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Randall Park on his directorial debut and Asian American representation in Hollywood
Amna Nawaz: Since starring in the hit sitcom "Fresh Off the Boat," Randall Park has become a familiar face on television and in some of Hollywood's biggest movies.
Now the Korean-American actor can also be found behind the camera. He makes his directorial debut with "Shortcomings," which was acquired for distribution earlier this month.
I spoke with Park about the film, his long career, and the power of authentic storytelling as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
It was fitting for Randall Park to help produce his own interview…
Randall Park, Actor and Director: Soft sticks.
Amna Nawaz: … now that the actor can add feature film director to his resume.
We spoke the day before the world premiere of his directorial debut called "Shortcomings" at the Sundance Film Festival.
How excited are you to see how audiences react to it?
Randall Park: I'm terrified.
Amna Nawaz: Terrified, that's the word?
Randall Park: Well, it's like you put so much into something. Everybody involved really recognized how special this project was and really put everything into it.
Amna Nawaz: The dramedy is based on a 2007 graphic novel of the same name by Japanese-American author and cartoonist Adrian Tomine. It tracks the everyday life and romantic travails of Ben Tanaka, a cynical movie theater manager and wannabe filmmaker in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Randall Park: He is highly opinionated, charming. He's funny, but he's also a bit miserable.
Amna Nawaz: Fifteen years ago, then a struggling actor, Park discovered "Shortcomings" in a bookstore and was immediately pulled in.
Randall Park: At the time, I was like, oh, I would love to play Ben.
Amna Nawaz: What was it about the story that spoke to you?
Randall Park: It just felt like a real reflection of my life at that time. It's not, like, filled with a lot of those of the common tropes that you see in Asian American stories, whether it be intergenerational conflict or a trip back to the motherland.
But this is really just people hanging out, eating at restaurants, arguing in apartments. That's what it is. And that's the kind of authenticity that excites me the most about it.
Amna Nawaz: Park says writer Adrian Tomine had pitched his screenplay of "Shortcomings" after the graphic novel was published. There was some interest, but with a caveat.
So, 15 years ago, in order to make it palatable to a broader audience, characters would have had to be changed to white?
Randall Park: That's what the industry was saying back then. And this is such a — it's a deeply Asian American story. It makes no sense for that to be the case, but that's the way the industry was back then.
Amna Nawaz: Hollywood wasn't ready then, but Park played a role in changing the face of the industry.
Amna Nawaz: After years of bouncing from role to role, he was cast in a network comedy as Louis Huang, the Taiwanese patriarch in ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat."
Based on a memoir by celebrity chef, writer, and director Eddie Huang.
Man: Your boy Eddie Huang.
Amna Nawaz: It was the first network sitcom starring an Asian American family in two decades, following Margaret Cho's groundbreaking 1994 show, "All-American Girl."
While critics, including Huang himself, accused "Fresh Off the Boat" of sanitizing the immigrant experience, it marked a turning point for the Asian American community, as Huang told our Jeffrey Brown back in 2016.
Eddie Huang, Author, "Fresh Off the Boat": We needed to get on base. There wasn't a sitcom with Asians that you could watch anywhere on American television. We didn't have representation. And while a sitcom isn't the end-all/be-all of identity and representation in America, it's a big step.
Amna Nawaz: "Fresh Off the Boat" ran for six seasons and turbocharged some cast members' careers.
Constance Wu, who played Huang's mother, went on to star in 2018's megahit "Crazy Rich Asians."
Constance Wu, Actor: You really should have told me that you're like the Prince William of Asia.
Henry Golding, Actor: That's ridiculous. I'm much more of a Harry.
Amna Nawaz: Park has since become a red carpet fixture, juggling a range of roles, co-writing and starring in the Netflix rom-com "Always Be My Maybe" Ali Wong.
Randall Park: Yes, yes, very long time. What's up?
Amna Nawaz: And stepping into the blockbuster superhero world with recurring roles in both the D.C. and Marvel Cinematic Universes.
The years of work proving there was an audience for these stories paid off. Park and Tomine joined forces to pitch "Shortcomings" the movie, and succeeded.
Randall Park: My goal is to just tell a specific story about very specific characters and hope that that some people like it.
Amna Nawaz: Just some people?
Randall Park: Or a little more than some.
Amna Nawaz: Despite his many successes, Park says he still sees himself as a just another working actor.
Is that from, like, an early career mind-set or just the way you are?
Randall Park: I think of it kind of as a — almost as a protective mechanism. Don't celebrate something too much because lows are inevitable and the highs are possible, but the lows are inevitable. That's just life, I guess.
And, in a way, I think its made me dead inside.
Randall Park: I'm playing. No.
But, in a way, it has made me very — you know, very much focused on the work.
Amna Nawaz: Park has directed before, including the series finale of "Fresh Off the Boat," but "Shortcomings," he says, was different.
Randall Park: It was kind of life-changing in a lot of ways. I felt very much in my skin.
Acting has always been a source of joy, but this was rewarding in a way that I never felt before with acting.
Amna Nawaz: Starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, the film also features a mostly Asian American cast.
Randall Park: When I first started, there — I think there was still this sense of, there can only be one, because, if you looked at a show, there was always just one, not just Asians, but any kind of minority group.
And now I feel like, just seeing how things have changed and interacting with these young actors, I just feel this sense of real community and camaraderie.
Amna Nawaz: They're not yet dead inside.
Randall Park: They're full of life and joy.
Amna Nawaz: And they're part of a project Park hopes will allow stories from the full spectrum of Asian American life to emerge.
Randall Park: When you're traditionally underrepresented, and there is a scarcity of narratives about your group, the instinct is, oh, we have to tell the idealized version of ourselves. You know, we have to be heroes.
And those stories need to be told, but I really think that, when you're being dehumanized, it's nice to show portrayals that are humanized. And humanized means human, which means complex.
Amna Nawaz: And messy.
Randall Park: Messy, making mistakes, sometimes making the same mistakes over and over again, like we all do.
And that's what I'm most proud about when it comes to this movie. It's very real, because that's a real reflection of me, you know?