The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Shortcomings.
Randall, what gripped you about this story and these characters?
Randall Park: I first read the graphic novel when it came out back in 2007, and I was just mesmerized by it. A lot of that has to do with Adrian’s writing, but also the style of the art. There was something about it that spoke to me so much. And on top of that, it had these characters that were so reflective of my life at the time, the life of my friends, the things we would do, going to diners and hanging out all night, and the relationship issues I was having at that time. All of these things were reflected back to me from those pages. In that sense it felt very authentic to me by things that are not often associated when it comes to Asian-American things. Hanging out a diner, you know? And the story, the book, Adrian’s work in general really stuck with me throughout the years. I always thought, gosh, this is like a great movie, the kind of movies that I love. But at the time, I didn’t think the industry was in any place to even tell this kind of story. Nor was I professionally in any place to do anything about it. And then, 15 years or so later, it somehow happened.
I remember reading it and thinking, this is a real person
I’d love to hear more about that evolution.
RP: I wasn’t thinking about acting in it myself, but I wanted to act in it. I was in no place to even make that happen. I mean, at the time, I don’t even know if I had an agent. I was pretty new to acting. But it was a dream role. This character is such a complex lead, so flawed with a lot of things going on, it was a definitely a dream role. But by the time we were ready to make this, I knew I was definitely not the one to play this character. We had to find Ben. And we knew that that would be a very daunting task because the character is so specific, so different, and really difficult to play.
Adrian Tomine: Yeah, I had thought of Randall as an actor for the part though, because I wrote the script so long ago. Starting in 2007, people knew I was always on the lookout. They’d be like, there’s some Asian guy on The Sopranos or something, and I’d frame it, like, maybe that would work. I’d look at him for like his three seconds on screen! I was looking at everybody, for years. And so of course Randall was one of the big names that kept coming up. I remember thinking when I saw him on Curb Your Enthusiasm—which is one of my favorite shows—I was like, oh, just the fact that this guy wanted to be on Curb means that he might be the perfect guy for this. I was only thinking of him as an actor at that point. But when he came along as a director, he’d already been on my mind quite a bit.
Justin, was what your impression when you first saw the script? Was it a dream role? He’s not the most lovable guy.
AT: Be honest!
Justin H. Min: I really did see it as a dream role! It’s interesting because in a lot of my press for previous projects, they would always ask, what do you want to do? Who do you want to play? And I could never really give a specific answer, but the gist of it is that I wanted to play a real three-dimensional, complex, nuanced character. I felt like the majority of scripts and roles that I had been given for auditioning didn’t quite meet that criteria. And when this script came into my life, I said, wow, this is it. This is the first time I’m seeing a real three-dimensional Asian-American person with flaws and brokenness, but also, some goodness as well. I remember reading it and thinking, this is a real person. And in the same way that Randall and Adrian just described, I felt the script described parts of myself and described a lot of people I know. To be able to represent someone who felt so close to me in many ways was a dream.
And Ally, what was your initial take on the character?
Ally Maki: I had a similar reaction to Justin; I definitely considered this a dream role when I first read through the script. Then I read the graphic novel in one sitting and I couldn’t believe that it had already been out for well over a decade. Adrian’s work felt so far ahead of its time. Seeing how these conversations are still relevant now we’re still just starting to break the tip of the iceberg on this stuff. I just wanted a crack at it this role. I remember on the Zoom chemistry read, we got to do that final seven page scene together. That’s all you could wish for as an actor; to be able to have a ping pong match for seven pages with someone as gifted as Justin Min. Even with only the audition, and with Randall being there, I was like, this is a dream. Even if I don’t get it, I have lived!
I want to go back to that theme of authenticity you mentioned earlier, as well as the idea of representation. There are a lot of Asian people in the world, but you’re not representing all of them.
