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Jimmy O. Yang: ‘You Have to Prepare, Then Throw All That Away and Be in the Moment’

Space Force star Jimmy O. Yang discusses balancing the left and right brain in his work as a performer and creator.

Words by John Pearson
and Pete Samson
Portraits by Alex Loucas

Jimmy O. Yang is a modern leading man for our multi-tasking age. Whether working as a stand-up comic, actor, writer, or YouTube creator, his talent and dedication shines through.

Born in Hong Kong, he moved to Los Angeles aged 13, and turned to comedy as he made sense of that cultural adjustment, and searched for connection within his new community.

“When you have nothing else going on in your life, going up on an open mic and torturing yourself every night doesn’t seem so bad,” Jimmy recalls. “It [does take] courage, but it was more desperation. It seemed better than the alternative. I was like, ‘At least I’m out of the house and meeting new friends.’ So I didn’t mind it. I never looked at stand-up as work, especially in the beginning.”

By his early 20s, Jimmy was a successful stand-up comic on LA’s comedy club circuit, before getting his acting break in the popular HBO sitcom ‘Silicon Valley’. More acting roles followed, including in the groundbreaking 2018 comedy film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, and last year he starred as the romantic lead in the Netflix romcom ‘Love Hard’. He’s now a bona fide movie star.

Jimmy O. Yang // 📸 : Alex Loucas

Currently, Jimmy is playing Dr Chan Kaifang in the second season of starry Netflix workplace sitcom ‘Space Force’, based around the newly-formed sixth branch of the US Armed Forces. Fellow stars on that show include Steve Carell, John Malkovich, and not forgetting Jimmy’s dad Richard Ouyang, who has made a few notable cameos. Jimmy, who has also joined the writers’ room for the latest season, explains, “During season one, Greg Daniels, our showrunner, was like, ‘It’s always the same couple of older Asian guys. We need to find some new blood.’ I had inadvertently just told John Malkovich my dad’s also an actor, just as a funny anecdote, and then John was like, ‘How about Jimmy’s dad?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, John, are you sure about this?!’ And then I wrote him into another episode in season two.

“He’s just one of the guys now, and he delivers. But he’s starting to get the anxiety of an actor now. It’s like, ‘Hey, what happened to this one scene I shot?’ I’m tell him, ‘They cut out stuff every now and then.’ And he’s like, “Well, I think I was very funny!'”

To add to his already substantial project platter, Jimmy’s also started producing and hosting his own YouTube cooking show from his kitchen, and has written a book about his experience emigrating to the US. And his personal growth, and increased confidence, can be seen across all of his work.

“In the beginning, you’re just trying to survive on stage, being funny, telling dick jokes, whatever. But really great comedy comes from vulnerability and truth, just like good acting and good writing. So digging for that, that’s what’s interesting.

“The part that really interests me is the human condition, finding relatability and metaphors and things that people can watch and be like, ‘Oh, that’s so true for me. Even though I don’t work in Space Force, I can relate to this.'”

We’re delighted to welcome Jimmy as the latest subject of our ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are. Here, the 34-year-old, who studied economics at college, discusses the fine balance between preparation and presence in his work on stage and screen, with wisdom that is food for thought for folks in any walk of life. Check out the filmed version of our conversation below, and keep scrolling for the print interview and photoshoot.


Who the f*** are you?

I’m Jimmy O. Yang. And I’m just any other guy trying to do his job, I think. It happens to be a job in the public eye. I try to make people laugh and I try to make people feel good.

How are you feeling right now?

I feel pretty good. I take time to be grateful, my career’s going great, I’m doing a lot of things.

I can always nitpick and be like, “Why am I not getting this job? Why am I not doing more of this or whatnot?” But I think you just need to be grateful about everything and look at it from an outsider’s perspective sometimes… I’m fine, I’ve been doing great. I have no complaints. And everything else is just a bonus.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in Hong Kong for the first 13 years of my life. It’s quite a different world. It’s a very big metropolitan city, a concrete jungle, not a lot of greenery and parks. But I loved it. You can walk everywhere, don’t need a car. And just so many people, so much energy. It’s very much like New York.

