Randall Park’s Small-Town L.A.

The star of Fresh Off the Boat has made Always Be My Maybe, a rom-com inspired by his own life.

Photo: Clarke Tolton
Photo: Clarke Tolton

“This is the mall I lost my virginity at,” Randall Park says as he eases his aqua RAV4 into a spot near the J.C. Penney at the Westfield Culver City. We’re discreetly in the shadow of the Marina Freeway. He leans back and gazes into the distance: It was 1993, and his high-school girlfriend had returned from college just as he was beginning his first year at UCLA. He doesn’t remember if they had planned to do it right there, in the back of his Corolla in a parking lot — just that it would be the first time for both of them and that they had been anticipating this moment for months with the intensity and sincerity of, well, virgins.

“I have letters that we sent to each other building it up, like, ‘This is gonna be so special, and it’s gonna be great,’ ” he says. “And it was just horrible. It didn’t last long. It was clumsy. I remember afterward thinking, It was supposed to be so much more than that. We went to McDonald’s, and the moment that I remember is us just standing there, staring at the menu, and me feeling, Oh my God, I’m a piece of shit.”

Casually offering up personal mortification is just part of Park’s style. That very special moment in his life gets replayed and remixed in Always Be My Maybe, a romantic comedy he co-wrote and stars in with his friend Ali Wong. They play childhood best friends Marcus and Sasha, who upset the delicate balance of heterosexual friendship with an awkward, fumbling, pre-college hurrah in the back of Marcus’s — yes — Corolla. After they fight at a Burger King, their relationship goes into a freeze that lasts into adulthood.

At 45, Park radiates stability, like a well-built house. This has apparently been true since his college days, when his nickname as a counselor at UniCamp (a camp for underserved kids) was Care Moose, because he was warm and nurturing but also strong. When he drives, sometimes he folds his arms across his chest and steers the wheel with just his left knee — which seems alarming at first, except you feel that nothing could go wrong.

Park has mentally sketched out a route for a drive around L.A. today. “I have that small-town mentality,” he says. “My town just happens to be this big city.” He wants to show me the house in Castle Heights that he grew up in; the sidewalks he wandered during the L.A. riots his senior year; the UCLA campus, where he came into his own, co-founding an Asian–American theater group called LCC, and where he pursued a master’s degree in Asian–American studies; and the Starbucks where he worked while he was in what he calls “that struggle mode.”

“When I first started acting, I really was genuinely okay with the idea of struggling for the rest of my life,” he says as we sit idly in the Starbucks parking lot. “You kind of have to in order to do what you love.” He was still working there at 32 while on MTV’s Wild’n Out with Nick Cannon. Maybe it was embarrassing, but he had student loans to pay. “I needed it,” Park says. “MTV is not known for paying super-well.”

Those were the desert years for Asian-American actors: There were few roles, and the ones that existed felt like traps. “I came into it equipped with these principles because of my Asian-American-studies background, but there was certainly a negotiation that had to take place just for me to get a foot in the door.”

Park participated in network diversity showcases, but they often felt like exercises in futility. “There wasn’t much follow-through early on. They were just like, ‘Let’s just get these organizations off our backs and show them that we’re doing something,’ ” he says. “I remember doing the CBS showcase in 2006, and it was kind of shocking to me. Their comedic sensibility was so dated and so steeped in that minstrel tradition. I think the people running it really got a kick out of that.”

Early in his career, after years of writing his own material for LCC and other groups, Park took a weekend intensive workshop at Lesly Kahn & Co. It was the class to take: Part of it was about acting, but it was also about how you sell yourself. One of the goals was to come out of the workshop with a log line for yourself, i.e., an elevator pitch that would let agents, executives, and showrunners know what your type is. One of the exercises had you sit with your back to the rest of the class, while the other students free-associated and shouted out whom they thought you could play onscreen. Park remembers one student, a handsome white guy with long hair, sitting down and people saying, “Renegade cop, cowboy.” When it was Park’s turn, they said, “Nerd, tech guy, child molester.”

“It was really traumatic for me,” Park says. “I was well aware of these stereotypes, but it wasn’t what I was used to, because I was so used to playing everything in college. I was just used to being everything. It was a rude awakening.”

Inevitably, Park was confronted with the moral dilemma actors of color have often faced: Do you refuse the compromising role, or do you take it and live to eat another day? He has his regrets. The first pilot he ever got was a Fox sitcom called Lucky Us in 2004, in which he played the evil neighbor, a gay Mr. Yunioshi caricature named Jimmy.

“I was the villain of the show,” he says. “At the time, it was a mix of a lot of things in my head, like, I could bring humanity to it. That was always my thing. But in the pilot it was all one-note, and had that gotten picked up, it would have broken my heart. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

Eventually, he landed a memorable bit as Asian Jim in The Office, a recurring role as Danny Chung on Veep, and finally Fresh Off the Boat, the first show starring an Asian-American family on network television since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl. There was unreasonable pressure on the show: How long would they have to wait again if it failed? But the show succeeded, and helped usher Asian-American representation into a new era.

