Winning the role of Jian-Yang, Silicon Valley’s quietly calculating entrepreneur from China, completely changed actor and comedian Jimmy O. Yang’s future. But the role is deeply rooted in his past.
In his new book, How to American, Yang includes an annotated list of all 101 roles he auditioned for before landing on HBO’s shrewdly hilarious tech satire (now in its fifth season). The list includes loads of walking stereotypes, like “Chinese Restaurant Owner,” “Bad karaoke singer,” and “Young Ethnic, poker player.” But the actor’s breakdown for the Silicon Valley role he eventually won was way more specific—and surprisingly personal. The producers were looking for “an authentic Chinese immigrant actor just foreign enough to have a green card.” They were looking for Yang.
“Other Asian actors, especially American-born actors, sometimes shy away from immigrant roles,” Yang says during a recent interview. “They don’t want to put on an accent they never had. But for me, I was that dude.”
As he describes in How to American, which is in stores now, Yang first came to the States from Hong Kong when he was 13. He spent his entire post-adolescence groping in the dark for an identity, imitating personas in the sparsely populated Asian pockets of the pop culture landscape. The book chronicles his history as a hip-hop-loving teen in a crew called Yellow Panthers—with photos of Yang throwing up gang signs in high school—and follows his plunge into the comedy world. Along the way, he endured a stint working the mic at a strip club, a gig which had some surprising overlap with another job he dreamed of doing.
“Being a strip club DJ really helped me with crowd work as a comedian,” he says. “Because it’s just high-pressure sales. Read the crowd, get people to go into the VIP room, basically stare into these people’s souls and try to get them to buy a two-for-one lapdance.”
Of course, lapdance motivation wasn’t exactly the career rocket fuel that Silicon Valley turned out to be. Originally, the role Yang auditioned for was meant to be a two-scene cameo. He was playing a new roommate in the Silicon Valley incubator owned by Erlich Bachman (TJ Miller), which served as ground zero for the company the show’s lead characters were striving to create.
On the second day of shooting, Yang filmed what became known as the “I eat the fish” scene alongside TJ Miller. It’s a fairly simple scene on the surface: Miller is mad at Yang for not cleaning up his seafood lunch; Yang appears not to compute. But the sequence revealed a strong chemistry between the two characters. Yang was the only character who truly seemed to get under Bachman’s forever-stoned skin. Series creator Mike Judge and some other writers realized Yang had to come back. It wasn’t long before he became a series regular.
Prior to filming the pivotal scene that first day, Yang met with Judge to talk about his character’s accent. In his view, the accent would say a lot about the character to Asian-American viewers—especially his fellow immigrants. (Yang’s accent in real life is much less pronounced than his fictional counterpart’s. He sounds like what he is: a dude who has been performing stand-up comedy in America for many years.)
He presented a pair of options: There was the Cantonese accent, a Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan-style approach, and then there was the Mandarin accent, which was more authentic to his own background but less common to hear on American TV. (Yang grew up speaking Mandarin, Cantonese, and also Shanghainese.) Judge, who ultimately ended up writing the foreword for Yang’s book, gave him the go-ahead to choose whichever accent felt more authentic. Yang did one take in Cantonese, but eventually evolved it into a more specific Mandarin accent.
“It means a lot for me to get to play someone like that, a kid with a strong accent,” Yang says. “I’m able to put more humanity and my own experience into it.”
Where the actor’s experience has less impact on the role is in Jian-Yang’s slow slide into assholery. Over the last few seasons, the character has gradually morphed into kind of a villain. As he has come into Silicon Valley money, the character begins indulging in a taste for expensive cars and takes his feud with Bachman (who has since been written out of the show) to ludicrous new heights. In the current season, he’s even plotting against the main protagonist, Richard Hendrix (Thomas Middleditch.) It’s a character arc Yang is totally on board for, though.
“It just kind of works in a drama and a comedy sense,” he says. “What’s the point of seeing this little guy keep getting bullied? It’s funnier when he’s being mean. And it goes even further this season in that direction.”
Although Jimmy O. Yang hasn’t changed in quite the same way as Jian-Yang has since the show began, Silicon Valley has certainly opened doors for him. Following his first movie role in the Mark Wahlberg drama Patriot’s Day, Yang has springboarded into a full slate of movies for 2018. He has roles in this month’s Melissa McCarthy vehicle Life of the Party, along with The Happytime Murders and Juliet, Naked. The role he’s probably most excited for this year is his wealthy playboy character in Crazy Rich Asians. He’s excited for that film, which he hopes will be “the Asian Black Panther,” because it presents a full spectrum of Asian characters and talent, rather than putting the burden on one person who’s playing the token Asian.
Along with more representation for Asians in general, Yang is passionate about wanting more immigrant characters in pop culture across the board. In the meantime, he remains happy about his personal contribution to the current slate.
“Immigrant characters now are getting much more well-rounded, and they have personalities, which is important because we do need to portray immigrants in a humanizing way,” he says. “It doesn’t always have to be positive—Jian-Yang is an asshole. But he’s a three-dimensional asshole.”