Then I came to LA when I was 13, so I still spent half of my formative years in LA, and it was just a culture shock. This is very wide open land. You need a car to get by, you can’t just walk from one strip mall to another. In the first couple of years, I think a lot of immigrants try to relive your old life. You try to walk everywhere in LA, you try to find Chinese food, whatever. And then you realize it’s not about that. It’s like, “Okay, Hong Kong is great at that. But what does Hong Kong not have that LA has that I enjoy?” I enjoy just going on hikes, having a pool, having a dog, and eating the different food here. So instead of trying to force your life into the previous mold, I try to explore the new one.

 

Jimmy O. Yang // 📸 : Alex Loucas


What excites you?

I think when things work. We all want to be right. So in my world, I could be right about something when I’m arguing with my girlfriend. That’s good. I think everyone can relate to that. But day to day in my job, to prove that you’re right, to feel sane as a comic, is when a joke works. When you think something is funny, take it on stage and then the audience laugh, and then you’re like, “This is right. I’m not crazy.”

It’s a joy. There were a few years where I kind of stopped doing standup. I was like, “I’m fine. I don’t need to go on the road,” because I was doing fine acting. But there’s nothing like that immediate response of seeing people laughing and feeling that joy from the whole room. That’s very, very fun.

What scares you?

Height! The ocean! No. Failure. I think all of us have a little bit of that. When I get on stage and make people laugh, there’s just so much preparation that goes into every bit of that. I’m so scared of failure that I prepare a lot. Even when I’m playing video games with my friends, I don’t like to play games I’m not good at. If we play a game of Madden, I’ve probably trained at Madden in my own house already for a few months.

What is your proudest achievement?

Oh, wow. That’s a big one. I’m not big on awards or anything, and I haven’t won anything like a big award. But I got one at the Def Jam movie awards, which is not the most prevalent award, but my favorite people growing up were in the audience. Snoop Dogg was there, Don ‘Magic’ Juan, Xzibit… So I was like, “This is cool!” They might not know who I was, but I gave them a shout out.

But honestly, the movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. That’s where I found my creed, my friends, and knowing what it did for the culture and for entertainment, I just saw my life change. And after that, people were more open to Asian content. I’m just very grateful to have been part of it. I can’t take credit for a lot of it, but that was very cool.

Jimmy O Yang // 📸 : Alex Loucas


What’s the hardest thing you have ever done?

Honestly, acting was quite hard. With stand-up, a lot of people talk about stage fear, but I never really had stage fear. I was a very good public speaker, I just had to figure out my jokes. But acting was hard. I had to take a lot of classes. I think I have a good instinct about stuff, but still I have to learn. And what’s the hardest part about acting, especially in the beginning, is auditioning. That’s a totally different sport, auditioning in front two casting directors, reading lines very robotically, and you have to perform knowing this is how you get a job, that was difficult. And I think one of the hardest parts I had to learn was to be a good listener, in life and in my job. Because as a comedian, you might listen to the audience, you might feel the audience out, but there’s not a conversation happening. It’s just you on stage, and a monologue, and we’re so self-absorbed that way. A lot of times I see stand-up comedians don’t transition well to acting because they don’t listen to their partners. They go in with a game plan, they plan something because that makes us feel safe. We all do that, we want to do well, [so] we plan. But in acting, you have to let go. So really when I say acting is the hardest part, the hardest part is maybe just letting go, trusting your instincts, and trusting your partner. It’s a lot of the left brain, that’s your logistics and the details, being a good student. But really you’ve got to study with all that to get prepared, and then when you get on set you have to throw all that away and just be in the moment.

Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?

When I was starting in comedy in San Diego, a good friend of mine Sean Kelly, he was maybe 20 years older than me, and he just really took me under his wing. Not just teaching me about comedy, but about the business side of things, how you present yourself and just making good life decisions. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it as a comic, nobody was sure of that. And I had a lot of odd jobs. I sold used cars, DJ’d at a strip club, this and that. And being a DJ at a strip club wasn’t the best environment, it was kind of dangerous. Sean was the one that’s like, “Hey man, you’re funny enough. I need you to take a chance right now and move away from San Diego, which is where I went to college, get away from all this bullshit, and go to LA and try it out. Just do it.”

Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?

I don’t know if I have any fictional heroes. I’m not a superhero worshiper. To me a fictional hero almost means someone that’s a real person, but doesn’t seem real because they’re so famous or whatever. Like a Michael Jordan or a Robert de Niro, to me those people almost seem fictional. I almost don’t want to meet them.

