Before signing on to play North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the comedy “The Interview,” actor Randall Park understandably had a few concerns. After all, this wasn’t just another outrageous Seth Rogen comedy; this was an outrageous Seth Rogen comedy about a plot to assassinate an actual dictator who has actual nuclear weapons at his disposal.
Before he fully dove in, Park wanted to run the idea past two very important people in his life: his South Korean-born parents.
“I was super-excited to do it, but I still felt a little nervous about it and I felt like my parents would be a good way for me to test if this was OK,” said Park, who was born and raised in Los Angeles. “They’re immigrants, and they understand what’s going on over there a little better than me.
“As soon as I brought it up to them, they thought it was hilarious.”
With “The Interview” now at the center of a headline-grabbing international incident, not everyone seems to agree.
To say that “The Interview,” co-directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, has become the subject of controversy is a massive understatement. In June, a North Korea official branded the film — which centers on a harebrained attempt by a tabloid TV host and producer (James Franco and Rogen, respectively) to assassinate Kim — “an act of war.” Many believe the country may have orchestrated last month’s devastating cyberattack on Sony Pictures as retaliation for making comedic hay out of the killing of its leader, resulting in the release of embarrassing internal emails that have become the talk of Hollywood.
But up to this point Park, who in a very literal sense has a key role in this whole affair, has hardly been heard from at all.
On a blustery late November afternoon — coincidentally the very same afternoon that news began to emerge of a mysterious attack on Sony’s computer system — the actor, 40, sat down to talk about the film, which is scheduled to hit theaters on Christmas.
Previously best known as Gov. Danny Chung on the HBO comedy series “Veep,” Park, who didn’t begin his acting career in earnest until he was 28, hasn’t done a ton of interviews. With blaring headlines about security breaches and leaked emails still days away, this was the first time he was speaking in any great depth about “The Interview” — and he was clearly happy to do it.
“I’m just so thrilled to be a part of this movie,” he said. “I want to do as much as I can to help.” (After the leaks, Park was unavailable to comment further on the Sony hacking.)
In the original script he was sent, Park said, the role was not specifically Kim but “a vague North Korean dictator.” Still, he was well aware that the film would push some serious buttons with the regime in Pyongyang.
“I thought it was insane but a great idea,” he said. “It’s the type of thing that, if one thing is off about the movie, it just won’t work. But that’s how Seth and Evan approach things in general. They take big risks. When I got the part, I remember thinking, ‘This will be a great way to let people learn what’s going on over there because I don’t think enough people know.’”
Before taking on the role, Park — whose mother is retired from a job at UCLA and whose father works at a souvenir shop on Hollywood Boulevard — discussed the movie with people he knew in the local Korean community. Los Angeles’ population of ethnic Koreans is the largest in the United States, numbering roughly 60,000 as of 2008. Park — who grew up in West L.A. and whose grasp of the Korean language, he said, is “pretty bad” — wanted to gauge what the reaction within that community might be.
“I talked to friends who are deep in the Korean American community here, friends who are leaders of different subsections of the community,” he said. “I asked them what they thought and felt, and they all seemed to think it was a great movie idea. That helped.”
Park had initially been suggested for the role of Kim by director Nick Stoller, who had cast him in small roles in “The Five-Year Engagement” and “Neighbors.” “Nick was like, ‘I guarantee you’re going to hire him,’” said Rogen.
In fact, Rogen and Goldberg were so blown away by Park’s audition that they cast him almost on the spot without seeing anyone else. “He was the only person we auditioned or discussed,” Goldberg said. “He just delivered.”
In the film, Kim is portrayed as simultaneously a megalomaniacal despot and a vulnerable, overgrown man-child with daddy issues who fawns over Franco’s Dave Skylark. Though very little video footage of Kim exists, Park sought out whatever information he could find to help craft his performance.
“There was an episode of ‘Vice’ on HBO where they went to North Korea with Dennis Rodman — I watched that a lot,” he said. “Seeing Kim’s behavior around Dennis Rodman was really telling. I know Kim Jong Un is obsessed with the NBA and he looks nervous around Dennis Rodman — he’s kind of avoiding eye contact. He’s trying to be a leader but also losing it a little bit. That really informed how I approached the character.”
In shaping his take on Kim, Park — who put on more than 20 pounds for the role — was aware he was walking a fine line. He didn’t want to create a cartoonish version of the leader, but he didn’t want to make him too sympathetic either.
“We talked a lot about making sure this guy was real,” he said. “I never wanted to play a caricature. But I did think, ‘Am I humanizing him too much?’ Because he doesn’t deserve to be humanized too much.”
For further inspiration, Park studied Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in the 2006 film “The Last King of Scotland.” “I had that on repeat while I was working on this movie,” he said.
Park was at his home in the Valley, where he lives with his wife, actress Jae Suh Park, and their 2-year-old daughter, when he heard the news in late June that North Korea was threatening “a decisive and merciless countermeasure” over the film. Concerned friends called to make sure he was OK, but he wasn’t frightened.
“I was kind of expecting it,” he said. Making threats “is kind of their M.O. It’s what they do.”
At some point, Park said, Rogen and Goldberg told him that it was quite possible North Korea had already seen the movie because “they are so good at hacking and getting into things.” But he didn’t think their response would go much further than alarming-sounding bluster.
“I know that North Korea, although they seem crazy, they’re smart and there’s no way they would make policy based on a comedy movie,” he said.
Even as the firestorm over “The Interview” continues, Park is already looking ahead to his next major role as the patriarch of a Taiwanese American family in the upcoming ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat.” Slated to begin airing in February, the show is the first network series in 20 years — since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” — to focus on an Asian American family.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Park said. “We’re conscious of the community and we want to do right by it. We don’t want to delve into stereotypes. Hopefully people will like the show in the community and outside the community.”
In the more immediate term, though, Park was thinking about one very specific audience member and what he might think of “The Interview.” He wasn’t so sure he’d hate it — after all, Adolf Hitler was a fan of Charlie Chaplin and is said to have watched Chaplin’s 1940 satire “The Great Dictator” twice.
“I think it’s a great movie and aside from the obvious stuff — like him getting killed — I think Kim might like it,” Park said. “I don’t know. He’s kind of a cool character, you know?”