At the outset of The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest, fanciful gift box of filmic confections, we see scenes of the bustling, fictional French town of Ennui. The camera is pulled back so far that our eyes can’t help but dart around the frame, catching fleeting glimpses of the tiny denizens darting in and out of buildings and across the cobblestone streets like figurines flitting around a vintage miniature playset. Like the great Jacques Tati, Anderson finds fun in filming his intricate sets from a great distance.
Later in the film, however, Anderson conjures an image that stands in stark contrast to the detailed dioramas that litter the majority of the runtime. Anderson films an extreme close-up of one of his characters, Chef Nescaffier, an Asian chef who’s just experienced a life-affirming revelation. No spoilers here, but what’s notable is that Asian American actor Stephen Park is given one of the most memorable, poignant scenes in the entire film with this close-up. It’s notable because the ensemble cast is brimming with tip-top talent, and many of them – including Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Christoph Waltz, and more – aren’t given nearly the same spotlight as Park.
“It was kind of an intense experience,” Park recalls in an exclusive interview with PopMatters. “The camera was right there in my face [laughs]. There was glass over the lens, and I could see myself. I had to find somewhere to focus my eyes so that I wasn’t looking at myself.”
More than ever before, Asian American actors are being featured in mainstream films and television shows in roles that are dimensional, with talented actors like Park given opportunities to show their range. But Park has quietly been acting in great films for decades. From Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), to the Cohen Brothers‘ Fargo (1996), to Bong Joon Ho‘s Snowpiercer (2013), he’s always maximized his onscreen minutes, often threatening to steal the show with his nuanced, poignant performances.
His turn in Fargo opposite Frances McDormand (who also appears in The French Dispatch) earned him a measure of criticism from the Asian American community at the time, who claimed that the character perpetuated a negative Asian stereotype. He plays Mike Yanagita, a thirsty old friend of McDormand’s Marge Gunderson who fails miserably at wooing the pregnant police chief in a dusty restaurant booth.
To this day, Park doesn’t believe the character perpetuated any message other than Asian Americans are just as vulnerable and human as everybody else. “Even though he was suffering, I think the fact that he was so lonely and desperate…those qualities transcend race,” Park explains. “Everyone experiences desperation and loneliness. I think that’s why that character resonated with so many people. In that way, he transcends race because he suffers from the human condition. And he was a part of the Minnesotan community. He spoke the dialect.”
In a 1997 mission statement, Park challenged executives in the film and television industries to portray Asians with more dignity following a racist incident he witnessed on the set of Friends. Now, it seems that actors of Asian descent are finally beginning to be featured in roles that portray them as fully realized human beings that don’t fall squarely into racist stereotypes. Violent mini-series Squid Game is currently the biggest television show in the world, and for two years in a row (Park is not in this series). Furthermore, recent Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards have gone to Asian filmmakers (Bong Joon-ho for 2019’s Parasite, and Chloé Zhao for 2020’s Nomadland).
“There’s a barrier that’s breaking down,” says Park of the current state of the entertainment industry. “I love what director Bong said: If you can get beyond the one inch of subtitles at the bottom of the screen, then all of world cinema is available to you. I think there’s something prophetic about him saying that.
“Here we are, where Squid Game is a huge hit, Parasite won Oscars…and they’re subtitled. But they’re speaking to the human condition and things we can all relate to. Language and race don’t need to be barriers anymore. We’re all the same, you know what I mean?
“It’s silly, all these things we use to separate ourselves from each other. Especially now that we’re in this existential crisis of global warming. How long do we have here on the planet? Do we really want to keep fighting each other and hold onto these ignorant points of view to the bitter end? Is that the hill we want to die on?
“It’s just human ignorance, and it’s unnecessary. We need to see ourselves in each other.”
Navigating Hollywood has been something of an uphill battle for Park. Though he’s done great work in the past, there just haven’t been a lot of prominent roles offered to Asian actors in the industry.
“It’s not like I get offered a huge number of roles and I have to turn them down,” says Park of his career path. “There have been long dry periods where nothing’s happening. I audition for things that I don’t get. But if there’s something that comes by that doesn’t resonate for me, or it’s something I’ve already done before, I pass on it.
“It’s just a natural thing. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do another Korean grocery store clerk character. I’ve done that a couple of times. Or if it’s something that’s obviously racist, I just say ‘no thank you’ and I don’t think about it ever again.”
The lack of opportunities and the “dry periods” that resulted from them had a peculiar effect on people’s perception of Park’s career, including his peers. “Not too long ago, Bobby Lee was with Margaret Cho on his podcast and he brought up my name, saying I got kicked out of Hollywood. And there was another Asian American guy who told me he thought I got blacklisted. And I realized that this was a common thought about me. I was never blacklisted, and I wasn’t aware that people thought that.”
So, while for years Park hadn’t been given the spotlight he deserves, he’s now been brought into Anderson’s exclusive filmmaking troupe for The French Dispatch, assuming a role that was written specifically for him. Clearly, Anderson recognized Park’s talents, and this could be the beginning of the most fruitful phase of his career thus far. Anderson is known to continue to work with actors he enjoys, so it’s a promising sign that Park will also be starring in his next production.
“I was so honored to be invited into Wes Anderson’s orbit, to be in the company of these amazing actors,” Park recalls. “When Wes is working on a movie, he creates an atmosphere. He’ll take over a boutique hotel, and the whole cast will be living there. We’re all living together, getting to know each other, having meals every night. He creates a family, essentially.
“And everybody works so hard because he works so hard. It can be challenging sometimes – he does a lot of takes. But they do it because we are all supporting Wes’ vision, and we’re all so grateful to be there. We know that whatever we’re doing will end up being an amazing work of art. It makes it easier to go through the challenging parts of it.”
Park had gotten used to being a supporting player for most of his career and was seldom featured in films’ marketing, so he was surprised to learn that he would be an essential part of The French Dispatch’s press campaign. “I didn’t really know that I was going to be on the poster,” Park recalls with a smile.
“Wes doesn’t really tell you those things. It was one amazing surprise after another, being cast in the movie, seeing the marketing of the movie, and then realizing that I was part of the main cast of the movie, and then being invited to [The Cannes Film Festival]. This was mind-blowing for me.”
It should become less surprising for Asian actors to be featured players in major American film releases moving forward. Given his talent, Park should be a much bigger name in the industry than he is. But if his partnership with Anderson is any indication, it looks like there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel for one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. For now, Park is content to just soak it all in and enjoy his moment.
“I’m amazed that I’m here, having this experience. It’s a big deal to me. This is crazy.”