Ashley Park wondered if she was a bad person. If maybe she was getting things she didn’t deserve. She’d always been a hard worker, a schedule filler, what with theater and dance and choir and a cappella and piano and, why not, sousaphone — all of which had stopped when she was diagnosed with leukemia at age 15 and ended up in the hospital for most of her sophomore year. Before cancer, she’d tried out for her high school’s production of High School Musical and did not get Sharpay. After cancer, she tried out for Thoroughly Modern Millie and got Millie. She was thrilled, but she was conscious of how she’d changed. She was used to being seen as “the Asian girl.” Now she was also “the sick bald girl.” She wore her wig and tuned up her Charleston and thought, Everybody’s being forced to be nice to me.
Then she got the lead again in senior year, as the tragic Vietnamese woman Kim in Miss Saigon. A group of white girls from choir whom she’d thought of as close friends complained to their parents, then the parents complained to the school: It was unfair to choose a show that favored some people who happened to look the part. This was liberal Ann Arbor, so no one quite said it out loud. What was clear to Ashley was that they were done being nice to her. She pleaded her case and the show went ahead and she wondered what she’d done wrong: “When I was front and center, it was, ‘Oh, look at Ashley; she’s a diva.’ I thought, Wow, I never want to be called that again.”
Park just turned 32. The actress has made a career of being as successful as possible without being front and center. She’d once dreamed of Broadway, modestly — like maybe she’d get ensemble in Wicked? — then she surprised herself. She landed the role of Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls, the musical, and played the henchwoman full of yearning. She jumped to Netflix for Emily in Paris, a show that makes Mindy Chen, Park’s singing, dancing charisma-bomb-of-an-heiress, the improbable sidekick to a junior marketing executive. If you believe her as No. 2, it’s because Park believes it as well. When she was nominated for a Tony for Mean Girls in 2018, she told an interviewer, “What I pulled from for Gretchen is that when I was growing up, always, no matter what, when there was a white girl in the room, I was going to be second best. What I love about Gretchen is she doesn’t want to be anything but the beta.”
But did Gretchen really choose that? Did Park? On July 7, she gets top billing for the first time in her adult life in Joy Ride, a raunchy, friends-trip comedy directed by Adele Lim and co-starring Stephanie Hsu, Sherry Cola, and Sabrina Wu. When we meet in early June at a noodle spot in L.A.’s Koreatown, Park lists all the firsts Joy Ride represents, smacking the table with her long, manicured fingers: Yes, it’s one of the first times she’s even been approached to play the lead. It might just be the first R-rated studio comedy to star Asian women and nonbinary actors. And it’s definitely the first in which they shove condoms full of cocaine up their assholes.
Park had to bring what Lim calls the “stealth heart” of the movie: Park’s character, Audrey, is an overachieving lawyer who was adopted from China by white American parents when she was a baby and who has spent more time thinking about making partner than wondering about her birth mother. Then a work trip sends her to Beijing along with her slacker best friend, Lolo (Cola), as translator, and Audrey ends up on a hunt for her biological family that spins out of control. (How do Lolo’s cousin Deadeye, played by Wu, and Audrey’s college friend Kat, played by Hsu, end up on this work trip too? That’s just buddy-comedy magic, baby.)
Audrey is the straight man in the fitted stretch blazer, so goal oriented that even a threesome reads like extra credit. It’s a true ensemble comedy — think Girls Trip and Bridesmaids — and though Park was top of the call sheet, sometimes it feels more like Hsu’s movie, or Cola’s, or Wu’s. As we talk about what Joy Ride means for her, Park keeps steering back to what it means for her co-stars. Maybe that’s just her way of playing the lead: She’d rather be part of a team. This is, after all, a woman with a tattoo that reads YES, AND.
No one was shocked when little Ashley wanted to take dance classes — her mom loved to dance too, had even been a cheerleader at UCLA. Her parents were more surprised to hear Ashley’s voice. “They were like, ‘Wait, is she singing on key?’” Park says. “They’re both tone-deaf. They had no clue what the heck was going on.” The family lived in San Diego, a couple hours from where her parents grew up after emigrating from South Korea. They moved to Ann Arbor when Ashley was 5 and her sister Audrey was 2, and Ashley started going all-in: more dance, piano, Ann Arbor Angels Choir.
Susan Hurwitz, whom Park calls one of her “amazing Jewish grandmothers,” helped run the theater program at Park’s high school. She first noticed Ashley when the teenager was a featured dancer in Carousel — but they became closer when Ashley received her cancer diagnosis the following year. Hurwitz, who had also survived cancer, started visiting Ashley in the hospital. Just a few weeks after Ashley was allowed to go home, Hurwitz was shocked to see the 16-year-old back at school at the auditions for Thoroughly Modern Millie, a bandanna covering her head. “I’m scared to death — ‘What are you doing here?’” says Hurwitz. “And she proceeds to just nail the audition. I’m crying. She’s phenomenal.” When I tell her that Park thinks she got the part because people felt bad for “the cancer girl,” Hurwitz sounds insulted. “No, absolutely not. She’s so wrong about that. Honestly, that’s ridiculous.”
