Justin Chon, Unleashed
The actor of Twilight fame is starring in 21 and Over, a new film that may ruffle some feathers. But that’s just fine with Chon, who says it’s time to push boundaries.
story by OLIVER SARIA
photographs by ERIC SILVERBERG | styling by KAYLA MCGEE | grooming by KELSEY DEENIHAN/Exclusive Artists Management
When Justin Chon entered the boisterous eatery, Bottega Louie, in downtown Los Angeles, I almost didn’t recognize him. He melted into the crowd of lunchtime refugees from the nearby Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. His hair was neatly trimmed, and he wore skinny slacks and a red cardigan over a powder blue knit shirt buttoned to the top. Overall, a more conservative look than I had expected, save for one bold fashion choice. Slung over his shoulder, tucked underneath his armpit, he was rocking a Gucci murse—perhaps the most polarizing accessory ever invented. It takes a certain amount of guts to sport one, and I would soon find out Chon is anything but fearful.
“I think we need some rebels,” he declares. “Not everyone has to be the good little subservient Asian boy that does exactly what everybody wants them to do. This is the biggest thing that Asians need to understand: We need to accept that it’s OK to be different. And I try to push the boundaries,” he says, an air of mischief in his eyes.
It would seem that, after five years of being associated with the Twilight franchise, playing Eric Yorkie, one of Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) mortal friends, he’s grown accustomed to strong opinions, and he’s perfectly fine with that.
“As small as my part was, I was a part of something. Whether you like it or not, it’s made a mark in cinema history. It’s like ‘Star Wars for girls,’” he says, crediting Bobby Kim, cofounder of the Hundreds clothing brand, for coining that label. “And to be a part of that is an honor. Nobody can take that away from me. However sh-tty you think the movie is, I was a part of that. Not many films in history have reached that level.”
But he also doesn’t waste much time dwelling on the experience. “It’s cool to step out of that because now that it’s not anywhere around me anymore, I gotta move past that,” he says.
Which brings us to his next film, 21 and Over, opening March 1. Chon plays stressed-out college student Jeff Chang, whose high school friends (played by Skylar Astin of Pitch Perfect and Miles Teller of Project X) visit him to celebrate his 21st birthday, which happens to fall on the eve of an important early-morning medical school interview. One beer leads to many, drunken debauchery ensues, animals are traumatized, breasts are liberated, male genitalia are exposed. If it sounds like the film could have been called The Changover, that’s no accident. The film marks the directorial debut of Hangover scribes, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.
If you want to talk polarizing, at least within the Asian American community, few films in recent years have sparked more controversy than The Hangover. Regardless of one’s opinions about the movie, Ken Jeong’s full frontal trunk escape as Mr. Chow has been etched into celluloid history along with his heavy, mongrel Asian accent—for better or worse.
Knowing the flak Jeong received from many within the community, did Chon have any trepidation about doing 21 and Over? “I think what Ken did in The Hangover was brilliant. I don’t think Ken ever asked to be the voice of Asian Americans, and before that movie, I don’t think anyone was expecting him to be.… I never talked to him about it, but I am 100 percent behind Ken Jeong. Anyone that wants to hate on him, tell them to go f-ck themselves.”
So, that would be a no.
“I wanted to do this film so bad,” Chon proclaims. “If anyone watches the movie and says, ‘F-ck you for taking that film,’ then I 100-percent understand that and accept the responsibility for it. I sought out this role. When I read the script, I said I have to do this. I felt it was a really great voice for Asian Americans.”
Jeff’s backstory might initially sound like a cliché: He doesn’t want to attend med school, but his overbearing, emotionally constipated father (played menacingly by Francois Chau of Lost) will disown him—or worse—if he doesn’t. But if the theatrical release is the same as the preview I screened, certain aspects of the movie may touch a nerve as the nation grapples with gun violence and mental illness. It’s a serious turn that could easily feel misplaced in a raunchy comedic romp, and Chon admits that the filmmakers struggled to find the right balance. “That final scene, originally, that was a very heavy scene, where I was crying. We actually had to reshoot that scene, I think, like, four times, because it was too heavy for a comedy. It was too much of a downer that they couldn’t come back from it.”
But, by the end, Jeff evolves into a three-dimensional character and achieves something that Hollywood more-often-than-not misses when it comes to Asian Americans: normalcy. “That’s exactly why I wanted to do the movie. It wasn’t really about partying,” says Chon. “It was about friendship and being there for your friends. And also, speaking from an Asian American standpoint, this kid was a three-dimensional character with real wants and needs and worries, and it wasn’t the stereotypical [role].”
Ultimately, you end up rooting for the trio’s oddly familiar friendship. Haven’t we all drifted apart from our high school homies, gotten spank-ass-naked together and been forced to kiss them—with tongue? (It’s a teen comedy—lighten up. What’d you expect?)
Plus, you’ve got to give Chon props for his sheer ballsiness—balls that were painfully cinched for extended periods of time in a sack specially made for his sack. If you’ve seen the movie poster where Chon’s character is on top of a police car wearing nothing but a pink bra and a teddy bear covering his crotch, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
“I gotta say that teddy bear thing was not comfortable,” Chon shares. “My junk was in this pouch, and it was a drawstring. It starts to cut off circulation after 20 minutes, and it hurt.”
Throughout the movie, an unconscious Jeff is tossed out of windows, crammed into cars, swallows things that should never go into one’s mouth, and is stretched and contorted like a rag doll. “It took a big toll on my body,” the actor says, but, luckily, Chon didn’t sustain any permanent damage, he says, except “maybe just my liver.”
