When Randall Park realized just how big a deal Fresh Off The Boat was going to be, he got cold feet. The stakes were high for the first network sitcom in 20 years to feature an Asian-American family.
But he'd already filmed the pilot, in which he starred as family patriarch Louis Huang, a Taiwanese immigrant and firm believer in the American Dream. (The sitcom, which centers on Louis' son Eddie, begins as Louis uproots his young family from Washington, D.C., to suburban Orlando to open a steakhouse.)
"After we did the pilot, and the show got picked up ... I started wondering about my place in the show," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Should I be playing this father, especially as a Korean-American actor?"
Park was feeling the pressure. After all, All-American Girl — network television's last sitcom about an Asian-American family — was canceled after just 19 episodes.
Among other things, that show was criticized for casting non-Korean actors to play the Korean-American family. Their accents were imperfect, and worse, the spoken Korean was "occasionally mangled."
Park remembered those criticisms. He himself is Korean-American. But here he was, playing a Taiwanese immigrant.
"I really felt like, this is a very important show," he says. "This is historical. I don't think I should be the one to play this father. I felt uncomfortable with it."
So he called up the real Eddie Huang, by then Park's friend and confidante.
"I was like, 'Listen, I gotta talk to you. I don't know if I'm the one to play this part. I'm really feeling like it should be a Taiwanese or Chinese actor playing this part.'
"And he basically said, 'Look, I'll support you in whatever you want to do, but I really think you're the one for this part.' And that really meant so much to me, because, you know, here I'm playing a version of this guy's dad. And to get his approval and his thumbs-up really made me feel like, OK, maybe it's OK."
After that conversation, Park says, he gave it some thought, and ultimately decided to stick it out.
"As long as I come at this with respect and work as hard as I can to make sure this character is as real as I can," he says, "then it would be fine."
And so far at least, that effort — from Park and the rest of the cast and crew — has paid off.
Nearly 8 million people tuned in for the Fresh Off The Boat pilot, and most stuck around for the second episode.
Despite those 8 million viewers, Louis Huang is actually not Randall Park's biggest role of the last year. That would be Kim Jong-Un in the controversial Sony movie The Interview.
Even before the Sony hack and the hullabaloo that ensued, Park had some trepidation about that role, too.
"I read the script. I thought it was fantastic. And I thought it was smart and funny, and it gave me the opportunity to really have fun with the character. But I didn't know how I should feel."
So he asked his parents.
"My parents were born in Korea. They spent a good part of their life in Korea. [I thought] they'd have a better idea of at least what this means in Korea," Park says. "And they just thought it was hilarious. And they were like, 'Do it!' "
We asked him if the range of roles for Asian-American actors has opened up — after all, this year he played both a brutal dictator and a sitcom dad.
Park answers carefully.
"It has been a very unique year for me, and a wild, crazy time creating international incidents and controversy, and creating history with our TV show," Park says. "But I don't know how much of a reflection this is in terms of the landscape for Asian-American actors. I think there's still so much ground to break, still."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Actor Randall Park has been getting a lot of scrutiny lately. He played North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in "The Interview." You might've heard about that. Last week, his new sitcom, "Fresh Off The Boat," premiered. He plays the patriarch who has just moved his family from Washington, D.C., to Florida to open up a steak restaurant.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRESH OFF THE BOAT")
RANDALL PARK: (As Louis Huang) I was blow drying my hair, and I figured it out - how the restaurant can attract bigger crowds.
CONSTANCE WU: (As Jessica Huang) How?
PARK: (As Louis Huang) I need to hire a white host. Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face and saying, huh, thought this was an old West steakhouse, they see a white face and say, oh, hello, white friend. I am comfortable.
RATH: A lot of Asian-American hopes were pinned on that premier. It's the first Asian-American family sitcom since Margaret Cho's "All-American Girl" 20 years ago. But that show fizzled pretty quickly, so Randall Park was relieved when the premier of "Fresh Off The Boat" attracted nearly 8 million viewers.
