I don’t remember when I first saw Randall Park, only that one day he seemed to be everywhere.
Park, a forty-eight-year-old Korean American actor, has been on television and in film for nearly two decades, becoming one of those faces you recognize instantly—but from what? For years, he had cameos and guest spots, playing a doctor, a friend of a friend, another doctor. He’s been on “The Office,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Veep,” and he is one of the few actors currently working in both the Marvel and the D.C. cinematic universes.
His career has been defined by a kind of chummy adaptability, whether he plays a dictator (he made Kim Jong Un seem like a fun hang in “The Interview,” from 2014) or raps, as he did as a slacker in the 2019 romantic comedy “Always Be My Maybe,” or adopts an immigrant’s accent, as in his breakthrough role, on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” adapted from the chef Eddie Huang’s memoir. The series débuted in 2015 and was the first network show in nearly two decades to feature a predominantly Asian cast. For six seasons, Park played Louis Huang, the series’ wholesome, occasionally overwhelmed father. His onscreen presence makes him seem approachable, if people notice him at all. “One of the great advantages of being Asian, and borderline well known, is that people tend to think you look like just another Asian,” he told me. I made this mistake myself one time. We met near Manhattan’s Chinatown and, as he approached, I noticed his colorful cycling hat before I noticed him.
Park is the kind of actor who succeeds by reacting to other people’s drama rather than being at the center of his own. Onscreen, as well as in person, he is deferential and gracious, quick to fill in conversation with agreement and encouragement, happy to shift the focus away from himself. “I don’t consider myself a social person,” Park told me. “But acting forces me to be social. And, while I’m social, I’m, like, This is so fun. I’m so glad something’s forcing me to be social and to meet these people and talk to these people. Because if I was on my own I would never do that.”
In 2019, Park started Imminent Collision, a production company, with Michael Golamco and Hieu Ho, two friends he met through a theatre troupe he started in college. “He’s always been a really ambitious guy,” the comedian Ali Wong, his longtime friend and “Always Be My Maybe” co-star, told me. “But it’s never been gross.”
Park was in New York, with Ho, to film his directorial début, “Shortcomings,” an adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel about a group of young, somewhat unlikable Asian Americans negotiating relationships, late-twenties ambition, and their baser instincts. The film is set in the present, giving its central questions about race, self-loathing, and voyeurism a fresh backdrop: cancel culture, Instagram stalking, the question of whether “Crazy Rich Asians”-style blockbusters are actually good for the Asian American community—if you believe that such a thing exists.
“Shortcomings” is a movie full of, in Park’s word, “shitty” characters, and he has dreamed of making it for more than fifteen years. It’s an unlikely passion project for someone known for playing amiable roles. “You know how it is. It’s like they kind of know you for one thing, so that’s all the offers you’re getting,” he told me. “That’s where ‘Shortcomings’ comes in. I think people will be surprised. I anticipate when it comes into the real world it’ll be—I don’t know if ‘divisive’ is the word. I think that there will be people who are uncomfortable with it.”
Last fall, Park and I were driving through West Los Angeles in a weathered Toyota RAV4. A faded photo of his daughter was tucked into his visor. He proudly showed off one of his rare indulgences: a new receiver he had installed so that he could play music from his phone. “It’s crazy,” he said, chuckling. “I always wanted it.”
We pulled up in front of Hamilton High School, his alma mater, and he recalled the Los Angeles riots in 1992, when students were told to go home early, and he wandered the streets all day with a friend. “I wasn’t cool, but I was cool with everyone,” he told me. In high school, Park and his group of friends, which he describes as racially mixed, like a “perfect Benetton ad,” spent their free time filming their own skits, in the style of “In Living Color.”
Park has spent his entire life in Los Angeles, the second son of Korean immigrants. His father worked at a stuffed-toy company before opening a one-hour-photo studio in Santa Monica. For thirty years, his mother worked in the accounting office at the U.C.L.A. student store. His parents still live in the modest house in the Castle Heights neighborhood where he and his brother were brought up.
In the early nineteen-nineties, he attended U.C.L.A., a transformative experience. He had not grown up around many Asian Americans, and, at first, he was overwhelmed. Then, he said, “after a while, it was, like, Oh, my gosh, I love this. This is incredible. A community.” An introductory course in Asian American studies opened his eyes to the history, the contours, and the contradictions of this community.
An instructor encouraged Park to pursue creative writing. He and his friends decided to write plays and stage them. They founded an Asian American troupe, whose first performance was “The Treehouse Bachelor Society,” a play that Park had written about U.C.L.A. undergraduates, not unlike himself and his friends, trying to figure out relationships, ambition, and self-acceptance.