Ken Jeong speaks about importance of passion

Comedian Ken Jeong speaks to students at Bovard Auditorium Thursday about pursuing their interests, telling the story of his decision to leave medicine in order to pursue an acting career. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

An estimated 500 guests filled Bovard Auditorium to hear “Crazy Rich Asians” actor Ken Jeong speak about his experiences as an Asian American leader in the entertainment industry Thursday. The discussion was moderated by stand-up comedian Kevin Shea.

The event was the final celebration for Global Cultural Month, a campus-wide initiative created by the International Student Assembly meant to celebrate USC’s diverse student body and cultural backgrounds.

“I’m just one voice,” Jeong said. “We all have different journeys and I think that the more diversity of voices that appear in sessions like these, you will relate to one of us.”

Jeong has appeared in several television shows and films, including “The Office,” “Knocked Up,” “Community” and “The Hangover” franchise. Most recently, Jeong had a role in “Crazy Rich Asians” — one of the highest grossing films in the past decade that featured an all-Asian cast.

“‘Crazy Rich Asians’ really has helped usher, what [director] Jon Chu calls, not a movie, but a movement,” Jeong said. “I think we are living in good times. It can’t be a better time right now … to be an Asian American in entertainment because now there is a community of us.”

Jeong said that after the commercial success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” his Asian American  friends have been having their projects greenlit by Hollywood, contributing to an increase industry representation.

Before his acting career, Jeong studied at Duke University and graduated with a medical degree from the University of North Carolina. After working as a full-time physician at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills Medical Center, he left his job to pursue his love for comedy and performance.

“When you’re a doctor, you have a white-collar job and I moved from a white-collar to a job to even a more spoiled job,” Jeong joked. “I have no calluses on my hands whatsoever.”

Jeong attributed the switch from being a practicing physician to pursuing his passion for comedy and acting to his wife Tran Ho.

“I literally would not have a career — if my wife didn’t let me, I wouldn’t do it,” Jeong said. “Tran was like … ‘If you don’t quit … you’re going to resent everyone around you, including me, and I won’t get in your way of success or failure …’ She was more confident in me than I was in myself.”

The actor has a stand-up comedy special coming to Netflix in 2019 after a 10-year hiatus from the stand-up stage.  

Jeong also spoke about his experience as a father of two and the lessons he hopes to impart on his twin daughters.

“We don’t encourage them in any direction,” Jeong said. “I’m encouraging them to follow their strengths and passions. I always tell my kids, ‘Don’t even think about [finances].’ If I could make $100, that’s better than making $100,000 in an area I don’t like.”

Following the discussion, student attendees were invited to ask Jeong questions.

Michael Lau, a student majoring in business of cinematic arts, asked Jeong whether he should pursue a career in acting or go into film marketing and production and act as a hobby.

“What do you like the most out of those things? Just follow that,” Jeong said. “Some of the best producers and writers in the world started out as actors.”

To close the event, Jeong offered students some parting advice about pursuing their dreams.

“Follow your passion … you have the golden opportunity to find something that you love to do,” Jeong said. “It could be something that you loved in grade school, and you’re reinforcing that here at USC. It could be something brand new. You’ll never get this opportunity to have this full landscape of ideas … Even if you ultimately don’t go on that path, you will never regret it.”