I was a shy kid. I was a quiet kid. It would’ve seemed, at least from their eyes, impossible for this little boy to want to pursue this in any way.
You’ll probably recognize Randall Park from, well, at least one of a number of things: Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Aquaman, Always Be My Maybe opposite Ali Wong, as “Asian Jim” from a viral cold open of The Office, the short-lived Netflix series Blockbuster, his recurring role as FBI agent/amateur magician Jimmy Woo in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or perhaps as a curiously amiable Kim Jong Un in The Interview—a film the North Korean government famously branded a “wanton act of terror.” The Korean American actor is the first to admit that he didn’t quite make it in show business until a little later in life. Park’s breakthrough came at the age of 40 when he was cast as Taiwanese patriarch Louis Huang on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat. Based on the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, it was the first network sitcom starring an Asian American family in two decades since Margaret Cho’s trailblazing 1994 show All-American Girl, and the first with an all Asian American cast to notch 100 episodes. Fresh Off the Boat turbocharged Park’s trajectory.
Then there’s also a lesser known fact: fifteen years ago, Park, then a struggling actor, chanced on a graphic novel called Shortcomings at the Ghost Robot store on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles, which, unbeknownst to him, would become the subject of his feature directorial debut many years down the line. He was immediately drawn to the Eisner Award-winning Japanese American author and cartoonist Adrian Tomine’s work, whose stories pulled from a spectrum of the Asian American experience to which Park related deeply. Now a film to call his own by the same name, Shortcomings, which world premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, follows a trio of Asian Americans in Berkeley, California amid the rough-and-tumble of millennial romance: Ben (Justin H. Min), an ornery cinephile who manages a local arthouse theater; his partner, Miko (Ally Maki), a film festival organizer who earnestly believes in the future of Asian American cinema; and Alice (Sherry Cola), Ben’s comedic, lesbian confidante.
Shortcomings opens exclusively in theaters on August 4th via Sony Pictures Classics.
Representation matters, right? We talk about this so often. For so long, we just want to see ourselves up on screen. After that, more and more, we want to see a full spectrum of us and the complexity of our stories. I wonder: could it be that you made the film you wished to have long ago—not just as a filmmaker, but as somebody who’s simply looking to connect?
Yeah, I think so. This graphic novel came out in 2007 and, when I read it, I remember feeling kind of blown away by how much I felt seen by a piece of work. It felt like such an authentic representation of the lives of me and my friends, for better or for worse, you know? [laughs] And there were definitely things in the graphic novel that felt different from my life, too. At that time, Asian representation in American media, even though great, didn’t feel like my everyday life. And here was a graphic novel that felt very much like my everyday life, even in the most mundane of ways. It probably wasn’t meant to be mind-blowing, but for me, it was. So it kind of stuck with me all these years and I definitely felt that it was important for me to tell these kinds of stories.
The narrative is quite simple. As you’ve previously said, this isn’t about generational conflict, although you do touch on that briefly, or about returning to the motherland. The Asian American experience doesn’t require some exotic component in order to be interesting.
I mean, I think those things are great and they’re great stories to tell and I can identify with a lot of the elements in those stories, but they don’t necessarily reflect my regular life. In a lot of ways, I think the “mainstream” non-Asian/Pacific Islander audience wants glimpses into this culture and those kinds of stories give them glimpses into what life is like for a lot of us, but isn’t for all of us. A lot of it is really just us hanging out and having conversations, and eating sandwiches. [laughs]
There’s also something to be said about what “mundane” is to you. I understand Frances Ha inspired the scene where Ben is running down the street in New York City. I immediately knew what you were calling back to and it’s the things that give us goosebumps. A scene like that isn’t literal explosion, yet it’s still explosive. You can find epic moments in the mundane.
Yeah, for sure. That movie was a big influence on this, along with a bunch of others. The idea of having these very flawed protagonists trying to become better people is nothing new for white characters in American cinema, but we really haven’t seen it presented in this way with Asian American characters. That’s just another reason why I was so excited to get this story out there.
We’re living in a different place now than we were 15 years ago: you can get something like Shortcomings made without some arm-twisting to “sanitize” it—to make it more palatable for whomever that would make it more palatable for. When you first started courting Adrian’s novel for a film adaptation, was there a danger that these characters might get whitewashed?
Yeah, but I wasn’t a part of it then. Shortly after the book came out, Adrian wrote a feature script version and there was interest. This is more his story to tell, but he was told by some studios that the movie wasn’t “castable.” He was asked if he would consider changing the ethnicities of some of the characters. It’s such a deeply personal work for Adrian that, that wasn’t even an option. It’s part of the reason why it sat around for so long. And it was still very much a challenge to get made, in part because, again, all those things that we talked about. It wasn’t a “traditional” Asian American movie. But thankfully, we were able to miraculously find a team to help us get it made.
