Randall Park Talks Centering “Complex, Flawed” Asian American Characters in “Shortcomings”

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Randall Park can see himself in “Shortcomings.” The movie — which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and hit theaters Aug. 4 — features an array of complex characters, many of them caught up in varying levels of chaos and creative frustration. And in plenty occasions, Park has been there, too.

“In certain times of my life, I’ve definitely been like each of these characters,” Park tells POPSUGAR. “Even in a lot of the smaller characters, I see myself. I’m thinking right now of Ramon, the organizer of the Asian American Film Festival at the beginning, I definitely could see that guy in me.”

“Shortcomings” indeed begins at a film festival, and its first frames are a clip from an exuberant romantic comedy. But the moment the movie-within-a-movie ends, the tone shifts. As he exits the theater, the film’s protagonist, Ben (Justin H. Min), eviscerates the clip, denouncing it as a “garish mainstream rom-com that glorifies the capitalistic fantasy of vindication through wealth and materialism.”

It’s the first of many gripes expressed by a character that Park says he relates to most of all. “I think particularly, with the main character, Ben, there were elements of him I could relate to, especially when I was younger and during a time in my life when I was a little less enlightened,” he laughs. Ben is a struggling yet impossibly pretentious filmmaker who spends most of the movie trying to find his way, while finding issues with everything, be it rom-coms or his frustrated girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki). He’s a distinctly unlikeable and obnoxious person whose personality seems to contrast the amicable and friendly Park. And yet Park’s life story suggests that there was also a time in his life when he may have been a frustrated creative, judging everything around him and yet unable to find his own success.

At 30, Park was a graphic designer living with his parents when suddenly, he found himself jobless and going through a breakup. But the gaps created by those endings created space for him to pursue a career in acting. “It was a very slow process to even get to a point where I could make a living off of it,” he says. “It was very tough. And there were a lot of times when I doubted myself and I thought maybe my parents were right. Maybe this isn’t the right path for me. But I just kind of kept at it and slowly built a career.”

“As Asian American actors, we don’t get the opportunity to play these kinds of characters.”

That’s an understatement, as Park quickly became a star with his role as Louis Huang on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” Stints on “The Office,” “Veep,” and “WandaVision” followed, as well as a co-writing gig with Ali Wong for Netflix’s rom-com “Always Be My Maybe,” among other projects. But with “Shortcomings,” Park stepped into the director’s chair for the first time. It’s clear that his career, in some ways, has been building up to this. “I learned a lot about myself by directing,” he says. “It’s definitely something I want to keep doing.” Park realized he actually loves being “captain of the ship” through working with a great cast and people like costume designer Ava Yuriko Hama, whose work, he says, also helped the characters “feel so real.”

Park’s decision to adapt “Shortcomings” was a long time coming. He first discovered Adrian Tomine’s comic book back when he was still a struggling actor, and remembers “just being taken aback by how real it felt to me,” he says. “I was around the same age as the characters, doing the same things, just hanging out in diners with my friends and talking about our lives. It just felt so authentic. And that feeling kind of stayed.”

Park wanted to preserve that intimacy and authenticity on screen. “I really wanted to center the everyday, mundane aspects of just existing in a major city,” he says. But by featuring a primarily Asian American cast in such an intimate and authentic way, he also managed to do something decidedly unique. “As Asian American actors, we don’t get the opportunity to play these kinds of characters,” Park says.

In “Shortcomings,” he wanted to allow his protagonists to be clumsily, chaotically ordinary. “These characters happen to be Asian American, but they do the same things that everyone does, which is hang out in diners and get into arguments and walk and talk on the street,” he says. “To me, this is just as authentic and [just as much of an] Asian American experience as the things that we’re normally used to seeing on screen when it comes to Asian Americans. That everyday real life and authenticity was what excited me most about this movie.”

His actors, too, felt the significance of what they were making with “Shortcomings.” “They really understood the material, and I think they saw it in the same way I did, in the sense that they were very blown away by the opportunity to play such complex, flawed characters,” Park says. “They immediately knew how special this project was in that regard. And they also brought a real vulnerability to their characters.”

In Min, in particular, Park found someone who could bring the heart of the story to life. “On the page, you could just see Ben as this very kind of angry, opinionated, borderline toxic guy, but Justin was able to bring such depth, humanity, and sadness to the character. I feel like at the very least, you could feel him and understand him,” Park says. Similarly, Ben’s friend Alice could have become a caricature with her outspoken, wild personality, but Sherry Cola “brought this very human quality to Alice,” Park says. “Ally Maki did the same with Miko. They’re just amazing actors.”

Fortunately, Park says, roles like those in “Shortcomings” are becoming less few and far between. “I feel like there’s a whole slew of really great Asian American projects that have come out and are about to come out that feel like they’re along the same lines as ‘Shortcomings,'” he says. “It’s a part of a progression and a lineage.”

As parts available to Asian American actors grow more nuanced, Park says, they also seem to be growing more and more intimate and true. “I feel like we’re in this mode where we’re telling such interesting stories, stories that are maybe a little more niche or specific,” Park says. “And to me, that’s very exciting.”

Park knows that projects like “Shortcomings,” which eschew cliches and easy answers in order to reflect real life’s contradictions, might not hit the same beats that audiences are used to. “The story itself is untraditional in some ways,” he says. “It doesn’t wrap up everything neatly and show a radical epiphany in our main character. It’s kind of slow and real.”

And yet “Shortcomings” succeeds, hitting the right notes as it portrays a group of 20-somethings just trying to figure it out and breaking a lot of things in the process. Park might be a little more enlightened now, as he says, but he certainly seems to remember what that was like. And with “Shortcomings,” he captures the sheer strangeness of reality in the way that only fictional stories sometimes can.

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