Randall Park has played characters ranging from Jim Halpert to Kim Jong-un, but in his new Netflix feature "Always Be My Maybe" he gets to shine in a new kind of role — the Harry. With his co-star and co-writer Ali Wong, Park has created a rom-com that's a tribute to Nora Ephron-era classics with a modern heart and mind.
On a recent episode of "Salon Talks," Park discussed writing for Keanu Reeves, and the one thing the movie changed about the real story of losing his virginity.
"Fresh Off the Boat" starts its sixth season this fall. Sixth and maybe final?
I don't know. I thought maybe that last season might be our final, and we keep going.
Were you ready to kind of call it a day with the show?
I was prepared, so that if it did end I would have been fine, and if it didn't end I'd be fine. I was just ready for either. I didn't want to be too heartbroken if it ended. There were other opportunities, but also if it kept going, great, because I get to work with these people again, and it's fun.
This show is so much a springboard for this movie. There's your director ["Fresh Off the Boat" showrunner] Nahnatchka Khan and your co-star Ali Wong, who started in the theater troupe that you co-founded and was a writer on the show the first three seasons.
At UCLA, I co-founded an Asian-American theater company on campus. After I graduated, Ali joined that company, and it was through those mutual friends that we became friends.
This was a dream that you both had for a long time, to do your own "When Harry Met Sally."
I love rom-coms. "When Harry Met Sally" is probably my favorite movie of all time. I just love it so much, and I've always loved rom-coms. It was something that we both loved, particularly "When Harry Met Sally." It was just something that we talked about here and there over the years, and it wasn't until all the timing was right that we were just like, "Let's do it."
Ali did this interview with the New Yorker and mentioned this thing that we had talked about just casually, and it made it into the publication. All these online outlets picked it up, wrote these letters to Hollywood to make this movie, and we both got inundated with calls from studios. They wanted to see the script, and we didn't have a script. But we were like, "There's a demand, and we always wanted to do this. Let's get to it."
In that same interview, you talk about her, your relationship with her and how much you admire her. You have played so many different roles. You've literally played Jim Halpert. You've played a dictator. You've done it all.
A '90s Orlando dad of three.
You've said the thing you learned from Ali Wong was that she told you, "You do you," and this movie is you.
It's probably the closest thing to me that I've ever gotten to play.
There are a lot of elements of your life and your story in this guy. First of all, the Corolla story.
It was pretty accurately based on my losing virginity story.
Down to the Burger King.
Yes, but it wasn't a Burger King, it was a McDonald's in real life. Which makes it very different.
It's those little touches that only a professional writer can really add to the story.
Yeah, that's a huge difference. We were in the writers room, trying to figure out what would be the way in which they have this nightmare experience. I was like "Well, I had kind of a nightmare experience." I told them the story, and their eyes lit up, and Ali was like, "We're putting that in."
"There's just one thing we need to change about this to make it perfect."
Exactly. "We're going to make it a Burger King instead of a McDonald's." Now it's perfect.
Also, your musical career.
Yeah. That's another thing that Ali was very privy to, because when I graduated college, me and a group of friends formed this band that was very much like the one you see in the movie, except we were younger. Ali would come to the shows, and we had a little bit of a following in LA. We were doing it for fun. Eventually we stopped and went on with our lives, but the band in the movie is like, "What if that band kept playing well into their adulthood?" We'd probably be just like Hello Peril.
We were out of college. We just were all broke, and we didn't care. We had no thought. I don't even think I was pursuing professional acting at that time. I was just having fun with my friends, not thinking about the future. Then pretty soon after, I started to think about my future.
Because eventually those student loans catch up with all of us.
I stopped paying them. I was like, "I can't pay them, I'm going to stop." Nothing happened for years. I was like, "Oh my God, I got away with it." Then I was working this part time job, and I get my paycheck, and half the check was gone.
Your student loans will always find you.
This film itself ticks all of your classic rom-com boxes. Just the way that it's shot, the arc of it, the dramatic speech moment that every rom-com absolutely should have.
We have two of them, really.
But it's also a feminist movie, and it's also very much about race, and about culture, and about identity. The other big part of this movie is about these characters finding themselves, and really defining themselves.
Yet five years ago, a show like "Fresh Off the Boat" was seen as a risk.
I didn't think we'd make it past the pilot. I genuinely thought we'd do the pilot, it would be fun and an amazing experience, because it's groundbreaking just doing a pilot about an Asian-American family. Then it got picked up to series. I was like, "Oh great, one season of this show. That's amazing and groundbreaking." Then it got another season, then another, then 100 episodes.
It just did so much for so many people, including myself. This movie wouldn't have happened without it. My relationship with Natch wouldn't have happened. I owe so much to the show.
Nahnatchka Khan says there is a real intention in everything she does, and everything she wants to do now, as someone who has a platform for diversity, for elevating other voices and making sure that different kinds of stories are told. As a writer, as a producer, is that an important imperative for you, as well, now?
