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Ken Mok: A Life in Reality and a Future in Romance

To say Ken Mok has had an interesting life in the entertainment industry would be an understatement. He earned a Golden Globe and Emmy nomination for his work on Joy featuring Jennifer Lawrence, worked with Tyra Banks to make America’s Next Top Model and was the founder of reality TV show Making the Band long before reality TV had reached its heyday. Now, &ASIAN sits down with Ken to talk to him about his feature film debut, The Right One.
Photo courtesy of Ana Bustamante.
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Ken Mok: A Life in Reality and a Future in Romance


Thank you so much for being here and chatting to us today. Your new film, The Right One, has been out for a few months and it’s been such a shot of positive energy during this time in the world. Why did you choose a romantic comedy for your directorial debut?

Photo courtesy of Ana Bustamante.
Photo courtesy of Ana Bustamante.

In the last five, six years, I've really concentrated on writing. I had been writing screenplays for many years. The thing with writing is it's a real craft. You can't only have talent, or imagination or the ability to come up with interesting storylines. It took me a really long time to get my craft up to a level where I felt it was good enough to be able to go out to the public, or to go to the marketplace and be able to find producers that might want to make my films.  It took me probably a good 15 to 17 years to get my screenwriting to a point where I thought it was good enough to get made.

I only wanted to start getting my films made once I felt like my writing kind of broke through and could get to an A level. That really happened in the last four or five years. By this time I had probably four or five screenplays that I was really happy with and I was sorting through them and talking to producers about it. They said, ‘This is the one that we should really make first because it's a great kind of romantic comedy. It's something that we can do for a lower budget. It's something that's great that you could premiere as a director with.’ And that's how that came about.

You look at ideas of identity and humanity in the film as well. I think it’s something people have thought a lot about, especially in the past year or so, but where did these ideas originate from for you?

I've always been fascinated by this late, this British actor named Peter Sellers. The thing about Peter was he was a brilliant mimic. He could play any character of any ethnicity – back when you could get away with that – he could play an East Indian guy, or he could play an Asian person or a Cockney person or a Southern person, and he would do it flawlessly. What people really didn't know about Peter was that in real life, he had no sense of himself. People said that when he was not playing a role, he was just like this empty vessel.

I found that really fascinating about him because I wondered what would cause a person to not know who you were. It just kind of led me down this road of wondering if something traumatic must have happened to him to cause him to be that way. The second thing was that I was reading this article in the New York Times about this really big social influencer who quit her Instagram even though she had millions of followers. She said the reason she quit was that everything she was putting up on social media was fake. It was all curated. And she couldn't deal with that anymore.

It really started making me think about identity in our culture, right? How, in a way, social media is like corrupting our identity. Because all of us are putting up curated versions of ourselves up on social media. Nobody's putting the real me up there.

Nick [the male lead in the movie] represents the guy who has no sense of himself. And Sarah’s [the female lead] character is a person. She thinks she’s living an authentic life, but really it's just this very odd, inauthentic, curated life. These two people find each other and kind of help heal each other on this journey.

If there were one or two messages that you hope audiences take away from this film the most, what would they be to you?

I think it's a message that's as old as time and has been part of cinema's themes, thematic cinema for, so many years, and that’s just be yourself, right? Present yourself, warts and all. I think when you are authentic to yourself, and recognize yourself and love yourself for who you are, you have a chance to lead a much healthier and happier life and a much more satisfying life. I do think there's this malaise from today's generation because they aren’t being true to themselves, they aren't being authentic. They aren't being real. That takes a psychological toll on you subconsciously.

You’ve led such a fascinating life in reality television and worked on so many incredible shows. Looking back now, how do you reflect on your career?

Photo courtesy of Ana Bustamante.
Photo courtesy of Ana Bustamante.

Well, I got into the reality business at the very start of the reality boom. This was 20 years ago and myself and a guy named Mark Burnett were the first people to get a reality series on broadcast television; before that had just been like on cable, like MTV. At that time when reality came on board, I really loved reality because it was a time where you had really big kinds of formats.  I created a show called America's Next Top Model and Making the Band and, American Idol was out there. It was all these of performance-based shows. [They] were really kind of documentaries. It wasn't manipulated reality at all.