You’re originally from LA. What was a seminal moment for you coming up where you first felt like the doors for representation were being opened in a way that felt surprising?
I’ve been at this for a long time now and the first shift that I saw, at least for Asian Americans, was in the commercial world. I started noticing that they were casting more AAPI faces in commercials. I remember being like, “Wow, this is interesting,” because you would never see Asian people in commercials when I was a kid, or you would rarely, on occasion. Once I started pursuing acting professionally, I worked a ton in commercials. I felt like it was almost a viable career path working in commercials because it’s a lot harder to make it onto TV shows or in film.
Do you remember your first commercial gig?
My first commercial was for Channel 18, here in LA and I think some other territories. It’s basically the Asian channel. It was all in Mandarin. It was for these liver pills. I played this father who comes home tired from work, and his kid wants to play. The kid gives him these pills to wake him up. I was famous amongst my Chinese friends’ parents after that. [laughs] That was my first non-union commercial. I probably got paid $50 for it. Eventually, I did national commercials.
For me, a seminal moment was discovering Margaret Cho, and I know she means a lot to you as well. Her stand-ups. Because it was so funny. Because it was abrasive, which speaks to me most. And she’s so incredibly honest. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Also, it’s the fact that non-Asian people were being exposed to it on a wide scale, which excited me. It’s not just about seeing myself in her comedy. It’s like we’re taking a group therapy session together.
Yeah. Margaret Cho was such an inspiration and continues to be. I remember being blown away by her specials, and also seeing myself and the people I knew in her. It was similar to when I first read Shortcomings in a way. It felt like, “I have friends who are this brash and this unadulterated.” It was very much another moment of feeling seen by somebody out there who’s just killing it.
That’s how I honestly felt watching Shortcomings as well. There’s power in the communal experience: “We’re gonna laugh together, and also learn something today and be all the better for it.” Not in a sanctimonious way. It’s like taking the Band-Aid off, so to speak.
That’s pretty cool to hear. Thank you for sharing that. Yeah, I think a big part of what I loved about the graphic novel and making the movie is that it’s so much about looking within and personal growth and the willingness to embrace change. I think it spoke to me a lot because there are so many aspects about me that were similar to Ben, like at one point in my life when I was very resistant to change and very stuck in my ways, trying to hold onto the ways of thinking that didn’t necessarily serve me. I think it was very inspiring to read Adrian’s work and see that, “Okay, this guy is a piece of work, but by the very end of it, there’s some hope that he might grow a little bit.”
Here’s something: upon hearing about the unpleasant experience you had early on in your career, where a director belittled you in front of everyone on set, it triggered a memory. I took the summer film program at USC during high school, and my friend asked me to act in her short film just out of convenience. I did, and I’m not an actor. Well, she screens the film in her class and the professor is shouting, “Asians can’t act!” Now whenever anyone asks why representation is important, I circle back to that moment—because it happens to us.
That really sucks. I’m sorry you went through that—but it’s not surprising to me. There used to be a lot of bad thinking. I think when I first started pursuing this professionally, there was a lot of this thinking that Asians weren’t funny, that Asians weren’t expressive enough, that people wouldn’t be able to identify with or put themselves in the shoes of an Asian character. There was always this question: “Will people understand what’s going on? If Asian people are doing it, will that translate to non-Asian people in the Midwest?” And it’s absurd. It’s so absurd, especially now in retrospect.
I enjoy your film as a film, but I also find healing in it. Are there healing properties for you?
For sure. I think in different ways. Not necessarily just in the story, but also in terms of the process of making a movie—particularly an independent movie—where you’re working with actors and working with the crew and, really, becoming this family in a short period of time. For me, the experience was very healing. It was very much a beautiful experience. It was also one that I think I understood already because I’d seen it from an actor’s perspective and felt it from an actor’s perspective. It’s very different when you’re the director because you’re responsible for so many decisions. In a lot of ways, I felt like a parent taking care of my family and that was gratifying.
I saw your group interviews from Sundance earlier this year. You and Justin [H. Min] and Sherry [Cola] and Ally [Maki] have great rapport. There’s warmth and mutual appreciation. That comes across in a real, authentic way. You guys really love each other.
I really love them so much. I’m so bummed that they can’t be out here promoting the movie. I mean, I say that while acknowledging that we are in full support of the strike. The thing that bums me out is: they’re so wonderful in this movie and I want people to know that so much. For them, as artists, these roles aren’t easy. They took them and brought so much to them—so much than I thought anyone was even capable. They’re just so talented and I want more people to know that.
On the subject of Ben, you acknowledged earlier that he’s “a piece of work.” There’s been a lot of chatter surrounding his unlikability in Shortcomings. I think you expected it because that’s who this character is. But has it surprised you just how much fixation there is on that?
