Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Director and Actor Justin Chon
The entertainment industry is notorious for whitewashing Asian/Asian American characters. Simultaneously, the roles available for Asian/Asian American actors usually perpetuate Asian stereotypes. Actor and director Justin Chon wants that to change. Rather than wait for the perfect script to fall in his lap, Justin directed his own film and smashed stereotypes in the process. His film, Gook, highlights an unlikely friendship set against the backdrop of the 1992 LA Uprisings. Samuel Goldwyn picked up the highly acclaimed film and it's on its way to Sundance NEXT FEST. By creating his own content, Justin exemplifies ways to outsmart the industry and transcend Asian American media representation.
By Eric Nakamura and Natalie Mark
Video and Photos by George Ko
GR: What's on your t-shirt? I see Russian words and an Asian guy.
Justin Chon: This guy is Victor Tsoi. He came onto the scene right at the fall of the USSR. He was basically the Kurt Cobain or a sort of Sex Pistols revolutionary musician. He was half Russian half Korean and this was the name of his band— it says Kino. It's really interesting because no one knows about them. The only reason I know is because my wife is Russian. That's the thing about Russia; people think it's like Sweden where everyone is just white. But it's actually influenced by Asia because all of the Stans— Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan— they're the buffer between China and Russia so the people all look like Hapas.
GR: If you look at their features some look East Asian, mixed, and white.
JC: I thought I was going to be the only nonwhite person in Russia, but when I got there I was like, "What?" It was a trip. It was something I never realized.
GR: Let's talk about your movie "Gook." It takes place in Paramount. I know your family had a shop in Paramount that got looted during the Riots. Can you talk about how the real event happened?
JC: When my dad immigrated here he worked at swap meets. There were so many indoor swap meets all around California so he just did all of them. Eventually when he got some money together, he sold athletic shoes wholesale. He had a small storefront right across the bridge from East Compton over the 710 on Rosecrans Ave. He was selling shoes. When the riots broke out you couldn't tell when it was going to stop. As the days progressed, the police started losing control and started barricading areas. You could see it start to spread. I think that's the thing about the Riots that a lot of people don't know. It wasn't just South Central. It spread. There were even outbreaks in Long Beach. My dad's place got looted on the 4th day, which was basically the tail end of the riots. He was there and the police department tried to vacate them but he stayed on his property. There was a point where it was just too dangerous so he left. But when he did, the whole place got ransacked.
GR: Wow, so he didn't have help?
JC: He did. His workers and other employees helped for a while. Mexican gangs were offering assistance for money. That's something you would never hear about, but that was available. When it comes down to it and there was a mob, he had to ask himself, "Is it worth it?" So he just left and let it get ransacked. It was like a tornado had just come through. Back then they had metal things that would go up to store the inventory. When you don't have enough space, you go upwards. All that stuff was toppled over. Just shoe boxes and stuff all over the ground. I'm sure he carried Jordans but back in the day it was LA Gear, British Knights, all that stuff. Reebok was big, so was FILA. It was the tail end of that.
GR: You actually patterned your character on your dad.
JC: Basically. The idea was based off, “What if the kids got left this store?” I made it a women's shoe store because I thought, “What business do these two brothers have running a women's shoe store?” My dad told me when immigrants come to the United States they just need to figure out a business they can do. With women shoes you're just trying to fulfill a need in a neighborhood, which is similar to a lot of immigrant businesses in those areas. The reason a lot of Korean people had liquor stores or small groceries was because bigger chains didn't want to be in those neighborhoods; it's too much risk and management problems. That's why Korean people went into those neighborhoods and set up shop.
GR: That's a word that feels like it's almost extinct. I remember as a kid seeing it on a bumper sticker. I was like, “What is that?” It was a sticker that said, "No Gooks." But no one uses it now.
