Smitha Radhakrishnan watches Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan's latest film and realizes that eye candy that lasts this long is much too sweet.
Wong Kar-wai's first serving of American pie uses the same recipe, but different ingredients, with mixed results.
Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Ever since Aaron Yoo scored the kooky best friend role opposite Shia LeBeouf on Disturbia, he's been on a roll. With the success of 21, it looks like he might be living out of a suitcase and partying like a rock star for a while.
Interview with Aaron Yoo
March 26, 2008
Interview and Article by Ada Tseng
Video edit by Oliver Chien
Which Asian American actor just scored his second #1 movie of his less-than-half-a-decade-old film career?
His name is Aaron Yoo, and while he might not be a recognizable name, the kids who buy the movie tickets are likely recognize his face -- Disturbia was #1 in the box office for three weeks in a row, making more money domestically than Kill Bill or Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift -- and the Hollywood industry recognizes his currency enough to keep casting him in high-profile Hollywood productions. Next up, he has Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (with Michael Cera) and Game (with an ensemble cast that includes Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall, Alison Lohman, and Kyra Sedgwick).
Granted, Yoo didn't have the burden, or bragging rights, of carrying either of his #1 movies, and box-office success often doesn't correlate with quality filmmaking, but Disturbia and 21 are genuinely crowd-pleasing films. And even if he isn't always front and center, his characters are memorable. In comparison, Kal Penn's only #1 film (not counting Superman Returns) was Epic Movie. Lucy Liu has had several including the Charlie's Angels franchise, and Kelly Hu had Scorpion King and X-Men 2, but these were all over five years ago. John Cho, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, Masi Oka, and Sung Kang haven't been in a #1 film yet. In recent years, only Maggie Q has had big blockbusters with Mission Impossible III and Live Free and Die Hard. So when you put it in this context and consider the relative youth of his career, Yoo is doing pretty well.
To hear Yoo tell it, his life since January 2007 has been a whirlwind. This was right before Disturbia came to theaters, right before Rocket Science blew up at Sundance, and right before he got the call to join Kevin Spacey and company in Vegas to learn how to count cards. Before that, he was in TV's Bedford Diaries and had starred in an independent film about baseball in the Japanese internment camps, called American Pastime.
A couple years ago, when Yoo read that Hollywood was making Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions into a film, he immediately emailed his manager.
"I said, this is another one of my long shots," remembers Yoo, "but if this ever comes around... I mean, it's MIT. There's gotta be Asian heads in there somewhere."
In particular, he was immediately drawn to the Martinez character in the book -- the type of person who, despite being a brilliant math genius, tried to break into an ATM machine in the middle of campus, just to see if he could. He couldn't, and instead got caught and kicked out of MIT.
Months passed, and Yoo did a film called Rocket Science that got a lot of buzz at Sundance. Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz (nominated for an Oscar for his documentary Spellbound), Rocket Science took place in the world of high school debate competitions. Yoo played the main character's bi-curious, inconspicuously-ambitious step-brother figure. During the overwhelming fury of interviews, parties, and swag houses, Yoo's manager called to tell him that 21 was casting and that he needed to make himself an audition tape while he was in Park City, if he wanted to make the deadline.
"I was like, A) I haven't been sober since I landed, and B) I'm not even finding time to sleep. Where am I going to find a camera? I'm in the middle of Utah," says Yoo. "And [my manager] was like, Well, this is 21, the thing that you emailed me about years ago. This is the character you wanted to play. If you want it as bad now as you did then, you just make it happen. So, I was like, 'I will get your tape by Monday morning.'"
Borrowing a camera from costar Reese Thompson, and with the help of two other Rocket Science actors Nicholas D'Agosto and Vincent Piazza, Yoo hosted an audition tape party in his hotel room at one in the morning. Reading from a diner scene in the film, in which his character is supposed to use salt and pepper shakers to explain how their Vegas scheme works, Yoo improvised, instead making use of the free Wolfgang Puck gourmet soup cans that Picturehouse had provided them in case restaurants in Sundance were booked and they couldn't find a place to eat.
On his last day at Sundance, Yoo’s manager called to tell him that he wasn’t coming home to Los Angeles. Instead, there was a limo waiting for him to take him to the airport, where he flew straight to Vegas and stayed for three months filming 21.
"That's the crazy thing about this lifestyle," says Yoo. "For Nick and Norah, I got a phone call at 11 in the morning from my manager... saying 'You need to wake up. You're on a flight to New York in four hours, and you're going to be there for the next two months.'