AT: I made a decision to make a book that featured explicitly Asian-American characters, but I also made a conscious choice to not necessarily make it about that or make that be the prime focus. I was going to try and separate my personality and put it into a cast of characters. Characters that are often described as unlikable, which I try not to take personally! You know, I was trying to reflect myself in these different personalities, but I wasn’t going to let myself say, here’s the statement I want to make, or here are the themes that I want to clarify or communicate or anything like that. In general, I know there’s a lot of important art that’s created that way, but my style, the way I’ve worked in the past has been very opposite of that. I tend to let themes or ideas kind of emerge from character. I realize it sounds very narcissistic, but I wasn’t really attempting to represent anyone other than my own mind in a lot of ways.
RP: I think that’s a fascinating question because I feel like authenticity and representation sometimes seem like they’re kind of in the same bucket. But if you really think about it, the more authentic you get, the less representative you get, you know? The more specific to you and your own exact experience something is, the more it’s representative of one person—you. Who can fully identify with that? But the thing I love about Adrian’s work and this script and this story and this movie is that I feel like it’s more about honesty and truthfulness. And to me that is both specific and it’s representative. There are things that you could identify with, but it’s also very specific. Adrian’s work is very specific to his worldview. But in that I think there are human elements that everyone can relate to.
To your point, I found the character of Ben disturbingly relatable! I also found myself, as an audience member, wanting to both root for and against these characters in some ways. Especially Ally, whose character takes a big turn.
AM: Yeah, we actually had many conversations about that. Randall made it a point from day one to say, even in the audition, the thing about Miko is that we don’t want the audience to turn on her. There’s so much of her experience that was dead on to my life. I was like, no, I see her humanity. I see why she’s making these decisions. They might seem like wrong decisions, but I’ve had plenty of dates where you’re uncomfortably with the guy who has a samurai sword collection or he’s asking me if I like sushi and going to Japan. I’ve also had other relationships where I felt completely undervalued or I wasn’t listened to or I had no voice. For me, this movie is all about Miko finding that voice. I think her going to New York and meeting Leon was her own inner rebellion. These are things she had to do to become a better person and figure out her identity. In my own life I’ve dealt with so much perfectionism and shame. And that’s what’s beautiful about Adrian’s work—so much of it I understood culturally by being fourth generation Japanese-American. My parents were born here, and my grandparents were also born here. Walking around and eating sandwiches was totally my childhood of eating at McDonald’s. All that little stuff is so nuanced. I always saw the heart in her and I appreciated that Randall had that exact vision as well. And of course, Adrian in your creation of her.
AT: The Miko character is particularly tricky for an actor. Because by definition, to make the plot work, she has to be a little mysterious. She has to be absent for a big chunk of the film. That’s a real challenge to develop a character fully when you only have a few scenes. And I think what Ally did was just like greatest example of economy—I’ve only got this many minutes on screen and let me make them work together and tell a whole story through implication. I don’t get a lot of chances to praise the actors! And I’m sure Justin will have something to say on his character, but I also want to point out how different Justin is from Ben because I don’t want people to think we went on a hunt and found a guy who’s just like Ben and put him in front of the camera and told him to be natural. It’s an incredibly crafted performance from start to finish.
JM: To your question, as an actor I never want to get too in my head of, how is this going to come across the audience? While doing scenes I never thought about how likable he might be in that particular moment. Or, I hope the audience starts to root for him here. At the end of the day, it’s not my responsibility to control an audience’s reaction. It’s my responsibility as an actor to be truthful to the work and the words and to execute Randall’s vision as a director. In every scene, in every moment it was mainly about, where is this guy coming from? Why is he saying the things that he does? And at the end of the day, someone who’s as hypercritical of the world in the way that Ben is, is also hypercritical of himself. That is where, for me, the truth and humanity of Ben came through. He’s very insecure but also has incredibly high standards for himself, which he projects onto the world and onto other people. He comes across as sort of grating, but it’s because he holds those around him and those circumstances to the same high standards that he holds for himself.