It’s been a long journey for breakout star Justin Chon, who — prior to playing Jeff Chang in his new film 21 & Over – was known simply as “the Asian kid from Twilight.”
Rather than worrying about labels and stereotypes, Chon decided to lay some groundwork himself, refusing to limit himself to specific roles and trying his hand at whatever came his way. In addition to lighter roles like Eric Yorkie in the Twilight movies, Chon found his serious side in characters like Yong Kim, a young, conflicted Korean immigrant in the 2009 indie film Crossing Over, acting alongside Harrison Ford, Jim Sturgess, and Ashley Judd.
That same hungry mindset applies offscreen. He’s always keeping busy, whether it’s running his clothing store, the Attic, back home in California, posting crazy hyper video shorts on his YouTube channel, or making his own films, like Man Up with fellow YouTuber Kevin Wu (kevjumba).
As this Korean-American actor continues to make strides in Hollywood, MTV K takes a moment to pick his brain about this and that, from eating tampons and acting drunk to K-pop and PSY’s global takeover. And with 21 & Over out in theaters now, Justin Chon’s been flying back and forth across the country promoting his new film — but not without causing some trouble along the way, it seems.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hey, it’s Justin Chon. My tagline is “I am homeless, and I love Paris.” And yesterday I was connected to an IV because I’m sick.
Sorry to hear that, how are you feeling today?
I feel like a million bucks, but I’m still sick.
Congratulations on your first lead role in a studio film. Can you tell us a little about the movie and your character?
It’s my character Jeff Chang’s 21st birthday, and he has a medical school interview the next day. His two high school best friends come up to take him out for his birthday, but he’s really scared of his dad so he’s like, “I can’t.” They convince him to have one beer, but obviously that one beer turns into absolute chaos and mayhem.
Okay, I have to ask. That scene where you eat a tampon, what was that? Of all the scenes, I thought that was the hardest to watch.
I love eating tampons, they’re really good. Especially the extra padded ones. They have more cotton.
No, I’m kidding. It was packed cake icing, but it was still… To be honest, I would probably have rather eaten the cotton than the icing because it was too… the texture and the sweetness was just too much.
So what was the hardest scene to film? Getting dragged everywhere and being shoved onto dashboards of tiny cars doesn’t look too easy…
In the movie, I do a lot of physical acting, but I would say the hardest part about playing my character was the drunk aspect of it. Playing drunk is really hard. You want to be specific with it – you don’t wanna play some general shit because then it looks like a joke. Like an SNL skit, not a movie.
So that took me the longest. It took me like a month to figure that out. I devised a few techniques to be consistent in my drunkenness. There’s different levels of drunk in the movie, so I devised a system with the directors, like a 1-10 scale, 10 being the most drunk.
I have to rely on the directors all the time because I can’t watch myself, so I would say, “Hey, John, Scott, where am I at right now?” And they would say, “You’re a 7!” And then I would know what degree of drunk I should play.
You’ve been back and forth between coasts promoting this movie. Any funny stories from traveling with the 21 & Over team?
We were in New York, and me, Skylar, and Miles met up after dinner. We were at some bar around Tribeca or something.
And apparently it’s a pretty rowdy bar as it is, so we were all playing pool and dancing. I don’t remember this, I guess I got really, really drunk, and apparently I was slamming the pool cue on the ground, like bashing it on the ground, and then they kicked me out.
I didn’t have any of my stuff with me, and Skylar had to be the responsible one and collect all my stuff. I talked to somebody, and they said that bar was really hard to get kicked out of, so I must have been doing some stupid stuff.
Guess you haven’t let go of your character yet.
Yeah, it definitely sticks around. It’s hard to shake it off.
There were also a few shots of your character breakdancing in the film — Was that actually you?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of it is me. But anything’s that’s really crazy, like where he was doing handstands on his side, that wasn’t me.
But yeah, some of it was me, I did some windmills and 90s, a flare or something. I’d say a good majority was me, and anything that was really hard was not me.
You have a pretty impressive YouTube following — What’s the most memorable comment you’ve gotten on one of your videos?
God, that’s hard. There are always really funny ones. Like there are the hater ones – hater ones are really funny. I don’t know, some people say, “Learn how to act.”
Some people start arguing about like, “Dude, they found this guy on YouTube, that’s why he’s in the movie.” And I’m like, “What the hell are you talking about, I’ve been acting for 11 years.” They start arguing about my age, which is funny because I’m old.
Oh, the funniest stuff is, “Oh, you don’t know, I know Justin because my dad’s friend’s first son is cousins with him, so I know him and you don’t.”
And I’m like, “Cool, man. That’s pretty rad.”
