February 26, 2013
What?!! An Asian American male star in a Hollywood movie that isn't a Kung Fu film?
Justin Chon ("Twilight"), steps into the spotlight as the lead character in the comedy 21 and Over, opening in theaters nationwide March 1.
Chon, 31, was born in Garden Grove in Orange County, California, and was raised in Irvine, California. He attended business school at the University of Southern California. At age 20, Chon began taking acting lessons, inspired by growing up watching his father in black and white films. His father is a former child actor from South Korea.
AsianConnections' Suzanne Joe Kai chatted with Justin about his new role, breaking stereotypes, and what's next in his fast-rising career. (For the full interview transcript click on the blue headline link above.)
Justin: Hey Suzanne, thank you.
Suzanne: You’re right from Orange County, California!
Justin: Yeah, Irvine. Yeah, born and raised. I was born in Garden Grove Hospital.
Suzanne: Can you describe your role in your new film 21 and Over coming out in theaters March 1, 2013?
Justin: Yeah. I play a character named Jeff Chang. It's his 21st birthday and my two friends come up to celebrate with me but I have a medical school interview the next day. They convinced me to have one beer and obviously that beer turns into absolute chaos. My character's just an average kid. He's actually not that smart, he's like failing out of school.
Suzanne: What made you jump on board this film?
Justin: Well, the guys who wrote it wrote The Hangover and they’re great writers. I just read the script and I loved it. I’m an Asian American actor and it’s a three-dimensional part so it’s great to see somebody who wrote such a great part for an Asian American so I just had to do it. The whole movie's mass is with partying but the core of it is really about these three guys and their friendship.
Suzanne: I think this is one of the very few or if not the first movie with an Asian American male lead?
Justin: Yeah, besides John Cho in Harold and Kumar.
Suzanne: Yes. Well there were two leads.
Suzanne: How do you feel about making Asian American history?
Justin: I don’t really think of it as in terms of Asian American history, (laugher) I am very proud and I really feel like I tried my best to do it justice and humanize the character because typically in a lot of movies the Asian guy ends up being like a caricature or like the butt of a joke or whatever but I tried to make him as ground(ed) as possible even with how I played the drunk which is the hardest part about this role. I tried to make it honest and truthful...I wasn’t playing the drunk as a joke.
Suzanne: Being Asian American - and obviously this comedy is a take on being an Asian American. In our society we’re always trying to combat Asian American stereotypes and racism. How did you deal with that in the script and in your role?
Justin: Well as soon as I got cast we had rehearsals and Jon and Scott, the directors, sat me down and asked me, “Is there anything in the script that doesn’t sit right with you or you feel is overboard or too racist or anything like that?” To be honest I didn’t find anything to be offensive. I mean one of the characters says a few like, “Oh is that because you’re from China?” or some s**t like that but, you know, friends do that, great friends, like close friends do that and I think I say something like (when) he goes, “I don’t know how you do it in China,” and I go, “Dude, what are you talking about? ""My family's has been here since the railroads!"
There’s not a lot of racist stuff, like for the most part I’m just one of the guys. I think that’s what’s great about this movie and me being Asian American, this kid could have been any ethnicity. Except for he has an overbearing parent but like we break stereotypes because I’m actually flunking out of school and I stand up to my dad at the end and do what I want to do and I think that’s a good message.
I saw some message boards about people getting angry that like, “Why is his name Jeff Chang? Why can’t they just call him Jeff like a human being?” But in my opinion … I mean, dude, I have so many friends that I call them their full name, it’s just what you do, or you call them by their last name and it was never like a racial thing, it just had a ring to it, "Jeff Chang," but some people are upset about that but they had nothing to do with (being) Asian.
Suzanne: What would you like the audience to take away from your film?
Justin: For the film I just … I grew up loving these kind of movies, I grew up watching a lot of comedies and when I first started acting I always wanted to do a crazy comedy like this. The best thing I want people to walk away with is just having a great time watching the movie and … you go to the movies to escape and I definitely think this movie allows you to kind of just suspend reality and just enjoy yourself and laugh for two hours.
As an actor, hopefully I did a good enough job where … I’m a good role model I guess for the community - I don’t want to be like an example. I don’t think I’m the greatest example - but I want people to take away that as an Asian American actor that you can do well in this industry - you just have to work hard.
Suzanne: How did you get selected for this role? Was it hard? Were there a lot of auditions?
