When Ken Jeong first appeared onscreen at a recent screening of the new Jeremy Piven film The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard in Chicago this week, an audience member said, “Hey, it’s that Asian guy.” Such is Jeong’s status following a streak of scene-stealing small roles over the past couple of years: first as Katherine Heigl’s brusque OB-GYN in Knocked Up, then as the asshole ruler of a LARP realm in Role Models, then as a gay crime lord in The Hangover (which featured Jeong completely nude in one memorable scene). Jeong keeps his streak alive with The Goods, in which he plays one of several sad-sack used-car salesmen at a floundering dealership. Directed by Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan and produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions, the film finds Jeong further ensconced in the Apatow/Phillips/Ferrell/McKay Dude Ensemble. These are good times to be in that crew: Jeong landed five films shortly after Knocked Up—so many, in fact, that “Dr. Ken” had to quit his day job as a physician—and he has a full slate for the coming year, including a recurring role in Joel McHale’s new NBC comedy Community. Just before The Goods opened, Jeong spoke to The A.V. Club about his new fame, his old job, and being the Dustin Hoffman of comedy.
The A.V. Club: At the screening last night, somebody in the audience said, “Hey, it’s that Asian guy!” when he saw you.
Ken Jeong: Yeah, I do feel like maybe the redheaded guy who was the evil principal in Ferris Bueller that you saw for a string of movies. Or maybe the evil principal of The Breakfast Club—you saw him in a ton of movies. I’m the guy that no one knows, but everyone’s like, “You’re that guy in that film thing.”
AVC: The next step is getting them to remember your name.
KJ: I’ve taken care of that. I wear T-shirts with my first and last name on it, just so they can. And I have a bunch of headshots that I like to throw at people—with some backups. I give them like three copies just so they don’t forget me.
AVC: Maybe you should follow the advice of Texas State Representative Betty Brown, and simplify your Asian name—Ken Smith or something.
KJ: Yeah, I was just about to say Ken Smith, absolutely. I should be Ken Smith. Ken Jones maybe might be nice. It’s the white equivalent of Jeong. My parents have to lighten up and relax. “It’s comedy, guys!” [Laughs.]
AVC: You excelled in school and you’re a doctor. Were your parents supportive of your acting when you were first getting started?
KJ: You know, I cannot believe how supportive they’ve been. I suppose when movies make over $100 million, it’s very easy to be supportive. No, even before Knocked Up, they knew that I had such a great time filming, and I was still at my day job, working. I did a vacation week, and I was filming all my scenes during that time. Before it was released, I was so happy doing that. If Knocked Up came out and did well, I was happy to go back to my job and just have that. I felt like I have that credit that no other doctor could claim. I felt that sense of pride. It was really just a big moment for me—I mean, not only professionally, which it was. It was the greatest, biggest moment of my career, but it was also one of the biggest moments of my life. It was such an amazing feeling to be on that movie set. And for the first scene I ever did in any movie, I improvised for about 10 minutes, and then there’s applause by the crew, you know what I mean? I haven’t had that before or since. It was just such an amazing moment. And for these other movies… The Hangover and The Goods, Role Models, Pineapple Express, it’s great. I was like, “Man, I just really hit the lottery.”
AVC: With The Hangover, Warner Bros. was hoping it’d be the tent-pole for their comedies, which they had been missing.
KJ: Right, right, I read that article. I think they have a whole circus full of tents now. I did know it was going to be a good film when we were shooting it, but no one knew the sum was greater than its parts. It was like Knocked Up, where I knew it was a good film, but when you saw the final product, you were like, “Oh my God.” It was really good. It’s a great feeling to be a part of these movies. I love Role Models so much. I mean, that King character, that was the only character that didn’t come easy to me. I had to do a lot of research for that.
AVC: It’s a whole other world.
KJ: Yeah, I actually went to those LARPing events out near Malibu. I had to research for like six weeks. I think Matt Walsh, who was my co-star in the movie, called me “the Dustin Hoffman of comedy.” Then my follow up question is, “Do you like Dustin Hoffman or not?” I wasn’t sure whether he was meaning it as compliment. [Laughs.] Are you being a smartass, Matt? Are you being one of those comedy-elitist pricks right now?
AVC: Do you feel like you’re getting spoiled by working with all of these really established comic actors and directors?
