How Running Away From Home Opened Doors In Hollywood Actor Kenneth Choi is best known as the boisterous Chester Ming in The Wolf of Wall Street. Growing up in Chicago, acting was his passion, but his dad didn't approve. So he ran away — to Hollywood.
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How Running Away From Home Opened Doors In Hollywood

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How Running Away From Home Opened Doors In Hollywood

How Running Away From Home Opened Doors In Hollywood

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

In "The Wolf Of Wall Street," Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, puts together a shady team of stockbrokers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Guys with sales experience - so I recruited some of my hometown boys - Chester, who sold tires.

RATH: Chester Ming, played by actor Kenneth Choi. Director Martin Scorsese told him his character was like Oddjob from "James Bond" - heavyset, larger-than-life. So Choi gained 20 pounds for the role. All he did was eat fast food and ice cream.

KENNETH CHOI: Most people remember I have the scene during this interrogation where I'm eating pastries.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET")

STEVE WITTING: (As SEC Attorney #2) Mr. Ming, thank you for coming in today.

CHOI: (As Chester Ming) You going to finish the rest of that Danish? Can I have that Danish?

And I remember I had no idea what I was going to do because the scripted lines are no, I don't recall that at all. That's all that's written. And I saw this tray of donuts. I'm like, you know what? It's Chester Ming. He's a glutton. I'm going to take this tray of donuts, and I'm going to try to eat it. And if you hear, most of the lines that I say are just - I don't recall this. I basically just kind of say the lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET")

CHOI: (As Chester Ming) I don't recall that transaction. Do you guys have any milk?

WITTING: (As SEC Attorney #2) Carnage Corporation? You do recall it?

CHOI: (As Chester Ming) No, I don't recall that at all.

That was a surreal experience. It was so much fun.

RATH: Choi grew up in Glenwood, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Ever since he was a kid, he wanted to be an actor.

CHOI: So I told my extremely conservative, uber-traditional Korean father, hey, dad, I know what I want do for the rest of my life. I want to be an actor. And I remember he was standing in the kitchen, and he looked at me with this, like, discerning look that he's given me my entire youth. And he said, I cannot believe one of my sons would say something so stupid. Whatever he said was law, so I figured I can never be an actor for the rest of my life.

RATH: In college, he majored in accounting. He was miserable. So he cut ties with his family, bought a ticket on a Greyhound bus and headed west - first to Portland, then Hollywood, looking for his big break.

CHOI: Didn't tell my parents - I didn't tell my brothers. I didn't tell any relatives. I didn't tell any of my close friends that they knew. The entire time I was in Portland, which was the five years I just had absolutely no contact with any of my family. I remember one of, like, our childhood friends - he looked me up, and he called me one day. Is this Kenny Choi? And I was, like, who's this? And he said, this is Jay Huang (ph). And it freaked me out because I didn't know whether he just tried to find me or if my parents talked to him and tried to find me. And I basically said, no, it's not. And I, like, kind of hung up abruptly.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE HANGING UP)

CHOI: When I moved to Los Angeles, I figured, OK, I'm really going to make an attempt to become a real actor. And when I did that, I thought it was time for me to face my parents and tell them what I did. I didn't know this, but at the time, my aunt lived in Los Angeles. She lived in Alhambra. My dad visits her. We set it up that he was going to come out. And I went to my aunt's. I didn't know what was going to happen. I thought he was going to punch me in the face because you just kind of don't do that, right?

And I remember he was sitting on the couch, and when I enter the door, he was five years older. And he just put, like, his arms out. Gave me a hug, which he's never done his whole life. And then he said, I respect you for this - was the first time that he said I love you to me. And it was the most amazing conversation I've ever had. And to this day, when we get off the phone, I say, (speaking Korean), which means I love you in Korean. And he says it back.

My big break kind of came from movie roles - "Captain America," which kind of - was kind of a huge thing for me - "The Wolf Of Wall Street." My dad does watch my work now. My parents watch everything I'm on. I think the first time they saw something big was "Captain America." And he called me, and he was so elated. All I really wanted was for him to just be happy for me. And he is. So many people said, that's such a terrible thing you did - to run away. I mean, they must've been worried. You know, and I said, well, I had to do it for me. And in some weird way, it was the best thing ever for our relationship. I mean, it's better than it's ever been.

RATH: Actor Kenneth Choi. You don't have to take a bus to Hollywood to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@npr.org.

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