Reality has exceeded his dreams

February 28, 2014

This is actor Ken Jeong’s favorite season of NBC’s Community

The Hangover star discusses his behind-the-camera roles on upcoming indie films

Ken Jeong has become one of the biggest comedic forces in Hollywood.

Ken Jeong has become one of the biggest comedic forces in Hollywood.

By the Korea Times Los Angeles staff writers

You don’t get much bigger than Ken Jeong in America. You’d think the actor would have something akin to national hero status in Korea, which Conan O’Brien wanted to find out about when Jeong appeared on his TBS talk show, but something got lost in translation.

Jeong’s jokingly responded to O’Brien’s question about his popularity across the Pacific by repeating what he says he was told by the head of Warner Bros. Korea while he was promoting the second Hangover film in Seoul: “No one know you here. You not popular. No one know you. No one like you…”

It may have been an exaggerated recounting, but the joke held a bit of truth, too. If you type Jeong’s name into the search engine on Korea’s largest online portals, the most recent story that mentions him by name is almost one year old and is actually about the actor Lee Byung-hun who, interestingly enough, is expressing his disappointment at being mistaken for Jeong while visiting America.

Koreans don’t throw a spotlight on Jeong the same way they do on ‘world stars’ annointed by the media like pop star-slash-actor Rain or Psy of Gangnam Style-fame, no matter how much the first Hangover film grossed (more than $467 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo). Jeong is a huge fan of Psy, by the way.

But, whether Koreans recognize it or not, the 44-year old Korean American actor has been in a string of hit projects since his breakout turn as the wild Leslie Chow in the 2009 comedic film The Hangover. And thanks to the buddy-comedy trilogy and the cult TV sensation Community on NBC, he has become a comedic force in Hollywood.

Jeong, who grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and whose Korean name is Jeong Kang-joh (정강조), says he’s comfortable with his fame and the absence of household-name status in Korea. “I don’t feel under-appreciated at all,” Jeong says of his popularity there, while repeatedly commenting that it was an honor to have had the chance to promote his work and films in Korea. “If anything, my journey has been a big surprise for me. I can’t complain when the reality exceeded my dream.”

His actual career journey is a good script of its own, maybe almost as noteworthy as the actor himself: Jeong, after all, is a licensed medical doctor who finished his undergraduate studies at Duke University and obtained his M.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, quit his practice to become a comedic actor and is now best known for jumping out of a trunk of a car with his junk on full display for the silver screen.

“I think of myself as a working actor,” he says. “It’s about the work.” Jeong largely credits his wife and other family members for his on-screen success and as being the driving force, or motivation that allows him to perform as best he can on a given project.

Ken Jeong wholly credited Community as the reason for his noticeable acting progress.

Ken Jeong credits Community as the reason for a noticeable progression in his acting prowess.

Jeong’s run as Ben Chang on Community

Speaking of working actors, fans and the cast members of Community are hoping for a sixth season renewal. The show has now spanned five seasons after first airing in 2009.

Jeong’s character, Ben Chang, is a former Spanish teacher who is a little bit sad – like the time he had to live in Greendale Community College’s air vents after his divorce; Ben’s a little bit mad, like the time he faked amnesia, or “Changnesia,” for the better part of an entire season; and he’s wholly scene-stealing, a rarity for a character in an ensemble cast that at one point included Chevy Chase.

“Every year, I play a different character,” he says. “As an actor, it’s stretched me. It’s been the most fulfilling part of my TV career.”

Jeong’s The Hangover director Todd Phillips complimented him recently, mentioning that he had become a better actor in-between the filming of the first and second Hangover films. Jeong credits his role on Community as the reason for his noticeable progression as an actor.

He calls show creator Dan Harmon a genius and says his favorite part of working on the show is the weekly table read, where the cast members and writers sit down to read the script out loud. “To read Dan’s writing is just — it really is that good,” he says. “To be a part of it in any capacity is really a true honor.”

Excited about behind-the-camera roles on indie films

Filming “Community,” however fulfilling, isn’t the only thing on Jeong’s plate right now. From a recent stint hosting SportsCenter on ESPN to transitioning into behind-the-camera roles on indie films, he’s been exploring new ground.

The mentality to keep growing as a performer with every new project he takes on comes directly from his work on Community and from the challenge of portraying the ever-changing Chang, he says.

His enthusiasm for these projects is palpable: Jeong speaks in a humble, calm manner that’s radically different from his comedic persona – only his laugh, that energetic string of ‘ha-ha-ha!’ is the same – but his voice picks up a beat when he discusses his role as a producer on Advantageous (written and directed by Jennifer Phang – watch vimeo ▶), an upcoming film about a mother’s sacrifice and love for her daughter, and about KTown Cowboys, another movie for which he is an executive producer. He’s also working on a short documentary film that he’s directing for ESPN.

He was so serene and serious, in fact, that this interview didn’t really feel like one with a polished comedian when it was over. When told, Jeong belted out his signature laugh.