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By Lorna Soonhee Umphrey | January 13, 2017 | People
We rang actor Jimmy O. Yang to chat about why working with Peter Berg is an actor’s dream, what his parents think about his career, and how he ended up working with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Typically known for his deceptively funny character on Silicon Valley, Jimmy O. Yang switched gears to play a more serious role in Peter Berg’s new film, Patriot’s Day. What he didn’t realize was how much it would affect him and the rest of the cast and their desire for wanting to honor the heroes and families of this historical event.
Find out how he discovered his love for comedy, his experience on portraying a real-life character, and how he tries to keep it together on the set of Silicon Valley.
Tell me a little about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to be a comedian?
JIMMY O. YANG: I guess it was my senior year of college and I came home from a study abroad trip. It was such an amazing trip. Every weekend we’d do something different. There was so much to do compared to my life here. I was just playing the same video games with the same old friends and I wanted to do something different. I want to try new things and I tried boxing, jujitsu, and stand-up was one of them. I was terrible at the other two things. Stand-up was something I somewhat excelled at and it just went from there.
What did your parents think about your career ambitions as a stand-up comedian?
JOY: They didn’t get it. There’s not really a stand-up comedy scene in China. They just called it a talk show. They don’t understand what it is or what it could lead do. I guess they just worry. I have a college degree and I stopped doing my internship and I wanted to do stand-up. They were just hoping it was a phase that I’d kind of get out of which I obviously didn’t. Their main concern was for my well-being and my financial security. I don’t think they were against the art of it by any means.
Who did you look up to when you started in the business?
JOY: Stand-up wise and comedy in general, David Chappelle was a big influence. I watched a lot of his shows and stand-up when I was in high school. Also, from an immigrant/outsider standpoint, I guess George Lopez because he talks about family. Even though I’m not Latino, I can kind of relate to the funny grandma, the parents—things like that.
You take on a serious role on Patriot’s Day. What was it like switching gears and playing the real-life character, Dun Meng?
JOY: Especially for this movie, it was such a historical and important event. All of us wanted to do it right. I think that was a big part of it. And luckily I got to hang out with Danny, the real guy that I played. He was great. He was very open about sharing his story and I got so much out of just hanging out with him. It’s definitely more work. I spent a lot of time and effort to make sure it’s right. Peter Berg’s [directing style] is very improvisational, so I think all the comedy training and being on Silicon Valley, actually helped a lot to be a part of this movie. We all understand it’s not about us, which I think sometimes when you understand that it pulls better performances out of everyone. When you’re on set, it’s not about you—you’re doing it for the victims, for the families of these people, anyone affected by it. It’s about the film, it’s about the people in it—the real heroes in it.
Do you want to try and take on more serious roles in the future?
JOY: Yes, absolutely. If it’s something as great as this, I would absolutely love to jump on board. I don't think I necessarily prefer comedy over drama, my job is to make something real, to make something entertaining and true. In some ways, it’s more freeing because you can just be real and authentic with it instead of worrying about also being funny. I really like that experience.
Speaking of funny, Silicon Valley is hilarious. Your character, Jian Yang, as quietly hilarious. What do you think about this guy?
JOY: I started out as a guest star on the show and then eventually I became a series regular. It was cool to see how this character evolved and the writers are so good that they were able to see that happening. TJ and I have a good dynamic on the show and that’s definitely cool to see that. He is quietly funny and quietly an a-hole. He’s very close to the vest but he’s not stupid. He might play dumb sometimes but he actually knows a lot. I think we’ll see more of that this season.
Would you be friends with him in real life?
JOY: I’d hang out with him.
How do you not pee your pants with laughter when you’re working on set and especially with TJ Miller?
JOY: I do not pee my pants, you know, we crack up and stuff like that. I find it very funny and I enjoy working on [the show]. So I think it’s a good sign. Sometimes the crew cracks up. When you hear the cameraman or someone at the video village, like the director [Mike Judge] who kind of snickers a little bit, I’m like, okay, that’s a good sign, I did a good job.
Finally, I have to ask an odd question because I read it on Wikipedia. You were a writer for the Harlem Globetrotters?
JOY: Yes and no. That’s true. I consulted for them on one thing but it was like a fun fact. I only worked with them for one day when I first started stand-up, like two years in. Since I’m one of the only Chinese-American comedians, I was the only guy they could go to. They do a tour every year in China, they write a script for the whole tour and the whole festivities. They wanted a comedian to make sure the jokes weren’t offensive to the Chinese culture or the Chinese audience. I guess I was the only one they could find that they could talk to. Really, I didn’t have any input on it. I just told them that Hello Kitty was Japanese, not Chinese and they should be aware of that. And that’s it. It’s just a little fun fact.
Photography by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images