We had the good fortune of connecting with Irene Park and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Irene, what role has risk played in your life or career?
Despite having job security at the height of the recession, I left my career as a corporate philanthropy consultant in NYC (at one of the world’s largest media, marketing, and communications holding company) and move to LA to pursue acting full-time. The funny thing about the recession (if there was one!) is that it gave me great clarity about not delaying my passion. If there are no guarantees in life, I’d rather roll that dice on myself and what I love to do. By all means, it could’ve seemed like a terrible risk to any onlooker. But for me it was a calculated risk, I had done plan ‘B’ before my plan ‘A’. I experienced the ‘greener’ grass and understood what I would be letting go. On paper, I was leaving a noteworthy title, Fortune 500 company clients, a steady paycheck, my professional & personal network, and structure. Yet all those things paled in comparison to living in my authenticity. Though I enjoyed helping corporate dollars reach nonprofits across the country, I did not feel I was living out my dreams. One of the greatest reservations I had about pursuing acting, which has been a passion since I was in daycare, was feeling selfish about pursuing something that gave me the greatest joy vs. helping other people. I was fortunate to get great advice from someone I respected who reminded me that a great song, book, movie, or tv show had the power to reach millions and change the course of other people’s lives too. Heck, a great song could change your day! That there was no shame in pursuing what I loved because helping others at a cost to myself was not truly serving the world. The truth is that when you give yourself permission to live the life you want, you embolden others to live their best life too. When you bet on yourself in a self-honoring (not self-serving) way, you are showing the Universe your hand and you are encouraging others to be connected to their true self too. (And funnily enough, becoming an actor allows more time to volunteer at various nonprofits through my organization, Penn Serves LA.)
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I feel like what truly sets me apart from others is that I’m a native Angeleno, I have a strong theater background, and a deep belief in the human potential. All these qualities really impact my art by how I show up and what nuances I bring to the characters I play or write about.
While most people are transplants, I was born and raised in East LA so I don’t get easily distracted by the city or Hollywood. I actually find LA to be quite grounding because most of my family is thankfully here. I go hiking with my sister, cook for my parents, and have movie nights with my cousin and her son. It’s not a transient place where I hope to make it big — it’s my hometown. I also respect the different neighborhoods and have gotten to see rough neighborhoods do a come up. I know who LA has been and who she’s becoming. It always motivates me to get comfortable with the uncertainties of the industry and to keep evolving – nourishing the authenticity within while integrating new learnings. I also learned to never judge ‘a book’ by its cover. The man on the street selling paletas by the corner mart is as important as the exec cruising to her next meeting. Everyone has a beautiful story to tell if you listen to them. Those are the stories I choose to tell – about the inner-workings of people and places you think you’ve figured out; the duality within us all.
Most people think booking a role on Grey’s Anatomy without an agent or manager, which is a ‘one in a million chance’ type situation, is my proudest experience so far. While it was definitely one of my top 10, my best moments were when I understudied in Born to Lead, small production for the East West Players.
Even though I started acting full-time in 2009, I actually grew up doing theater in LA then in Philly during college. I love collaborating with other actors, writers, directors and other creatives and always try to learn from them. In theater, you’re taught to respect not only your work but the work of others both on and off stage. Since I had to give up rehearsing with my theater company, hereandnow, to attend scene study class, I really had been missing theater. I had always wanted to work with the East West Players, the “nation’s longest-running professional theater of color”, and the material was close to home. I got to play Susan Ahn Cuddy, the first Asian American woman in the US Navy who fought in WWII. I hadn’t known about her and her brave, loving approach to life both as a woman and person of color in a time that was even less inclusive. I got to perform her life story in front of her as she was at the cusp of turning 100 (the oldest living Korean American in the US!). Though initially I was nervous to perform her life story in front of Susan, I focused on what an honor it was to even play her — walk in her shoes. She was so humble and grateful for my expression of her story.
When I was offered an understudy role, I thought of turning it down for a millisecond! (Theater is time consuming because it requires rehearsals and performance times, which means less time to work your day job or go to Film and TV auditions. Also understudies usually only perform when the leads can’t act.) But I couldn’t pass up to chance to play a then-living legend, Susan, and work with Marilyn Tokuda and Jennifer Chang.
