In hindsight, Turbo star Ken Jeong is the most unlikely of Hollywood success stories. A physician by trade, the talent he possessed could not be repressed, so he and his wife moved to Los Angeles with Hollywood dreams, and the rest, as they say… is history.
Movie Fanatic caught up with Jeong for an exclusive chat about his role as Kim Ly (an elderly Vietnamese manicurist) in the newly released Turbo DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as his many memorable roles that have made him one of the most in-demand comic character actors in the business.
As teased in the Turbo trailer, Ryan Reynolds voices the title character. He is a garden snail with dreams of racing in the Indy 500. Through a series of mishaps, he winds up getting his fill of his need for speed. The underdog story charms on many levels (and even made our Top 10 Animated Movies of 2013) and makes the most perfect of Christmas gifts for the youngest ones on your list!
Movie Fanatic: Where’d you go to find your inner Kim Ly?
Ken Jeong: [Laughs] It was so much fun. I have never in a million years thought I would play an old Vietnamese manicurist. It is a bit of an in joke too because my wife is Vietnamese. When I found out I was going to play this character, I told my mother-in-law that this is not based on you! It’s my own interpretation. Doing Turbo, my kids – my twin six-year-old daughters – and for them to ask me to do the voice on request, that is awesome. My kids are quoting me! That is so flattering and I got cool points with the kids.
Movie Fanatic: When you’re recording a character like that, is there such a thing as going too far with the portrayal?
Ken Jeong: I think, like live action in comedy, it was a tight script for Turbo. What I liked about animation voice-over, you read the script and you do your best to get those lines right and then once you have it, then once you’re in the flow, I find your imagination starts rolling and you naturally start improvising and trying out things. There’s an art to it, it’s not throwing the kitchen sink out there and see if it sticks.
Movie Fanatic: You do a lot of voice work, how is that a different challenge for you versus live action?
Ken Jeong: I love animation voice-over. It wasn’t my goal to do this when I quit my day job as a physician. But, the more I do it, I love it. It’s something I want to keep doing the rest of my career. Number one, you don’t have to shower! That’s great. Number two, it’s something that I love because we (the actors) are the icing on the cake. Watching something like Turbo, it’s really a job by (director) David Soren. This film was his passion over the last 10 years. It’s about an underdog story, and so relatable. I relate to it. When I was a physician I never thought in a million years I would be talking to you about my umpteenth movie [laughs]. It’s so surreal and I so relate to the story. That’s what drew me to the story. The hard work that David and the animation team did to perfect it, is astounding. For me, I’m just an added grace note and I’m honored to be a part of it knowing how difficult animation is.
Movie Fanatic: You mentioned being a physician. It seems like the most unlikely path to stardom. Were comedy and acting a calling that you could simply not ignore?
Ken Jeong: Yeah, in a word, yes. I wanted to be an actor, even when I was pre-med. But, I didn’t think it was realistic. I was scared. I remember discussing it with my family. They never said, “Don’t do it.” I didn’t know what my chances were. I’ll be honest, my wife is a physician, and my wife has been so supportive. I got the part in Knocked Up when I had my day job. It was really my wife at the time who encouraged me to pursue it full time. Having such a great support system was priceless. For them to believe in me more than I did, obviously I made the right choice and am so grateful.
Movie Fanatic: You’ve had so many roles, is there one that stands out, or is hard to choose, like picking a favorite puppy?
Ken Jeong: [Laughs] I love that! It is like choosing a favorite puppy! There are so many things that I feel blessed to be a part of. My first role in Knocked Up to Role Models to Mr. Chow in all three Hangover movies, and Chang in Community and Kym Lee in Turbo -- it is an embarrassment of riches. Needless to say, if it wasn’t for The Hangover, I wouldn't be here talking to you. All the success I’ve had in the last four years to me is directly attributed to The Hangover. It literally changed my life from black and white to Technicolor. I love working with those guys and Todd (Phillips). I’ve learned so much from them. As time goes by, I’m on a learning curve -- the more you work, the more you learn. It’s been the best experience. I’m a byproduct of formal education with med school, and I’m the one saying, in this business you learn the most on the job. I’ve had so much fun in so many roles. Even in this last season of Community, I’ve had some moments as Chang that have really ranked up there with my favorite moments as an actor. I just want to keep improving, all while having a lot of fun.