“You can see numbers on Instagram go up, people responding to posts and lots of press, but the reason I started in entertainment and always go back to it is that in-person connection. It’s about when somebody comes up to me and tells me they had a hard time and that the hours they spent watching Emily in Paris helped—and that person being a middle-aged man.”
When I ask Ashley Park how life has changed since her portrayal of zipper heiress Mindy Chen in the Netflix megahit, her answer is the perfect blend of heartfelt and hilarious. As we chat, she is in the middle of a rigorous Broadway workshop in New York City. Her voice is clipped yet warm, transporting me to the bench near the Louvre where we first meet Mindy on our screens.
Just like Mindy, Park is a modern-day bon vivant and musical buff. At 30 years old, the Korean-American actress, singer and dancer has already racked up a repertoire of epic proportions: a 500-show run as Tuptim on Bartlett Sher’s Tony-winning adaptation of The King and I, a stereotype-busting role of Gretchen Wieners on Broadway’s Mean Girls and perhaps a personal pièce de résistance in her role as Emily Cooper’s—played by Park’s real-life best friend Lily Collins—gutsy ride-or-die in Emily in Paris. And while each of these characters are different, they are bridged by a quality that is unique to Park: the ability to anchor a fictional universe in reality.
Her reality growing up, however, was far from a yellow brick road to success. Born in Glendale, California, Park’s family relocated to the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, when she was five years old. There, she honed a range of talents, from dancing to ice-skating. “Three-year-old me always did the moves at exactly the right time, was very focused, and had this joy and passion. She felt like she was meant to be performing,” she shares.
Park’s love for musical theatre was further sparked by a few unconventional waves. She chuckles as she recounts her love for Barney the dinosaur, her crush on Disney’s Aladdin and her admiration for Asian veterans such as Lea Salonga and Ming-Na Wen who have both portrayed the character of Mulan. It was a life-altering experience during her sophomore year of high school, however, that was perhaps a push to fully go after her dreams.
A leukemia diagnosis at 15 turned Park’s life upside down, resulting in an eight-month in-patient stay. She would subsequently go on to attend the famed University of Michigan—alma mater of Madonna, Iggy Pop and Lucy Liu, to name a few—and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from its School of Music, Theater and Dance.
“By the time I came out as a junior in high school, I didn’t understand that Broadway was a career. Since I didn’t see many people who looked like me on screen, I didn’t even think it was an option,” she shares. “I knew going into that industry that I would be forging a place for myself and I was okay with that. I didn’t go in to be a star. After you go through something where you might not live, I spend my life thinking about how I’m going to make it joyful to live.”
“After you go through something where you might not live, I spend my life thinking about how I’m going to make it joyful to live.”
Navigating the throes of show business as a young Asian actress has not been particularly easy, but Park has found her own way to do so. She touches on a sentiment many minorities inadvertently face in their lives—the longing to simply be less of oneself in hopes of fitting a particular mould. Citing stars like Daniel Dae Kim and Mindy Kaling who have gone on to build empires, Park effuses an admiration for Asian-American actors who have wholeheartedly brought the essence of themselves to a role, without letting race become a defining factor. Over the years, she has held herself to the same standards.
“A lot of this industry is so mental. In order for me to be in a centred place, all of my challenges couldn’t come from my race. I had to put that away. The reason that I am in the position I’m in is because I had to not see myself as an Asian-American actor,” she reflects. “That’s the only way that I sustained myself in this business. I still look around and think, why don’t I have a bunch of peers who are Asian? I had to really internalise that I’m here to be an actor, work hard and be the best that I can be.”
And the world took notice—specifically superstar writer, director and producer of Sex and the City fame, Darren Star. Taken by Park’s performance in Mean Girls, he tapped her for the role of Mindy Chen in Emily in Paris. So taken was Star, in fact, that the role was eventually fleshed out with Park in mind, from interspersed ballads to costuming. “When I got the audition, I felt I knew her because I think she is so good at calling somebody out and comforting them at the same time. She has this warmth about her, an empathy. We both also find a way of expressing our souls in singing.”
“A lot of this industry is so mental. In order for me to be in a centred place, all of my challenges couldn’t come from my race. I had to put that away.”
Unfiltered, confident and armed with lightning comedic timing, she was cast as the contrarian to a painfully optimistic American marketing executive who lands on the wrong side of France. Park charmed watchers with her portrayal of Mindy’s riches-to-rags story of being disowned by her ‘zipper king’ father in Shanghai. In October 2020, Emily in Paris was the most-watched comedy on Netflix, raking in roughly 58 million viewers all over the world. The series was also lauded for its escapist-meets-everyday wardrobing, orchestrated by the legendary costume designer and stylist, Patricia Field.
Park shares that Mindy quickly became the team’s favourite styling project, with her clothes adjacently reflecting some of her biggest personal growth moments. In a scene where she performs at a drag club after overcoming her fear of public singing in season one, Field fitted her in a custom-made The Blonds bodysuit that was split in the middle. On one end was a diamante, sheer bodysuit. The other, a men’s tuxedo. “Mindy is not confined to any box. She can be classy and chic and then come in with a wild, hand-printed suit. She works from her heart and her clothes are a reflection of that.”
So how does Mindy fit into season two amidst Emily’s ongoing affair with Gabriel (portrayed by French actor Lucas Bravo)? “In season two, you get to see her needing help from Emily. In season one, we saw her as such a pillar of support, strength, confidence and brightness while also being all-knowing.”
As the world laps up season two of Emily in Paris, which premiered on 22 December, they will also have more of Park to look forward to. She has just wrapped up a film in Vancouver as of press time, directed by Crazy Rich Asians co-screenwriter, Adele Lim. She notes this is her first time being a lead, and that her co-stars and writers are all Asian females. “It is exactly the space I manifested for myself. This movie is about to be the first of its kind in so many ways. Everything that we did that was sexy, funny or crazy was in service of our own story.”
On stage, in front of the camera or behind the scenes, this much is clear: in Park’s story, this is just the beginning.
Photography Bjorn Iooss
Styling Fabio Immediato
Hair DJ Quintero
Make-up Genevieve Herr
Manicure Aki Hirayama
Producers Megha Henson and Arbelis Santana