It wasn't like [Keeping up with] the Kardashians where you're doing all these fake scenes. I really liked seeing people up close and in an authentic manner, Top Model was that. Making the Band was that. It was following the journey of these people as they're trying to achieve their dreams. What really started turning me off about reality as time went on, that you started getting stuff like the Kardashians and Real Housewives which was very manipulated reality. At a certain point, I just kind of got bored with the format. I had achieved a lot of success. I had been doing it for so long that it started becoming boring after a while. I just realized I still had a long career ahead of me.

I needed to re-energize myself and kind of reignite this passion that I have in this business. I had always wanted to write and direct films. I really put all my focus in on that.

It was hard to kind of get into the film world because this business is geared towards the young, they want that fresh young talent. Like, if you're talented and you've done a short film or whatever, you're going to get signed and picked up by somebody, especially if it's really good.  When I wanted to make the transition from reality to the film industry, people didn't want to have anything to do with me because they wanted to keep me in my box.

There were so many obstacles that I had to really kind of fight and keep on knocking on that door and banging it down until I got this film made and helped redefine myself, which I'm in the process of doing right now. It was real. It was really difficult.

Reality TV often fixates on these aspirational ideas of beauty or image, which don’t always like to deal with people from diverse backgrounds. Why do you think that’s the case and how have you seen that change over your time in the industry?

I think it's changed dramatically from when it started. When I started in this business, it was 25, 30 years ago. There was no diversity at all.  I think I was like the first or second Asian-American guy that was a creative executive. I remember when I first started out and I had to go to my first table reading at a sit-com where I was giving notes, literally the people at the table looking at me like I was an alien. They’d never dealt with an Asian person before. They were looking at me like: ‘What does he know about comedy? What does he know about screenwriting?’

That was really interesting, to live through that period of time and try to bring about change. I remember I went to ABC and I developed the Margaret Cho sitcom, which was the first Asian-American sitcom, All-American Girl. Then I remember when I was doing America's Next Top Model. The very lucky thing was that Tyra Banks was my partner and she's a person of color. Both of us, as people of color, had this non-verbal understanding about diversity. She and I just knew from the very start that we weren’t going to be doing token diversity on our show.

We were going to do full diversity because back then, and even to an extent, now, if you had an ensemble cast and you have, let's say 10 people in there and there are only one or two people of color, that's not really diverse to me. We all know that's tokenism. When we started Top Model, what we wanted to do with that show wasn't really so much about modeling as it was a show about our main goal to change the definition of what beauty was. It wasn't just white Christie Brinkley. It was unusual looking. It was African-American, it was Latino. It was Asian-American, it was embracing the LGBTQ community. We embraced that head-on and we made sure from day one that our cast was at least 50 to 60 percent people of color or people of different sizes or sexual orientations.

We really ran into a brick wall a lot of the time during those first few years. The network did not want that. They fought tooth and nail, but we fought tooth and nail back. We won those battles and the network found out even when the cast was really diverse, the ratings kept on going up. So then they started fully embracing it. There were a lot of battles that we had to face during that period of time. I think there's more diversity than ever right now in front of the camera and behind the camera. I think this is just a wonderful time if you're creating content, because there's so much opportunity out there. People are embracing diversity more so than ever. I know I'm very encouraged by that.

How have your experiences as an Asian-American impacted your journey throughout entertainment in general, not just in reality television? What are the first memories that come to mind?

When I started in this business, this was in the early 90s, there was a saying amongst the Asian-American communities in the entertainment business that there were more aliens on TV than there were Asians. And that was true. That's changed over the years. I remember a couple of things in the last ten years that really kind of blew my mind as a person of color, especially as an Asian person.  I watched the TV series Lost and Daniel Dae Kim was on that show and he had an Asian wife and they had this beautiful love story in that show. I had never seen that before.

The same thing was when I was watching The Walking Dead. You had Steven Yeun in there with Maggie, a Caucasian white lady, and they were like, the heart of that show. Their love story was something that everybody was rooting for. That was like another seminal moment in the industry for me.