PARK: It's like a big weight off of my shoulders and, I think, our shoulders, in a certain way, because almost across the board, it's been embraced, you know, by the community and a lot of other people, too, I mean, you know, at least according to these opening numbers, you know. But I felt the pressure, you know, I mean, because I understood the pressure. I also wanted a show like this for a very long time, you know. I was there when "All-American Girl" was on the air, and I was there waiting for the next one, you know.
RATH: One of the criticisms of "All-American Girl," in the Margaret Cho show, was that they had - it was a Korean family in America...
RATH: ...But some of the actors weren't Korean. They were different ethnicities.
RATH: You're Korean-American. You're playing a Chinese-American dad.
RATH: Is that an issue, do you think?
PARK: It was for me. I mean, early on, after we did the pilot, and the show got picked up - I mean, I knew it was a big deal in our community - in the Asian-American community, but I realized how big a deal it was. And then I started wondering about my place in the show. Should I be playing this father, especially as a Korean-American actor? I really felt like, you know, this is a very important show. I don't think I should be the one to play this father. I felt uncomfortable with it.
So I literally called up Eddie - the real Eddie Huang, who, at this point, had become my pal. And I called him up, and I was like, listen, I've got to talk to you. I don't know if I'm the one to play this part. I'm really feeling like it should be a Taiwanese or Chinese actor playing this part. He basically said, look, I'll support you in whatever you want to do, but I really think you're the one for this part. And that really meant so much to me because, you know, here I'm playing a version of this guy's dad, and to get his approval really made me feel like, OK, maybe it's OK.
So after kind of thinking it over and grappling with that, I decided, you know what? It's OK. As long as I come at this with respect and work as hard as I can to make sure that this character is as real as I can, then it would be fine. And the issue hasn't come up too often, at least that I know of.
RATH: We've got to talk about "The Interview."
PARK: Of course. Of course. How can we not.
RATH: You of course played North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
RATH: When that first came up as an opportunity, what were your thoughts about playing him?
PARK: I was told about the character. They gave me the script. I was like this will be interesting, but, you know, I was a fan of Seth and Evan. And I read the script. I thought it was fantastic. And I thought it was smart and funny, and it gave me the opportunity to really have fun with the character, you know.
But I didn't know how I should feel. I felt good about it, but I needed to talk to other people to make sure. So I actually went to my parents. You know, they were born in Korea. They spent a good part of their life in Korea. They'd have a better idea of at least what this means in Korea, you know.
PARK: And I told them about the role, and I told them the story. And they just thought it was hilarious.
PARK: And they were like do it.
RATH: That's great. Well, let's give people a little taste of that. This is from the film. Here you are with James Franco, who plays Dave Skylark. He's the host of a kind of tabloid-ey interview show. And he's scored this great interview with Kim Jong-un. And the two of you are hanging out in your tank - as you do - and you're bonding over Katy Perry.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INTERVIEW")
PARK: (As President Kim) Uh, Dave, do you think that margaritas are gay because they are so sweet?
JAMES FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) Did someone tell you that - that margaritas are gay?
PARK: (As President Kim) No, it's just a question I have.
FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) Liking Katy Perry and drinking margaritas is gay - then who wants to be straight?
PARK: (As President Kim) Not me.
FRANCO: (As Dave Skylark) Boring. Margaritas are great. And whoever planted that in your head is crazy.
RATH: I think it's so awesome that your last two roles are, you know, a possibly psychotic brutal dictator and a sitcom dad.
RATH: Is it an unusual year or have the range of roles for Asian-American actors really opened up the way that looks like?
PARK: I don't - that's a good question. It has been a very unique year for me in a wild and crazy time - creating international incidents and controversy and creating history with our TV show. It's been great. But, you know, I don't know how much of a reflection this is in terms of the landscape for Asian-American actors, you know. I think it's - there's still so much ground to break still. You know, it would be cool if our show could play a part in just opening things up.
RATH: That's Randall Park. He's starring in the new sitcom "Fresh Off The Boat." He also appeared as Kim Jong-un in "The Interview." Randall Park, a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much.
PARK: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.