Posted April 25, 2013 by Jeff in Flicks

Ken Jeong: On a fantastic roller coaster ride

In Pain & Gain, the new movie from director Michael Bay (Transformers), Ken Jeong plays Jonny Wu, a motivational speaker who encourages bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) to head down a destructive path. It’s perfect for the wild and wacky Jeong, who had a career-defining role as Leslie Chow in The Hangover. Jeong recently spoke to us via phone from his hotel room in Miami Beach, where the movie had just premiered.

Talk about what attracted you to the role of Johnny Wu.
Michael Bay. I worked with him in Transformers 3. He asked me to be in the movie and described the character as the motivational speaker who inspires Mark Wahlberg’s character Daniel Lugo to do very, very bad things. After reading the script, I thought it would be a masterpiece. I would do anything for Michael Bay. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers. Pain & Gain is one of his best works.

How familiar were you with the real “Sun Gym Gang” upon which the film is based?
I wasn’t until I read the script and then got familiar with the story and the article it was based on. What impressed me was that the most outlandish elements of the script and film are the most real. If anything, some of the minor details have been embellished or fictionalized.

My goal was to play a really bad guy who had empty catchphrases and make that guy true to life.

Is your character based on a real person?
It’s an amalgamation of different motivational speakers. Loosely based on Tom Vu who was a famous motivational speaker in the ‘90s who had bikini girls and some similar wardrobe. I watched some other motivational speakers. My goal was to play a really bad guy who had empty catchphrases and make that guy true to life.

Did you have one cast member you liked working with the most?
I’m only in the movie for a short bit. My scenes are just with Mark Wahlberg’s character. I was always a fan of his, but I had never met him or worked with him. It was a career highlight. I want to work with him more in the future. I love the man. He’s a sincere, grounded person. I love his energy and I love being around him.

I like to say that Knocked Up opened the doors for me and The Hangover burst the doors wide open.

Talk about what it was like for you to make the transition from doctor to stand-up comic?
A lot of people think I just went from being a doctor to acting. The truth of the matter is, I wanted to be an actor before I got accepted into medical school. Acting was what I wanted to do, but when I got into medical school I started doing stand up on the side as a hobby. I still wanted to be an actor, but realistically I did not know if it would ever happen. At least with stand-up, I got to perform and it was a great outlet from my day job. I found a way to be completely happy working full-time as an doctor and just doing stand up on the side. Eventually, I got enough notice on BET and on Comedy Central that I was able to get an acting agent and then got the role in Knocked Up where I was playing a doctor. Everything turned out to be serendipitous. Judd Apatow was looking for a comedic actor with a medical background, and I was in the right place at the right time. That led to The Hangover. I like to say that Knocked Up opened the doors for me and The Hangover burst the doors wide open. Every opportunity I’ve had in the last three years is due to The Hangover. I’m so grateful. If it were all to end tomorrow, I would be a happy man. This has all exceeded my expectations. I never expected to have this kind of recognition on any level. If it weren’t for The Hangover, I wouldn’t have met Michael Bay with Transformers 3 and then worked with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s so surreal. Here I am in Miami chilling out and promoting the movie. It’s been a fantastic roller coaster ride.

I think Marc Maron said he called you for medical advice. Do actors still call you up for medical advice?
Just about every single one of them. Not a day goes by when I’m on set and either an actor or a crew member will ask me for medical advice. But I think that’s ultimately what I went to med school for — so that if I was lucky enough to become an actor, I would have some kind resource and be able to make a contribution.

Talk about the humor in Pain & Gain.
It’s going to blow people’s minds. It is so darkly funny that everyone will love this. I guarantee it. Wahlberg nails it and “The Rock” nails it.  Anthony Mackie is one of my favorite actors . . . I can’t wait for everyone to see the movie. This is the real deal. It’s such a great movie and I’m excited for everyone to see it. People are gonna love it.




Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].