I remember I went to see Crazy Rich Asians with my wife and her best friend, who is African-American. I remember the scene in that movie where they showed this Asian guy coming out of the shower. He literally comes out of the shower. He's there, bare chested. He puts on a towel. In my whole life, honestly, as an American, I have never seen somebody sexualise an Asian male character. Now that's pretty profound. And that's also a very pathetic statement; it was only seven years ago that the movie came out.

But my wife's best friend totally coveted him! She goes, ‘I want him’.

Breakthrough.

We’ve made a lot of strides. I also said to myself when I was going to make [my] film that I've got to be the person that helps promote change. So I've got to have a diverse film: I never hang a lantern on it. It's never explained. It's just that people are there. They're East Asian, South Asian, or African-American or Caucasian, or Latino, whatever.

Sarah, in this movie, goes on a blind date with this really cute Asian-American guy. They have chemistry and you, as the audience, are rooting for them to get together and stay together. I think, you know, that's the thing. I think the thing that we, as people of colour, have to really make sure that when you are going out there, you have to be the picture of change.

You have to be the force of change, because if you're not going to do it, nobody's going to do it. Doing these things, even in the most minute way, has a huge impact because people who have watched this movie, so many people have come up to me and said, ‘I can't believe how diverse the film is’. What they're really saying is from top to bottom, you see that in every scene in this movie, whenever there's a crowd scene, you see it's fully integrated.

Whenever I watch a movie, I always look at the extras. If you're a person of color, you're going to understand what I'm talking about right now. Which is that you're looking in the extras to see if you see somebody like you.

This is something that I was unconsciously trained to do when I was growing up, because at the time that I was growing up, there was no diversity. You never saw anybody in the main cast that looked like me. I had to look in the extras to see there's an Asian person.

I asked myself, ‘why am I doing that?’ And the reason I was doing that was because I wanted to make sure that I exist in the world. That I matter, that I'm somebody, that I'm a person in this world. That's why, what I did this film, aside from the principal cast, I sat down with the extras casting person. I was very specific with the extras person about the diversity.  

That's the thing that I think I almost come away with the happiest about, that people are seeing themselves in the movie.

What more do you think the industry can do more to help diversity?

I think if you just support films, choose to support diverse pictures. I think the fascinating thing about Crazy Rich Asians is that it made over a hundred million dollars. There’s nothing that proves that diversity works such as box office or ratings. I think people were blown away that Crazy Rich Asians made that money. That really encourages studios and networks to say, well, if that works, I'll do that again. Look, the executives in this town are not creative. They really just look at the bottom line.

What were your parents like when you were growing up, knowing that this is the path that you wanted to go down?

Well, I happen to be very lucky that I think my parents, especially my mother, even though they were immigrants from China, they were very non-traditional. My mother especially was very non-traditional. She found out that I was going into the entertainment industry, she was fully encouraging of that. And I'm very lucky to have very supportive parents to do that.

I think a lot of people, as they see my career continue to go the way it's been going and flourish, I do have a lot of Asian young men and women come up to me and I can tell that they're really proud of the fact that I've done what I've done.  I've been very happy to be a trailblazer to give other people inspiration or the ability to look in themselves [and say] ‘I can do this as well.’

Now you see in this industry, more than any other time in history, there are so many people behind the camera that are Asian directors, writers, producers, and a lot more people in front of the camera who are actors and actresses who are really flourishing now.

Having had all the incredible experiences you’ve had, what message would you love to tell your younger self now?

Things worked out.  I think the thing in this business, if you're going into this business, is that this is a very entrepreneurial business.  It is not for the faint-hearted. You have to be a self-starter. Nobody's going to do anything for you in this business.  If you go into this business, you're, you have to wake up every day and get ready to go into battle. You have to bang on doors. I've never cared what anybody else has said. I don't read the trades. I don't really know what's going [on] out there in the business, because I don't want to really be distracted by: ‘He's or she's getting ahead here.’

You just have to keep your nose to the grindstone with your projects and you have to just get up and you have to fight for those projects every single day.

Thank you so much for your time, Ken. It's been awesome to have you here.

Thank you for having me, I enjoyed it.

You can find Ken Mok on Twitter. His debut feature film, The Right One, is out on all streaming platforms now.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.