KJ: I’m really trying not to be, because the way I look at it, since I’m not a main character of any of these movies, I realize just how fortunate I am. I feel like Jud Buechler from the Chicago Bulls back in ’97, or Steve Kerr of the Bulls, where I’m the guy who comes off of the bench and does my thing, you know? But I’m not Jordan. I just feel very grateful to be a part of that, to be a part of a winning team… I’m trying hard not to be used to it, but I am kind of. It is something where I’ve run out of people that I want to work with because I’ve worked with everybody I ever wanted to. I really have. I can’t think of anyone I’d want to work with right now because I’d just want to work with the same people again. [Laughs.]
AVC: Jeremy Piven has said The Goods has the funniest cast he’s worked with.
KJ: It’s so funny. The thing about Piven that was great was, I don’t think he’s ever been around a cast of, like, 10 comedic actors, and there was definitely a sense of mutual attraction. I’m a big Entourage fan, and Piven’s coming up to me or David [Koechner] for like, “What if I riff on this? What if I do this?” He’d ask us for feedback, so we would give him lines, and he would give us lines. It was really collaborative, and I was like, “This guy can totally bring it.” I mean, I know he’s an amazing actor just with his theater background, his stage background from the Piven Theatre, but he brings an unexpected layer of depth to Don Ready. It’s great because I really learned from him. He has these subtle movements that can really direct a scene. I was watching a screening Saturday and just studying his every move. He’s just got these little pockets of moves that are second nature to him, and just as an actor I’m like, “Oh, okay, I could steal that.” I would do the same thing to Paul Rudd in Knocked Up. I would watch some of the things that he’d do and I’d find myself stealing. [Laughs.]
AVC: What kind of subtle moves?
KJ: Just reaction glances. Both of those guys, I think a lot of comedic actors, on their close-up they can deliver. But when it comes to reacting to other people being funny, that’s work in itself. I hate to sound so Comedy Theory 101—I know it’s sounding really boring—but for me, Rudd in Role Models, when he reacts to things that Seann William Scott does, he does certain things that help stretch the scene a little more, and it makes Seann look better. I felt like Piven would do the same thing. He would make all of us look better by his reactions. It’s a very subtle thing, but when the movie comes for a close-up, and they show that quick shot, it makes it funnier. Because we’re trying to dunk and do fancy moves to the basket, but what you really need is a point guard who can direct the flow. I really realize the more movies I do just how important—it’s so cliché when people say it, because everybody says it nowadays—but it’s so important to keep it grounded. I totally understand what that means.
AVC: How did you get involved with The Goods?
KJ: I think I had a meeting with [director Neal Brennan] while I was shooting Role Models, and I think, long story short, that’s how I got the part. I do remember he was impressed that I’d actually gone to a used-car lot. A friend of a friend was a car salesmen, and she let me shadow her for a weekend. I really just got into selling cars and just trying to get the lingo down. The thing is, this character is a little bit different from the other movies because I’m really not like a “villain” in this movie. I’m an inept car salesman whose character is taught by Jeremy Piven and his team of used-car liquidators to move over 250 cars over Fourth Of July weekend. So it’s a nice little tweak in terms of my own acting, because I get to reference something that’s a little more, I wouldn’t say subtle, but it was definitely different because I get to channel another side of me that’s a little more shy or a little bit more socially awkward.
AVC: When you were starting out in comedy, you had this whole separate career. Did that lower the stakes for you, because you knew this could just be a fun hobby?
KJ: Absolutely, the stakes were completely low. I wasn’t expecting to quit my job after Knocked Up. I wasn’t expecting to quit anything. I’m the kind of guy that was happy with one line in a show. I was making my money elsewhere. I didn’t need the money at that time. Now I’m working, I’m doing acting full-time, and I do need the money. [Laughs.] But no, at that time it was great because I wasn’t worrying about anything. If I didn’t work for a year, who cares? Because I had a day job, and I had a circle of friends who were doctors who were comedy nerds like me who I could share it with. It was great. But for now, for this to come the way it is… I mean, The Hangover just blows my mind. I have an out-of-body experience when I think about The Hangover now. You know how groups like Pearl Jam say once your song is released, other people interpret it for what they will, and it becomes less the group’s song and more the people’s song? I feel that way about The Hangover. It’s not my movie anymore; it’s the people’s movie and how they choose to interpret it. It’s bizarre, because so many people have seen it, and it’s definitely changed the recognizability factor for me. Before it was like, “Hmm,” and now, “Oh, you’re that guy!” So for me that stuff’s a huge deal. They still don’t know my name. [Laughs.]
AVC: But a whole lot of people have seen you naked now.
KJ: [Laughs.] Yeah, a whole lot of people.