love to be a part of it to see what that’s like.