South Korea-born actress Jae Suh Park emigrated to California's Central Valley with her parents at the tender age of 6, but not surprisingly, they thought her early love of acting was a hobby and not a realistic career goal.
Park proved them wrong during her first year of college at UC Davis, when her acting teacher took her aside and told her she should start auditioning for roles.
And just like another actress with a similar background, Sandra Oh, did when she co-hosted the Golden Globe Awards in early January with Andy Samberg, Park always acknowledges her parents and the sacrifices they made for the family.
She got an agent and quickly started working in commercials before landing film and television roles when she moved to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles after graduation.
Her latest role is in Netflix's New York City-set half-hour comedy Friends from College, whose second season was released Jan. 11. Park is an integral part of the ensemble of six buddies the show follows 20 years after they all first met as students at Harvard.
Her character Marianne is the bohemian, artistic one of the bunch, whose other key players include Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage, Annie Parisse, Cobie Smulders and Nat Faxon.
When Park auditioned for the part in the series, created by Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco, she was unaware it shot in the Big Apple. During production, she becomes bi-coastal as she and husband Randall Park, who stars in ABC's Fresh off the Boat, live in Los Angeles with their six-year-old daughter.
The parameters of Marianne's persona shifted after Park got the part as a result of what she calls a symbiotic relationship with the writers that enables all of them – including other cast members – to discover more about the characters as they go along.
The new season takes place one year after the denouement of Season 1, which saw seismic shifts in the relationships amongst several of the Big Six. Marianne held a deep, dark secret throughout, until it was revealed at the end, which forced her to reevaluate some of her long-standing friendships and make some changes in living arrangements.
Inevitably, the comedy has been compared with Friends. Although the characters are in their 40s, one of the key themes is that they still seem stuck in their early 20s and how they relate to each other and to the world.
Park doesn't hesitate in calling Marianne the Phoebe-like cast member of the group, and doesn't mind the comparisons to NBC's enduring sitcom, which she calls one of her favorite shows.
We caught up with Park by phone in Los Angeles, where she was busy promoting Friends from College and eager to talk about the experiences that have led her to this point.
Presuming you watched the Golden Globes, what were your thoughts and feelings about Sandra Oh's historic position as its first Asian American host?
She did an amazing job. She's so talented. Sandra is an amazing person with great energy, and I was rooting for her and giving her all of my support.
What really resonated with me was the bit with her parents, especially when she gave them a shout out in Korean, which I know is not her first language. I can imagine the pride and joy they felt, even when she was joking about the mom's rather stoic, unimpressed expression, which I could relate to, which gave it an added layer to the viewing. It's definitely generational – and it was hilarious.
Tell us more about your own family background and how you got started in the industry.
In Lodi, California, where we moved from South Korea because we were sponsored by an uncle who lived there, we were the first Asian family on the block, and we didn't speak the [English] language. I didn't leave until college.
I had wanted to be an actress at the age of 8, but I was really shy. Yet I held on to the dream. I took acting classes and during my first year at UC Davis, a teacher pulled me aside and told me I had talent. My parents thought it was a great hobby. No one in the family was artistic and it wasn't supported.
Upon graduation, it became my coming out party: I told them I wanted to be an actor, but it did not go well. It led to fights, and being told I was crazy, that it was a strange pipe dream and that I was never going to make it. In Korea, acting was not a respected profession.
After many years of fights, I decided to move to San Francisco where I found an agent and decided to try out the business and see if I liked it. I did, and after a year I moved to Los Angeles and have been here ever since – about 20 years now. I didn't really know anyone here except a cousin but I felt like I had no choice and I would've hated myself if I'd never tried it. It was stronger than the fear of not knowing anyone.
What was it like starting out at that point, where you quickly got cast in the movie Teacher's Pet?
I had done some commercials leading up to that. I was able to get a commercial agent easily, because I looked so young. I was in my 20s but able to play younger, and was obviously ethnic but there were fewer ethnic actors. I was doing sketch comedy and plays, taking classes and whatever I could to be out there.
I was waitressing, and this same guy would come in for lunch. One day he told me he was a manager and after meeting at his office the next day, he signed me. I went out on an audition and was very nervous even though it was a small part described as a bitchy sorority sister.
When I got the job I was giddy about it. It was a movie and a huge thing for me at the time. But when I showed up on set the part was even smaller and had been cut down to one line. I remember it still – "It's so nice to meet you." And here I was thinking I would get my own trailer, not realizing that my one line could have been cut out.
It must've been kind of a wake-up call about what the industry is really like.
I always find it funny in this business that you never know what's going to work. They can cut you. I also had a part on a Cameron Diaz movie, and a scene with her, and I'm thinking once again that I'm gonna be a star.
Mistake number one: I told everyone. The scene got cut out and I was only in a wide shot, like an extra. It was so embarrassing. You get excited and say stuff and it doesn't work out.
It also happened on The Big Short. I was very excited to be cast as Christian Bale's wife. But I only pop up on his phone screen and you hear me off-screen. Now that makes me laugh, but it's a big part of this business. It's just so funny, but what are you going to do?
Tell us about being part of an ensemble cast as Marianne and how we might expect to see her character develop.
The members of the cast all relate to each other as if they're still in college. It resonates because in real life, my two best friends are from 2nd grade. When we get together, I feel like we're still in junior high, and we still act like girls, so it feels like a natural tendency. It can be very healthy - or toxic.
Marianne's backstory is not yet explored, but we will get to know her better in Season 2. In my mind, she went to Harvard to please her parents, and she probably had dreams of being an artist or an actor. I feel like she majored in drama or Russian literature, something that's never used.
Her character was first described as a bohemian free spirit, with a ditzy, Phoebe, yogi vibe. But Nick Stoller said he wanted to do it closer to who I am and that was really freeing. The character's so quirky and so out there but grounded.
From being grounded to racking up a lot of airline miles. When you auditioned as a series regular, you said you didn't know the show shot in New York.
When I got it, that's when I found out. Nothing is normal in this business. You could audition with no script. There are no rules. You could be on a plane tomorrow but obviously there are times you can say, "I can't do that."
The show's seasons are only eight episodes and 2 ½ months of production, so I go back and forth quite a bit. The longest I've been gone was two weeks. It's been a really great gift. So much fun. The cast members are so great. It's my first streaming experience and Netflix has been wonderful and very supportive. Literally last season they had one creative note for the last episode.
Obviously there are some challenges with your husband's job based in LA and yours in New York. Tell us about how you navigate show business together.
We met at an audition for a pilot that never took off. We booked each other, I like to say. We knew of each other for a long time, but then we hit it off. When we were dating, we were both doing a lot of auditioning, so it was great to have someone to work with.
A lot of actors don't want to date non-actors because you don't have to explain the crazy involved. For people not in the business, it's difficult to understand and support.
Since we had our daughter, we don't really talk about the business. I feel like the healthiest thing is having marriage and home separate from professional lives. We love to be with each other. The business is up and down. If you're looking for validation in this business, you're going to be disappointed.
You have to have a strong foundation and we've realized that more as we've gotten older and become parents. You have to know that person's success is yours as well, and now we've celebrated nine years together.