Justin Chon started filming his new movie, the Martin Scorsese-produced crime drama "Revenge of the Green Dragons," the same day he got hired, hitting the ground running in response to director Andrew Lau's quick shooting style.
"Andrew does one or two takes and only shoots eight hours a day," Chon told Headlines & Global News in an exclusive interview. "You're sprinting the whole time so there's no time to work into it. You just had to go."
The film features some heavy hitters behind and in front of the camera. Scorsese produced the film that also stars his "Goodfellas" lead Ray Liotta. Chon showed up to set not knowing the major players involved – except for legendary directors Lau and Andrew Woo from Hong Kong.
"I didn't know who else was going to be in the cast when I got the part," Chon said. "I didn't really grasp how big the movie would be until the end."
The 33-year-old actor plays Sonny, a Chinese immigrant who comes to America as a young boy in the film premiering on Friday. After losing his mother in the boat ride to New York, he's adopted by another family, who has a son the same age. Sonny and his adoptive brother Steven (Kevin Wu) soon get pulled into Asian gang violence that was a prevalent part of New York City in the late '80s and '90s, and joins a powerful gang called "The Green Dragons."
"The only way to live a decent life for these immigrant kids was to join these gangs," Chon said. "As [Sonny] gets older, he tries to distance himself, but the guys keep bringing him back in."
The movie is based on a New Yorker article by Frederic Dannen about New York's Asian American gangs who specialized in racketeering, human trafficking and heroin smuggling during the '80s and '90s. Chon used the article as a jumping-off point to research his role, and he spoke with some people associated with the gangs at that time.
"It was so common. Everybody knew someone that was connected," Chon said.
Sonny tends to calculate his potential moves – unlike Steven and his other brothers in the gang, who mostly act before they think. The character of Sonny helps to humanize the plight of these young Chinese immigrants in the extremely violent film, which Chon called an Asian version of the 1993 film "Menace II Society."
"If anything, my character is the only human in the movie," Chon said. "I tried to bring heart and a three-dimensional aspect to Sonny."
Chon started his career acting on Disney and Nickelodeon channels before he got his breakout role as Eric Yorkie in "The Twilight Saga." His appearance in four of the five films inarguably raised his visibility in Hollywood, but Chon is hesitant to stake his whole career on a single role.
"Not one thing puts you on the map. Just because you're in 'Twilight' doesn't guarantee that you'll get more roles," he said. "['Twilight'] was just a monster. No one knew how big it would be, and it's something you can't recreate."
Chon will return to his Korean roots in his next film "Seoul Searching." The coming-of-age film follows a group of foreign-born Korean teenagers who return to the home of their ancestors to learn more about the motherland at a special summer camp created by the South Korean government. The real-life summer camps of the '80s didn't last long because the government couldn't control the youth who attended.
"A lot of people in the '70s and 80s were the first generation trying to assimilate [to their own home countries] and started growing apart from their parents," Chon said. "They didn't fit into Korea, but they got discriminated [against] at home as well."
Chon described the movie as a "romantic teen dramady" that has a John Hughes element to it. Benson Lee directed the film that will premiere next year.
"The real moments make it grounded. They are still kids but they're trying to be adults too," he said.
Chon will also star alongside Andrew Santino, Tom Arnold and Malin Ackerman in "Sin City Saints," one of Yahoo's first original programs for streaming. The show will follow the front-office personnel of a new pro basketball franchise in Las Vegas.
"It's kind of mix between 'The Office' and 'Veep,'" Chon said. The show started filming in Las Vegas this month.
Chon has already dabbled in the online format with his own YouTube channel. He soon found it difficult to consistently put out videos and changes to YouTube made it more difficult to find an audience.
"I really enjoyed doing it. This isn't me being too good for it," Chon said about abandoning his page. "I wish there was a way I could do it more. Maybe if I had more people to work with."
He also runs his own clothing store called Attic. Chon opened the first store eight years ago with a couple partners. The store sells its own in-house brand as well as other name brands.
"I started the store because I couldn't find clothes that I liked in Orange County," he said. The Attic now has three locations in Southern California including San Diego, Buena Park and Alhambra. "I enjoy running the business."
"Revenge of the Green Dragons" hits theaters on Oct. 24.