Justin: Yeah, I’m an auditioning actor so I don’t get offered the roles or anything but I was shooting Twilight at the time and I was in Squamish, Canada, it was like in this some cabin and a mountain or some s**t. My agents called me they said, “You should audition for this part,” and I don’t really like to put myself on tape when I’m working on something else because it’s really distracting but they’re like, “Oh no, take a look at the script.”
I read the script and I loved it so I got one of the other Twilight actors to read opposite, to put myself on tape. Then I came back and didn’t hear anything and then finally I went in for the directors and producers and then after that I did a chemistry read with Miles and Skylar and we just worked on some of the scenes together and then I got the part.
Oh yeah, after that thought I didn’t hear for two months and I was like, “Oh, well I guess, I don’t know, maybe I’m not … I wasn’ t good enough or something” but then I got the part.
Suzanne: As an Asian American Hollywood actor what advice would you give to others who are aspiring to be in the industry?
Justin: I get asked by a lot of Asian American kids all the time. How do I do it? And my best piece of advice that I can give anyone is just get proper training, go to acting school, learn what you’re doing. If you’re going to want to be a basketball player you would have to go learn the fundamentals and you can’t step on an NBA court and expect to do well. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s a profession and you have to go train. That’s my best advice I can give...and go train your ass off. Kids just think because it’s the Disney generation, they think you can just show up and be a dancer, actor, singer - like dude - pick one and just try to be the best at that one thing. Don’t try to be like a triple threat or whatever.
Suzanne: Where did you learn to act and did you start at a very early age?
Justin: No, so my dad was an actor in South Korea so I grew up watching his black and whites but I actually went to business school at USC. While I was going to USC I did a two-year Meisner program at this school called the Joanne Baron Brown/D.W.Brown Studio in Santa Monica and so my foundation is Meisner but yeah that’s where I started off. And then after that, after the two years I’ve been all over the place.
Suzanne: So you started actually seriously taking acting lessons from college?
Justin: Yeah, so when I was 20 I think. Yeah.
Suzanne: Aside from acting you’re also the co-founder of the Attic clothing store. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Justin: Sure, of course. Yeah. It’s a store that started six years ago. I have three stores. I have one in Alhambra, one in Buena Park across the street from Knotts Berry Farm and one in the Gaslamp (Quarter) in San Diego.
I started it because at the time there weren’t a lot of options for that type of clothing for street wear and we carry a lot of local brands that are actually specific to Orange County and LA. I started it because I couldn’t find clothes that I’m liked, “Oh well, I'll just open up my own store.”
I started with my partners and it’s been six years. It’s been a tough, tough journey. When the economy tanked and all that stuff it was pretty hard for a little bit actually I feel like economy is getting a little bit better right now.
Suzanne: Justin, thank you so much. So what’s next for you?
Justin: I wrote and directed a film over the summer, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing this whole past 2012.
It’s called Man Up and I actually wrote it with and co-directed it with this kid Kevin Wu who is also Asian American. He’s on YouTube, he’s Kev Jumba and he has like 3 million subscribers.
I want to release the film digitally...and I’m hoping to get part of his online presence and audience to watch the movie.
It’s about a 19-year old kid who gets his Mormon girlfriend pregnant and she dumps him and leaves him and his parents try to kick him out so he moved in with his stoner best friend who’s an idiot and he tries to help him become a man.
Obviously it’s like the blind meeting the blind. It’s like Bill and Ted (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure); these guys are retarded.
I’m in post-production for that. I’m almost picture-locked and we’re working on music and stuff like that right now.
Suzanne: How did you do the financing on that project?
Justin: I…dude...The only way someone is going to trust me to direct anything with I have to put my money where my mouth is so I finance a third, Kevin financed a third and then the other third came from this production company in Hawaii named Kinetic.
Suzanne: Thank you and congratulations on all of your projects.
Justin: Yeah, take care.
21 and Over
Directors: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Writers: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Cast: @MilesTeller, @JustinChon, @SkylarAstin,
Sarah Wright, Francois Chau, Jonathan Keltz,
Daniel Booko, Dustin Ybarra
Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman,
Ryan Kavanaugh, Hugo Shong
Executive Producers: Tucker Tooley, Ron Burkle,
Jason Colbeck, Luo Yan, Andy Yan,
David Manpearl, Jason Felts, Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Straight-A college student Jeff Chang has always done what’s expected of him.
But when his two best friends Casey and Miller surprise him with a visit for his 21st birthday, he decides to do the unexpected for a change, even though his critical medical school interview is early the next morning. What was supposed to be one beer becomes one night of chaos, over indulgence and utter debauchery in this outrageous comedy.
Official Trailer: http://youtu.be/yg6uXk53MDA
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