By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Suzy Nakamura is a veteran of many sitcoms, but her current series, “Dr. Ken,” marks the first time that two shows about Asian American families have aired at the same time on network TV.
Following the success of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” now in its second season, “Dr. Ken,” created by, starring and co-executive produced by Ken Jeong (“The Hangover,” “Community”), premiered on Oct. 2, also on ABC. Loosely based on Jeong’s life before he became a comedian and actor, the show follows Dr. Ken Park, an HMO physician, as he deals with frustrations at work while trying to be a good husband and father.
Nakamura plays his wife Allison, a psychiatrist. The cast also includes Albert Tsai (who guest starred as Philip Goldstein on “Fresh Off the Boat” and was a regular on “Trophy Wife”) as their son Dave; Krista Marie Yu (“The Thundermans”) as their daughter Molly; Dave Foley (“Hot in Cleveland”) as Ken’s boss; and Tisha Campbell-Martin (“The Protector”), Jonathan Slavin (“Better Off Ted”) and Kate Simses (“Mixology”) as his co-workers.
In an upcoming episode, Margaret Cho — who starred in ABC’s “All-American Girl” 20 years ago — plays Ken’s successful sister, the host of a “Dr. Oz”-type TV show.
“I knew and worked with Ken before, so he called me in to audition,” Nakamura recalled. “He was so gracious throughout the audition process, and made a normally stressful experience so much easier.”
They first worked together when director Judd Apatow paired them in the 2009 comedy-drama “Funny People,” which starred Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann.
When she read for her current role, “I thought, oh my God, even if I don’t get it, I hope this show makes it on the air because I want to see this show, I want to see this family, and I want to see this life that Ken almost had, actually did have for a while, which is being an actual doctor.”
Of her character, Nakamura said, “Allison Park, like many partners and parents, maintains the family balance. She’s a wife, mother and also a doctor, but her environment growing up was different than her husband’s. There’s a gap between second- and third-generation immigrant experiences, and I can’t wait for us to explore that on the show.”
Though not a mother herself, Nakamura draws on her own experiences to play Allison. “My mom was very supportive, and stern when she needed to be. But I’m also an auntie to a lot of my friends’ kids, so … I do feel very protective of these kids and I am interested in how they grow and develop.”
As for the husband-wife dynamic, “I would like to think like in any relationship you kind of take the opposite of whoever your partner is just to balance it out. And Ken for the most part is … a high-energy, high-strung father in the series, so I think my character tries to counter that a little by saying, ‘Okay, Ken, take it easy’ or ‘Stop doing that’ … to keep him grounded …
“Ken has a great natural energy, which he has to have in this job because he’s executive producer, he’s the lead of the show … but he’s also helping develop the arc of the show, he’s in the writers’ room, he has his hand in every aspect of making the show … I don’t know how he does it.”
The show is filmed at Sony Studios in Culver City. Sitting in the Park family’s living room after completion of the Halloween episode, Nakamura observed, “There’s a definite energy in this room with a live audience. It’s different from other TV formats like single camera, where you’re just shooting in front of a crew … This response is so immediate and we respond because of their response. We also know when jokes don’t work. When they do work, it helps us with the rhythm and it helps us with the scene, and they become an integral part of what we’re doing, just like theater …
“I started in theater in Chicago, so this is very close to that. And Ken was a standup, so he’s used to live audiences too. So it’s just a great experience for us, the actors, to have an audience here.”
After shooting six episodes with six more to go, Nakamura felt that the cast had hit its stride. “Obviously we’re still kind of finding things, but we kind of clicked right away. They assembled a great cast, so as soon as we met each other we all liked each other immediately, and they all have this ensemble approach and this collaborative approach, including the writers, to creating these characters and situations and making it work …
“It’s great to come to work every day. We get different directors for almost every episode, but we all seem to work together well … We work hard and laugh every day.”
So far, the episodes have addressed “teenage drinking, nicknames, self-harm, grandparents, sibling rivalry … Wow, we’ve covered a lot already,” Nakamura said.
From Chicago to Hollywood
Nakamura describes her hometown, Chicago, as “a great place to be a kid, and a great place to be creative because you are just surrounded by art and expression: public art, theater, live music, dance. You grow up knowing that art is everywhere and for everyone, not just rich people. Chicago taught me how to help, how to work hard, and believe that ‘no work is beneath you.’”
Noting that “The Blues Brothers” (1980) was shot in Chicago, she said, “John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were probably my first role models.”
Her interest in acting started when she did a school play as an eighth-grader. “I was awful, by the way. It was difficult for me to break out of my shell. But I continued in high school. I didn’t really see it as a job, just something I did because I liked it and wanted to get better. The first time I saw it as a job and possible career was when I was hired by The Second City and started making money …
“Second City taught me so much — not just about comedy, but about acting, truth, writing, fear, ensemble, being present, and even failing. That’s all that improvisation is, really: the ideals of ensemble performance, which is listening, supporting others, and being present. It’s so f—ing hard to do. But if you learn it, you take that with you for the rest of your life.”