"I was like, 'I can't pack up my life in four hours!' I can now pack up my life in four hours. That's kind of the way it goes... Half the time, I keep living out of the bag, and my roommate will say, 'You have to unpack,' but as soon as you unpack, you get a phone call, saying you're leaving town again. So, let me just leave my clothes rolled up."
In 21, the filmmakers renamed Yoo's character Choi, because they thought it would be confusing to viewers if he was called Martinez. Although many of the other team members create different characters and disguises so they wouldn't be recognized on the casino floor, Choi's character is always flashy, with his spiky long hair and his florescent sunglasses, constantly chewing gum and spinning a coin on a string.
Explains Yoo, "I always thought about Choi [as] such a loud personality to begin with, [and] the idea is that you can't hide a personality like that. You can literally just enjoy it. So I created all these things about him that were loud and obnoxious. He twirls his string all the time because he's ADD and it's ridiculous.
"Most people would look at a character like that and think: this guy is too much of a clown to pull off anything. He's just another Vegas character. Which there were a lot of."
Only parts of the casinos were closed down for filming, so many of the extras in the film are just real people, sitting there gambling and living the Vegas life.
"It was funny. As loud and as obnoxious and as ridiculous as we were dressed, you could not find us," says Yoo, "because people were walking around with big peacock feathers. There's Vegas pimps all over the place. We blended in."
The main 21 cast includes Kevin Spacey as the leader and Lawrence Fishbourne as the Vegas enforcer. The MIT student card-counting team is played by Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), Kate Bosworth, Jacob Pitts, Aaron Yoo and Lisa Lapira.
There has been some grumbling from portions of the Asian American community, who have been following the casting of the 21, keeping in mind that the real-life MIT team in Bringing Down the House was made up of primarily Asian Americans. Rumor has it that the studios initially wanted to cast all Caucasian actors in the role, "with perhaps an Asian female." In the end, Aaron Yoo and Lisa Lapira made up half the team, in supporting roles. While Jim Sturgess' leading man role is loosely based on Jeff Ma, Ma claims that he didn't really think race was that big of a deal. In an interview with Ain't it Cool News, Ma says that when he thinks about who he would want to play him in a movie, he's not necessarily prioritizing ethnic-similarity. He's thinking about "who's cool."
"To me," says Yoo, when asked about the controversy, "what you want to do is create a team: the group of people who are believable as a unit.
"In reality, most of them were actually half-Asian. Jeff is 3/4 Chinese, 1/4 white. My character is half Mexican, half Chinese. Matt is part-white, part-Chinese, but he definitely looks more white than not. Nobody ever talks about how they're halves. They want [them] to be owned by one side or the other. What's interesting is: Ben even says in the book that part of the benefit to them being half is that they could pass for so many different kinds of people. Jeff and Matt, who I know more than everyone else, can easily go in either direction depending on how they dress or how they shave or cut their hair. They could look very white, or very Asian, if they wanted to push themselves in either direction. It really helped them as far as anonymity.
"I'm always of the opinion that if you're going to ask for ethnically blind casting in one direction, you have to be okay with it in the other direction. So if you want to say best actor for the job, you have to allow it to be best actor for the job." For Yoo, that would be Jim Sturgess. "We all ride his back [on this movie], and I wouldn't want anyone else playing that part."
Yoo speaks as someone who has benefited from casting directors being open to ethnically blind casting. "As an actor, I don't really want any favors. My role in Nick and Norah was supposed to be white. Game and The Wackness -- these were all roles that were not supposed to be ethnic at all."
His next project, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which Yoo describes as a "21st century Dazed and Confused," takes place during one crazy night in Manhattan and follows "a bunch of emo-punk kids who are looking for the world's greatest band and find love along the way." Michael Cera, Aaron Yoo, and Ravi Gavron (Breaking and Entering) make up a gay emo-punk band, and Cera's character, Nick, who incidentally is straight, gets into a complicated situation with Kat Denning's character, Norah. Yoo predicts that Gavron and Ari Graynor, who plays Norah's friend Caroline, are going to be the breakouts of this comedy.
The film he just finished working on, Game, is a futuristic sci-fi thriller, where multi-player video games have been created to allow players to control actual humans. Alison Lohman, Aaron Yoo, and Ludacris' characters make up the visible faces of a resistance movement who are out to destroy these games, since they are destroying any sense of society and culture left in the world.
"My friend describes it as Blade Runner meets Fifth Element meets 300," says Yoo. "The things that they're doing are crazy. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor [the directors of Crank] get dragged on roller blades, holding the camera, just shooting these action scenes. They took over downtown Albuquerque and just blew shit up for 12 weeks."
Date Posted: 4/4/2008