The character, a young nurse living in the city of Daegu during the Korean War, falls hard for the show’s leading man, U.S. soldier Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors). Meanwhile, she’s harboring a terrible secret that (no spoiler) is a dealbreaker — or so the audience is left to believe as the credits roll.
The richly detailed episode, titled “Meet Me in Daegu,” focuses solely on Ji-Ah’s complicated character, elevating the supporting role in an unprecedented way. Critics raved, calling it one of the series’ best moments thus far. Chung spoke to The Washington Post about how the role helped garner some hard-earned confidence to step out of the supporting character mind-set and why she sees herself as so much more now.
Q: This supporting role is, in a word, huge.
A: I have never, in a little over 10 years of my career in Hollywood, had an opportunity to play a character with so much depth and layers. I have never been challenged in my life like this.
Q: How so?
A: I don’t speak Korean fluently. You know, my parents immigrated to San Francisco in the ’80s. Their first language is Korean, but it’s like a typical American story where you want to fit in and don’t want to go to Korean school on Saturdays. And so [the episode] was kind of a reintroduction to my own culture. My parents rarely speak about the war. First of all, they’re not big communicators, but they never expressed their experiences of what it was like to live through something like that. My father — he’s in his 80s — he lived through the war and it’s a really sore subject.
Q: What was your first reaction after getting the script which spent all of its time on Ji-Ah?
A: I was like, oh my God, there’s so many firsts. You’re really watching [her] grow on-screen. We see what it’s like to have a young female best friend, what it’s like to be cared for in that way. She falls in love for the first time and then she experiences her first loss. And then throughout the entire journey, all she really wants is validation and love from her mother and acceptance for who she really is. You get all of these journeys in one episode. It’s so much to work with. And then on top of that, half of it is in Korean. It’s a dream role.
Q: And so unprecedented, right? These sort of origin stories don’t get told often.
A: [“Lovecraft Country” showrunner] Misha Green is a powerful force and she has a powerful platform. For her as a storyteller, to be like ‘I want to know where this character is coming from, I want to know her story’ — it’s magical. You don’t get storytellers like that. You don’t have a showrunner that’s willing to take those kind of chances and just share that platform for a Korean story. It was it was a dream and it was the hardest role I’ve ever had to prepare for.
Q: So, no stress at all.
A: I felt like it was such a huge responsibility to do it justice — you know, the one time I’ve been given this opportunity, a role that I’ve been dreaming of. Now it’s my job to bring it to life and to do it right. Like I was living in Atlanta [for filming] and my husband stayed in L.A.; he really gave me the space to be able to do the work that I needed to do. And yeah, I was so stressed out.
And you know what’s so interesting? When I was doing the script work and I met Misha for dinner one night, and I was like, “How do I support the main character, Atticus? How does this serve his story?” And Misha’s like, “Whoa, whoa. Why are you thinking of the role from that point of view? This is your story. You’re not serving anyone else’s story.”
Q: That sounds freeing.
A: I feel like I’ve been conditioned through all my roles as a supporting actor. I’m just a band member in his band. And [Misha’s] like, “No, this is your story.” That was such an empowering moment. It changed my perspective of how I work. I know I’ve always done the work for my characters, but there was always this little voice in the back of my mind, like, oh, how does it serve the lead actors and their stories? This inspired me. I’ve always known I think it’s important to share Asian American stories, but it really pushed me to want to tell more Asian American stories.
In fact, from the confidence that I gained from this show, I — and it’s not public knowledge yet — went off to pitch my own show. And it actually sold. I can’t say where it’s gone to yet. But this experience really inspired me because I’m like, wait, my story matters too, my experiences matter too.
Q: During the Emmys earlier this month, actresses Issa Rae, America Ferrera and Lena Waithe spoke about their not-so-great experiences as women of color in Hollywood. How have you navigated those waters?
A: When I started off 10 years ago, I felt like they were just filling a status quo. I remember there was this one interview and she asked, “How does it feel to be the token Asian?” I felt like I was doing the best I can to show representation at the time. Isn’t it better to see an Asian face on-screen than see no Asian faces on-screen? That’s actually really stuck with me, and as my parts got bigger and bigger, and I’m in a position now where I can say no, I can really go for roles that mean something. It was certainly a growing pain. I mean, God bless Adam Sandler, I love him so much, but some of the roles I took were not great roles. [Note: Chung had a small part in Sandler’s “Grown Ups” film.] I certainly have grown.
Q: Have you seen progress in the industry as a whole? Are things changing and more roles like Ji-Ah being written?
A: Being a token Asian is not enough. That’s not growth. I need more. I want more. Sandra Oh [who stars as the lead actress in BBC America’s “Killing Eve”] is a great example of that. But she still had like an incredibly difficult time landing that role. And she needed someone in her corner like Phoebe Waller-Bridges to say, “No, no. This is who I want. This is who I see.” How interesting is that? Again, it takes someone like Misha Green to be like, “No, no. I want a story that just focuses on this young woman and where she comes from.” It just takes one person.
Knowing that the Emmys was on the same night as my episode, and then watching some and realizing that Asians only really represented like maybe one percent of the people nominated? And the Emmys are showcasing the best of the best? We still have such a long way to go.
Q: Which brings us back to Ji-Ah, whose episode represented a seminal TV moment. Will we see her again? What can you tell us?
A: Misha and her team, they’re very smart, I don’t think that they would spend all this time setting up a character’s backstory without there being a payoff. Atticus has tried so hard to keep his past in the past, but I feel like it rarely stays in the past. So you will see these characters cross paths again.