Ken Jeong Exclusive Interview: Dr. Ken, Dicky Wexler and a Career High

KEN JEONG (WRITER/EXECUTIVE PRODUCER)

Ken Jeong took time out of his extremely busy day, Ken actually called me from the editing bay of Dr. Ken, and spoke with Mike’s Film Talk about his start in the entertainment business, Dr. Ken, and why Dicky Wexler’s Last Show is an episode he counts as a career high. We also spoke about his stint as stand-up comedian, his fellow cast members,  the show finale, Randall Park and Jamie Foxx.

Ken Jeong has amassed a gross of screen credits on both the small screen and the larger cinema screen. He got his start in 1997 on television but the real beginning was while attending pre-med courses at Duke University. He took an acting class where he caught the bug instantly. Ken realized that he loved acting.

So much so, in fact, that he auditioned for the acting school at Duke. He was accepted and then had to contemplate switching majors.

Ken: “So in reality my love for acting began over 25 years ago way before my career in medicine ever got started. I did continue with medicine and developed a passion for it. My wife is a doctor; she still practices, and it is a big part of my life. In a way, Dr. Ken is a culmination of areas of my life.”

After making the hard decision to keep studying medicine, Ken never got over the lure of performing and started doing stand-up comedy throughout his remaining educational time and while doing his medical residency.

It was, Ken says, a logical choice.

Ken found that his natural gift for comedic acting transferred well to the arena of stand-up and he won a contest where the prize was a “golden ticket” to perform at the world famous Improve Club in Los Angeles. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Before talking about Dr. Ken, and Ken’s favorite episode Dicky Wexler’s Last Show, we talked about his passion for performing.

Mike’s Film Talk (MFT): Looking at your bio and the various interviews you’ve done in the past, it looks like stand-up comedy is your first love.

Ken: Well…I’ve got to say that acting is my first love. Although going right back childhood, my first love was for academics and then acting, without any inkling of performing either ability, or even ambition.

MFT: Oh.

Ken: What happened was I really wanted to do theatre when I was in college. When I got fortunate enough to be accepted to medical school, I had to stop the acting school and finish what I’d started medically, or pre-medically. Then once I started in medical school I still had this desire to perform, but I had no idea what to do. So I thought, ‘why not give stand-up a try.’ Because I’d always excelled at ‘comedy’ acting and this is kind of a manifestation of that.

MFT: Right.

Ken: And Stand-up became like a great hobby. You could go to an “open mic” event once or twice a month and just let off some steam. I really viewed it as my hobby while in med school and during my residency and it was not anything I was trying to do professionally. But it just so happened I could do it well enough to do it professionally, and one thing led to another. Winning the contest to go to LA and perform at the Improv in Hollywood and that got my foot in the door in LA.

MFT: The move to stand-up makes a certain amount of sense. Once you have experienced the immediacy of feedback from a live theatre audience, nothing else really fulfills that experience, so the switch over to stand-up sounds like a brilliant replacement.

Ken: Oh yes, the immediacy of the audience feedback doing is hard to describe if you’ve never experienced. But, yes there is a high, a performance high, that get out of doing that. It is funny though, while I was doing it, I had opportunities to go on the road and open for high profile comedians but I opted not to.

MFT: Why not?

Ken: Well as much as I love stand-up, and a lot of my friends are in stand-up as well; I really love acting and wanted to do ‘proper’ acting. This is what prompted me to book a part in “Knocked Up” and later Hangover. I truly love acting more than stand-up but I really enjoyed my time while doing stand-up. There is a lot of grey involved there, it’s not black or white situation as in “Oh I like this, I don’t like this.”

MFT: I know looking at the bio it seemed that comedy had been your starting point, like Steve Martin or Robin Williams, and that you’d gravitated over to acting but actually the reverse is true.

Ken: Yeah the reverse is true. It was more like theatre acting, stand-up and then acting. But to your point; like in the Dicky Wexler episode, there is an affinity for stand-up comedy with my character and that will culminate in the season finale where stand-up will be involved.

MFT: Oh brilliant!

Ken: Oh yeah, it goes there. And it will be a point where Ken will try his hand at stand-up comedy. There is a lot of “art imitating life” so I’m glad you feel that way after reading my filmography and credits and also following the show because what you said…although in my “exact” life I had a more nuanced experience than that, but in the universe of the show, Ken’s love for stand-up is real and genuine.

And I don’t think it’s coincidence that in an episode like “Kevin O’Connell” that he was doing stand-up for the HMO banquet…Which is also based on a true story. At the physicians HMO banquet every year I would do stand up comedy and that pertained to that.