JC: No one uses it anymore. They would use "chink" more than "gook." When I was filming, the actors and the patrons were born in the 90s and they didn't even know how to say it. They pronounced it "g-uh-k." We were like, "Oh no, that's not how you say it." It was weird to actually tell them how to say the word because I felt conflicted about it. They don't know how to say it because it's becoming extinct. But here I am telling them how to properly say a derogatory term against me. That's a big conversation, that even our own derogatory words don't hold weight. It's good in a way but it's also sheds light on how there's no focus on Asian American issues. Even the derogatory terms haven't stuck, which is sort of weird. My intention wasn't for it to have shock value. It was just a scene in the film where he talks about the definition of the word. I wanted people to be curious as to why you would name it a derogatory term. It seemed fitting.
GR: I guess you kind of own it now. It belongs to you for now.
JC: I'm conflicted. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing.
GR: I think it's explained. I thought the movie was awesome. How many times did you come up with the situation where someone thought it was going to be about something else? I was expecting your movie to be about someone in Koreatown and it's completely not.
JC: That's what you want in a historical-based film that is not a history lesson. If you want to talk about something, the best way to talk about it is indirectly. That was my goal. If you watch a documentary to find out the actual events there is a version of that movie worth making. But that isn't the film I wanted to make. It's a challenge. What makes it worth telling the story from the Korean and Asian perspective? What is my contribution to the conversation? I don't think it's from the writing or the Koreatown perspectives. Yeah, there's that but I think when you watch a film, if the audience knows where it's going to go, you're kind of already dead in the water. I think that was one of the things I was conscious of when I was writing.
GR: I think a comparison has been made to Do The Right Thing, because that was based on the hottest day of the summer. Yours was the day the riots started. It had a different backdrop but similar in that it took place in one day.
JC: I'm a huge Spike Lee fan and I didn’t want to feel like I lifted stuff right from the film, so I didn't watch it. But no matter what your influence ends up in the work you do. I was more influenced by La Haine, which was black and white. That was a huge inspiration for me. It's about three guys and it's about a different riot but around the same time. That was more of a direct influence than Do the Right Thing. When I first saw La Haine, I was like, “Whoa!” Now it's such a classic when you push in and zoom out. I think that film does it the best out of any film I've seen, just youth wanting to have this bravado and misplaced anger. The film captures it incredibly well.
GR: Why was your film in black and white?
JC: I didn’t want people to sit through the first 15 minutes and dissect it, "Is this period perfect?" I wanted to draw attention away from the color palette and whether the shirts were worn down enough. Another thing was budget. I couldn’t buy out streets and dress it with period perfect cars. You have a little bit of leeway with black and white. Also, telling the story in black and white was incredibly difficult because it was much more lighting intensive, the direction of the sun was really important. Working in contrast is a different way I had never done before. I tried to design this while in pre-production, which was the fun part.
GR: You probably had tons of people telling you it should be in color.
JC: Yeah! Some of the first investment meetings I had thought we could get money from a more traditional finance firm but they said, "Don't make it black and white. We're not going to be able to sell this film. You're putting yourself in the same category of documentaries, in terms of sales." It was such a huge thing. They told me I had to make it in color but then I questioned even making the film. That's exactly what I don’t want to do. If we're going to go there, if we're going to take a risk, having basically no Caucasian people in the film, why not go all the way? Originally, I wanted to shoot in digital and do a 16-millimeter transfer. Just not even a conversation of cost. That was the most foolish dream to have.
GR: The cinematography is amazing. I thought it was beautifully shot.
JC: That is a huge credit to my DP (Director of Photography), Andy Chang. He's a Taiwanese cinematographer. When we were doing prep, he brought me a look sheet and a mood sheet and one of the big things he had was Schindler's List. He was like, “Look at how the light's coming in,” and I'm like, “Alright cool.” That was one of his big things. He said, “Let's make this the LA Riots’ Schindler's List!” and I was like, “Okay... let's talk about it.” He's great. He killed it.
