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[HERALD INTERVIEW] Chon beats Hollywood odds in 'Twilight'

2008/12/03 Source

The joke goes something like this -- in Hollywood, if you toss a pebble in the air on a crowded street, whoever gets hit in the head is either an actor or a screenwriter -- or both.

Six years ago, Justin Chon was your typical struggling actor in Los Angeles trying to make it in Tinseltown. As if landing regular acting gigs wasn't hard enough, Chon had to fight against an industry that tends to typecast Asians.

But now he is on the cast of a movie that just hit pay-dirt at the box office in the United States. His recent film, "Twilight", based on a series of young-adult novels about romance between a teenage mortal and a vampire, opened number one in North America with a $69 million opening weekend haul.

Chon plays Eric Yorkie, whose character is the school goof who constantly pines for Bella's heart throughout the novels.

Quite surprising, the character was meant for a Caucasian actor.

In a town notorious for perpetuating negative Asian stereotypes, Chon, like many of his fellow Asian actors, has fought to make it in an industry that created such offensive caricatures as Breakfast at Tiffany's Mr. Yunioshi and Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong.

"Typically, Asian actors get cast as liquor store owners, violent gangsters or immigrants that can't speak a lick of English. We've all been part of the fabric of this nation for such a long time and to be cast as immigrants with thick accents is just offensive".

Chon, 27, has thus far managed to avoid playing stereotypes. Even when struggling to find work, he has never placed his integrity on the auction block.

Born and raised in Southern California, Chon grew up in Irvine, Orange County. The son of a former Korean child-actor, Chon Sang-cheol, his parents immigrated to the United States to begin new lives as entrepreneurs.

Justin Chon

Growing up, the "Twilight" star would sporadically watch his dad's old black and white movies. And like father like son, he is now following in his father's footsteps. "He was an 'ayeok baewoo (child actor)' so I grew up watching his black and white films thinking maybe I could do the same", he said.

"Acting happened late into college when I was going to USC to get a business degree but halfway through I realized I didn't want to work in an office my entire life, so I pretty much got into it because I didn't want to get a real job. No, but seriously, I've always had a passion to perform, so I went to acting school and once I finished college and got my degree I decided I was just going to give it a shot. I was fortunate that I started booking gigs right off the bat".

Like most Asian parents, his were no different in expressing their concern toward their son's choice to get involved in the fickle entertainment business.

"They were worried initially because they didn't think I could sustain a living off of it. But I think they let me pursue it because they were pretty sure I wasn't going to make it. They thought it was something I needed to get out of my system, but I thought I was going to keep doing it until I made it. It was a commitment I made to myself and for myself", he said.

"I worked at my dad's shoe store getting paid minimum wage because the deal was he'll let me act, but I had to work there 12 hours a day and could only leave if I had an audition or if I booked a gig".

After various gigs in commercials and television, Chon was cast as a regular on the Nickelodeon sitcom "Just Jordan".

"They're a lot more supportive now that I've begun to get work consistently, but they're still wary. But as long as I'm happy, they're happy. Once in a while my dad gives me acting advice from time to time, like how acting should be more natural and how it should come from the heart. You know -- things I already know. He just says it just because he can say it".

Through six grueling and nerve-racking auditions, not including chemistry readings, Chon was cast for "Twilight". His comedic timing and endearing gravitas were enough for the casting directors to be convinced they had the perfect Eric.

"Acting can be trying on both your mind and body. While filming 'Twilight', there were times I had to stand out in the rain for 14 hours in 20-30 degree weather in upstate Oregon", he said.

"But it was worth it because everyone's hard work and commitment to the film paid off".

With the film's budget a paltry -- by Hollywood standards-- $37 million, "Twilight" is poised to become the most profitable film of the year.

"It's funny because after that huge opening, it seems everyone wants to have a meeting. I know not to be swept up in all of the excitement because when you're hot you're hot, but when you're not you're not", he said.

Next on his agenda, Chon will be starring opposite Harrison Ford and Ashley Judd in the immigration drama "Crossing Over", due to hit theater screens next year.

He is part of an ensemble cast of characters that will represent immigrants from all over the world who are trying to obtain legal status in the United States.

"I auditioned and met with the director who was really in support of my casting. I won't mention names but there's an actor in Korea who really wanted it and he's famous all over Asia. The producers wanted him more than me for obvious reasons, so the director really had to fight for me for about 2 weeks until the producers caved in and let me be in this picture", he said.

"I'm also the lead of my storyline and I play a kid from Korea who moved to the States a few years ago and has a hard time adjusting to life. He starts hanging out with the wrong crowd and begins making wrong decisions and during the course of the film I commit some heinous things, but not without redemption".

Drama is where he feels most at ease. With drama, Chon feels he has more room to experiment.

"Headlining a movie and being a huge star isn't my goal, although it would be nice, but I could care less about any of that. I just want to do work that I'll be proud of".

With his stock continuing to rise, the Korean entertainment industry has also been tracking him.

"There's one project in Korea I agreed to do, but I can't talk about it because it's not set in stone, but there's another script where half of it will be shot in Korea and the other half in the States that I am pursuing with a passion", he said.

Twilight opens nationwide in Korea on Dec. 11.

By Song Woong-ki

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