I was fortunate to get to perform twice during the tour: once in front of the legend herself, Susan, and then at Hillsides, a nonprofit residential treatment center for children of traumatic experiences. As the understudy, I attended every rehearsal but NEVER got to rehearse until right before my first performance! Once the audience rolled in and I got into ‘places’ though, every part of my being was in ‘it’. All those years growing up doing theatre & being consistent with classes & bookings showed up. Talk about trust. Before we took our places, our liaison at Hillsides, prefaced by saying not to take it personally if any one in the audience walked out mid-performance. Huh? We didn’t realize until that moment that Hillsides specialized in youth & those transitioning into adulthood with learning or behavioral challenges. We had really young elementary school kids up to 20-year-olds in the audience. I believe only one person walked out of the performance. One of the older audience members clammed up then defensively shouted, “I don’t have a question, stop looking at me!” when the liaison called him to ask a question during the Q&A after the performance. But as we were breaking down our set, the guy that had the outburst came to talk to me. He told me his name, smiled, and told me, “When I get out of here, I’m going to join the Navy like Susan. I never knew about her.” He had such hope and pride in his statement. Despite whatever road he had struggled on thus far, a different path had suddenly opened up for him that day. My heart still fills with gratitude for this moment. This is why I do it. This is why I act. This is what we can do by staying true to ourselves: filling others with hope and making them feel understood.
One of the things I learned about Hollywood is that you don’t (just) have to be talented to get your foot in the door, but talent will be the marker of a long-lasting career. The myth that sheer talent will get you on a TV show or the next Marvel franchise is what the gatekeepers say to keep you hopeful but at arm’s length. I know MANY, MANY talented actors and writers who have not yet hit their stride in their careers because they don’t have the money, connections, or look. It’s certainly not fair but it is important to stop perpetuating that illusion that everyone has an equal playing field. Then you can really look the industry dead-on and consider how much you love your craft. That’s why you’re doing it, right? You’ve got to love the art & your artistry despite the truth about the uneven playing field. Then you have to create like that playing field doesn’t exist. As a teacher’s assistant for most of the classes I attended for six years at Warner Loughlin Studios, I’ve seen less talented actors do well because they were so willing to learn and improve. I’ve seen super talented and/or successful actors not put in the work, show up for their peers or bring their sh*tty attitude with them and wonder why things were stalling for them. So like many things in life, it’s all about how you show up and what you do with the ‘tools’ you’ve got. Regardless of whether someone seems innately talented or not, I learned to be a kind collaborator because it is so easy to criticize but ‘harder’ to create. Actors, artists, are often pouring themselves into their work — and that’s brave. I often have to remind myself and others: remember that art like beauty is very subjective; don’t take people’s preferences personally.
I was under no illusion that Hollywood was going to roll out the red carpet for me because when I started they weren’t really writing roles for Asians, especially not with any depth. They were mainly stereotypes or perfunctory utilitarian roles such as manicurist or nurse. I knew I would be one of the few forging a new path and I was okay with that. I wanted to see the craft I love include people who looked like me in addition to representing the world we actually live in. Even when there was NO story, I made sure I gave each character a story. Even if the dialogue my character spoke was very stereotypical, I’d give her an emotional reason for those words to come out of my mouth. And often times, casting, directors or writers wouldn’t know why my characters ‘popped’. Now that more dimensional roles do exist, there is a frustration that they keep being offered to the same key players over and over again. BUT I am still clapping for them because their success is everyone’s success. Based on the level and types of roles I have been consistently auditioned for in the past 2-3 years, I know my turn is coming!