GR: That may have added to its commercial appeal. You sold it.
JC: Absolutely. I've gotten comparisons to Clerks, but I purposely stayed away from those static scenes. That is why the camera is constantly moving. We used moving masters a lot when we covered scenes with the camera moving around, which was very conscious. We were already in this location; we couldn’t be static and dead. It needed to be constantly moving.
GR: I didn't think about the film being in black and white after a while. It's a testament to the quality of it.
JC: That was a big thing. People thought, “Well, how's the comedy going to translate if it's black and white.” I was like, “Why wouldn't it translate?” It doesn't need to be vibrant in color; it needs to be vibrant characters. People thought it wasn't going to be funny because it’s in black and white. I said, “Who says so? It's funny!” That's the coolest thing about making this film. You can't really explain it to them. When I was trying to get money for it, I was trying to show the visuals of comparable things, but for a film like this, the only way to show them is to actually show them. People thought the story was so unorthodox because of the relationship between an Asian guy and an 11-year-old black girl. They couldn’t comprehend that dynamic being played out on screen. But it's so not weird at all. You just have to show them.
GR: Simone Baker was amazing. I thought it was cool the story was not about the LA Riots; it was about family and friends. Was that the intention?
JC: That was the intention. I wanted to laser focus on a friendship with the external stuff as the backdrop. How does the period affect the dynamic? I think that's way more of an interesting look at that time period than just talking about the riots. I wanted to make a film about the riots from a Korean American perspective but the friendship was always the spine of the film.
GR: What was it like to direct yourself?
JC: It sucks. I hate it because I don't get to protect my own performance. I really have to rely on the deep and heavy scenes from rehearsals. The DP kind of knows what I want. It's more an exercise of preparation because if I didn't prep it right, then I can't really be trying to do things on the fly since I'm directing myself. I just have to know I did the prep work so when we're shooting I'm not worrying about my performance.
It's cool in other ways because it's like shorthand with actors. We did about a month and a half of rehearsals and I already worked out all the kinks with them directly. I was rehearsing with them so when we stepped on set it wasn't like some other actor was taking my place. We had already rehearsed and I'm in the scene with them. I can direct through acting. If it's on, say, Simone’s coverage, I can deliver my line differently to get her to react differently. I can provoke her more to get her to do a different thing, which is shorthand. I don't have to explain it; I just have make her react to what I'm doing. It's a different way of directing but it's also very terrifying because I don't know exactly how my performance is. I only know what their performance is.
I'm more of the straight man in the film. I have a very singular role— to protect the store. With them, my job as director is to be straight and make them shine and make their nuances live. It's to assist play rather than to try and outshine each other. You know actors want to be the stars. As a director, I was very much trying not to be the star. Very purposely, my role was to not outshine anyone. Who are these characters and how do I make them look like Lebron James?
GR: What was it like working with your father who was a child actor?
JC: He was incredibly grumpy and difficult. At first there were all these reservations like, “Am I going to be able to direct him? Is he going to be able to take my directions?” He was really particular. He didn't want to do night shoots but half of the film was at night. It was interesting once we got into the motions because I got to see that he actually is an actor. He would ask the right questions, he would be concerned about his wardrobe and what that meant. As an actor you do all that stuff, but to see your parental figure— an older Korean man— be operating in that way was weird. The first few takes were weird. But after we got the ball rolling it felt like any other shoot. He respected me as a director but at the end of any day he would turn back into dad mode and bitch me out about something that has nothing to do with the shoot. It was part of the reason I wanted to make the film, to be able to have those scenes with him. Now I have that forever.
GR: Was he into the whole idea of the movie? Because he lived it?
JC: No, he wasn't. In his eyes he was like, “Why do you want to relive that time? Why do you want to reopen that wound and talk about such a traumatic time in our family's history and in immigrant Korean history?” He just didn't understand why we wanted to talk about it. My thing is about why we have to. It's a part of our history. If we don't tell it from our perspective then someone else will tell it for us and that's not what I want. It took a bit for him to understand why, but once he saw how people reacted to it, he was like, "Okay I guess it was worth it."
