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Randall Park on working at Starbucks, the future of Hollywood and the fan letter he got from Tom Hanks

Park reflected on his career, the launch of his production company, and his favorite things about working at Starbucks in an exclusive interview with TODAY.
Randall Park
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

As a young, aspiring actor in Los Angeles, Randall Park worked a slew of odd jobs — including an office job that provided unique insight into how working actors lived.

“The office cut checks for TV and movie production so I was, like, literally filing people's paychecks, seeing how much these people were making,” he laughed in an interview with TODAY. “I was like, ‘One day I'm going to get a check this big.’”

Decades — and many jobs — later, it’s safe to say Park, 47, is officially on the other side. He has made it in the industry starring in hit shows like "Fresh Off the Boat" and is now turning his focus to find ways to help others historically left out of the business make it, too.

In 2019, Park started his own production company, with creative partners Michael Golamco and Hieu Ho, called Imminent Collision. With it, he said, he hopes to open the door for other Asian American creatives struggling to find their own footing in a town that is historically hard to navigate.

“Our mandate from the beginning was that we want to tell stories from an Asian American perspective,” he explained, adding that since their launch, they’ve learned that even when you’re calling the shots, there are still limits to telling AAPI stories.

“Working within the system like that has taught us and taught me so much about how this industry works and how tough it is for us to get these stories out there,” he explained. “In part because so much of the industry puts a premium on packaging — attaching this star, attaching this director — but because of the lack of opportunities given to us over the years, it's like, we only have a handful that we could attach to these things.”

Park knows that representation has historically been limited for Asian Americans in the business.

“I think so much in the industry is focused on the things that make us different,” he said. “Like, ‘We want to hear the immigrant journey’ or, ‘We want to (see) martial arts.’

“All that stuff is great, but we also are just kind of hanging out, you know?” he laughed. When I mentioned I, as an Asian American, have never once done martial arts but am really good at breakups and brunching, he chuckled.

“Very, very unique skills,” he said. “I like to walk.”

Ali Wong and Randall Park in the Netflix film "Always Be My Maybe"
Ali Wong and Randall Park in character for the Netflix film "Always Be My Maybe."Ed Araquel / Netflix

He thinks that universal themes like love and food were at least part of the reason why his 2019 romantic comedy with Ali Wong, "Always Be My Maybe," was such a hit with fans on Netflix. He said it was both a feel-good film but also "refreshing" for a lot of people watching.

"It was an Asian American movie but it was very universal," he explained. "It was about things that we all can identify with. And I think the details, those were the kind of very specific cultural things that I think a lot of people within the community appreciated, and people outside, they got to see certain things that were pretty authentically displayed in that movie."

While nowadays Park thinks about race often, he said growing up it wasn't much of a topic at home with his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Korea in the 1970s.

“They were like, ‘We're Korean. So we want you to do a lot of American things and be American.’ You know, like, that was their attitude towards us growing up here,” he explained. “So to be Korean (but) be more American. I think they had good intentions for that at the time, but, you know … it all comes around and as I got older I was like, ‘No, I want to be more Korean,’ you know, ‘I think being Korean is cool.’”

The turning point, Park said, happened when he was in high school. As the city of Los Angeles erupted in the now-infamous 1992 riots, Park said discussions about race came to the forefront.

“It was very pivotal for me in a lot of ways and shaped my thinking,” he said. “When I went to UCLA, it definitely was something I carried with me. Those experiences, it has shaped who I am in a lot of ways.”

Randall Park in ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat"
Randall Park as Louis and Hudson Yang as Eddie on "Fresh Off the Boat."Ali Goldstein / ABC via Getty Images

An admitted LA “townie,” Park never moved away from his hometown and worked a string of odd jobs to make ends meet as he pursued acting. Of all his random gigs, he said his favorite was being a barista.

“It's therapeutic, isn't it?” he joked. “And the steamer! There was something about that that really, I don't know, it really spoke to me. ... It's like a little spa! It's like a spa treatment.”

While working at one westside Starbucks, Park said actor Brad Garrett of “Everybody Loves Raymond” fame walked in.

“He left me a huge tip and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is what it must be like being a Hollywood star, you get to saunter into a Starbucks and leave a huge tip and saunter out,’” Park chuckled. “I thought it was pretty magical.”

Nowadays, when he isn’t frequenting local shops, Park said he uses the app to order his drinks.

“I'll just pick it up and not interact with anybody, not as cool,” he said, a bit sheepishly.

But Park is leaving his mark by offering young up-and-comers a chance to be a part of the shifting tides in Hollywood. Imminent Collision is meeting with new people and writers, he said, reading scripts and developing a slate.

“Trying to make opportunities for these new folks that in my time, those opportunities weren't so available,” he said. When I pressed him — after all, it definitely seems from an outsider perspective that it is still his time — he admitted to feeling his age.

“I know that every day I'm feeling older and older and older but yeah, a lot has changed in a good way,” he said good-naturedly.

In his office, Park keeps a memento from one of the men who inspired him as a younger actor: Tom Hanks. The two worked together briefly on the 2011 romantic comedy “Larry Crowne.”

Park had a supporting role — “I worked with him in, like, one scene, maybe two" — but remembered Hanks as “really cool, really nice, really fun.”

“Many years later, I get a letter in the mail,” he said, grabbing the framed letter to show me via the pixelated computer camera. “A fan letter! A paper letter, letter typed out on a typewriter.”

Hanks wrote him, Park explained, to say he was proud of him for all he had accomplished.

“He's just so supportive and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this guy takes the time,’” he said. “I mean, I'm sure I'm not the only one — he does this for these young actors — (but) just that act of selflessness, act of just showing support, was so meaningful to me.”

Park went on to say that the most successful people he’s encountered in the industry are genuinely good people.

“The majority of especially big celebrities that I've met are actually really nice,” he said. “So it's makes me think … that must be a part of the reason why they are who they are, you know? Because people like working with them.”

That simple lesson of kindness is one Park hopes his young daughter — whom he shares with his wife, actor Jae Suh Park — learns as well.

“I think, for me, it always goes back to kindness. And being present,” he said. “I think that that will lead you to great things ... kindness and being present, I think you can't go wrong.”