Like many animated movies, DreamWorks Animation's Turbo features an amazing ensemble cast of voice actors such as Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzmán and Snoop Lion, just to name a few. Then there's the incomparable Ken Jeong, who plays the cranky Korean woman Kim Ly in this DreamWorks Animation comedy, a role he also reprises in the Netflix TV series Turbo FAST. I recently had the chance to speak with the actor over the phone about the Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and DVD release, where we discussed what drew him to this role and much more. Take a look at what he had to say.
First off, this is a hilarious character. What goes through your mind when they approached you to voice an old woman?
Ken Jeong: It was really the collaboration between me and David Soren, the director. I remember that first voice-over session, which is the most exciting because you're trying to figure out the voice, the character, and everything else. It's the one of the longest sessions, but it's the most fulfilling. I remember we were just trying to figure out that character, but even more than that, I just loved the subject of Turbo, this true underdog story, and I related to it. As a person who was pursuing my dreams as an actor, this shows how dreams do come true, and I'm living proof of that. I really related to it in so many ways, and then to play a Vietnamese manicurist (Laughs), was just the icing on the cake. It was kind of an in-joke for me and my family, because my wife is Vietnamese and when I found I was going to play this, I'm Korean and my in-laws are Vietnamese, I told my mother-in-law, 'I'm playing this character Kim Ly. It is in no way resembling you. I'm just going to put my own artistic spin on it. I'm not referencing you in any of it.' (Laughs) That was so much fun, sharing that with my in-laws, and I actually saw Turbo with my in-laws when the movie came out. I took my kids to see it too, and they're six-year-old twin girls, and my kids are asking me to quote Kim Ly all the time. My daughter's are going, 'I'm just an old lady.' It's an indescribable feeling (Laughs).
Was it tricky to find the right voice then, to find the balance between who this character is and not mocking your family?
Ken Jeong: No, I'm really fortunate that everyone around me has a great sense of humor. I remember being more concerned about supporting the story and doing right by the character. I've been very blessed to have a family and an extended family with my in-laws, who support me in everything I do.
Can you talk about your process in the booth, and how animated you get when trying to get into character? I've heard in some animated films, they film the actors as they record dialogue, to capture your mannerisms. Did that happen with you?
Ken Jeong: That's a great point. They did videotape it at certain points. I'm facing the director when I'm doing the voice, and there were times where he would come in the booth between takes and just talk about it, like a live-action movie. I do remember that first session, they would come in while we were recording the voice. I think you raise a really good point of feeling the energy of an actor. Again, it's a chemistry, just like live-action. You have to be on the same page, and have to have this creative, complimentary environment, where all the pieces fit. I really love David Soren. This has been his passion project for the past 10 years. He's nominated for an Annie Award, and it's so well deserved. I went to the New York premiere and seeing him dedicate this to his family, was really emotional and touching for me. He really just dedicated his life to this project, and this project to his family, and it was so sincere. I'm so happy for his nomination. It's so well-deserved. It's been a truly wonderful experience. Voice over, an actor's job is really icing on the cake. We're nothing compared to the incredible hard work that DreamWorks Animation had to do to see this project to fruition. It's been so fulfilling and I'm so proud to be a part of it.
It must be cool for you to see it for the first time then. You must see artwork and things like that, but that must have been quite an experience to go to the premiere and see it all come together.
Ken Jeong: Oh yeah, it's exciting. Going to the Turbo premiere in New York, and meeting the actors that I never got to meet like Ryan Reynolds and Michelle Rodriguez and Michael Peña, it was great to meet these people for the first time. That's the wonderful thing about doing an animated film, you get to meet these actors you admire and you're all in the room together for the first time. It's so much fun, and what a star-studded cast, you know. It's probably the largest star-studded ensemble I've been a part of, for any movie! You have Samuel L. Jackson, you have Paul Giamatti, Snoop Lion, Maya Rudolph, Richard Jenkins. You had everyone in this cast, and it was so fun to be a part of.