GR: As soon as I saw him pull out the gun in that one scene. I thought about Latasha Harlins. Was that intentional?
JC: Absolutely. Some people were upset I didn't go more into that correlation. But that's not what the film is about. This is my story, through my lens, and it’s really about unifying. I touched on it. I was playing with the idea of tricking the viewer into thinking the movie is a conventional LA 1992 film but it's not anything like that. In the beginning, I show these things and the viewer thinks, “Oh my god, is this going to be the typical do-the-right-thing Korean grocer?” But it's not. I humanize this guy. I make you hate him and then I make you like him. I've gotten some heat about not going more into the Latasha Harlins issue, but I can't make a movie for everybody.
GR: It scared me when I saw it. It must have been really fun to have cussed out your dad.
JC: I had to show people that on script it said, "Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you." It was just seven "Fuck you”s in a row in the script and people were like, "What is this?" I was like, "No, it'll be funny trust me." But during the script phrase people thought it was stupid. I think it works.
GR: What happens now? Where is it going to go?
JC: At Sundance. Samuel Goldwyn bought it. Our rollout will start at the Arclight Hollywood on August 18th. The next time it will play in LA will be for Sundance Next Fest in Downtown at the Ace Hotel. I think that’s on August 12th.
GR: Is it going to be a national rollout?
JC: I think they're talking to a big chain and we'll see if they commit. I think it will be in major cities. It's really important people go see it the first weekend and the first week because that will dictate whether they expand it or if you're just going to see it on Netflix. I think it's important if you are interested in Asian American film or Asian American voices to support it monetarily, otherwise it doesn't give any basis for studios to desire to make film from the Asian American point of view.
GR: Will you make more movies like this?
JC: I'm writing something right now with Sal Paskowitz who wrote The Age of Adaline. It's about Korean brothers who surf their way down Argentina with their Mexican best friend. I’ll imagine it and write it. But getting money for this stuff is so incredibly difficult. There's another one that'd I'd like to make about a blind masseuse living in New York. But again, it's hard to get money for it. I just signed on to do a book adaptation of this New York Times bestseller called Counting by Sevens. It's about a black girl and her relationship with this Vietnamese family to form a family around her so she doesn’t get taken to foster care. That's how I can dip my toe into a commercial space while maintaining my integrity. I can still do a little bit there to tell the Asian American narrative. But we're still a long way.
GR: Asian American cinema isn't really a genre.
JC: Yeah and it needs to be.
GR: Tell me about BgA, this boy band.
JC: It's kind of Ryan Higa's brainchild. He just wanted to parody a K-Pop band and K-Pop music in general. It's funny because our first song is titled "I Need To Take A Poo." It ended up being a parody but our second one started to be more legit. More traditional K-Pop and people are treating us like an actual K-Pop band. We were on top of the iTunes K-Pop charts. That's a testament to Ryan's following but it's meant poke fun at how rabid the fans are. I don't even know really where it's going or what it is. It's us having fun. It's also so cool that you can make something as a joke and it can get so much traction. It's a conversation about how global Asian pop culture has become. It used to be Japan.
GR: How will you transition into an actor playing people in their 30s or 40s after playing so many young people? Do you look forward to that or is there a challenge in there?
