“What was so great about this role was, if you can relate to another human being, you can easily play this part.” Jamie Chung’s humility, sitting for an interview at the Driskill Hotel in Austin during the South by Southwest Festival, is refreshing, and not a little surprising. “Anyone could have done it. You just need to be vulnerable and open and empathetic,” she continues, and it really does seem she doesn’t realize how difficult those very qualities are to achieve, especially onscreen. To her, the whole thing, just seemed to come naturally, which is, of course, the sign of a great talent.
That talent was recognized two days later as the film she’s discussing, Meghan Griffiths’ brutal but important Eden, won three awards, more than any other film at the festival. Among them was a Special Jury Prize for acting, for the very woman telling me that anyone could have played the role. But while the part is well-written and Griffiths has shown herself to be a very talented director, the credit for this performance rests squarely on Chung’s slender shoulders. It’s honest, intense, moving and, yes, very natural.
And it almost didn’t happen, although not for a lack of interest on Chung’s part. “I was filming in San Francisco,” she remembers, “and I got a call from my manager: ‘Jamie, there’s this incredible script you have to read right now.’ I spent one hour reading it and I knew I had to do this movie. It’s rare that you find, material this great—so heavy, so well-rounded, beginning to end. It just draws you right into this story. And it’s based on a true story about a Korean-American woman. That’s a rare opportunity for a Korean-American actress. It just felt so right. But I was unable to make their L.A. casting call in time, and I was devastated.”
Chung couldn’t stop thinking about the role and how well it fit, however, so she took her destiny into her own hands: “I thought, I have to do this. I’m going to go up in case they can see me in Seattle. So I flew myself up on one of my days off.” The production company was obviously impressed, and she spent some time with director Meghan Griffiths. “It was so worth it just to meet Meghan, and to see her work, and to see her filmmaking style. She’s such a great storyteller, and yet she does things in such a quietly beautiful way. I knew she’d set the right tone for this kind of movie. It was one of those things where I knew what I needed to do, and fortunately for me it went my way.”
Griffiths had her do two scenes from the script, giving Chung a chance to show not only her range but her understanding the character’s development. Typically, she gives the credit to the strength of the writing. “The first was the scene where Vaughan puts the ring in my mouth,” she recalls. “And the other scene was early in the script, in the bar with the firefighter. I love that they picked two very different scenes, one when she’s very vulnerable and desperate in an “I don’t want to die” kind of way. But in that first scene she’s so innocent, the scene where she meets the firefighter for the first time. Those are two very different vulnerabilities. It was a really great audition.”
Chung’s firm grasp of the character and her development was crucial, as the film was shot out of sequence. In less than two hours, the character of Eden goes from young naïf to cowering victim to desperate striver to empowered overcomer to shellshocked survivor, and Chung had to be ready to shift into those modes (and everything in between) at a moment’s notice. In fact, one of the first days of shooting covered the end of the movie, which can be notoriously difficult for the actor, who hasn’t yet traveled down that entire road with the character. But she refuses again to take credit. “I think anyone can do it. Can you imagine calling your mom after not hearing her voice for three years, and how much change you go through? So much can happen even in one year. You recognize so much growth and maturity. And just to empathize with what Chong went through in three years, having seen all she saw, it wasn’t that hard to do. What’s really hard is actually going through it.
“You’re a father,” she tells me. “Can you imagine?”
The film is based on the true story of Chong Kim, and its grounding in reality steers it away from certain Hollywood traps, like an overly triumphalist ending. Eden doesn’t set the world aright. She simply escapes. Chung approves. “It’s a story of survival,” she says, “and it would be a different story if she decided to rescue all these girls. That’s why I love how this story ends, because it’s much more natural. She had to go through an emotional and physical recovery. It took Chong years to recover, and now she’s a huge activist. All she does is spend her time helping other girls in this situation. But for that part of the story, it really is fending for yourself.”
Chung is also intent on helping Chong in that mission. “I’ve been speaking to Chong,” she explains, “and we’re trying to put together a trip to Asia. But more locally I have a friend who’s starting an organization to donate money to help girls in the United States who have been forced into sex trafficking and give them resources, an education, the love that they deserve, therapy, ballet lessons, just giving them some kind of normalcy after such a traumatic experience. So I’m getting involved in those kind of things.”
It’s a passion that began for her even before Eden. “I’ve always been really drawn to stories of women like the comfort women of World War II, where the Japanese kidnapped and tricked young girls from Korea, China, Philippines, countries where they had colonized, and took these women to the front and forced them to have sex with so many Japanese soldiers. I was raised hearing that story because the comfort women had no voice; the Japanese government didn’t recognize these issues. I’ve always been fascinated by those stories. And I saw stories long before I read this script, of girls in the U.S. who are 13 and kidnapped and taken to these houses only 10 miles away form their homes and forced to have sex with truckers. I was very aware. But I didn’t fully empathize the way I did when I read this script. I was drawn in by what must have been going on in these girls’ minds. We know about the physical and sexual abuse, but what about the mental abuse? The internal battles and struggles? And to be able to talk to Chong and have her be so cool and brave and share all her stories… Oh, it was a process.”
The now-award-winning actor has a big 2012 on tap. She’ll be making the trip to New York for the Tribeca Film Festval for Knife Fight, where she stars with Rob Lowe and Julie Bowen. And then she has three films coming out in August. The first is 7500, “a horror flick on an airplane” as she describes it, directed by Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge). Then comes The Man With Iron Fists, directed by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. “It’s an old-school cult kung-fu movie,” Chung says. “It’s like 36 Chambers of Shaolin or Five Deadly Venoms, movies that RZA loved watching when he was growing up, and he finally gets to make his own.”
Her third August film is Premium Rush, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Getting to know Gordon-Levitt on the set of that film actually led her to the lead role in a short film of Levitt’s that premiered at Sundance this year. “I was actually in Seattle filming Eden,” she remembers, “and he called. He said, ‘I’ve been writing this screenplay, and I had you in mind the entire time.’ And I said, ‘That’s so great; it’s so flattering! What’s it called?’ And he said, ‘Blue Dildo.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I think I’m flattered?’ Not to worry, the film isn’t as exploitative as the title suggests (and Chung is hilarious in it).
And then, on top of everything else, Chung has been cast in a pilot for a FOX series called The Asset, with Bradley Whitford and Ali Larter, about CIA operatives. When I ask her if she gets to kicks ass in the show, she tells me not yet, but that that may be on the horizon. “I did get to kick ass in the RZA movie. And I actually got my ass kicked, too.”
I tell her that she needs to lay off on the parts where she’s sold into sex slavery or has her ass kicked, because I’m not sure if my heart can take it, and she laughs. “You know, I’ve played a sex victim three times now. I need to change it up. I need to do a rom-com or something!”
In the meantime, there will be plenty of Jamie Chung to enjoy in 2012.