In real life, it would honestly be Steve Carell or John Malkovich, because they’re so amazingly talented, but yet so kind and so giving, as scene partners, as friends, and also as humans. You totally forget you’re talking to John Malkovich. It’s just your friend John, and it’s very cool. And I say they’re my heroes because if I do get to that phase of my life, if I do achieve that kind of success, I’d want to be as nice.

 

Jimmy O. Yang // 📸 : Alex Loucas


What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?

I think this jacket right here. It’s so simple. I can throw it on anywhere, any type of weather in LA. It’s from Japan. For me, I’m a pretty small guy, and the Asian frame is different than the standard American frame. I remember, especially when I was a kid before there was slim cut and stuff, I’d go to buy a piece of clothing at Macy’s, and even if I buy small, extra small, it was so big on me, the sleeves were always too long, and I had to alter everything. Then a few years ago, I went to Japan, and I’m like, “Oh wow. I feel great. Everything fits me perfectly.” And even just that little part of society, clothing, I felt like a normal person. I didn’t feel like I had to assimilate, everything was tailor made for me. It’s just perfect.

What music did you love at age 13, and do you still love it now?

So when I was in Hong Kong, I listened to a lot of Cantopop. I loved all that stuff. We have the four heavenly gods of Cantopop: Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Leon Lai, and my favorite Aaron Kwok. And each of them has a different part. So I love listening to that stuff. Then when I came to America, it was hip-hop that absolutely grabbed me. The west coast, east coast beef, and then the Dirty South Movement, I loved all of that stuff. And for me, when you talk about throwback music or what kind of music I listen to or hope that DJ plays at a party, it’s 2000s’ hip-hop. I love it.

What’s the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?

I love ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. Some great books give you good information, make you learn about stories, take you to a different world. But Eckhart’s book really changes your view of yourself and the world and what joy is, what happiness is. Every now and then I still go back to it. I have the thick one where I have highlights and folded corners, and then they have a travel size one too.

Jimmy O. Yang // 📸 : Alex Loucas


What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?

I mean, there’s so many classics, ‘Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Forrest Gump’. I love those movies. Even something like ‘Dazed and Confused’ or ‘American Graffiti’. But recently, I loved the movie ‘Drive’, beautifully shot, not a lot of dialogue, and Ryan Gosling really does so much by doing so little. And I think it just teaches you a lesson that less is more.

What is your favorite word or saying?

I speak a couple dialects in Chinese. Mandarin, they have some curse words. Shanghainese, I speak with my parents, which has some great curse words and certain things I can’t even translate necessarily. This one word, you call somebody Lao Shi [老實] and it almost means an honest person, but it’s almost derogatory too. If somebody is too Lao Shi [老實], that means you can trick them into stuff, and you don’t want to be too honest, you want be a little more cunning in Shanghainese culture.

In English, there’s a word I literally cannot say, but I find myself using it so much: Specificity. When writing, you want to be specific.

What do you want people to say at your funeral?

I always fantasize about faking my own death to see who shows up, or to see if the Hollywood Reporter writes about me. I know I’ve made it if when I die, it will be a news story for a couple hours. Oh man. I think I’m too young to answer that question. But at the same time, I want them to say that I’m talented. That seems a little vain, but yeah, I want people to say that. Also I want people to say that he’s a good guy that brought joy to people, that I had a purpose.

 

Jimmy O. Yang // 📸 : Alex Loucas


Finally, a quickfire five favorites…

Car?

I never spend money, but I just ordered a ’66 Mustang, a restored one. It’s going to be ivy green and then beige on the inside. I’m so stoked.

Sports team?

The Los Angeles Clippers.

Meal?

I always think about what would be my last meal. I used to love this restaurant called Stinking Rose, it’s a garlic restaurant and they have a great piece of prime rib. Everything is garlic themed. Your breath stinks for days. But it’s totally worth it.

Grooming product?

I have this one product. It’s called Original Sprout Classic Styling Balm. It’s the only hair paste that I use. An Australian hair and makeup artist gave it to me. It’s all natural, and it holds very well.

Clothing label?

I love finding indie labels. I have a place in New York that make great button up shirts that I love, all different patterns and very fun. They’re called Descendants of Thieves.

Jimmy O. Yang // 📸 : Alex Loucas


‘Space Force’ is on Netflix now

Grooming by Lucy Lipps

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring artists and leaders.

John is a world-renowned male model who has been the face of countless leading fashion houses. During his 36-year modeling career he has also moonlighted as an actor, writer, restauranteur, editor, and producer. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to provide a safe space for candid discussion and sharing ideas.

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