Hurwitz is disdainful of the classmates and parents who protested the choice of Miss Saigon the following year, some of whom came to her to complain. “We had done lots of shows that featured Caucasian leads, and fact is it was an open competition. But nobody else could access the pain the way she could,” she says. Afterward, one of those parents wrote Hurwitz a note admitting it was a great show.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation had paid for Ashley and her family to travel to New York and see Broadway shows during her treatment; now that she knew Broadway wasn’t just “the name of a theater building somewhere,” that’s where she wanted to be. After graduating from the University of Michigan’s musical-theater program, Park moved to New York in 2013, hoofing it in the ensemble for Mamma Mia! before being cast as the concubine Tuptim in The King and I. Hsu, who has done both Broadway and experimental theater — and who would later audition for Mindy in Emily in Paris — met Park in a workshop around that time. She remembers Park was squeezing in the workshop between a King and I matinee and an evening performance. “Broadway is crazy like that. There’s just nothing harder,” says Hsu. “You’re singing. You’re dancing. You’re kicking your face for two and a half hours. If your show is in the running for a Tony, you do Good Morning America at 5 a.m.” That’s so grueling, I say. “It is,” says Hsu, “but it trains you to be sort of impenetrable.”
Park used to pride herself on being that way. She loved when people said, “Ashley has an endless battery.” The same week she started rehearsals for Mean Girls, she was already playing a lead role in the first iteration of KPOP, a musical that would later go to Broadway; she would rehearse for eight hours, then race across town to perform. She was also starting to go for onscreen parts. When she booked Emily in Paris, her agents encouraged her to make a hard break from the stage: “They were like, ‘You don’t see that you’re giving so much more to that building than you’re getting out of it.’” When she announced she was leaving Mean Girls, she remembers a castmate there telling her, “Oh yeah, it’s a good time for you to leave because this is a good time for ethnic people to be trying to do TV.”
Only in relative terms. On Emily in Paris, Park’s Mindy is a font of patience. Through Emily’s endless low-stakes crises, Mindy remains the platonic, bedazzled ideal of a BFF, always down to party or lend an ear. Park and Lily Collins, who plays Emily, soon found they were most recognizable in Paris as a duo: One day when they were walking around the Jardin des Tuileries in masks while shooting season two, excited fans clocked them just from the sound of their loud American voices.
Meanwhile, Park was doing chemistry reads for Joy Ride. Lim had approached her back in 2019, before Emily in Paris came out — the actress had been recommended by Lim’s friend Daniel Dae Kim, who’d met Park when they were doing The King and I. Lim, who co-wrote Crazy Rich Asians, says it can be a struggle to find an Asian American actor with the “star power” to play a lead: “It’s not like we don’t have the talent, but we really have not had the same opportunities,” she says. “What we were looking for was this unicorn, and I expressed all that to Daniel. He said, ‘I think I have the person for you.’”
Lim and co-writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao had wanted to write a movie like The Hangover, all about “celebrating your nasty, disgusting friends” — who in this case happen to be Asian. When I ask Hsu if she’s ever worked on another project where there was more than one part for a young Asian woman, she pauses for a beat then says, witheringly, “Is that a rhetorical question?” Still, she doesn’t think Joy Ride’s Asianness is what we should be talking about. (The Oscars whirl for Everything Everywhere All at Once would stretch anyone’s patience for that.) She thinks it’s more interesting that Joy Ride is a “hard R. There’s a new generation of raunchy comedies coming our way. That should be the focus.”
But the movie does make Asianness the focus. Lim says they were inspired to write Audrey as an adoptee in part because they wanted a character who experienced a heightened form of the alienation that Lim thinks all Asian Americans feel; for Audrey, Lim wondered, “How can we put that character on the extreme of that spectrum of feeling this otherness where it didn’t matter what space she was in?” We watch as Audrey endures multiple people telling her, “You’re basically white.” Lim says this means the other characters think Audrey is ashamed of who she is: “It’s like you’re trying to pledge to a sorority that isn’t about you.”
Joy Ride also finds a way to say it groin-first. We learn that Audrey has never slept with an Asian man before — a problem she solves by taking two of them to bed at once. It was Park’s first time shooting any kind of sex scene: “I’m so seasoned now. To go from never having done a scene of that nature to having a threesome with two guys eating you out is just its own thing.” That evening, she says Hsiao invited her and a bunch of other people over for pizza. “Teresa just goes, ‘Okay, everyone, let’s slow clap for Ashley: first Asian kiss, first Asian sex.’” Park was embarrassed. She’d never been with an Asian guy either — though she has now. “What I’ve learned is good guys are good no matter what they look like. And toxic, awful guys are also Asian sometimes.”
Park is good at making friends in her industry. She drops, casually, that she knows a few of the Blackpink girls — Jisoo, Jennie, Lisa. She counts Collins and Florence Pugh, whom she met at a Valentino show last year, among her confidantes. Pugh says that when they get together, “We’ll do face masks. We’ll order room service. We’ll laugh and cry and talk all in the space of about 130 minutes.” But her schedule has not made it easy to date, and her romances haven’t tended to last long — until the one she’s in now. She won’t say who her boyfriend is because “we haven’t hard launched,” just that he’s also an actor, and her best friend, and the longest relationship of her adult life. “One of the first conversations we ever had was why we would never date another actor or person in the industry,” she says. “And here we are.”
Park says she is still seeking balance, learning to say no to parties and events when all she wants to do is sleep. When she’s with a friend, she’s plugged in; the next day, her drive is wiped. “You know how I keep energy?” Park says. “I literally, in the best way, dissociate really well.” It’s now been over three years since her last performance on Broadway, nearly four since she first started filming in Paris. She played a small, brutal part in Beef and will be in the next season of Only Murders in the Building. She’s curious about doing more theater — she’s thinking about the West End — but it’s hard to imagine when. We meet in L.A. on the day before Park’s birthday. When I mention this, she looks blank for a moment, then scrambles to look at the date on her phone.
She does not love her birthday: “I get anxious when I feel like people are forced to be kind to me. I never want any handout for any reason that is out of my control.” It reminds her of a powerlessness she’d rather not think about. “I want to earn when people are congratulating me,” Park says. “I wish my birthday was something I earned.”