By MICHELLE WOO | photos by ERIC SUEYOSHI
Three guys walk into the KoreAm headquarters and from then on, you could forget about volume control.
“What’s uuuuuuup, mother f-ckers!” one howls. A mash of low-fives, half-hugs and laughter proceeds.
It’s a rowdy reunion of sorts at the magazine’s Monday morning photo shoot, featuring actors Leonardo Nam, Aaron Yoo and Justin Chon. These sneaker-clad, F-bomb-droppin’ hipsters have a commanding energy, that’s for sure. And they need it. They’re busy changing the face of Hollywood.
They’re not quite leading men, but their names are beginning to roll off the mainstream tongue, as audiences watch them grace screens big and small.
Who are they?
Leo, 28, is the veteran of the trio. His breakout role was playing Roy, the misunderstood stoner in 2004’s teen heist flick The Perfect Score. He recently returned as main squeeze Brian McBrian in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and nabbed a role in the upcoming He’s Just Not That Into You, alongside megastars Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johansson and Drew Barrymore. The Korean-Australian is well-read, speaks with intensity about those he admires (“America Ferrera’s scene was unbelievable”) and would choose New York hands-down over L.A.
Aaron, 28, quickly generated industry buzz with his portrayal of Ronnie, the hormonally-charged BFF in last year’s hit thriller Disturbia, and went on to play Choi, a card-counting MIT student in this year’s casino drama 21. Now the loquacious, Jersey-bred actor stars in next month’s romance-tinged comedy Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Next year, he’s set to play Lindsay Lohan’s boyfriend/faux inseminator in Labor Pains and funnyguy Chewie in Friday the 13th. He’s soaking up the scene in Tinseltown, having been sighted canoodling with Rumer Willis and dancing with Mary-Kate Olsen. He’s a born storyteller, loves fashion and winds down by playing saxophone.
Justin, 27, is best known for his role as Tony in Nickelodeon’s teen sitcom Just Jordan, which was cancelled this year. Next month, he’ll appear in the immigrant drama Crossing Over, which stars Harrison Ford and Sean Penn (and also features Leo), and in November, he’ll play Eric Yorkie in the vampire love story Twilight. The perpetual smiler has a laidback, California-cool persona, attributed to his Orange County upbringing, and insists that nothing has changed since he started acting, despite the fact that his friends now call him “Hollywood.” He co-owns a streetwear company called Attic and writes songs on the side.
They’ve all met through various projects and events and talk shop while getting their brows groomed and hair blow-dried. (“You’re working with Jim? Shut the f-ck up!”) There’s a sense of ease in conversation as they name-drop the last celeb they had dinner with and trade stories about how they’re commonly mistaken for each other. (Says Aaron to Leo: “I was at this party and I was wondering why Scarlett Johansson was starring at me, and then I realized she was probably thinking I was you.”)
On screen, they do what the rest of Hollywood’s next-gen men do: party, spit witty one-liners, get high, look cute and kiss white girls. (Leo gets frisky with Amber Tamblyn in Sisterhood 2; Aaron shares a forbidden smooch with Olesya Rulin in the Japanese internment drama American Pastime; Justin gets a peck from Rachel Bilson in The O.C.) They’ve been hailed on teeny-bopper-driven online message boards with phrases like “OMG!!!!!!!! AARON YOOOO! is like one in a million! (along with shia labeouf and nick jonas hehe),” “LEONARDO NAAAAAM hottie” and “Justin is so cute! :D.”
It’s enough for any Asian American media watcher to do a double-take. These guys are cool. Where are the rice rockets? The programming lingo? The overdone accents?
Could it be?
Are perceptions of Asian American men changing? Has Hollywood’s glass ceiling finally cracked?
A little bit, they’ll later tell me in a roundtable interview. (Read on for details.)
But for now, as the stereo blasts catchy hits like the Black Kids’ “I’m Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance,” they leap into exaggerated poses and yell out names for their “jump shots.” Mosh Pit! Grabbing Balls! Torpedo Sandwich! When the photographer signals a break, they exchange friendly punches and laugh until they’re out of breath.