Not really. I knew that people would, and it’s a reflection on the person judging, too. I think everyone will definitely see him as a flawed person. I think that some people will have a little more empathy towards him, and maybe even identify with him. I think a lot of people will see sides to him that are in them, you know? I think other people will definitely bristle at him, and they might even find it difficult to sit through the movie because of who he is. I think there’s gonna be the full gamut of reactions to Ben. I think there’s an element to it, too, that it’s an Asian American male character that’s like this because we haven’t seen that before. I don’t know that everyone will know what to do with that information. It’s not like we’re used to portrayals of Asian American men in general anyway. So I think people might hate him a little more because of it, or love him a little more because of it. Who knows? I definitely expected a lot of conversations around this character.
I found it so honest when Justin said, “Ben is me before I went to therapy.” It just goes to show you that people like Ben exist, even if you’re turned off by it in a movie context. He’s also self-aware about his “inherent bad personality,” which weirdly makes him palatable, too.
He’s almost proud of it in some ways.
Exactly. And there are lessons. What are we supposed to do, be born at our destination?
The main theme of the movie—my North Star—and the central question is, when the world around you changes, do you have to change with it? Ben is the way he is and he is pathologically resistant to change. By the end of it, do we get the sense that he might grow up a little bit and become a better person? It’s a little bit open-ended, but the hope is that, yes, he does. It’s interpretive, but my guess is that, once he’s stripped of everything, he’s probably gonna grow a little bit, you know?
I’m curious about your shyness, which you’ve commented on from time to time. It’s just that it’s not uncommon to hear actors say they got into acting at an early age to combat shyness. It’s paradoxical in some ways because, in performance, you’re invincible. How does it work?
I’m definitely shy, but it ebbs and flows. It depends on the context. I think most artists I know, or a lot of them, are similar. There are definitely actors who are always on. For me, it’s just so naturally who I am to keep things small and to feel most comfortable around my family and close friends. There’s something always a little bit jarring to me, putting myself out there and talking to strangers and doing these things that are challenging for me. But I think having to do them definitely helps me grow as a person. It helps me be more open. It helps me enjoy life a little more. I mean, it’s fun so I think it’s a good thing, ultimately. If I weren’t in this business, I’d probably not be so open.
So there are overriding factors: it’s fun, you love acting, and your shyness isn’t crippling.
[laughs] Yeah, for sure.
I love the story of how you used to put a recorder up to the TV to capture the audio of I Love Lucy. You were captivated by the laugh track, and the idea of making people laugh. You’ve also talked about always having been the “entertainer” amongst your group of friends. When did the profound shift happen between “This feels good” and “I want to do this for a living”?
I think in college. I was at UCLA as an undergraduate. I majored in English and specialized in creative writing. That got me into playwriting, which in turn got me into wanting to have some of my work produced. Along with two other friends, we formed this Asian American theater company. Initially, I came in as a writer. I wrote the first thing we performed, which was a full-length play. It was a comedy and writing comedy always felt more fun to me. So it was something I naturally gravitated towards. Through that theater company, I found myself on stage. That was when I kind of thought, “This is so fun.” It would be a long time before I decide to pursue it professionally, but it definitely planted the seed in me, realizing that performing and writing is something I really loved.
You took it to the finish line. It’s pretty incredible how far you’ve come. And if it’s surprising to you, it must be mind-blowing for your parents. I mean, that’s very indicative of the Asian American or Asian experience as well, right? That there’s pushback from parents, at least initially. There’s a measure of truth in every cliché: they want you do be a doctor or a lawyer. How long did it take for them to come around to the idea of you doing this professionally?
I mean, they’re extremely proud and they tell me that all the time. It is very different from when I first started because they were extremely skeptical. And for good reason. I was a shy kid. I was a quiet kid. It would’ve seemed, at least from their eyes, impossible for this little boy to want to pursue this in any way, you know? I think in their minds, they just wanted me to be happy and to be secure, financially and emotionally. I chose a route that promised none of those things, and those things aren’t even typically promised for most people on this path. But it was something I loved doing, and all these other routes I attempted to take were dead ends for me. It always brought me back to the thing I love doing. So, they’re proud, and it’s great to share all of this with them.
So what are the prospects for a sophomore feature looking like at the moment? You’ve previously said that, whether you write the thing yourself or it’s someone else’s script, you would need to connect with it. And I wonder if comedy might be an inseparable ingredient.
I’m very open. I think the inseparable ingredient would be my connection to the material. I think comedy will be an element in anything I do, but it won’t necessarily be just that. I don’t think Shortcomings is a comedy, either. As much as there’s humor in it, I see it more as a comedic drama. Whatever I end up doing, it will definitely be something that speaks to me in a deep way.