You're also reprising Kim Ly for the Turbo FAST Netflix series. Does the show take place long after the film? Can you talk about how the stories connect?
Ken Jeong: My part is fairly small, but the character is still the same, just being a part of that strip mall. It's really focusing a lot more on the snail team, the FAST team. Basically, they asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, in any capacity, and I said 'Absolutely.' I just loved doing this role, and by being a part of the Netflix animated series, I was just glad to be a part of it and flattered they asked me. It pretty much validates how much I loved being in Turbo, not just the movie, but I loved being a part of the animated series as well. I love this character, I love to do voice over animation. It's something that I never set out to do, when I quit my day job to become an actor, but I love every second of it. It's always fun, and I think doing voice over animation is always a reminder to me as an actor to always have fun. You can never not have fun, doing an animated voice over session. You can ask any actor. It's always fun. You're exploring, trying out new stuff and you really get to use your imagination. It's like the fundamentals of any kind of acting, and it's really good to stay connected to that approach and philosophy. It influenced my live-action acting. It's great.
Do you find it more challenging, though, to portray a character with just your voice?
Ken Jeong: That's a great question. I'm a physical actor, and you don't have that to rely on. It's so precise. Like, in a live-action movie, sound and dialogue is so important in a live-action movie, but if all you have is your voice, it has to be surgically precise, to hit the right notes in voiceover. It's like focusing only on the triceps, if you're working out. You don't have that sexy bicep to help you (Laughs). It is a workout, for obvious reasons, and it definitely is a challenge, because if you get one syllable wrong, you have to repeat the whole paragraph. I don't mind that, because for me, it helps improve my diction for live-action acting. It's like being paid to take vocal coach lessons. It's kind of cool. In this business, I don't care how many classes you take or how much schooling you have, you learn the most on the job, like in anything in life. I learn so much from everything I do, but having that confidence in your voice is crucial for any type of acting. I think doing voiceover animation has helped me become a better actor. You're learning to control your instrument more, just by doing this. There will be times where we'll have to modulate that voice. We'll have to ratchet it up for the comedy, or really take it down a notch because it's going to be an important scene. It is kind of an adrenaline rush, but it adds so much more to the bigger picture, because of the animation. Certain things, where you'll have to add in a laugh or a yell. It really pops in animation. There's a scene where Kim Ly is just laughing, but she's kind of the center of that scene, and I never envisioned it like that. I thought it would be the whole group together and you'd just hear a little bit of sound, but I love to see how certain things like that comes together. Just when you think it's not that important to do a background laugh, it's so important in that scene. That's all directing, David and the animators at DreamWorks, who take it to a level that I thought they couldn't possibly do. Even if an actor feels limited about his or her voice, that's so not true, because that's what animation is all about, especially this day and age, with this kind of animation.
I'm a huge fan of Community as well. Is there anything you're particularly excited for the fans to see when the show comes back?
Ken Jeong: We just wrapped principal photography, and it really, in many ways, is my favorite season of Community. (Series creator) Dan Harmon is back, it's so exciting. I'm just so glad to have Dan back, and the love we have for each other as a cast, we've been doing this for five years and to be this close and be this tight-knit, it truly is a labor of love to be on this show. I cannot wait to share every singe episode of this with the fans. Community fans are just amazing. Personally, for Chang, there are a couple of moments from Season 5 that rank up there as favorite moments as my career as an actor, not just the show. I'm so excited to share that with the fans and see it. I've got chills just thinking about it. Dan is the one of the smartest men I've met in life, not in the business, but in life, and I was a doctor, so that's saying a lot. I'm so happy he's back. It's so great, and it really has been my favorite season. Thank you for asking about Community. I always appreciate that.
That's my time. Thank you so much, Ken.
Ken Jeong: All right, take care.
You can check out Ken Jeong as Kim Ly in Turbo, currently available on Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and DVD.