Fresh Off the Boat’s Randall Park on Always Being Cast as the ‘Lab Technician,’ and Seeing a Family Like His on TV

Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

It’s been a big couple of months for Randall Park. He played the world’s most famous dictator in last year’s most controversial film, The Interview. Tonight, he stars as the dad on ABC’s newest comedy, Fresh Off the Boat (based on Eddie Huang’s memoir by the same name), about an Asian-American family who moves into a predominantly white neighborhood in Orlando, Florida. Park spoke with Darby Maloney of Southern California Public Radio's arts and entertainment show “The Frame,” about The Interview, Asian-American stereotypes, and why there’s so much pressure for Fresh Off the Boat to succeed. (Listen to part of Maloney and Park’s interview here, and subscribe to “The Frame” at iTunes or Stitcher.)

You played Kim Jong-un in The Interview.

Now, going back, say, a year or so ago when you guys were shooting, did you ever in a million years anticipate what was going to happen when it was being on the verge of release?
No, no way. I knew it was a controversial subject matter, you know, definitely walking a line, but I never expected anything like that to happen. I mean, I genuinely thought, yeah it would be a bit of a controversial film but ultimately it is a comedy, it is ridiculous, it is funny. I thought the script was really funny and really smart and I did not expect to unfold the way it did. I don’t think any of us expected that to happen, you know, including the studio, or else it wouldn’t have come out. But with that said, I am glad that it eventually came out, because for a little while there we really thought no one would ever see the movie and that, yeah, we would have kind of succumbed to those threats. It was a very surreal time.

I can imagine, but now you’re back.
I’m back, baby! That’s right.

And you’re playing the dad in a new ABC sitcom called Fresh Off the Boat. What was it about Fresh Off The Boat that you identified with?
I identified with so many parts of it, even specific experiences like when he goes to school and his mom has packed him lunch. He opens up his lunch and it's Taiwanese food, and all the kids around him in the cafeteria see him with this food that's completely foreign to them; they think it's disgusting, and young Eddie feels embarrassed. And that's something that I definitely experienced as a kid, but for me it was Korean food. And I remember going to my mom and wanting her to make me something more similar to what the other kids were eating. The chances of an Asian-American family sitcom making it to pilot was not in my realm of possibility, because it had been so long since that had happened — 20 years, to be exact, when Margaret Cho's All-American Girl was on the air. But this show, based on a book like this, really felt like a long shot. And then I found out it got picked up and I was just excited the whole time. It was so fun to actually be a part of something so special, to actually go to work and see a family that looked like mine was really cool.

Eddie Huang, who wrote the memoir the show is based on, is an outspoken person in general ...
Yeah, he is, and that's what I love about him.

And he created a bit of a ripple effect when he criticized the show.
Yeah, yeah, he wrote an article, and he was being honest about his experiences in turning his memoir, his life story, into a network-TV sitcom, and all the changes that were forced upon his story to make commercial TV out of it. He had a really hard time with that, and I was with him for the whole process and I understood where he was coming from. It's tough to see things about your life being changed to make it more palatable for a bigger audience.

While shooting, did you have any of your own concerns? Eddie used certain phrases, and I might be misquoting here, but were there ever moments of, Wait, are we "whitening" it up?
Yeah, for sure. As an actor, you read so many scripts and parts written for Asian-specific characters, and you see a lot of stereotypes and a lot of one-note characters, especially in comedy. You run into a lot of issues there, and that was a definite concern of mine going into the project: Who's going to be the butt of the joke here? Is it going to be our family?

Our characters are immigrant characters, and so often when you see immigrant characters on TV, they're portrayed as jokes. And so I did have those concerns going in. I was pleased to discover that everyone had those thoughts going in, and everyone was mindful of making sure that we weren't the butt of the joke, that the show wouldn't be one stereotype after another.

We've talked about how there haven't been a lot of feature-film scripts floating around town or TV shows in the works that feature Asian-American family members or a majority Asian-American cast. If we talked to you a year ago, two years ago, what were the kinds of scripts you were being offered?
The most common things I would go out for would be, like, "the Lab Technician" on a crime procedural, usually an expert in either a medical or a computer-oriented field. [Laughs.] And I guess you could say that at the root of that is the "Asian nerd" stereotype. At the same time, I got some great roles a few years ago. Danny Chung in Veep is a really unique, very anti-stereotypical role for an Asian-American actor, and being able to play that has been super fun. But the majority of guest spots or recurring parts would be along the lines of the IT guy.

So your two most recent big projects — Fresh off the Boat, obviously, and The Interview — sparked different kinds of cultural conversations, but are there any concerns on your end about the controversies overshadowing the works themselves?
When you're the first network television sitcom to feature an Asian-American cast, there's bound to be that conversation. I completely understand it, especially the trepidation within the community of whether or not this show is going to make fun of us or be smart. I understand the controversy and the conversation, and I encourage them. But I do hope that eventually we could just be a great show, and also that we could have more shows with diverse leads so that all the pressure isn't just on this one show.

Does it feel like an extra degree of pressure because, if it doesn't succeed, that it might be like, Oh no, well, let's wait another 20 years?
[Laughs.] I know, that's the worry, huh? I don't know. It's so out of our control at this point, but I think we have a great show, and I'm happy with that whether it succeeds or fails. It would be great if it succeeds, but yeah, you're right, it is very difficult for any show to succeed nowadays. If we do, that would be remarkable. And if we don't, it's fine, but I am proud of the show either way.