Ken Jeong - The doctor who became an actor
A violin-playing medic who got into acting through stand-up comedy, Donal Lynch finds Ken Jeong is much more than 'that Asian guy' in The Hangover films
Ken Jeong recently appeared in a Miller beer commercial, aired in the US, in which he was described as "that guy from that thing".
It pretty much summed up his particular brand of fame – ubiquitous as the funniest character in any number of comedies while somehow managing to never quite reach household name status. If people can't always place the actor they probably know his most famous role: Mr Chow in the Hangover franchise, which co-stars Bradley Cooper. The second instalment of the trilogy was the highest grossing comedy of all time until it was eclipsed this year by the third film, which is out this week on DVD. In keeping with his popularity from the first two outings, the third film expands on Jeong's role as the fast-quipping Chinese gangster and heist artist.
As politically incorrect as it is to say it, a more accurate description of Jeong's renown might also be "that Asian guy". In interviews he tends to lapse into the Korean accent during his jokes, as he also did during the Miller ad, and his Mr Chow portrayal does seem to play up to some Eastern stereotypes. Several Asian-American groups have protested against another of his films The Goods: Live Hard for what they termed racist content.
Jeong's actual accent is more of a southern drawl – he was raised in Carolina – and he's thoughtful when asked about the implications of being cast on the basis of race. "Everyone goes through something similar in acting. If it's not race it's something else," he says. "You're having meanings projected onto you based on how you look. The chances of getting any role in the acting world are remote. It's just the way the business is."
Jeong is the son of first-generation immigrants from South Korea. As a child, he was high achieving and ambitious. He studied medicine when he was only 16 and qualified as a doctor. By day he completed his residency at a hospital in New Orleans and by night he honed his skills on the stand-up comedy circuit. The stand-up, he tells me, was just a way of getting into acting and the tactic paid off when he was cast in Judd Apatow's 2007 smash Knocked Up.
By then he had met his wife Tran, who is also a doctor, and she encouraged him to give up his day job and pursue acting full time. They had twin girls, Alexa and Zooey, in 2007 and a year later, just as he was offered the biggest role of his career – in The Hangover – Tran was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. "I was scared out of my wits," he tells me now. "I was worried my girls would grow up without a mother. I was going to turn down the role (in The Hangover) but she encouraged me not to."
Tran underwent chemo-therapy and has since gone into remission. "The day she was given the all-clear was probably the best of my life."
Since that crisis his career has continued to go from strength to strength. In addition to his film work he's continued to garner praise for his role as Ben Chang on NBC's sitcom Community. After six seasons, there has been some talk of a movie being made out of it and Jeong says he would be on for it.
Maybe if that happened he would have better name recognition than "that guy in that thing"? "Well, I live in hope," he says. "But there are so many rewards to this, and, despite what you might think, I never tire of people doing their Mr Chow impressions."
The Hangover III is released on DVD on November 29.