Ken Jeong on Hangover Spin-Offs, Confronting Stereotypes, and Going Full-Frontal (Again)
Physician-turned-comedian Ken Jeong (AKA Dr. Ken) got his start on the big screen with comic bits in films like Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Role Models, but he made his most memorable on-screen appearance in Todd Phillips' 2009 surprise hit The Hangover as a flamboyant gangster named Chow. This week in The Hangover Part II, Jeong returns to cause more mayhem on the streets of Bangkok with an entrance that manages to one-up the shocking sight of springing, fully nude, from the trunk of a Mercedes.
For the sake of avoiding spoilers, let's just say more nudity is involved; Jeong has exposed himself more in Phillips' male-bonding flicks than just about anyone working in R-rated comedy today. Mayhem, he says, is the operating word when it comes to the creative energy of Phillips and his Wolf Pack (Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha, and Zach Galifianakis) and their willingness to test boundaries, but Jeong credits Phillips for cultivating something more valuable in his performers: Confidence.
"It's because of him that I was able to have confidence in the other projects I've done in the last two years," Jeong told Movieline during a wide-ranging conversation about The Hangover Part II, challenging racial stereotype, potential Chow spin-off films, and -- of course -- his penis.
I usually refer to you as Dr. Ken. May I call you that?
That's great! That's the stand-up moniker from Kims of Comedy. Thank you so much.
We heard from Todd Phillips that a Hangover spin-off featuring your character, Chow, was possible but he hadn't talked to you about it. Would you be open to it?
Of course! I would do anything for Todd Phillips. Todd gave me a career, and he's my favorite guy. He's family to me. We're bonded by our love of comedy and mayhem, and Chow loves mayhem...
Mayhem is the operating word with the Hangover movies, isn't it?
Yeah! And it makes total sense. I would love to do a Chow spin-off, absolutely.
Where do you think a spin-off could go?
See, I'm not that smart. Todd would know. Wherever Todd wants to go. It's just so great, it's a great feeling to trust the people you work with implicitly. I just trust everything about Todd Phillips, because all of my fame and success have been due to the first Hangover. The fact that I'm in the second Hangover, even in an expanded role, to me is an unexpected bonus and kind of an amazing opportunity for me to take it up another level.
How did he describe to you what happens with Chow in the sequel?
I got an e-mail from Todd saying, "We'll be requiring your services," and then he gave me the script and I was crying laughing. The script, actually, was better than the first one because in the first movie, the script had actually existed before all of us, including Todd, had been attached. So this is the first script that utilizes our voices uniquely. Basically, you're building on the characters the audience has loved and also the characters we kind of formed in the first movie, so it was actually creatively easier for me as an actor this time around. All the hard work had been done in establishing these characters.
And yet Chow is much different this time around. He's a villain in the first film, but not anymore. He's still crazy.
He still gets naked.
How do you think he's changed -- and how is he still the same -- in Part II?
He is a foe in the first one and he becomes sort of a friend-question mark in the second one. What I like about the first one is, he's angry. He's not angry in the second one, but in the first one when Zach falls out of the car I go, "Haha funny, fat boy fall down!" That, even in the moment of his intense anger -- and he wanted to kill them at that time -- he still finds humor and laughter. And that informed me for the second movie. Chow just loves mayhem! So my favorite scene is the car chase, when my rear view mirror is getting shot off and everyone else is horrified and I'm like, "Hahaha funny!" So I had to make sure I had the exact opposite reactions that everybody else would have. That love of mayhem this time around was really pervasive.
How difficult is it to navigate that line that you tread with Chow, playing off of racial stereotype?
I think we're making fun of the stereotype, and I think that's the biggest misconception of this character. To me a stereotype is reading something like [falls into Asian accent], "Oh, 9876-WISH," and that's not funny, that's horrible! [Laughs] There's no way ever as an actor that I would ever do anything like that.
Right -- and I think the film is smart in acknowledging these things, to tell the audience clearly, "We are actually thinking about these things."
Exactly! Absolutely. I think that with Mr. Chow you're making fun of the Asian stereotypes that have been pervasive in the past and on top of that, in comedy, academically it's called a meta-joke; you're making fun of the comedy of that. You're making fun of the fat guy that falls down in comedies, you're making fun of the fact that all these things happen. And I think that Chow is definitely a meta character, which makes him different from a Long Duk Dong or anything like that. No stereotype would ever say, "Ahh, fat boy fall down funny." I've actually had roles without an accent that were far more offensive. [Laughs] And more bland and stiff and stereotypical. It's never about the accent, it's all about the intent and putting a fresh spin on it, and to have the creativity to bring that spin to it, to me, is so important.
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