While Ken Jeong was filming one of his scene-stealing moments in “The Hangover” — you know, the part where his character Mr. Chow declares, “Right after you suck on these little Chinese nuts” — director Todd Phillips allowed the actor to let off some steam.
In speaking with TheWrap, Jeong recalls getting the chance to riff for a solid 10 minutes in a single take, material that ended up on the DVD extras for “The Hangover.” He got applauded on set for his intensity and passion, and the role helped catapult him to stardom.
But Jeong revealed he almost didn’t take the part of Mr. Chow because his wife Tran was recovering from chemotherapy. Jeong occasionally slipped some Vietnamese into his dialogue, and the quirks that made his character iconic were actually inside jokes meant for his wife.
“It was just a shout out to my wife who was recovering from chemotherapy from breast cancer. Eleven years cancer-free; she’s doing well. But there’s a lot of little easter eggs that were just for me and my wife,” Jeong revealed as “The Hangover” celebrates its 10th anniversary this week. “Those are the things 10 years out, it’s the most, weirdest love letter to my wife ever. ‘The Hangover’ has elements of that got me through a hard, most difficult time in my life when she was recovering from chemotherapy.”
“The Hangover’s” success took Jeong’s career to the next level. He had left his day job as a practicing doctor to pursue acting a few years earlier. Though he was known for “Knocked Up” and “Role Models,” Jeong credits Mr. Chow as the role that gave him every opportunity he has in his career today, including his sitcom “Dr. Ken,” his Netflix stand-up comedy special, his hosting stint on “The Masked Singer,” and even a new partnership with V8 +Hydrate for which he’s pushing his own sort of hangover cure in honor of the film’s anniversary.
Jeong called playing Mr. Chow “very therapeutic” as he worked through multiple different voices for his character and worked to prove himself as an actor and comedian.
“I was not known for this kind of literally balls-out comedy. I was not known for that. That definitely uncovered just another layer for me artistically,” Jeong said. “To me, I was just getting a lot of stuff off my plate. I was venting at the rage of my wife having cancer and being in certain situations. So in a way, Chow is like an exorcism of those demons. You never know all this stuff in a movie called ‘The Hangover.’ You never know what layers are peeled in that onion.”
Jeong personally knew Zach Galifianakis for years as they both worked as stand-up comics. He had also just done small roles alongside Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms in separate films, so they all had instant chemistry on set. But Cooper and Phillips were the only ones who knew that Jeong’s wife was sick.
“We had early indicators of a good prognostic sign. Every day Todd Phillips would ask — he comes from a family of oncologists — anything you need, he would always ask how Tran was doing,” Jeong said. “Even that year while we shot it, Tran was so weak from the chemo that she couldn’t travel for the holidays. We had 1-year-old kids at the time, so Bradley invited all of us to spend the holidays with him and his family.”
Of course, there’s another way that Cooper supported Jeong on set. One of the most famous moments in “The Hangover” is Jeong’s debut midway through the movie when he jumps out of the trunk of their car naked and onto Cooper’s shoulders, attacking him with a crowbar in the confusion.
It was never written in the script that Jeong would be fully naked, but Jeong proposed it to Phillips and even signed an agreement so he wouldn’t change his mind later. Cooper thankfully was more than willing to take one for the team.
“He said, ‘I heard you want to do this naked, and I get it.’ It was exciting because he knew midway through the movie it would add this other element of surprise,” Jeong said. “We must’ve done 40 different takes from different angles. This was all day. And Todd Phillips had said to Bradley, ‘Hey man, if you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.’ Bradley was like, ‘Until you brought it up, I didn’t realize how frickin’ weird this really is.”
Jeong still gets blowback from people who think his Mr. Chow character is a stereotype. But 10 years has given him a new perspective and outlook on what that role meant to him and how it has shaped his comedy.
“If you look at my body of work, that’s actually the only, since ‘The Hangover,’ you’ve never seen me do a character with an accent,” Jeong said (his character in “Crazy Rich Asians” only pretends to speak with an accent). “I was me doing a meta-joke on a trope. Even from the first movie, if you shatter that stereotype by just playing it so hard, there’s not an actual trope or stereotype of Asian men jumping out of trunks naked and beating Bradley Cooper on the back, or beating up three white men. So you’re really just playing it so hard you’re actually puncturing the stereotype and playing it with such irony. I think that over time that people have understood that.”
Check out a clip from TheWrap’s interview with Ken Jeong above.