by Paul Nakayama
I’d never been in a makeup room before, but as Jamie Chung sat there in her tank top and shorts, telling me about her life, I was prepared to make that room my home.
It’s a punishingly hot 96 degrees in this sauna-like photo studio in downtown Los Angeles. But I’m thankful. It’s giving me an excuse for my profuse sweating, because, and I should just get this out of the way, Jamie Chung is hot. Not just regular hot, but “makes-my- eyeballs-sweat” kind of hot. It’s no wonder all of my guy friends were insanely jealous that I was interviewing her today. “Say ‘hi’ to my future wife [you bastard],” they all said.
The 29-year-old Korean American actress was first known for her stint on MTV’s The Real World: San Diego. While attending University of California, Riverside, Jamie worked two jobs to pay the bills, one as a waitress at a sports bar where the auditions were taking place. Asked to try out, she landed the spot. But that didn’t lead to a break into acting. In fact, she went right back to school. Jamie remarks, “It was never a goal to do a reality show, nor did I think it would help me get into movies. At the time, I just thought of it as a cool vacation that helped pay for my student loans.”
Jamie grew up in San Francisco with two “traditional” Korean parents and an older sister. “When I was young, my parents worked a lot, so my sister and I watched a lot of movies growing up,” she remembers. “I’ve always loved movies; they were essentially our babysitters.” For Jamie, her favorites include Goonies and Breakin’, the latter revealing a short-lived dream of being a hip-hop dancer like “Boogaloo Shrimp.” She jokingly admits that it would’ve been a disaster.
But it was this almost sentimental love of film that made her decide that it was worth pursuing a career in acting. “[Acting] has always been a secret desire of mine. When I first started, I was so afraid of failure that I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. But, once I decided, I dove right in,” she says with a sudden seriousness. But the moment is quickly broken by a shotgun-like blast of hairspray that gags us both.
“Right in my mouth! Is it just me or does that taste like tequila?” I ask with a laugh. I cough and immediately return to my questions to cover up the fact that I was about to make a really bad joke.
Jamie touches my leg as a gesture, almost as if to say, “It’s cool.” She does that a lot, I notice. Watching her to speak to the rest of the people on set, it’s easy to see that she’s friendly and empathetic. I like it. It’s not every day that a gorgeous movie star comforts you.
“Acting is like a rubber band ball,” she continues. “After each job, you walk away with something and add another rubber band to that ball. And the bigger the ball, the more people and experiences add to your art. Acting is great in that you can only get better with age.”
Jamie’s been busy since 2011’s Sucker Punch and The Hangover Part 2, and this summer’s Premium Rush with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Her next film, The Man with the Iron Fist, out November 2, is a love letter to old Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks, written and directed by Wu Tang Clan’s RZA, co-written with Eli Roth and produced by Quentin Tarantino. It stars Jamie as Lady Silk, alongside RZA, Lucy Liu and Russell Crowe. She’s also starring in the political drama Knife Fight, as well as the supernatural thriller 7500, due out in 2013.
But her most intimate and personal role to date was playing the lead in the indie film, Eden, based on the true story of Chong Kim and her personal struggles against human sex trafficking. Jamie has garnered a number of accolades and rave reviews for her portrayal, but she didn’t do the film for the attention.
“It’s a story that has to be shared,” she says. “We’d ride around in this ghetto-ass van during the kidnapper scenes or use handheld cameras while locked in a car trunk. Whatever it took. I pushed myself and stripped myself of everything I was comfortable with.”
That’s a common theme for Jamie: she wants to tell stories, relatable stories, regardless of medium. Last year, she sought out YouTube sensation KevJumba to experiment with web shorts. Their video Friend Zone racked up more than 5 million views. Gordon-Levitt also directed her in a web short for the Sundance Film Festival called The Blue Dildo, and that was to tell a story about independence (despite what you think it’s about). “I like working with anything that helps add some creative steam or has the creative freedom to tell a volatile or funny story,” says Jamie. “Like, I did one with Justin Lin’s YOMYOMF YouTube Channel about sh-t. I mean, sh-t is funny, you know?”
It all comes down to her life philosophy. “I just wanna do the things I love and spend time with the people I care about and cut out the bullsh-t. Life is too short,” she says. A half-second later, she adds, “And that goes for food, too. If I want a burger, I’m going to eat a burger.”
It seems Jamie is game for anything. With all the stunt and martial arts training she’s had for her films, she likes to depressurize by doing her own laundry. “So domesticated, right? I need that normalcy,” she says. “Like, I enjoy watching basketball games with my boyfriend even though I’m not really a sports fan.”
There it is. The “B” word. I can hear the collective screams of all the men reading these words now. I try to recover by changing the subject and asking about the singing training she received while filming Sucker Punch. “I’m the only Asian girl in Southern California that doesn’t like karaoke,” she says. And that’s when I start weeping openly in front of her.
Knowing that she’s in a meaningful relationship and doesn’t like karaoke, I need closure. I ask her to tell me the weird sh-t. She shrugs and then after a moment replies, “I’m allergic to mosquito bites. When I get bitten, I swell up really big, like to the point I need cortisone shots. I love spicy food so much that I put Tabasco on everything. I usually go through a bottle in a week. It’s kinda gross.” I shake my head because it’s not nearly weird enough. In fact, it borders on cute/cool.
Later, I’m kicking back and watching the photographer take some more shots of Jamie. She’s joking around in between takes and doing jumping poses. Watching this, it’s impossible not to be fond of her.
As they set up for the next shot, we’re sitting by the coffee table and eating sandwiches with a Diet Coke in our hands. I’m looking over my notes, wiping my brow every other heartbeat. So where do you want it all to go, I ask. Just then, they’re calling her back for more shots. She smiles and says, “Just as long as it’s going, you know? So far, I’ve been really blessed with the people and the experiences I’ve come across, and I just hope that it continues. It’s like no matter your suc- cesses, there’s always someone on your heels. So you gotta keep at it, it’s never-ending. You just gotta keep adding those rubber bands.” And with that, she’s back in front of the camera, making it look so easy.
This cover story appeared in our Fall 2012 issue. Get it here!
Photographer: Diana King
Stylist: Ashley Avignone @ The Wall Group
Makeup: Shelly Samia
Hair: Alex Polillo
Photo Assistant: Kevin Burnstein
Stylist Assistant: Liat Veysey
Producer: Olivia Wu