MFT: Oh that’s brilliant! I was going to mention that early on in the series, in one of my reviews, I called Dr. Ken “the Woody Woodpecker” of medicine in that he said and did things no one else would dare to and was quite unapologetic about it. He was Ken Park, doctor, and he was going to do things his way.

Ken: Exactly. He doesn’t have  a filter he’s not sensitive or self aware and  I think that’s the big difference in our characters. In the life of Dr. Ken, he overreacts but has no self awareness, but in real life I overreact but I’m painfully self-aware. I’m a very sensitive guy and I really do care what other people think.

MFT: Which is all part of being an actor…

Ken: Yeah, that is part and parcel of being an actor, absolutely.

MFT: I was going to ask, just for a laugh, who you’d rather go to..obviously you wouldn’t want to go to Dr. Park.

Ken: Yeah, that’s because as a physician, in real life as a doctor I tried not to be funny with my patients. I never really liked doing that. It is funny that when people meet me they are very surprised at how low-key I am and how seriously I took medicine. That was what I wanted to do growing up so I  took that seriously. 

MFT: Yes.

Ken: I’ve said in interviews before that I never jerked around patients like Patch Adams. I never went around saying, “Aw you got herpes, but I got your nose! Honk! Honk!” 

MFT: (Laughing) Which would probably result in a lawsuit these days.

Ken: (laughs)

MFT: I’ve watched “Dicky Wexler’s Last Show” twice now. Now I have to say, my two favorite episodes so far have been “Ken at the Concert” and “Dicky’s Last Show” and both for the same reason. They each made me laugh and cry a little. Now I’m a soppy old git and I’ve cried at Scooby Doo before…

Ken: (laughing)

MFT: And the odd commercial. But these episodes  each contained the perfect blend of comedy and that little touch of pathos, or poignancy. In the concert episode, Ken is trying so hard do connect with his little girl who’s outgrowing his sphere of fatherly influence and at the concert he realizes,  in the parent lounge,  that the other parents have given up and Ken decides he’s going to “rescue” his relationship with Molly.

Stitchers Interviews: Emma Ishta, Allison Scagliotti, Salli Richardson-Whitfield

This is the first of the Stitchers Interviews. As in all things chivalrous it will be ladies first, blame my mother, followed by the fellas and then capped off with the creator/executive producer.

SALLI RICHARDSON-WHITFIELD
This is the first of the Stitchers Interviews. As in all things chivalrous it will be ladies first, blame my mother, followed by the fellas and then capped off with the creator/executive producer.  Certainly the world is, overall, consumed with all things Oscars at the moment. Leonardo finally getting  a little golden guy, Mad Max taking six for the Aussie contingent and Brie Larson winning, quite deservedly, for her film, Room.

Still, Stitchers fans must be curious as to what transpired “on the day” so here is the first of three. These busy people took time from shooting the second season finale (Do not ask;  I saw very little and can only tell you that John Billingsley is awesome in terms of energy, focus and professionalism, as are the rest of the cast.) to speak with Mike’s Film Talk and they were all informative and fun.

The very nature of the beast had the regulars, and Billingsley, shooting the same scene repeatedly, for angle changes, reactions shots, et al. All the while each performer, and the dedicated crew, took breaks from the action and either, like Allison texted someone and watched the set mechanics from the viewing room, or spoke with Mike’s Film Talk, aka, moi, or disappeared to one of the nooks and crannies to either rehearse or shoot the breeze.

In the all purpose conference room, where the interviews took place, the order of actors actually had Kyle Harris as first in the queue.  However, since it is ladies first, Salli Richardson-Whitfield followed on the heels of Harris so she gets to go first.

MFT: “Hello I’m Michael Knox-Smith, nice to meet you.”

Salli: “Hi, nice to meet you!”

MFT: “I’ll start by telling you what I’ve told all the other cast members I’ve met so far, you look exactly the same off screen as on.

Salli: “Why thank you, although a lot of times people are disappointed. Plus you didn’t see what we looked like when we got here, before hair and  makeup!”

MFT:  “Just to let you know, I’ve been a fan since episode two and I have to tell you; I distrusted your character through the entire first season!”

Salli: (laughing) “Good then.  Good.”

MFT: “Before we carry on. Did I see your husband out there?”

Salli: Just now? Oh no, he’s not here now, but…my husband does guest-star this season on one of the episodes. I’m not sure I can say what he does, but he will be on the show. We try to appear on one another’s shows where and when we can. (For the record, Salli’s husband is Dondré Whitfield who will be playing a character called Sam Lewis in season two.)

