Seoul Searching was my top pick at Sundance so I’m glad it’s playing locally at the Los Angeles Film Festival. In anticipation of the gala screening, I spoke with the film’s star, Justin Chon. He plays Sid Park, one of many children of Korean expats who were sent to a summer camp in Seoul in the ‘80s. These camps really existed for a few years in the ‘80s, but writer/director Benson Lee says they had to shut down because the teenagers were so out of control.
They do get pretty rowdy in the film, inspired by the ‘80s comedies of John Hughes according to Lee. Chon plays Sid Park, a rebellious punk who squares off against the strict counselor Mr. Kim (In-Pyo Cha), as well as romancing a goth preacher’s daughter who’s also rebelling against her father.
The gala screening of Seoul Searching is Wednesday, June 17 at 7:30. Tickets are available now. Get to know the real Justin Chon a little bit better in this exclusive interview.
CraveOnline: At Sundance, Benson was talking about how casting an all Asian movie, the casting pool was very limited. You work a lot, but was it still special to be in a movie with all Asian cast?
Justin Chon: Yeah, it’s very rare that that happens. It’s crazy because I feel like I haven’t gotten to work with that many full Asian casts, but then in the last two years, there have been a few projects that have come up that I’ve had the opportunity to do that. Revenge of the Green Dragons that I did with Andrew Lau that Scorsese produced. Then this, Seoul Searching, so it’s pretty shocking that these things are coming up because it’s just a rarity. But I guess it just shows how much the world is changing, right?
Since Benson was inspired by the John Hughes, did you start out with a more superficial “type” that you could then bring more layers to throughout the film? Like Hughes always had “the jock,” “the geek,” etc. but we ultimately learned more about them.
I think that’s actually the pitfall, the danger with playing these ‘80s movies because they had these archetypal characters. As an actor, every human and every character you play is unique in itself. So I didn’t approach it as “the rocker.” I didn’t really look [at] anyone like, “Oh, she’s ‘the brain.’” I just formed my own opinions and rolled with it.
Benson did paint this picture of everyone having the sort of archetypal character they were playing, but in reality it’s so funny because being Asian-American, we’re all a subculture of a subculture. So everybody’s characters are playing a subculture of a subculture. I’m playing the punk, but then I’m also Asian-American so I’m even more of a subculture than just being a punk in the U.S.
For me at least, I really tried to figure out what his problems were and what his relationship with his parents were and those internal things.
Of course, and that was the point of the John Hughes movies, that there’s so much more to a person than the label they’re stuck with at the beginning. Do you think another theme of the movie is that people don’t really change, but they can come to an understanding?
Oh, definitely. I still am friends with a lot of kids I grew up with from elementary school, junior high and high school and those are the people I keep in touch with and consider really true friends because in life, they don’t care about your economic status or your stature with your job. The thing I’ve come to realize is all of them are exactly the same person. It’s just some of them have been hiding it or putting a mask on, but we’re essentially the same person we were back when we were kids. We’re just better dealing with it or functioning in society.
Like a lot of the ‘80s movies, you’re playing a teenager when you’re no longer a teenager. Have you done that a lot in your career?
Yes, it’s just a fact that I look young. It’s been at times frustrating because I am a little older so I would like to play sometimes a little bit older than I look, but it’s just the way it works. If I look young, and I’m getting parts to play young roles, it’s kind of a cathartic thing because I’ve already lived through that time and I just kinda relive what it’s like to be that age, and with a sense of perspective. So it’s really fun to go back to what it was like to be in high school and have all those awkward moments and be a virgin and all that stuff. I love reliving that stuff.
Do you feel like you’re in good company with all the ‘80s actors who played high schoolers until they were 30?
Oh yeah, a lot of them did that. I think there’s something to having a young person play a young person, but there’s also something to having an understanding of what it was like and being able to interpret that and then play that. I think there’s another aspect to that. You can portray the character at a deeper level of that understanding. I love those performances. Me personally, I grew up with John Hughes and I love all of his movies that he made in the ‘80s too.
Speaking of reliving teenage years, the kids in Seoul Searching indulge in alcohol and learn that taking care of drunk people isn’t fun. Did you appreciate that?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think that’s hilarious. That’s why I think this movie is really charming in a way because it’s a bunch of kids really kind of putting on this facade that they’re way cooler than they are, when in fact they’re just scared children. Especially with the drinking, just showing the reality of it, not glamorizing it but showing actually having to deal with a drunk person or what sex would be like with a girl who just threw up and drank a lot. The reality of that is actually hilarious and I think that’s why maybe this movie as a whole strikes a chord with audiences is that there’s a lot of truth behind, even though it’s glossy and stylized, there’s a lot of truth behind the scenes which I think people definitely relate to.
You’ve done the full on party movie too, so did it make you think of 21 and Over?
Yeah, I didn’t get to play as much drunk as I did in 21 and Over but it was cool. In Seoul Searching, the drinking was more of this pride and machismo thing. Then in 21 and Over it’s more for me to avoid the inevitable which was trying to tell my dad that I’ve been failing out of school and manning up to that. Yeah, alcohol is always a temporary problem solver.
When did you shoot the Breakfast Club poster?
We shot it maybe a few days before we wrapped on one of our days off, like on a Sunday. We all got together and shot the poster. It’s just awkward when you look at the picture and you’re like, “Yeah, this is a Breakfast Club picture but it’s a bunch of Asian kids. It’s weird.”
Do you live in Los Angeles?
Not exactly. I live in Orange County. I don’t live in L.A. because it’s not really my favorite place. I think there’s a lot of charm to L.A. but I guess I am more accustomed to the slower more relaxed lifestyle than what L.A. is. After work or after I’m done with auditions or meetings for the day, I don’t want to go out to dinner and hear the next table talk about something they’re producing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just I want a life outside of acting as well.
Well, it’s much more interesting conversation if it’s true. Sifting through all the people bullshitting about what they’re producing is more of a chore.
Yeah, that’s true. That’s another thing.
What I’m getting at is, what is your life like as a young actor in the industry, and maybe why did you choose to live just outside the city?
My life outside of the industry is very, very boring. I mean, like I kind of use acting as my chance to kind of act out and experience things, but I enjoy food very much. I enjoy red wine. I just like taking it easy. I surf.
What are some good places to eat around Orange County?
There’s some great sushi. I like this place Ango Tei in Costa Mesa. There’s some great Chinese food. I love this place Boiling Point. Oh, one of my favorites is shrimp tacos, ahi poke and ceviche at this place called Bear Flag Fish Co. in Newport Beach. But it’s the suburbs so it’s few and far between.
Do you have a favorite red wine?
I’m not like a connoisseur. I wouldn’t be able to tell you, “Oh, this is from this ridge of the French valley” or whatever, but I really enjoy red wine.
Where do you usually surf? Have you ever traveled to surf?
I usually surf here in Newport or San Clemente next to the pier. I have traveled to surf. I’ve surfed in Nicaragua, Hawaii and New Zealand.I’m not like a big wave surfer. If It’s just around four to six is my comfort zone. Anything big I start fearing for my life and it becomes stressful and not fun anymore.