When you first meet Sydney Park, the initial thing you’re struck by is her distinctive good looks, courtesy of her Korean American father and African American mother. Her delicate cheekbones and sparkling, expressive eyes are set off by a shock of gorgeous, curly black hair—if stardom were determined solely on looks, Park has hit the genetic jackpot.
The second thing you notice is the way the effervescent actress seems to effortlessly radiate positivity. Even after three failed attempts at an interview over Zoom, no thanks to a spotty Wi-Fi connection, she is still as upbeat and effusive over a phone call.
Whether you want to chalk it up to her innate personality or good upbringing, being a star was something that Park knew she wanted to do from a young age. “Growing up, I was incredibly outspoken. My parents raised me to be very free with expressing myself,” she says. “I always changed my hairstyle and when girls were growing out their hair long, I cut mine pixie-cut short!”
This self-belief and assuredness eventually led to the precocious Park pursuing a comedic career at the tender age of six. She made her debut in 2003 at Hollywood Improv, a renowned comedy club where stars the likes of Bette Midler, Jay Leno, the late Joan Rivers and more sharpened their edge, all the while going to performing arts schools and pursuing her interests. “I grew up sort of in a double world and was just surrounded by a lot of people who loved me and just supported me being crazy Sydney,” she remembers of the time with a smile.
With that experience as her starting point, the young Sydney then rapidly took on shows on popular kids’ entertainment networks such as Disney and Nickelodeon, before moving on to her recurring role on long-time horror series The Walking Dead. “I’ve been on the show for about four seasons now and it has been such an incredible experience,” she says. “Not only because it’s so iconic to be a part of that world, but the family you create out there in Atlanta and those long-life friendships and experiences you have are unbeatable. It’s been really fun.”
But beyond just honing her acting skills, she shares that the series has taught her valuable life lessons, such as the power of human connection. “The show highlights what it means to be human; what it means to live,” she says. “And to go back to the basics, and that you can’t take anything with you when you die.”
“I love acting because I think it’s beautiful to be able to step into other people’s shoes. And as a person living in the world, you have to be able to open your heart and be vulnerable”
At the same time, her desire to connect with other people through her chosen medium, film, makes her cognisant of the fact that it gives her a huge platform to represent different communities—and also of the correspondingly huge responsibility that she has.
“I think it’s been incredible to be able to represent two different cultures that are so rich in their history and very different from each other,” she says. “I love being able to unite so many people. There are so many mixed babies out there who don’t see themselves represented on TV or in the media or in film. Being able to have that light and have this platform has made me very choosy and very picky about roles, what I do, what I say, what I put out on social media. I think I carry this responsibility of being one of the voices of this generation, but also being a biracial girl and just kind of carrying the torch for everyone and paving the way.”
The eloquent actress is part of a new wave of young celebrities who are using their considerable social cachet for personal causes and to bring about change in the world. When the Black Lives Matter protests started in June, in direct response to police brutality against African Americans, Park did not stand quietly by. Taking to Instagram, she related how her grandmother, Marlene Cole, was a member of the Black Panther Party, a movement founded in Oakland, California, in 1966, that was started to monitor the behaviour of the police in the city and to counter police brutality. “I am done holding my tongue to make the oppressor feel comfortable. Peace be with you all who are fighting out there for us in this twisted world,” she wrote in a powerful caption.
“I really think it starts with having the conversations and having racism and prejudices and discrimination no longer be a necessary evil in order to just get ahead,” she says emphatically. “It starts with everybody having a voice and not being quiet anymore, and having those uncomfortable discussions, because that’s the only way we’re going to rewrite the narrative of this global issue.”
“I think I carry this responsibility of being one of the voices of this generation, but also being a biracial girl and just kind of carrying the torch for everyone and paving the way”
This year also sees Park really hitting her stride. As of writing, the actress is in Vancouver, Canada, serving a two-week quarantine before she can get to work on her latest film—a Netflix production directed by Patrick Brice, along with executive producers James Wan and Shawn Levy. Park is the lead of a horror-thriller film, There Is Someone Inside Your House, that is adapted from a novel by Stephanie Perkins, with the film slated for release later this year. “This is my first really big lead in a film,” she says, the excitement palpable in her voice. “I don’t want to give anything away, but if I could put it into a category, it’s sort of like a John Hughes horror film. So, it’s got all these different genres in it: it’s a coming-of-age story, love story and thriller all in one.”
According to Park, There Is Someone Inside Your House follows the story of Makani Young, a senior student from Hawaii who moves to Nebraska to live with her grandmother following a tragic accident. She then falls in love with a boy who is “a bit of an outcast like her” when eerie murders start happening at their school—with each victim’s deepest, darkest secrets coming to light when they die. “I think the audience is going to be very shocked by the twists and turns,” she teases. “I’m excited for people to see a new take on the modern thriller.”
On this tantalising note, we turn to the topic of why Park loves acting and the film industry. Her answer is surprisingly simple. “I love acting because I think it’s beautiful to be able to step into other people’s shoes,” she muses. “And as a person living in the world, you have to be able to open your heart and be vulnerable. Acting does that and I would say acting is really telling the truth.”
While she’s stepped into a variety of roles throughout her career—from playing a bright overachiever on Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, to an inspiring survivalist on The Walking Dead—she is insistent on the fact that she is still as down to earth and authentic as they come.
“Some people tell me, ‘Oh, you must be a good liar’. And that’s honestly not true. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m terrible at lying,” she laughs. “It is my job that requires me to bare my soul in front of random strangers on set all day, so I have to have this level of focus that kind of takes me outside of myself.”
But as with all the members of her generation, Park is also not content to just be defined by her acting career. In between finishing filming for her current project and waiting to start on a new one—Dead Dads Club, which stars Randall Park and Kristen Bell—she is also working on several creative projects outside of the industry. “I’m working on writing my own original music,” she spills. “And I’ve got a few projects under my belt that I’m really excited about. So yeah, it’s gonna be good.”
Photographer: Benjo Arwas
Stylists: Dani and Emma
Hair and make-up: Daniele Piersons at Art Department
Manicurist: Susie Ngo
Photographer’s assistant: Josh Hammare