MFT: Most of the season you could be seen as a bit of a baddy in the group but then, things began to change. Your character has access to a lot of secrets so  I’ll ask pointblank, is Kristen’s mother still alive?

Salli: “We think she may be.” 

MFT: “Okay…Obviously, your character was very  connected  with not only Kirsten’s father,  stepfather and her mother. Rather than being the “bad guy” of the piece your character is  more of a protector. Is that right?

Salli: I think that’s who Maggie is. I think that what you saw in the first, and more in the second season, is that things are never cut and dried, good or bad. Like getting a new president sometimes things are dirty. Sometimes you have to do things that are contrary to what are as a person or how you do your job. So there are times when you mistrust Maggie because of the things that she has to do.  She is an agent, but…Maggie, on the whole has the lab and the kids that she loves and she wants to protect them, while trying to keep her job. 

MFT: “That definitely came across towards the end of the first season.  How much has Maggie changed this season? Is she still on the same track?”

Salli: I believe she is. Although Maggie’s been given  more power this season and I’ve given out more power to them so they can do the things they need to do. So  I think we’re all just growing in the roles we fill in the show. 

MFT: So what do we see this season, more of the “big bad?”

Salli: Let me see, it’s all starting to become a blur. Well, we do learn more secrets this season.  For example we see some people who “should” be right, not be right. There are also some definite twists that we have to figure out.  And it looks so much better. The show looks great; darker, edgier and more interesting as well as more “filmy.” 

MFT: “Brilliant! Leaving Maggie and Stitchers aside for the moment, do you guys, as in the cast, get to “schmooze” around much away from the set?”

Salli: “Not a lot because, you know, I have children. I think they hang out a lot more than I’m able to. I have two under 12s but we all had dinner the other day and had a great time getting to hang out. We all like each other which is great. I’m sure you heard, on the set, when we’re stuck in the “stitch” area, it’s a long day. It’s better if we can get along. 

MFT: “I was amazed at how small it actually is compared to what it looks like on television.”

Salli: “It can make for a long day. I know I never seem to have a lot of dialogue in the stitch thing and  suddenly there is like two pages and it’s like ‘what did she say?’ (laughs) So it gets a little silly and you should have fun.” 

MFT: “Everyone was having a laugh as we came in this morning and that’s always a good sign. I’ve been on sets before where no one was laughing.

Salli: “Yes that is generally a sign that something’s wrong, luckily we all get along.”

MFT: How long did it take you to work out where you needed to be as your character? Did it take awhile, or did you step into Maggie’s shoes pretty much knowing where you wanted to go?

Salli: “I’d like to tell you that it took me a really long time to get there but, I do this kind of role a lot.  For instance, my last series was “Eureka” and that was, pretty much, the same kind of role. Although in that show you knew pretty much where I was coming from, I was a good heart. In “Stitchers”  I’m a bit more stern and you don’t necessarily know where I’m coming from.  But it’s still; agent, spy, head of government scientific kind of thing so it’s a role I fall into pretty easily.

MFT: “Do you like playing roles in this type of genre, Sci-fi/fantasy?”

Salli: Well it seems to like me. I enjoy it although I don’t like the dialogue sometimes. It can be very hard for me so I have to work a little harder. But I do like the genre, I am a sci-fi kinda girl and a Marvel girl, I like those kind of shows. So it works well for me. 

MFT: “It’s the season finale you’re all working on today. I guess the big question is whether or not we learn even more about where your character stands in the verse in terms of good or bad?

Salli: “Oh definitely. I believe that by the time this season ends you’ll have a very clear idea of who I’m working with and my intentions with the kids. This is a good one for surprises, like ‘uh-oh sh*t! What’s happening now?’ I’m really happy with it as it is a very well written season finale. 

At the end of the interview, we talked about the pop culture references. I mentioned that I had congratulated Kyle Harris on who well he delivered these.  I was very impressed at the Buckeroo Banzai reference. (Kyle admitted that he had to look up the vast majority of these in his interview.) Salli explained that many of the “kids’ had to do the same.

Salli: For instance, one set of references were from The Archie Digest and I was “wow that was my cartoon book! Most of the kids know a few but Kyle doesn’t know a lot of the most significant ones, (that you should know as an actor) so we’ve made a list of films that he needs to watch!

After remarking about the attractiveness of the cast, which many critics took umbrage to at the start of season one, Salli graciously allowed me to take a “selfie” with her and thus endeth her portion of the interview, but not before assuring her that her character did not look old enough to be playing “mum” to all those youngsters.

IMG_3822 SALLI RICHARDSON-WHITFIELD
Salli Richardson-Whitfield