Ken Jeong on his biggest acting mistake: ‘I cringe watching it back’

In the seven years since his breakout role in “Knocked Up,” Ken Jeong has played a string of extremes. His role on “Community” as the insane and diabolical Ben Chang has been unpredictable, but his turns in the “Hangover” series and “Role Models” (as the King of LAIRE, or Live Action Interactive Role-playing Explorers) have been just as funny and unsettling. That's why it's downright intriguing to watch him play a sensitive English teacher in “The DUFF,” a high school comedy starring Mae Whitman as a girl dubbed The Designated Ugly Fat Friend, a buffer for her hottie pals.

We caught up with Jeong to discuss “The DUFF,” which was just released on Blu-Ray and DVD, and how he relished the chance to play a character who isn't threatening community college students for a living. 

When you first heard about the “The DUFF” and inevitably learned that the title meant “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” what did you think? 

I loved it. I'd heard of the book. Once I read the script, you got the sense that it's a wonderful misleading title like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” I got the title pretty readily, and I was really flattered that they would think of me. It wasn't like it was a part specifically written for me. I think the beautiful part of it was how the author Kody Keplinger happily signed off on me. Publicly! She was so nice and so welcoming. That really put me at ease. It was really one of my favorite movies I've been a part of. I think the script has a lot of heart and sends a great message.

Have you had any favorite kinds of feedback to the film?

I really, really enjoy when people say it's a great throwback to mid '80s John Hughes movies that I grew up on.

Mae Whitman is a joy to watch. How is she different from other actors you've worked with?

She's one of the best actresses I've ever worked with, no joke. She has a presence about her that just screams experience and professionalism, yet she's so young. Certain actors, you want to make sure you rise to their level. That was the case with Mae. I didn't want to let her down. I didn't want to let the project down. She raised the bar with her thoughtfulness. Her communication with the director and producers was great too. She didn't just know her lines; she knew the tone, the whole movie. This was her universe. She set the tone for that universe.

Your character is a break from ones you've played in the recent past. Was that change of pace exciting?

For me, being on set for a short amount of time, my whole goal was to fit in. The director and I had met before to make sure my tone was right for the movie, and a bit different from the way people normally see me. We were going back to my “Knocked Up” days where I was a little bit more toned down. I was already on board with that prior to talking to [director] Ari Sendel. One of my fellow castmates, I think it was Nick Eversman, said, “This may be the most sympathetic character you've ever played.” I said, “Yeah, you're right!” I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's true. It was nice to play a character with a lot of heart, Bianca's favorite teacher. It wasn't like the least favorite teacher — which I'm proud of too! Nothing pleases me more than being on “Community,” but it was nice to play that character, which I don't often do.

Who's your favorite actor you've ever gotten to observe on set?

Paul Giamatti in “The Hangover 2”? That quickly comes to mind. The whole cast was in awe of him. I remember we were all awestruck, yet he was so down to Earth and game for anything. We were all in Thailand and we were all close, and my favorite day of shooting was with him and all the guys.

Do you have any moments on film that you regret? Or times you look back at yourself and wish you could've done better?

I look at “Community” as my acting school in many ways because I had no formal school training in acting. There are big moments along the ride — you're talking six years and 109 episodes, at least for me. I can think of one moment during the third season and didn't have much to do that episode. I did some extra mugging in the background. It was making the cast laugh, my friends laugh. I watched that episode recently and I cringed. I was like, “You know what? It would have been better to have blended in.” Sometimes when you're in the background of the big ensemble of the show to combat the boredom, you just do stuff to amuse your friends. Sometimes it makes it on the final print simply because they couldn't cut around it. It's not like I'm doing anything to get in the print, like, “I'm back here being obnoxious.” But I do remember watching it back and thinking, “Oh. They must not have had better takes.” I was thinking about that this season. When there are two characters going through a subplot, that still means the whole gang is around. So when I filmed this season I thought, “Do NOT mug. Don't do anything brash.” I don't think I ever told anyone that! But it did motivate me. Like, just do your due diligence. 

Finally: What kinds of actors did you grow up loving? Your onscreen presence is so specific, I wonder who you felt a connection with.

I always wanted to be Michael J. Fox. It wasn't always like I identified with bad guys and wanted to play a bad guy, though it's evolved that way. Somewhere along the way, and I think “Knocked Up” had a lot to do with it, I found out how fun it is playing the antagonist. On “The Hangover,” “Role Models,” and “Community,” I've embraced it. And on “The DUFF” it was of course fun to play anything but that. It was fun to play more of an extension of myself and imagine Bianca was one of my daughters. I got to be more paternal. To me it was very validating. Now we're in pre-production for [the upcoming ABC comedy] “Dr. Ken” which premieres in the fall, and things like “The DUFF” and the last season of “Community” where I've been less of an antagonist have really given me the confidence to move forward. That's wonderful, you know? 

Photo via YouTube