Apparently, the off-set antics rivaled what happened on-screen, but Chon is reticent about revealing too much. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to say because I don’t know what would get them in trouble. But it was crazy, man. I just saw some f-cking crazy sh-t.” Life imitated art when Chon and the cast partied while on location in Seattle the night before one of the rehearsals. “The next thing I remember, I wake up on the floor of my hotel, people are banging on my door, my phone is ringing. I pick it up, they’re like, ‘Where the f-ck are you?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You’re 30 minutes late. They’ve been waiting for you downstairs in the f-cking banquet room.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, sh-t. OK, I’m coming right down.’ I literally didn’t brush my teeth or anything. I’m still drunk, mind you, because I got so blasted the night before. I bust open the door and I’m like trying to focus my eyes, and [Jon Lucas and Scott Moore] were laughing their f-cking asses off. They weren’t even mad. They thought it was so funny.”
Besides being raucous, the production also courted controversy from human rights advocates for filming alternate scenes for the Chinese market in Linyi, Shandong province, during the international media firestorm surrounding the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, who was being held under house arrest in a nearby village. “None of us even had an idea of what that was,” Chon recounts. “And all of a sudden my Twitter blew up, ‘Why are you supporting keeping him prisoner?’ I’m like, ‘Yo, I have nothing to f-cking do with that.’ We had no idea that was even going on.”
The fact that there is an alternate version of the film specifically for the Chinese market should indicate that the media landscape has changed somewhat. And Chon has seen it firsthand over his relatively short career. “It’s gotten infinitely better. I remember when I first started, dude, it was way worse, man. And I can attest to that personally. It was way worse. I mean, the stuff you’d go out for. Like, I don’t think in the last few years I’ve gone in for anything that had anything to do with martial arts. I don’t see much of that, but you do see it once in a while, but c’mon, man. It takes a while. It doesn’t happen overnight. And I think we’re headed in a positive direction.”
Of course, things could be better, but Chon’s not content to just sit there and complain about it. “If we’re talking about Asian Americans, I think that’s a huge thing to talk about—being fearless. And just giving people no reason to say ‘no’ to you. I feel there’s just so much high-brow elitism within the Asian community it hurts us,” he says. “It’s like, well, then, go do something about it instead of sitting behind your computer and bitching and moaning, you know?”
Lest you think that last statement was nothing but bluster, Chon is putting his money where his mouth is with his first feature film, Man-up, which he co-wrote, co-directed, and co-stars with Kevin Wu (aka kevjumba, the Asian American YouTube star). The film is about a feckless slacker who impregnates his Mormon girlfriend and is loosely based on Wu’s experience dating a Mormon girl and Chon’s relationship with a woman with a child. The film is being edited and will likely hit the indie film circuit in the coming year. “Hey, I can’t promise it’s gonna be good. I can’t even promise it’s gonna be watchable,” says Chon. “But you know what? At least, I’m trying to make something that’s a different perspective.”
The film was a daunting, yet gratifying experience, which forced both performers to wear multiple hats. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I think because me and Kevin bit off a lot—I don’t know, maybe a bit more than we could chew. Acting, directing, and producing a film is a lot,” says Chon.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is the fact that the two didn’t murder each other by the end of it. “We’re great friends. I don’t know if I’d co-direct anytime soon,” he says, laughing. “But it was a great experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
Producing the film allowed him to flex some of the acumen he acquired while earning a business degree from the University of Southern California and as co-owner of the Attic online and retail stores, which has three locations in California. But don’t assume Chon’s parents forced him to pursue business rather than the arts. In fact, it was more the other way around.
“My dad was an actor [in South Korea], my mom was a pianist. So I grew up in a very artistic household, and we were allowed to express ourselves. I didn’t have to go to college. It was more my choice.” While at USC, Chon studied the Meisner acting technique at the respected Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Studio. So he didn’t do much partying in school. Plus, he adds, “College was so expensive, especially USC, it was probably wiser to get a business degree.”
Chon smooches Oscar-nominated actress Terry Moore (Come Back, Little Sheba), during an unscripted moment at the cover shoot at the Saddle Ranch Chop House in West Hollywood. Aviator Nation purple ‘Locals Only’ shirt; Mezlan black loafers. Photo by Eric Silverberg.
Unlike his character in 21 and Over, there weren’t many epic ragers on frat row for Chon during his collegiate days. And so evidently the rebelliousness he spoke of earlier has the right time and place. For Chon, that time and place are now as he simultaneously makes strides in mainstream Hollywood and indie Asian American cinema.
Meanwhile, he’ll get a chance to challenge even more stereotypes playing a male nanny for the sitcom pilot Gates, which NBC recently ordered. It revolves around the social politics between the parents and staff of an elementary school during the twice-daily pick-up/drop-off ritual. “What I do on the show,” Chon explains, “is that I try to sleep with all the substitute teachers and all the divorced moms. I’m sort of the Greek chorus. I’m like the eyes and ears of the school.
And I kind of tell it how it is.”
Sounds like another role well suited for the fearless actor, who’s not afraid to speak his mind and whose face you’re going to see more of in 2013. Chon, however, tries not to look too far into the future. “I recently started to tell myself, ‘Stop looking ahead so much.’ You’re always thinking, ‘Oh, if I get this movie or if I do this or if I was with this person or if I had a family.’ And you’re never living in the moment. So one thing I’m actively trying to work on is being content with right now.”
Right now, he’s KoreAm’s coverboy, and he sounds more than content with that. “I’m so honored to be on the cover. I’ve been reading KoreAm since maybe I started acting. I remember seeing John Cho on the cover and Rick Yune. I remember reading the magazine and thinking to myself, ‘I wonder when I’d get a cover or when that’s even possible.’ So it’s like full circle in a way. I’ve made it, man!” he says, laughing.
Chon’s right. It’s the rebels we remember.
This article was published in the February 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. For international orders, please email email@example.com for shipping rates.)