On this Monday morning, these boys just wanna have fun.
KJ: So how do you guys know each other?
Aaron: Leo and I met on a short film in New York seven or eight years ago. He was acting in it and I was assistant-directing it, so we’ve known each other forever. And then we always kept in touch and then he and I actually got to play brothers in a movie, which was pretty cool. And I met Justin at the Audrey fashion show last year. It’s such a small community. It’s just like a big drinking club. [Leans into the tape recorder] This is Justin saying this, by the way.
Justin: I met Leo on a movie, Crossing Over.
Aaron: [To Justin] I haven’t worked with you yet.
Justin: No, not yet.
Leo: Soon. Next project.
Aaron: Yeah, totally. They should develop a project about people who don’t age past 17. It would be like Lord of the Flies crossed with the movie Big.
Leo: That would be awesome.
Aaron: Or we can be like those Russian tea dolls where you open one up and there’s a younger Justin.
Justin: Or how about you put one back on and it’s Aaron? Then you put another one on and it’s Leo.
Aaron: I wonder if the three of us can get away with being, like, Bob at 16, Bob at 18, Bob at 21. [All laugh]
KJ: On screen, you’ve all been seen kissing white girls, which is a pretty huge deal for Asian American actors.
Aaron: Did you guys ever see that documentary The Slanted Screen? They were talking about how one of the first Asian American movie stars was this guy Sessue Hayakawa. He did like 100 movies and he made out with white chicks all the time. And then after that, we fell so far in the pop culture view. Like, Chow Yun Fat did that whole movie with Mira Sorvino and they never kissed.
Leo: Jackie Chan did that movie Tuxedo and motherf-cker never kissed the girl. I’m like, are you kidding me? You’re saving her life. I had a lot of issues with that.
KJ: Well, Leo, in Sisterhood, you go beyond kissing.
Leo: Yes, we have sex. She thinks she’s pregnant by me. The story is about me trying to stay in her life because suddenly she’s freaked out that she may be pregnant and I’m the guy that’s kind of her pillar, the one that’s basically asking her to grow up with me. I’m like, “I’ll take care of the baby, blah, blah, blah. Let’s have sex again!”
KJ: Did you feel it was groundbreaking in a sense?
Aaron: It is groundbreaking. I can’t believe you had sex without a condom!
Leo: We did, but it broke.
Justin: Yeah, I bet some people are going to watch it and be shocked. But that’s a good thing. It’s exciting for someone like me because he’s paving the way and now I can go do that. I can have sex with some hot ass white girl.
Aaron: Good man. Keeping your priorities straight.
Leo: You know, it was interesting. I remember there was talk about how maybe it shouldn’t be me. Some people were like, “No, we can’t have him do this. He’s an Asian kid.” It would’ve been so easy for them to switch me out.
Aaron: Sure. You could’ve been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhall. [Laughs]
Leo: But it got a good response. In test screenings, no one questioned why we did what we did and if it made sense. Everyone just accepted it and was emotionally invested in both our characters. So it was good. And it was good to have Warner Bros. really support that.
KJ: How did you get in shape for that scene?
Leo: Yeah, so I go into a fitting. They’re like, “It’s just to get exact measurements.” So I go in and they’re like, “Actually, can you just take your shirt off?” I’m like, “OK, sure, I guess. What’s going on?” The next day, I get e-mails like boom: We’re getting you a trainer. We’re doing this. We’re doing that. So I was on this regimen. I’d wake up at four in the morning and had to be in the pool by 4:30, then I’d swim for about an hour-and-a-half and work out for 45 minutes. I’d go home, I’d eat, I’d rest for 45 minutes. Then I’d go box for two hours. I’ve never been more unhappy in my entire life. I was an angry, angry person — with a sick body!
Aaron: I am trying to be as buff as Leo. I’m taking a lot of weight gainer and, um, what’s that other sh-t?
Aaron: Yes, Sriracha. I almost put some on my donut this morning.
KJ: You’ve all played characters that weren’t written to be Asian American. Have you faced resistance?
