Shooting for the Moon: Actor Justin Chon is going to be busy for a while, co-starring in the next two Twilight sequels, new Moon and Eclipse. But don’t think he’s got his head in the clouds. He’s plowing ahead, keeping his head down with a backup plan or two.
ISSUE: Fall 2009
DEPT: Audrey Man
STORY: Lan N. Nguyen
Justin Chon almost passed on Twilight. First, he had no way to anticipate what a mega hit the film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s young adult bestseller would be. Second, the 28-year-old Korean American actor had just wound down his role as Tony Lee on Nickelodeon’s teen show Just Jordan. He was on the hunt for something meatier than a role in a high school vampire love story.
But he changed his mind when he heard that Catherine Hardwicke was directing. “I loved Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen,” he says. “And a few days later, I found out that Kristen Stewart was attached. I loved Into the Wild.”
The rest, as they say, is movie history. Twilight has raked in more than $382 million worldwide since its 2008 release. Justin recently finished reprising his role as loveable geek Eric Yorkie in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, the second film in the series. And in August, he headed back to Vancouver to once again attend Forks High School for the third film, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
Much has changed for students of Forks High in New Moon. Eric has given up trying to impress Bella, says Justin. “I am 100 percent committed to Angela,” he says of Bella’s best friend. Fans can also expect a more action-packed sequel. “The guys who play the wolf pack are going to bring more raw brawniness to the movie,” he says. “And they have Native American blood in them. So it’s cool, as an Asian American actor, to see minorities will be a major factor in something so mainstream.”
Born in 1981 in Irvine, Calif., Justin and his younger sister, Jamie, grew up in an artistic household. Before his mom, Kyung, became a homemaker, she was a pianist. And his father, Sang, was an actor in South Korea. (He went into the shoe business after immigrating to the U.S.)
“My sister and I found out [about my dad] when I was about 6 or 7,” Justin recalls. “We had found this old VHS tape and our dad was acting. We took it to our mom and she explained. It was amazing. When you think of your dad, you don’t think of him as an actor, especially being Asian American.”
Not surprisingly, when Justin enrolled at the University of Southern California, he decided to try his hand at acting. He did a two-year stint at The Joanne Baron/DW Brown Studio, an acting school in Santa Monica. And when he graduated from USC in 2004 with a bachelor’s in business, he told his parents to give him two years to give acting a chance.
“My parents were really worried,” says Justin. “You don’t normally see Asian people on TV. We grew up in an artistic household so they were not opposed to acting. They were just worried about if I could make a living. Once I showed them I could, they were more at ease.”
Work in commercials soon developed into work on TV, most notably in Just Jordan. He was also trying to carve out a movie career. His most challenging role to date has been playing a first-generation Korean immigrant in 2009’s Crossing Over, which also starred Harrison Ford, Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd.
“I was the lead in my own story line,” he says. “I had a love story and a sex scene and some intense stuff, with the dynamics between my family, friends and girlfriend. On top of that, I was playing a Korean immigrant kid so I had an accent. I had to have the demeanor and mentality of not having a place anywhere. It took a lot of work. With acting you don’t see the work behind it. You just see the finished product.”
Then there is Twilight. When Justin landed the role of Eric Yorkie, he only had a brief description to work with: Eric was 6-foot, 3-inches tall and had black, greasy hair, was the chess club type, and had bad skin. Still, Justin rose to the challenge and created a character that could be found in any real high school.
“I played upon the chess club type and being valedictorian,” he says. “From that, I derived that he kind of doesn’t fit in, but he does have a group of friends who are sort of awkward and don’t fit into any category themselves. So they’ve found each other. And each one brings a very unique thing to the group.”
Justin is “a perfectionist,” says pal Michael Welch, who plays Eric’s best friend Mike Newton. “He’s a really interesting guy. He’s a total Southern California guy. At the same time, he is very serious and a sensitive artist and actor. Actually, he has an easier time on the set when he has something meaty to do because he’s a very serious guy when it comes to his work.”
Despite being in the biggest movie of 2008 and what will likely be the biggest movie of 2009, Justin recognizes that he is unlikely to achieve superstar status himself. “At the end of the day, I am still a minority actor,” he explains. “Asian people have not really broken through in terms of becoming mainstream like Will Smith has. I don’t think we have proven we are a major market yet.”
To take more control over his career, he’s been working with some indie directors and writers to craft projects. “I love acting but who knows,” he says. “It’s a very fickle industry. I could be hot now but in five to 10 years, I’ll need something else.”
Justin’s starting on that something else right now. Following in his father’s footsteps, he started a shoe and clothing store called Attic (attic2zoo.com) with childhood friend Jimmy Yang. The pair opened a location in Buena Park, Calif., four years ago. It’s doing so well that they recently opened a second store in San Diego.
“I got a business degree and spent a lot of money for it,” he says with a laugh. “It seemed like a waste. It’s been a labor of love for Jimmy and me. For anyone who has started a business, it’s like a second job. But it’s paid off. I am really proud of it.”