Not many people can say that jumping naked out of the trunk of a car changed their life forever. Even fewer people can claim that they jumped naked out of the trunk of a car onto Bradley Cooper’s face. And yet for Ken Jeong, whose breakout role in The Hangover series (the anticipated third and final installment of which hits theaters May 24) as the flamboyant, drug-addled gangster Leslie Chow has earned him a not-so-cult following as the funniest character actor in Hollywood—both of these things are true.
“The Hangover changed my life from black-and-white to technicolor,” Jeong says, quickly adding that he’s borrowing part of a Keith Richards quote. (The 43-year-old Jeong is nothing if not gracious and unfailingly polite, the polar opposite of his sociopathic on-screen alter egos like Chow and the absurdist, megalomaniacal Señor Ben Chang from NBC’s Community.) And he’s not just spouting hyperbole; his life really has done a complete 180. In fact, a few years prior to being cast in the Vegas-based bachelor-party-on-a-bad-trip comedy franchise, Jeong was a general practitioner at the Kaiser Permanente medical center in Woodland Hills, California. As in, an actual doctor.
Jeong says that he had the acting bug since appearing in a male beauty pageant in high school, where he received a standing ovation for a performance of Lionel Richie’s “Three Times a Lady,” but he had to follow through with medical school before he felt confident enough to pursue his passion. During his residency in New Orleans, Jeong won a stand-up competition judged by Budd Friedman, founder of L.A.’s legendary Improv comedy club, who convinced Jeong to move to Hollywood. In between treating patients, Jeong landed small roles on TV shows such as Two and a Half Men and The Office, where his day job earned him the nickname “Dr. Ken” among his fellow actors. Ironically, he didn’t actually stop practicing medicine until he won a breakthrough part in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, playing an OB/GYN.
Then came The Hangover, which catapulted Jeong onto the pop-culture map and which he still hails as the greatest experience he has ever had on a set. During filming for the first movie, Jeong’s wife, Tran, was battling breast cancer, so embodying the exhibitionist Mr. Chow became a form of therapy. “Morphing into Chow taught me not to be so afraid,” Jeong says. “It saved me personally, mentally and emotionally.” Chow’s infamous nude entrance was actually the actor’s own idea. “And I’m the guy who doesn’t take my shirt off at the beach,” Jeong laughs. His bravery was rewarded: The Hangover became a huge hit, and a year later Tran was cancer-free. “Some actors get known for a role and shy away from it,” Jeong says, “but that’s not the case for me. Mr. Chow is my favorite character that I ever played.”
Fans who agree will be happy to know that Chow’s role in The Hangover Part III is greatly expanded, allowing Jeong to steal even more scenes as the cocaine- and capuchin monkey-loving villain. “I get kind of choked up thinking about it,” Jeong admits. “I owe this all to [director] Todd Phillips. He gave me a career.” The admiration goes both ways. “Ken really got put through the paces on this movie, and we will forever be indebted to him,” Phillips says. “The guy was a doctor five years ago, and now here he is dangling from a rope and doing things he could never have imagined doing. But he’s a trouper.”
Perhaps it’s a sort of poetic justice that the unfinished Harmon Tower’s planned outpost of L.A.’s iconic Chinese restaurant never panned out, because for now, at least, it seems the Strip only has room for one Mr. Chow. “What could be better than having him back in Vegas?” Jeong asks. “It’s gonna be great!”