Justin: With my new movie Twilight, fans of the books have been posting on online message boards, “I thought Eric Yorkie was supposed to be white. Who’s this Asian kid?” There’s a lot of that.
Aaron: And you’re just like, “I just had a bad tan that day.” What Asian kid?
Leo: Sisterhood is based on the books. There’s such a huge fan following that people, especially young girls, are blunt about how they feel, what they know. There’s no subtlety. So I would get all this mail saying, “It’s supposed to be a white guy. Why are you doing this?” It was kind of intense. I was really shocked by that.
KJ: Are you ever typecasted?
Aaron: With Friday the 13th, my character is supposed to be an overweight white kid, a Jonah Hill type. Before the writers met me, they started rewriting the part for me, just knowing I was Asian. I walked into a wardrobe fitting and they had all this nerdy clothing lined up. I was like, “Whose clothes are these?” I called my producer and was like, ”Hey, I’m not going to do this project if that’s what you think it is.” We had a really good creative discussion about it. And I was like, “Look, this is the direction I think the character can go, this is where I want to take it.” Then he was like, “I think I should get off the phone and call the writers right now and have them start making these changes.“ It turned out to be one of my favorite work experiences.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with an intellectually-based character, you know what I mean, someone who’s smart, someone who’s not entirely put together. But a lot of these characters are written as caricatures, you know, stereotypes, and I don’t ever want to play a stereotype of any sort.
KJ: As an actor, if you would have seen those clothes five years ago, would you have said anything?
Aaron: That’s a good question. I’m not sure about that.
Leo: No, probably not, because you wanted the work. I can’t speak for you but for me, in this time period, it would be great to say, “Oh, I’ve always had these high and noble standards,” but it’s like no. I want to pay my rent. I want to eat. Five years ago, I highly doubt I would have said anything.
KJ: Aaron, the movie 21 faced backlash from some Asian Americans who felt the casting was discriminatory. [The cast was made of mostly white actors while the real-life blackjack team, which the film is based on, was a group of mostly Asian American students.] What’s your take on the protests?
Aaron: People are right to feel poorly done by this industry as far as representation goes. Do I think it would’ve been truer if it had been an Asian cast? Yeah. But I wouldn’t want to sacrifice quality purely for the sake of representation. I respect anyone’s decision to not see a movie if they think the casting is bullsh-t. But signing a petition isn’t going to change the situation. People and quality of work change perceptions, not protests. People want us to be where African Americans are in the industry. I’m like, we haven’t earned that. We haven’t produced our Sidney Poitier. We just have to be patient.
KJ: What’s holding us back?
Aaron: In the community we come from, people expect to jump off of the ship and swim the ocean. I know a lot of Asian Americans who are trying to be actors while also trying to fulfill their parents’ desire for safety. This girl I know is in med school while also trying to become an actor, and I’m like, you can’t do that.
Leo: Which is why Asians get such a bad reputation when it comes to work. It’s because people aren’t crafted. You can’t do acting part-time. You need to understand that this is a craft. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’m going to remember the lines.”
Justin: It’s like being a professional athlete. You gotta train and train and train and then maybe it’ll happen. And even then it’s still a maybe.
KJ: What are some of your goals?
Aaron: A Maserati, you know.
Leo: Seven of those.
Justin: A personal boxing ring with boxers. [Laughs] Honestly, I don’t need nice things. Just do this and have time to spend with good friends. Living at home keeps me grounded. My goal is just to live an enjoyable life. Get to a point where I don’t have to stress about it.
Aaron: I just want to be happy. I always wonder how much of my personal life I sacrifice for the sake of ambition and I’ve always said at the end of the day if given the choice between career and personal fulfillment, the one thing I’m working toward now is career. I don’t know if those things will change. I’d like to have both. But I don’t know if life really gives me both. Not right now.
Leo: My goal is always to keep moving forward in life. I believe in reinvention. I believe in changing yourself. So that’s my goal. To keep changing, keep pushing, keep discovering.
Aaron: We’re blessed that we’re in one of those jobs where when we’re working, we’re at our happiest. How many other people can say that?