An interview with ‘The Interview’s’ Paul Bae

Canada’s small Korean acting community hit by geopolitics and film censorship
Photo: Tom Magliery

The Interview, a Hollywood comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, has fallen victim to hacking, threats and censorship. The film, which depicts a U.S. television crew’s absurd efforts to assassinate North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, had its release cancelled by Sony earlier this week after threats of terrorist attacks led to theatre chains refusing to screen it.

Much of the reaction has focused on the opaque politics of North Korea, the geopolitical implications of the controversy, and questions of free speech and censorship. Lost in the furor has been the experience of the Korean actors who star in The Interview, which was filmed in Vancouver last year. Ricochet spoke with actor and comedian Paul Bae, who has a role in the film as one of Kim Jong-un’s uncles, about the film’s cancellation.

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How’d you get a role in the movie?

I had first noticed it in my Facebook home feed, where my Korean friends were posting notices that Seth Rogen was looking to cast Koreans in his new movie. I didn’t think anything of it. I had pulled myself out of the acting game two years prior to devote more time to teaching and writing.

She warned me, “You have to be careful. North Koreans look just like us.”

Then, a few weeks later, my former agent gave me a call out of the blue to ask if I would audition for it since they couldn’t find a Korean to fill the role. To the producers’ credit, they really had their hearts set on having Koreans play North Koreans for their movie, which did wonders for Vancouver’s tiny Korean acting community.

What was your reaction when you found out the movie had been pulled?

I felt gutted for my friends Randall Park and Diana Bang (who play the roles of Kim Jong-un and his propaganda minister, respectively). By all accounts, they kicked serious ass in the film. I had already been a fan of Randall’s from his previous work, and we became tight during the filming. And Diana and I were already friends, so it was great seeing her get to showcase her comic skills and blow everyone away with her performance.

Several times during filming, Diana or Randall would do their scene, and then an AD (assistant director) or cameraman would turn to me laughing and say, “Wow.” You have to realize that Seth and Evan (the directors) work with basically the same crew for most of their productions, so these guys on set have seen some of the best comedic talents in the business. And they were blown away by these two Korean actors. That filled my little Korean heart with so much pride and joy for them. So I was really looking forward to their coming out party, as it were. To see it dampened like this absolutely sucks. On a positive note, maybe more people will see their performances because of this controversy.

Tell us about your mom’s reaction to you being in the film. I gather she wasn’t thrilled.

Yeah, my parents were both born in Pyongyang, but their families escaped to Seoul just before the DMZ (demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea) went up. So when I told my mother about my part in the movie, she flipped out. She was worried about me being kidnapped by some North Korean agents and being sent to a work camp to entertain their troops on my breaks from building black market cell phones.

So when I told my mother about my part in the movie, she flipped out.

Even Wednesday night, when I called my mother to tell her about the cancellation of the movie, she said, “I told you.” She still thinks I’m at risk of being taken off the streets by an unmarked van. She warned me, “You have to be careful. North Koreans look just like us.” She is nuts over this.

Is there ever a case for censoring a movie or a joke? What’s too far, and how does a comedian know where the line is?

On principle, I don’t believe in censorship, as you probably guessed. But in practical terms, I think we could all afford to be kinder about the things we say and do. So if you want to say an offensive joke, go ahead. It’s your right. But I really hope you think through whether the joke you’re saying is worth the offence you may cause or the possible hurt incurred. In the context of The Interview, the now notorious ending may hurt a certain leader’s feelings, but I think it’s worth it.

One joke I’ve seen you deploy to great effect is to riff off of white people’s inability to distinguish between Asians of different origins. Were other Korean characters in the movie played by Koreans? Have you talked to them about the film being pulled?

I really hope you think through whether the joke you’re saying is worth the offence you may cause or the possible hurt incurred.

I think every actor playing a North Korean was Korean. It was funny because those of us who had lines in Korean had to ask the Korean background actors — some of whom barely spoke English — how to say our lines in our mother tongue. Thank god my mother isn’t going to read this. No offence.

I chatted with Randall and Diana last night about this, and they are such positive people. They are just rolling with it. All they want is for a lot of people to see this film. Same with Jimmy Yi who plays Officer Koh — he’s the one who really gets under Seth’s character’s skin in the movie. Jimmy was awesome during filming, so I wanted to make sure he was okay, and he’s also in relatively good spirits, just going with it. I think the ones really stressed over this must be the producers because it’s their movie they worked so hard on that’s getting quashed. I feel for them.

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