Jamie Chung is one of those rare cases of a reality TV star actually forging a successful career in Hollywood. After getting her big break as a cast member on MTV’s “The Real World: San Diego,” Chung made the transition into acting with a recurring gig on “Days of Our Lives” and guest roles on other popular series. Over the last few years, the actress has continued to make a name for herself in films like “Dragon Ball: Evolution,” “Sucker Punch” and “The Hangover: Part II,” and with a full slate of projects on the way, it looks like she’s here to stay.
I had the chance to speak with Chung while in Austin, TX for the South by Southwest film festival where she was promoting her new indie drama, “Eden,” based on the real-life story of human trafficking survivor Chong Kim, and it’s the kind of role that’s going to do great things for her career. The film celebrated its world premiere by also winning a number of awards, including Audience Awards for Best Narrative Feature and Best Director, as well as a Special Jury Recognition for Chung’s performance. The actress met up with me at the bustling, historic Driskill Hotel the day after the movie’s premiere for a quick chat on all things “Eden.”
BE: “Eden” represents a pretty drastic change in tone compared to the movies that you’ve previously done. Had you been actively seeking more dramatic roles?
JC: You know, I think every actor craves to really sink their teeth into something substantial and meaningful. And when the script came around, it’s just unheard of for an Asian-American female having this kind of storyline. It blew my mind that this story existed and that Chong came forward and shared this story. As soon as I read it, I was like, “I absolutely need to be a part of this.” The story itself is so moving, and what she went through is so horrific, but the entire story, what was so beautiful about it is, it’s a story of survival, and the will of the human spirit of how much she wants to live and survive and cope and continue on.
BE: You said that you weren’t aware of the story before you read the script, but did you get a chance to meet Chong before you began filming?
JC: I had the privilege of speaking to her after I was cast. And what was great too was that she also talked to Matt (O’Leary, who plays one of her captors, whom Chong befriends in order to escape) because it was really important to understand their relationship.
BE: The story takes place in the mid-90s, but human trafficking is still a really huge problem today. Have you gotten involved in any activist work as a result of working on the film?
JC: There’s an organization coming out of San Francisco that’s helping girls get out of sex trafficking, but the main focus is local girls – girls within the United States. The first thing when you hear “sex trafficking,” you think, third world country. India. Pakistan. Taiwan. Wherever. But what I love about this organization is the main focus is going to go here, and it’s something that’s in development right now. But Chong works with many organizations and she’s very much hands on, and we were entertaining the possibility of maybe traveling to Korea to meet the comfort women, that are now getting really old and are going to stop protesting, but also some other organizations throughout Asia.
BE: You don’t have a whole lot of dialogue in the movie, and as a result, it’s a very quiet and subtle performance on your part. Do you find a role like that more challenging as an actor?
JC: I don’t think it makes much of a difference, but what makes it easier is to have a good actor opposite of you. You don’t really think about it. It doesn’t really matter if you’re saying things or not – it’s just a visual response to great actors.
BE: Did you find it more beneficial working with a woman director considering just how personal and intense the subject matter was?
JC: [Megan Griffiths] was very good about the sensitive topic, but female or male director, she had a very clear vision of how she wanted to tell the story. Some things didn’t need to be included, like some of the violent or sexual scenes didn’t need to be shown because that’s not the main purpose of the story. The main purpose of the story is this woman who’s trying to cope and struggle and find her voice and strength, and Megan did a good job with that.
BE: Your character does some pretty terrible things throughout the movie in order to escape. Do you think those actions are justified?
JC: I think in that situation she did what she had to survive, in order to stay safe. She didn’t have many friendships or relationships, and if you follow the story, once you get to a certain age – and it’s true to this day, even in society – you’re quite disposable. Your looks are gone, your beauty’s gone, and the innocence has dissipated. That’s not desirable. And so it was quite a desperate action for her to gain the trust of her captors, but I think it’s something she needed to do.
BE: This is kind of a stock question that we like to ask, but are there any projects that you’ve worked on that you feel deserved more love or attention?
JC: All of my work. (laughs)
BE: Well, you’ve actually got quite a few projects coming up that I’m excited about. Have you finished shooting “The Man with the Iron Fists”?
JC: All done. It’s a real cult… In that genre of original kung-fu movies.
BE: Awesome, I can’t wait to see it. And I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed “Eden” as well.
JC: Thank you so much.