Ken Jeong was still working his day job when he filmed his first movie, the Judd Apatow rom-com “Knocked Up.”
It’s not that unusual for up-and-coming actors to work jobs on the side while trying to make it in Hollywood.
But Jeong’s job was unique: he was a physician, seeing patients during the day and performing stand-up comedy by night.
“It was not about being famous; I just loved medicine, and I loved comedy,” Jeong said. “If I had never gotten another movie after ‘Knocked Up,’ that was OK.”
Jeong kicked off the 2022-23 Distinguished Speaker Series at the Center for the Arts Tuesday night. Jeong spoke about his unconventional rise to fame to students, faculty and staff at UB.
Fortunately for Jeong, Apatow saw his potential and started bringing him on in future films, including a cameo in “Pineapple Express” and a role in “Step Brothers,” which opened Jeong’s eyes to realize that it was “time to go pro” with his acting career.
Jeong has a clear stage presence and comedic sensibility, but he admits there was a learning curve to being on screen.
“A lot of [acting] is just learning on the job and on the fly,” Jeong said. “You just keep doing it enough and you just kind of get used to movement… that’s what acting really is, it’s just movement.”
Jeong didn’t stop moving once he learned the ropes. He’s continued to take on new roles, keeping himself busy with endeavors like judging on “The Masked Singer.”
“I’ve been so profoundly busy in the past six months that you either get consumed by it, overwhelmed by it or you almost surrender yourself to the process,” Jeong said.
But for him, business is a worthy sacrifice.
“I never thought I would be in a position in life where I could do what I love to [do],” he said.
Jeong’s fame hasn’t stopped him from advocating for others. He’s made it a mission to ensure underrepresented people are getting the shine — and the paychecks — that they deserve. As a producer and writer, Jeong goes out of his way to cast and uplift Asian American actors, like on his sitcom “Dr. Ken.”
“I fought for [the cast] all to get paid as series regulars,” Jeong said. “You’re on my payroll on an Asian American show, you’re all going to get paid.”
Only eight days before coming onto the CFA Mainstage, he finished production for “Great Divide,” a film starring Jeong which illuminates racism towards Asians as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He described the experience of acting in the movie as his most emotionally challenging role yet.
While it may have all been acted on screen, racist scenarios — like other actors purposefully coughing on him — still felt almost too realistic for Jeong.
“There were moments where I just started crying even between takes, I get choked up even thinking about it,” Jeong said.
But it was worth the mental drain for him to highlight the film’s important message.
Jeong remained vulnerable throughout the night in the audience Q&A, speaking on his experiences as a husband to a stage-three cancer survivor.
“I couldn’t stop crying everyday,” Jeong said. “I’ve never been depressed a day in my life. I’m more of an anxious guy than anything. And I was, just to get in front of it, I was prescribed some antidepressants.”
Jeong’s unique story and words of advice resonated with students in the audience, like freshman biology major Nandini Kodey.
“I really took what he said about being persistent to heart,” Kodey said. “All the struggles he went through, how he persisted… that hit home.”
Julia Pitarresi, a sophomore theatre major who met Jeong before the show, felt particularly motivated by his words.
“It’s really great to hear how someone comes from humble beginnings, and comes from med school, because I’m also very eclectic in my interests,” Pitarresi said. “I’m like, ‘can I do it all?’ Ken talked about how he really did.”
Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A.J. Franklin is an assistant features editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.