There’s a pivotal scene near the beginning of the crime comedy “Pain & Gain” (opening Friday) in which an angry, manipulative motivational speaker named Jonny Wu yells to his prospective flock of suckers: “ Don’t be a don’t-er. Do be a doer!”
The man who plays Mr. Wu? Ken Jeong.
Ken Jeong? Doer.
This is a guy who grew up in Greensboro, graduated from Page High School at age 16 (winning the city’s Youth of the Year award along the way), was pre-med at Duke University, then a med student at UNC Chapel Hill, then an internal medicine resident in New Orleans, then a physician at a clinic in L.A. until 2006.
“It was all by accident, man,” says Jeong, 43, of a Hollywood resume that includes movie comedy “The Hangover” (for which he went full-frontal nude as foul-mouthed gangster Mr. Chow) and the NBC sitcom “Community” (as an unbalanced Spanish teacher). “In high school, I never had any dramatic aspiration to be an actor or anything. I was trying to just get into a good college.”
Jeong, the son of South Korean immigrants, moved to Greensboro from Detroit when he was 4. His first flirtation with being an entertainer: a mock male beauty pageant during his senior year of high school.
“All the guys in school – including nerds like myself – participated, and it was a lot of fun,” he says. “I remember getting a lot of laughs. ... I think to most people, I was pretty shy and well-behaved. But once people knew me, then they knew how silly and stupid I was.”
At Duke, he discovered the student-run musical theater organization Hoof ‘n’ Horn, and fell in love with acting while performing in various productions. Then at Carolina, he started doing stand-up comedy, jumping on stage for open-mic nights at Goodnights on West Morgan Street in Raleigh, and even doing a guest spot at the Comedy Zone in Charlotte.
Jeong wasn’t a huge fan of stand-up, but the gigs satisfied his urge to perform. He also wasn’t a huge fan of UNC (when it came to basketball), but it just made too much academic and financial sense.
“I was very grateful to get into Chapel Hill – it’s one of the best public med schools in the country,” Jeong says. “I was an in-state resident, and the tuition was so affordable. ... I remember one of the medical professors said, ‘You couldn’t be more cost-effective a med school than University of North Carolina School of Medicine.’ Having said that? Duke fan through and through, still to this day.”
He wore Duke spirit-wear on campus, even had a dark-blue Ford Mustang that he parked at the Dean Smith Center to get to his med school classes. “I had no problem wearing Duke stuff, I really didn’t. I think I might have been maybe more young and naive and more fearless at that time.”
After med school and during his residency in New Orleans, Jeong continued doing stand-up and won a comedy contest called The Big Easy Laff-Off that caught the eye of Budd Friedman, founder of The Improv. Friedman convinced him to move to LA, where he continued to work in medicine while moonlighting as a comic.
In 2006, he caught his first big break as an actor: an audition landed Jeong a small part as – what else? – a doctor, in a comedy written and directed by Judd Apatow titled “Knocked Up”; the film would go on to earn $219 million at the box office. He was quickly cast in two more Apatow-produced flicks (“Step Brothers” and “Pineapple Express”).
“That led to ‘The Hangover,’ which led to (director) Michael (Bay) watching ‘The Hangover’ in Miami with one of his best friends and saying, ‘I want to put him in “Transformers,” ’ which led to him hiring me for ‘Pain and Gain.’ That’s pretty much the story from my beginnings in Greensboro to ‘Pain and Gain’ right now.”
Jeong, who comes back home at least once a year to visit his parents, lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tran Ho, and their 5-year-old twin girls, Alexa and Zooey. And he gets far less worked up about college basketball than he used to.
“I just want a good game,” he says. “I’m getting to that age right now. I’m just happy for the sport of basketball. I mean, I really am. When you move out to California, after awhile you do kind of mellow out. You can’t help but be mellow in California, with the sun and everything. ... It’s a good thing for a burned-out Cameron Crazy like myself.”