Her first film role was the lead in “Strawberry Fields” (1997). “I gave my entire trust to Rea Tajiri, the director, because there were so few things that connected me with my character, a rebellious teenage pyromaniac in the ’70s. I learned so much shooting that movie and about the production process. I’d never worked so hard in my life and it was very gratifying … It took me to Italy when I went with Rea to the Venice Film Festival! It shot mostly in Chicago, but the last week of shooting was in Lancaster. That week was when I decided, ‘I’m moving to Los Angeles.’”
Nakamura went on to regular or recurring roles on several TV series. Some of her recollections:
– “The Closer” (1998-99) with Tom Selleck. “My first series with an amazing cast. The part of Beverly Andolini was written for an Italian woman in her 40s. The writer/producers, Ed Decter and John Strauss, really fought for me. I owe them a lot. And (cast member) David Krumholtz took me under his wing and taught me a lot about the TV world.”
– “Daddio” (2000) with Michael Chiklis. “Now that I’m playing a TV mom, I think about (cast members) Anita Barone and Amy Wilson and how much I learned from them.”
– “The West Wing” (1999-2000). “It was the best pilot I had ever read. I auditioned for two parts, so when I got the call that I was cast, I didn’t know who I’d be playing! At the first table read, Rob Lowe hadn’t been cast yet, so (series creator) Aaron Sorkin read for him and I remember thinking, ‘He’s pretty good.’”
– “Imagine That” (2002) with Hank Azaria. “No one will remember this one, but I met one of my good friends, (cast member) David Pressman, on it, so it holds a special place in my heart.”
– “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (2002) with Larry David. “This was really fun. I wore my own clothes and did my own makeup and we shot it in a closed office building in Century City late one night. When Larry brought me back for Season 3, I played a different character.”
– “Help Me Help You” (2006-07). “Another great cast. Shows like these, even though they might not be on TV for long, are still a great experience. I got to work with all these great people: Ted Danson, Darlene Hunt, Jim Rash, Charlie Finn and Jere Burns. You just learn a lot when you’re surrounded by such talented people. And we had a great time.”
– “Go On” (2012-13) with Matthew Perry. “Before ‘Dr. Ken,’ this was my favorite ensemble ever. We all just clicked. I was sad to see it go because I think death and grief aren’t common topics in TV comedies. Laughing is such a great way for us to deal with serious issues as long as it’s treated with intelligence and respect, which is what I think ‘Go On’ did so well. I love a good dark comedy. I miss all those characters.”
Nakamura plays Saint Anne in “Whole Way Down,” a web series with Patrick Breen and Willie Garson about two failed actors and an art gallery. “Oh, and it’s also about the Apocalypse. I love Patrick, so when he asks, ‘Will you play the devil dressed in white?’ I say yes.”
Among her guest roles, “Back to You” (2008) was a favorite. “The role was written for a man, and I auditioned against three friends of mine: Ian Gomez, Jason George, and Wayne Brady! I got to work with legendary director James Burrows, as well as Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer. The creators of ‘Back to You,’ Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd, wrote the part of Dr. Miura on ‘Modern Family’ for me.”
In “Modern Family,” Nakamura played the pediatrician for Lily, the adopted Vietnamese daughter of Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). When Lily’s first word is “Mama,” Cam and Mitchell panic, assuming that Lily has bonded with Dr. Miura because she’s Asian. The doctor assures them that they’re mistaken.
Among her stage credits, “An Infinite Ache” at the Black Dahlia Theatre was a highlight. “That got me back to my theater roots — it was a great experience. I got to work with (director) Robin Larsen, which was like taking a master class.”
Nakamura is not sure whether being an Asian woman has helped or hurt her career. “It’s hard to tell, because I don’t see all the roles available. I only see the ones my agents and manager set up. To their credit, they submit me for all kinds of roles, regardless of age, gender, type, or ethnicity. The roles they pick have always been good roles. I’ve been able to work a lot because of their push to expand my opportunities.”
Has she turned down roles because they were stereotypical? “Yes, but I’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to turn them down. If I was broke, or had to make my insurance minimum, I probably would have done them all.”
While some observers have said that “Dr. Ken” and “Fresh Off the Boat” mark a new phase in portrayals of Asian Americans, Nakamura was more cautious. “I would hesitate to say we’ve turned a corner because it’s something that needs to be maintained. Visibility isn’t necessarily automatic after you’ve reached a high point, like now. America has so many stories to tell, and for so long it’s been told by straight, white, male writers. It’s up to networks and studios to tell more stories that reflect who America really is, and then sustain that so we don’t fall back into story after story through the limited lens of one type of voice.”