JC: Early on I wanted to grow out of playing young people. I always wanted to be the Asian Sean Penn and play the Mystic River roles. But after a while you have to look at yourself very honestly, and I just look young. It's just not possible and the roles aren't written for me to look at it outside of the box. There comes a point where you just have to embrace it. I just got to pick the roles that are interesting. I'll do a commercial thing like 21 & Over or Twilight but I will also do a bunch of indie, weird things. Or take risks with films like Seoul Searching. I just did a film based on writer Tao Lin's novel and it's called Taipei that is super millennial. I’m looking for those roles where I can still get stretched even while playing young people. Going forward, I'm going on a television series for ABC called Deception and hopefully if it's a success and it will go more than one season, I can bridge that gap within that time span. I can do that on the show. If they want to keep me infantile and not mature in the show then I'll just have to live with that. I've been trying to do riskier roles in smaller films and push myself there with stuff that might not necessarily make sense for me right now, like playing a cop or young detective. Looking for those kind of films is where I'd like to start to bridge that gap. I'm still trying to figure it out.
GR: Your credits are gigantic and you have tons of roles. I saw Twilight and I saw some indie horror film. It shows a lot of range.
JC: I just want to make stuff. That's why I directed and I wrote. I don't see myself as just an actor. I just want to create. Creation and collaboration is fun for me. I look at it in more of those terms rather than being like, "I am just this and I don't want to be seen outside of acting drama." For me being a minority and a diverse voice, it can be very limiting because there's not that much choice. I think it's okay. That's why I do so much YouTube. We're in an era where no one cares. You can do a sketch for Funny or Die but it's not going to take away your credibility.
GR: Where did all the acting chops come from?
JC: I thought about acting in high school and I was just such a lover of the Cineplex and movies. I could spend hours watching TV. I learned how to be an American by watching films and television. When I went to college and I did an internship during the Internet boom in the late 90s, I was just like, “This is not what I want to do. I don't want to be in an office. So what are the other options?” Acting was a pipe dream but a worthwhile endeavor. I thought, “I like watching these shows, maybe I can be in one.” Then I fell in love with the craft and once that happens it's not just about being famous or being recognized; it becomes a love of the artistry. The skills come from constantly working at it. I still take classes now. That's what's fun about it. You'll never get to where you would like to be. That striving to achieve, that unattainability is what keeps you growing as an actor. Directing, I'm still such a baby at it so that's fun because I can actually see the improvement from film to film and even experimenting in shorts. I can see myself improving in bigger strides. But acting, it's just small tiny wins.
GR: What's it like having to compete against so many Korean American actors and colleagues?
JC: We all collectively support each other in the creation of more Asian-centric films. I don't feel like it's a competition because we’re all different. I'm not the same kind of actor as Steven Yeun. The essence of what we bring is so different. I don't think I'm competing with him because if he gets a role he's going to do it completely different than I would. It's not like we're so similar in style and tone of acting that it's a direct competition. If he got it, then he brought something I just don't have. In that way, I don't feel like I'm losing out.
Of course, the frustrating part is that we're all going for the same roles. I'll see people who are 18 to 50. How am I auditioning for the same role as this 50 year old that I respect and grew up watching? They'll create one Asian role and that's what's frustrating. Why are all of us vying for this one role? Which goes back to creating. It's eye opening when you make your own stuff. You don't look at it the same way. Behind the camera, they're going to choose who's best for it, but in the meantime if I don't get this, I can make something and satisfy myself artistically. It's frustrating because of the lack of opportunities.
GR: How many roles have you got that were not even written for an Asian person?
JC: I think a majority. When it's for an Asian guy, they have so many actors to choose from. But I'm the wild card. In Twilight, for example, my name was Eric Yorkie. The director Catherine Hardwicke fought for me. They were saying, "No, there are no Asian people in Forks, Washington," and she's like, "Why not?" 21 & Over was written for an Asian guy. My name is Jeff Chang. That's like John Doe for Asian people. I competed with a lot of people. People came up to me afterwards and told me they were up against me for the role.
GR: I think I first saw you in Crossing Over, a great underrated film.
JC: I don't think most people even know about it.
GR: I thought it was a great movie. There was a Giant Robot sticker behind you in a scene! You played a 15 or 16-year-old?