For sure, for sure. It has always been. I came from an Asian-American studies background. I wanted to be an actor because of that. I wanted to go out there and represent. I didn't realize how little power I'd have in that, as an actor, at the beginning. Over time, just building this career, now I'm kind of at a place where I can have a little more control, and I could actually do those things that I've always wanted to, in terms of representing, and telling stories from places that you hardly hear.
I love that the way into the story about culture and identity, in this film, is through food. Because that is a big way we tell our stories, is through food, and through cooking. Was that always an important element of the story?
The idea to bring in food came very early on when we were just talking about what this would be about. It just made sense for us to have Sasha be this celebrity chef. Nahnatchka Khan says, "Food is memories." A lot of this movie is about memories, and the past, and holding onto the past. It's reflective of Sasha's journey in terms of identity and culture and the growth of that culture, but also how taking those things could go astray. But then, bringing it back home, and the importance of that.
You've said, "Because of the way the film is cast, nobody has to go, 'Oh, that's the Asian character.'"
Usually when I'm in something, it's like, "That's the Asian friend" or "That's the Asian coworker."
I read where you went out for something and they looked at you and said, "OK, computer geek or sex offender."
That was in an acting class. One of them said "child molester." It was this acting class where one of us would sit in front of the class with our back turned. Then, the whole class, their job was to say the first thing that comes to mind.
And someone said "child molester"?
The lesson was, this is probably the type of job you would get out there in Hollywood, because that's what you represent. This was very early on in my acting career.
It was just a barrage of stereotypes, including the child molester one. At the time, I was traumatized. I was fully aware of the stereotypes, I knew what was out there. But to actually hear it from my peers, and people that I really grew to like during that class, it was eye opening.
Then you did wind up getting sent out for those kinds of roles. One of your earliest television roles was the stereotype.
The first pilot that I ever did. I did a ton of pilots, and that's part of the reason why I never expected "Fresh Off the Boat" to go past pilot, because none of the pilots I did went to series. But the very first one was this neighbor character who was the only person of color in the show. He was the nemesis on the show, and this flamboyantly, stereotypically gay character.
I was broke, I was just starting out. I saw ways to humanize this character, and I basically convinced myself that I could do this with some dignity. We did the pilot, and it was great fun, but afterwards, I was like, "If this thing gets picked up to series, and becomes a successful show, this character will mark my career." Thankfully it didn't get picked up to series.
Now, you're a romantic leading man.
At least for me, being a leading man, I don't think it would have happened had we not written it. Because I certainly wasn't getting those offers. And I don't know how much of it is because of the racism in the industry, or because I'm not like seven feet tall, and I'm no Henry Golding.
Now you're in the pantheon. I got to see the movie completely fresh, I had no idea what was going to happen in it, I had no idea of any of the twists and turns. You have, in this film, a cameo with one of the biggest Asian heritage stars in the world. I read in some of the press about this it was really important to have an Asian actor in that role.
It was particularly important to Ali. She wanted all of the love interests of Sasha to be Asian-American, which is one of the many reasons why Ali is just so amazing. She wanted to do something different.
We thought, OK, well, there is a period in the script where Marcus is about to confess his love for Sasha. What would be Marcus' worst nightmare? Super iconic, famous, successful, gorgeous, but also extremely talented, and a great actor. Also someone who can do comedy really well. Also, someone whose willing to poke fun at themselves. Keanu was our dream get. But we thought there was no way we would get him. What were the chances? You write a script, and you have Keanu playing Keanu. There's no way.
He was also doing "John Wick" at the time.
He was shooting "John Wick 3" during our movie. Our great producers and executives at Netflix were like, "Let's reach out. It's worth a shot." We reached out, and I still can't believe it happened.
What is it like writing for him, playing himself?
Writing it was super fun because we were living in a fantasy world. That was fun. When it came down to trying to get him, that's where it was like, "It was fun writing it, but let's be prepared to rewrite this for someone else." But he got it, he got it right away. During a window in his "John Wick 3" shooting he came to San Francisco, shot with us, and those four days of production were all overnight shoots. He was up all night with us, doing these scenes. He was game. He came with improvisations and alt lines, and so many ideas that eventually made it into the movie. He's just so great.
I have to confess one thing. I have had an earworm in my head for the last two weeks now, and it's because of you. That song, over the closing credits, which people are talking about.
I know. They're writing think pieces about it.
But that was not originally intended to be in the film at all.
No, that came later. The band had two songs in the movie, which you see but you don't hear them in full. It came in post production. Once we had a cut of the film, an executive at Netflix was like, "We end the movie on a line about Marcus." Sasha says, "Maybe you should write a song about punching Keanu Reeves." Because my character just can't get over it, and I keep mentioning it.
One of our executives was like, "Why don't you guys record that song? We'll put it over the end credits." We got to work, and now you hear that song in full. it's the only song you hear in full throughout the entire movie. It's great because for me, it's like a tribute to him.