You did that video for a Big Phony song way back when. Are you plugged into Asian-American music at all?
Yeah, Big Phony’s like a really, really close friend of mine.
To be honest, I’m really in folk music, and I love Big Phony. I like Priscilla Ahn, and yeah, I really support Asian-American artists. My friend Wendy, she’s in a band called the Sweet Hurt. She actually writes songs sometimes with Bobby from Big Phony, and she plays guitar for Priscilla Ahn a lot.
Now onto a couple K-pop questions: You’ve said that you grew up listening to old school K-pop. Who are some of your favorite artists, past and present?
Okay, K-pop crush. You gotta have one.
K-pop crush? Let’s see… I’m old, dude.
Well, back in the day, Eugene from SES, but now? Maybe like — ah, what’s that girl’s name? She’s a solo artist…Oh, G.Na. G.Na, yeah, she’s cool. And that’s the extent of my knowledge. (laughs)
What do you think of K-pop’s advances in the states? From your day-to-day experiences, does it seem like America and Hollywood are opening their eyes and ears to it now?
Of course. I mean, the biggest example is PSY.
To be honest, at first I was kind of put off by it. Like, why the f*ck is it this guy that’s gonna break K-pop into mainstream American media?
But I actually thought about it for a while, and I changed my mind.
Here’s why. If it was like Rain or some really good-looking guy, let’s face it: Even if he’s the best-looking guy in the world, if you go to the mid-West, he’s Asian, and they’re not gonna think he’s f*cking hot. You know what I’m saying?
That doesn’t have mass appeal. But PSY, he has a lot of charisma, he has stage presence, he’s a good performer, and he’s not — if you’re talking in Korean — he’s not 부담스러워 (“burdensome”). He’s really easy to watch. You watch him, and it’s just funny. He’s a good performer and he’s very comedic, so he’s accessible to everybody.
In the long run, I think that’s better, because the more people that are exposed to it, the more accepted it is, and that paves the way for other artists to cross over.
I think it’s better that it’s him, and he’s more accessible than some guy who’s really good-looking and trying to be a Korean Usher. No one gives a shit about that.
Wow, thanks for that two cents. So, what’s your next move?
I wrote and directed something over the summer called Man Up with another YouTube kid Kevjumba, and we’re doing post on it. We’re almost picture-locked. And actually, Wendy, that girl I told you about, is doing a lot of the composing and writing a lot of the songs. I got a few other people who are writing songs for it. We’re doing SFX and visual effects and compositing and all that stuff on it right now, but I think we’re gonna release that digitally in July.
Other than that, not much. I got fired from an NBC show. (laughs) I’m just taking it easy, I guess, whatever comes. I’m up for a movie right now, but I don’t want to jinx it because if I don’t get it, it’s gonna be really sad that I told you about it and didn’t get it, so I’ll just wait.
Any final words for our readers?
I would like to tell people that 21 & Over, they should go watch it, and it’s a really great movie. And also, in the movie, if you watch it, you can see my dick stretch.
Also, I’m very proud to be Korean, and I’m really proud to be representing Asians in American media. I think that it’d be nice for other Asians to support other Asian artists and help each other, instead of pull each other down.
Then let me squeeze in one last question. Does it ever bother you, having the “Asian American” label follow you everywhere ?
Here’s the thing. It’s never really been an issue for me, I’ve always just been an actor. Even when I first started in the industry, I never thought of myself as an Asian-American actor, and that was partly because I didn’t know any other Asian-American actors.
It’s an easy way for people to categorize me, because obviously if I’m in a movie like 21 & Over, and I’m the only non-white person, then it’s easy for them to say, “Oh yeah, that Asian kid.”
Now do I feel like I should be a good role model for Asian-Americans? F*ck no. I don’t think so. I’m just following my own art, and I just think that the only thing I can do to be a great artist is do the best job I can in whatever movie I do.
It can be a little tiresome to hear “the Asian-American” or “the Asian kid.” You know, even in Twilight, it was never my name, it was always “the Asian kid from Twilight.” Which is fine, but you know, hopefully I can continue to do great work and people will say my name, instead of “the Asian kid in whatever.”
But yeah, you know what? That’s a good motivator for me to work harder and become a better actor, so eventually that will happen. I never asked to carry the Asian community on my shoulders or anything, I’m just trying to be happy, and I love my art. I just wanna act.
It’s funny — when I started acting, I didn’t know I was going to be talking about Asian-American issues so much. (laughs) You know what though? It just comes with the territory, being ethnic.
It’s starting to bother me less.
That’s great to hear. And congratulations on graduating from being “the Asian kid in Twilight.”
(laughs) Yeah, seriously, I’m so happy.