Because I am a big believer in not sitting around and complaining about lack of representation, I’m focusing on creating content that tells stories that are more representative. I’m currently writing a short film about ‘comfort women’. These women from East & Southeast Asian (& even POW) were victims of violence and prostitution at the hands of the Japanese Government during WWII. They’ve been largely silenced by the Japanese government — in fact, the violence perpetrated by the Japanese government during WWII has been conveniently been written out of Japanese textbooks. I want to give these women, and all victims of subjugation, a voice. Because their stories are constantly being ‘erased’, there is an even more fervent desire on the part of the subjugated to pass down the vigilance against their oppressors. I know it is lofty, but I hope that telling their story and honoring their experience through my film will help heal & soften their hearts and the hearts of future generations.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
We’re fortunate to live in a city that most people want to visit! I used to joke that I was the ambassador of LA amongst my friends. Friends from all over the world would give me a shout out if they were headed this way. I would tailor the itinerary to the person and include some touristy options but it would generally go like this:
What’s a greater welcome to Los Angeles than chowing down on some of the best Mexican food in the world! First stop from the airport would be to La Abeja, which is a family owned Mexican restaurant. They have the best beans – so good that the neighbors, who are predominately Mexican, actually buy vats of their beans. They have this Puerco Abobaja plate that’s perfection. We could walk off the food coma by popping into Highland Park and checking out the little shops on York Blvd. And if you weren’t too stuffed, we’d have to get ice cream from Scoops!
When I travel, I love seeing and experiencing life as a local so I’d definitely show them Little Tokyo and downtown LA, where you can get tickets to great museums such as The Broad and MOCA. I LOVE the Central Public Library in DTLA; it is massive and somehow overlooked. I used to spend a lot of time as a latchkey kid there. There’s great architecture, free art exhibits and installations, and people watching. Even though Sushi Gen is well known, I prefer Komasa in Little Tokyo for sushi because it is low key, sushi is always fresh, and they are ridiculously generous with their portions. It’s fun to watch people do live karaoke in the community square behind the the restaurant after dinner. Then it’d be drinks at The Varnish, which has a sophisticated speakeasy vibe. Tucked inside another restaurant, they limit the number of people and give you a true mixology experience. You can tell your mixologist your ‘poison’, the types of flavors you enjoy and they will handcraft something unique to your tastes. It’s fun to chat with other couples or groups, or grab a beautiful booth with your friends.
When you’re hanging out with me, I’ll get you to hike whether you want to or not…but you’ll end up enjoying it whether you want to or not! Of course, we’ll start with a delicious brunch at Salt’s Cure for their amazing oatmeal griddle cakes. Then we’ll work off those cakes with a hike to the Hollywood Sign or Griffith Observatory for some stellar views. Of course, some food & drinks in Franklin Village or Los Feliz depending on the route. There’s usually a great comedy show at UCB or The Comedy Store to end off the evening. If we had time, we’d catch a show at the Hollywood Bowl!
Going to the west side is a whole day experience so when the weather is toasty, we’ll head to one of the smaller lesser known beaches in Malibu or Leo Carrillo (so I can bring my best dog with us). After watching a magical sunset (trust me, they are all magical), we’d head to Santa Monica to wander around the Promenade for food and street performers, walk to the Pier for views and carnival rides, then down the walk way to Venice Beach.
The last few days will be back on the east side with a Dodger’s game, a walk about Olvera Street — don’t forget the horchata and tamales being sold by vendors…also churros…always churros. If you haven’t stuffed yourself too much with a Dodger dog or churros, we’d head over to Philippe’s, which has been serving some of the best French dip sandwiches since 1908. These sandwiches are made and served by sweet (usually) ladies in hairnets. There’s something about the sawdust floors and retro memorabilia that makes me feel nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even alive! We’ll walk through Chinatown checking out wares and sights until we end up at my favorite Chinese spot, Yang Chow. I’ve been coming here since I could eat solids and I’ve never been disappointed by the friendly faces of the servers or their slippery shrimp!