Speaking of, ABC recently renewed Fresh Off the Boat for a sixth season, much to the chagrin of his co-star Constance Wu. Wu spiraled on social media, eventually explaining that the pickup had prevented her taking another dream job. “[Constance] is, I think, ready to explore other things,” Park told me before the renewal news and subsequent drama. “As am I. I’m at a place now where if the show ends, I’ll be thrilled because then I’ll get to try to do other things.”

But, he says, if it keeps going, he’ll be thrilled too. The regularity of the job helped him pay off his student loans and break free of credit-card debt. Not only that, it allowed him to buy a house in the Valley, where he could live with his wife, the actress Jae Suh Park, and their child, Ruby.

“I feel like I’m at a good place for myself,” he says. “I never really thought I’d ever be able to have a great family, and live in a nice place.”

“Every time I come in here, I tell her I’m gonna remodel,” Park says as we step into his childhood home, which his parents bought in 1978 for $98,000. “Which I’m gonna do.”

“I don’t need your money. Are you kidding?” says Duk Hee Park, his mother. She has a moist rag in her hand from cleaning. She asks me if I want anything to eat: some fruit, maybe?

“Look at this,” says the actor, gesturing toward a flap of wood bending upward off the floor.

“Oh, well, that’s where we glue it. I don’t wanna go through that.”

They go on like this for a little while, but the impossibility of the task is overwhelming and Park shrugs, slightly exasperated. When his mother speaks, he assumes a familiar Korean child’s posture, his shoulders slightly hunched and a sheepish look on his face. Whatever his age, he’ll always be his mother’s baby.

Park’s parents met when his father went back to Korea to find a wife (their families knew each other in Daegu). They settled down in L.A. in 1970 and had Randall’s brother, Daniel, a year later. His father worked at an import-export company and in the toy business, while his mother raised the kids before becoming an accountant at UCLA. She’s also a painter, and some of her still lifes hanging in the house are reproduced in Always Be My Maybe as the work of Marcus’s mother.

Park tells me his mother wanted him to be a doctor or a scientist. I ask what she thought of her son’s career choice.

“I never worried,” she says.

“Yeah, you did.”

“We argued a couple of times,” she admits. “He hated me those days.”

“I didn’t hate her.”

“You had anger towards me. I felt it.”

“They were so against it. And I was so dependent on their approval. Well, I mean, I still am. And because they were so against it, every time I had a little victory, I would tell them and they would shoot it down. And I think over time I was like, Oh, I can’t even tell them about this.”

“Because show business is a long road, okay?” she says. “My day, entertainment is not easy. It’s long way to get there. Especially as a minority. That’s why I kind of against you.”

They show me the little room, now stuffed with odds and ends, that Park grew up sleeping in, and then the larger one that he lived in as an adult. In many ways, Marcus from Always Be My Maybe is a version of Park who never left home. He’s perfectly content, if a little emotionally stunted, living at home and working for his father’s A/C company while rapping on the side with his band, Hello Peril. (Park also rapped with the group Ill Again.)

They take me out to the backyard, where there’s a big white wall that Park would use as a backdrop for a makeshift theater space — a continuation of what he was doing in college under a group called Proper Gander. They would set up a bar on the end, and his parents’ house became a local theater.

“Take a picture of this. This is beautiful,” says his mother, gesturing to the blooming yellow rosebush in the center, where I could imagine L.A. comedy nerds used to sit and drink and laugh.

“Oh my gosh,” says Park.

“I’m just kidding,” says his mother.

“No, you weren’t kidding. You could take a picture of it. That is pretty,” he admits. I take the photo.

“This is so pretty,” says his mother. “I’m loving.”

Park, and his character’s Corolla, on the set of Always Be My Maybe. Photo: Ed Araquel/Netflix

“Randall was like a deity because he had founded that theater group I was in,” says Ali Wong, referring to LCC, the UCLA student organization she credits with pulling her into the orbit of Asian-American theater. (The name blends initials from the founders’ camp-counselor nicknames.) She and Park were introduced at an annual “innovative fried rice” competition hosted by another LCC member, Hieu Ho. (“I made one with cranberries that actually, I thought, turned out really good,” says Wong. “The person who won made chocolate fried rice.”) Eventually, she joined an improv group Park was in called Stage Ninjas. (“It was not a good name,” says Park.) The group didn’t last, but their friendship did.

The DNA of Always Be My Maybe comes from those early days: Park and Wong wrote the script alongside Mike Golamco, also an original member of LCC. The group formed during Park’s junior year in 1994, putting on shows each quarter written by Asian-Americans for Asian-Americans. The cast and crew of LCC would write, direct, and perform a stage production with a budget of about $100. “Every show was just packed with these Asian-American kids wanting to see reflections of them onstage,” says Park. “It was such a magical thing.”

“There would be a line snaking all the way down to Sproul Hall three people deep,” says Golamco. “We’d have to turn people away. We’d have to put out extra chairs. There was a hunger for it.”