JC: I was really young. That role was obviously meant for an Asian. It's all about immigration. I was a kid about to be naturalized. To be honest, I thought that film would be my meal ticket. Originally Sean Penn was in, but he got cut out because he didn't want to be in the film. But it was Sean Penn, Ashley Judd, Harrison Ford, Ray Liotta, Jim Sturgess, Alice Eve, and Josh Gad. I thought that was it. I was one of the leads. I thought, “Shit, I'm about to blow up.” Nah.
GR: Do you have any dream roles?
JC: My mentality has been less focused and more open to possibilities. I would love to play Victor Tsoi because I'm sure Russians would be really appalled if an American was playing a Russian icon.
GR: Is the Internet giving you that opportunity?
JC: Yeah, because anything is possible now. I can go film it on an a7s.
GR: I heard somebody tried to make you do an accent for a role. What kind of accent were they trying to make you do?
JC: Just a blanket Asian accent.
GR: What is an Asian accent?
JC: That's what's annoying. They say, "Give me an Asian accent" and you're like, "Well. That could be Cantonese, it could be Mainland, it could be Vietnamese, Filipino, or Korean." They're all so different in nature. I'm like, “What does that mean?”
GR: You didn't do one?
JC: I didn't even go in the room because I found out they were going to trick me. They bring you in the room and they make no mention of an accent in the script because it doesn't need it. I had a feeling though. When you get in the room, they ask for an accent. When you're already in that vulnerable position, in the position of wanting the job, it's really unfair to all of a sudden bring that all. Ethically, do you say no and walk out? Or do you say "Sure"? It puts the actor in a very weird position.
GR: That would suck to be that person then. Sold out is the wrong word, it's still a job.
JC: I can never blame the actor because they didn't write the role. It's so hard to make a living as an Asian American actor in the first place. I can't fault anyone for taking it. But for me, it's also how the office dealt with it. I called my manager right away to say that I'm not doing the accent. He called the casting and they said, “Then tell him to leave. It's his choice.” They were so unsympathetic to it. I was shocked. I guess we still don't have power because they can just talk to us like that and I can't take it to the press. They're not scared at all to talk to us that way. I thought that was really disturbing. It's a long history. I walked out and I thought about ways to turn the experience into a positive. At least I can air it out and talk about it. I thought we had gotten at least some progress but it was a rude awakening into how short of a distance we've come. It was frustrating. It's changing, slowly.
GR: That's a tough one. You don't want to be Gedde Watanabe playing Long Duk Dong. He still has to live that down.
JC: It's such a bummer. I like that movie. I'm a huge John Hughes fan so it's just such a bummer. I did it. I'm not sinless. I did it in the beginning to myself. There were a series of T-mobile commercials with these poser gangster guys and I went into the audition. It wasn't written for a Chinese but I brought it in with this pseudo-fake accent, making fun of myself. I vowed after that that I would never do that again. I really try to never do those stereotypical things. Even in Crossing Over, he was an immigrant so it made sense that he had an accent. But I get it. It's come a little bit, but I can't stress it enough. That's why I like making films from our point of view. It’s important to make good shit. It's cool to make your own films but think it through. It doesn't do anyone service if it's shitty. Ask for help.
GR: There are a lot of films that get trapped in Asian American land. They're fighting the good fight and they're finding the money and ways to get made but I'm watching it and it feels like 20 years ago.
JC: I was sitting in one of the Asian Film festivals watching a film and it was the same Dragon Lady doing the traditional dance or tai chi in the courtyard. I was like, “Oh god. Joy Luck Club was over 20 years ago. How are we still making the same film about tiger mom bullshit?” Like cool, okay. Have that in the film but don't make it the focus of the film. Don't make it with the ending being Dragon Dance or eating mooncakes. Millennials don't want to see that. They get turned off. They want to hear an awesome Kendrick Lamar song playing while Asian people are rocking out and doing drugs or doing whatever they're doing. That's what I want to see.