If there is time or stomach space, I’d 100% squeeze in a visit to my two favorite food trucks: El Milagro for their Tostada Mixto or La Estrella for their lengua & asada tacos. Basically, come to LA prepared to eat!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
This probably sounds super cliche, but despite being raised by a ‘village’ my mom still somehow comes to the forefront of inspiring & supporting me the most. I was a typical latchkey kid, whose parents were never around to pick me up in time or have the bandwidth to help with school or life. Having caring individuals like my after-school teacher, Josie Gonzales, in elementary school helped me feel seen and heard. She went above and beyond her pay grade and helped me with schoolwork and took me home to her family when my mom just couldn’t get to me because of work. She kept me afloat in elementary school along with my 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. Tunick. Mrs. Tunick was the first teacher to not compare me to my sister, who was two grades ahead of me, and saw my interest in history and reading as a way of keeping me excited about learning. Despite being a future Ivy Leaguer, I was an undiagnosed dyslexic who was told that I was just dumber than my sister. But these women encouraged me and filled me with hope. I would say my teachers in high school did the same, particularly Ms. Cole and Mr. Goss. Instead of trying to force me into someone I wasn’t, they motivated me by encouraging the person I was. They understood my strengths and helped me work on my weaknesses with constructive feedback. I could list several more teachers like Ms. Connor, Ms. Shannon, Mr. Sogo, and Mr. Cooperman to name a few who saw my potential beyond my grades. They told me over and over again I was intelligent and had gifts to share with the world despite struggling with a learning disability that due to cultural stigma remained undiagnosed. And of course, Mr. Tim Wright, my Drama teacher, saw my future as an actor when I saucily snapped that “I’m not my [sister]!” when he mistook me for her at school. He gave me a grounding place to come work on my art and myself. That’s when I discover somewhere that felt like home, and it became the cornerstone of my life. It not only literally gave me a place to go after school, but it filled me with purpose.
How my mom, despite not being present during the most formative years, rises to the top of supporters and inspiration is that she sacrificed every waking hour to make sure we had everything she never had. She worked 80-100 hours a day both as the breadwinner and housewife to make sure we had every opportunity to have a successful life. You can imagine my surprise when she was the person who reminded me of my dream to act, right? I remember being crazed at my consultancy job and getting a call at my desk from my mom. It was the only way you could reach me at that time because I was always busy working and barely had time to use the bathroom let alone check my personal cellphone. I vividly remember her saying, “I know you’re busy so I’ll keep it short. You don’t seem happy with work. You’ve got at least 40 years left of it. So you got to love it—when I was your age (yes, I rolled my eyes), I had two kids, a house, and a business. I was EXHAUSTED but happy because I was doing something for my life. You should do what you love. What was that thing you always did in high school? I could never go because I had work—“ Ouch. Acting, mom, acting. “Right! You should do that. You LOVED that. I can’t offer you money because we don’t have it but you can stay with us until you get your bearings and borrow one of the cars if you want.” My dragon mom (yes, she’s more intense than any of those tiger moms you’ve heard of) had just told me to pursue acting instead of this stable corporate career. It was mind-blowing. She had been paying attention this whole time despite not having one damn second for herself. Somehow her permission to pursue my dreams loosened my tight grip on the life I thought I should lead. There are times when she gets sad that her Ivy League graduate daughter is waiting tables, but she has never since that call floundered in supporting my career as an actor. Her unshakable support for my dreams is what has kept me going in this crazy, uncertain industry. My sister patiently reads for me on my self-tapes when she can, which has grown exponentially. My cousin Angeline took some of the gorgeous headshots you see and my cousin Kat styled many of my shoots! It’s become a real family effort!
Additionally, I’ve been grateful for the acting community I’ve built over the years through Warner Loughlin Studios. Warner sets the tone for the Studio by being so kind, accessible, and humble. She’s one of the top teachers and coaches in the industry but she never acts like she is. While confident and brilliant at teaching her awesome technique, she never wants to be perceived as a guru that you must please. The teachers there, such as Wendy Haines, Joe Towne, Jamie Wollrab, and Hillary Tuck (to mention a few!) have encouraged my craft, career, and humanity to blossom—they genuinely care about who I am and I have learned a tremendous amount for all of them. I’ve also made incredible friendships with many other creatives such as Sarah Carson, who is my acting ‘accountability’ partner. We check in every week about life and our careers. We share anecdotes and strategies to keep each other on task to reach career goals. As one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Business School, she’s faced amazing and challenging life moments that I never will. She gives me such a unique perspective on life and career. This wonderful community keeps me going when I want to give up.
Angeline Woo, Sean Kara, Keely Kiewiet, & Erica Ibsen