LCC’s first production was a script Park had written called Treehouse Bachelor Society, a rom-com musical about an Asian-American guy who goes to the Treehouse (the nickname for a campus cafeteria), where he meets a group of other Asian-American men: the militant type who’s obsessed with his masculinity, the foreign-exchange student who’s chill and unbothered, and a purple guy. (“I don’t remember why.”) “In retrospect, it was probably really bad, but I think it had a lot of heart,” remembers Park. “At the time it was me figuring out what that means and my place in the Asian-American community.”

Always Be My Maybe is an LCC production with a Netflix budget. The idea came up in a conversation between Wong and Park after the success of her stand-up special Baby Cobra. Park called to congratulate her while she was shooting the pilot for ABC’s American Housewife in 2016. They were chatting, and he floated the idea of their doing a rom-com together. At first, she thought he wanted her to write a part for him to play opposite “Anne Hathaway or something,” says Wong. “And then he was like, ‘No. I think it should be something we write together and that you and I star in together.’ ”

A few months later, Wong mentioned the project offhandedly in a profile for The New Yorker, a detail that Vulture quickly latched onto, and the maybe-idea became a real possibility. “I think you guys are probably responsible for the movie happening. I don’t think it would’ve happened without that article about the article,” says Park. “After that came out, both our respective teams got inundated with calls for the script, and we thought we should write it.”

They wanted it to be their version of When Harry Met Sally or Boomerang. Its cast includes Daniel Dae Kim, Keanu Reeves, and Vivian Bang. “What happens when you populate a movie with a lot of Asian-American people is that they get to be people. They don’t have to be the Asian person in the movie,” says Wong. “If someone had to describe Jenny” — Bang’s character, who is Marcus’s girlfriend — “they’re not going to be like, Oh, you know, the Asian girlfriend. They’re going to be like, Oh, that quirky girlfriend with the dreadlocks who made that weird spaghetti.

We reach our last stop of the day as Park pulls into the driveway of his home in Studio City. We’re loaded up with takeout from a “Thai-ish” spot near Ruby’s school, and he gives me a brief tour of his house that centers around an open floor plan where the living-room ceiling stretches up to the second-floor bedrooms. There’s an arts-and-crafts area for Ruby, a playroom filled with Minions dolls, and an office in the backyard — once a sound-recording studio — where Park writes, reads (he’s currently into Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which Wong recommended to him), and watches TV on a small black-and-white set.

“Did you tell him where we went on our first date?” asks Jae Suh at their dining-room table. “We went to go see Planet B-Boy,” the 2007 documentary about competitive break dancing. “That’s not a date movie,” admits Randall. “But I knew she liked dance movies. And I knew that Korea featured prominently, so this would be a cultural-bonding moment for us because they win at the end. And I thought, We’ll feel like we won at the end of this.”

“I knew he was the one after the third date,” she says. “We had gone to see a movie; it was Juno. And after the movie we were just sitting and talking and I had never laughed that much with anyone, my whole life. Anyone. I just thought, If I could laugh like this for the rest of my life, that’s it. That’s what I want.”

I can tell she’s the spikier one. Whereas Randall tends to like everything, she’s more willing to lodge a contrarian opinion. I float the idea that, since Asian representation has proved its commercial viability, intra-Asian feuds are our future.

“There are Asian actors we don’t know or even socialize with, so it’s nice, you know?” says Jae Suh.

“You don’t need the solidarity anymore,” he says.

“Yes. Enough of this support and loving each other. Who wants that?” She laughs.

I ask if there are any feuds we can talk about.

“Not as long as that thing’s recording,” he says, laughing. “There’s definitely grumblings here and there. Once they become full-blown feuds, then we’re really onto something.”

Park’s career trajectory has closely paralleled the rise of Asian America in Hollywood; he has been invested in “the community” — that amorphous, fuzzy, activist-tinged word that connotes something greater than yourself — from the outset, and still does work with Asian-American-led companies like Wong Fu Productions. That he stars in a history-making show like Fresh Off the Boat is not only fitting but a natural extension of his origins.

Still, he’s hoping to return to the things that fueled him creatively, like his off-kilter web series Dr. Miracles, where he plays a doctor who can cure any ailment with his semen. (He likes absurdist stuff like Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave, PEN15, and Big Mouth.) He would love to play Columbo in a reboot. Then he tries this pitch on me: The protagonist, basically “me 15 years ago,” finds out an eccentric “Werner Herzog type” is remaking Fist of Fury, the Bruce Lee classic. He doesn’t know martial arts, but he’s a good actor.

“Werner wants to cast him, but it’s basically between him and this white guy,” says Park. “He finds out that the other guy gets this Bruce Lee role. So he’s furious. And the community finds out about it, and the community’s furious. But he discovers that this white guy is this champion fighter in this underground-bloodsport world, but it’s so underground that nobody really knows about it. But he is this killer. And Werner obviously will know about a world like that.

“And he finds out about the world, and he’s just so desperate for the part that he barges into Werner Herzog’s office and he’s basically like, ‘I’ll fight him for the part!’ And Werner’s, like, inspired by that, and he sets it up. So the whole movie is leading up to this big fight.”

“It’s super-dumb,” Park says, and maybe exactly right.

Always Be My Maybe premieres on Netflix on May 31.

*This article appears in the May 27, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Randall Park’s Small-Town L.A.