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Arts + CultureMoviesBeyond Korean dad clichés: Stephen Park of 'The French...

Beyond Korean dad clichés: Stephen Park of ‘The French Dispatch’ on new film and inspirations

The 'Do the Right Thing' and 'Fargo' actor describes working with director Wes Anderson—and his character's deep references.

Stephen Park describes writer-director Wes Anderson in one word: “Unicorn.”

High praise from an actor who made his big screen debut in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, has performed twice for Joel and Ethan Coen in Fargo and A Serious Man, and co-starred in Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer. Masters all, and now Park adds Anderson to that list, as he takes on the role of Nescaffier, personal chef to the Ennui-sur-Blaseé, France, police commissaire in the director’s latest, The French Dispatch

“He’s a world builder,” Park says of the filmmaker during a conversation the morning after the actor represented The French Dispatch at the closing night of the Mill Valley Film Festival. “And he’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet. He giggles a lot behind the camera because he’s having such a good time.” (Read 48 Hills film critic Dennis Harvey’ review of The French Dispatch here.)

An auteur famed for idiosyncratic stories and elaborate production design, Anderson fills every frame with absurd action and intricate details as he pays homage to The New Yorker with his story of the French Dispatch, an American weekly based in France. With the obituary of its longtime editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), serving as a frame, Anderson serves up the motion picture equivalent of an issue of the magazine, filling it with both short- and long-form stories. Among them is one related by James Baldwin-esque writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) of the role Chef Nescaffier plays when The Commissaire’s (Mathieu Amalric) young son is kidnapped.

“The script was dense,” Park says. “He describes everything that’s happening on the screen. He also has a moving storyboard, called an animatic, so he pretty much knows what every frame of the movie is going to look like ahead of time. So, when he’s on set, he knows what he wants. There’s no, like, ‘Oh, let’s do a master.’ He doesn’t need to do those kinds of things, because he knows exactly what he needs from each setup.” 

In fact, Anderson’s direction blends absolute precision with the freedom of allowing his actors room to come up with fresh ideas. He is specific about his language and knows exactly how he wants his dialogue delivered. At the same time, Anderson shoots plenty of takes, making yet space for surprises to emerge.

“He’s discovering along the way, too,” Park says. “Maybe by take 15, it’s, ‘Let’s add this,’ or ‘Let’s try this.’ But he’s always very precise about where you are in the frame or the position of your head. Everything, he’s looking at everything. It’s a particular style, even the way actors move their heads sometimes.”

The name Nescaffier and its play on the coffee brand tickled Park and his wife, his former In Living Color costar Kelly Coffield Park, and he was further amused by remembering a Spanish teacher he once had who used to joke, “Nescafe es no café.” But it was not the name that held the most appeal, but the character he was being asked to play, a change from what is too depressingly regular.

“Nescaffier was funny and unusual, the kind of role that is just is so beautiful to me,” Park says. “I get asked to audition for quite a few Korean dads. It’s becoming almost a cliché, the stern Korean dad. To have this particular role show up was like a fantasy. It was a dream.” 

The look Park adopts in the movie, a bowl haircut and thick-framed, round eyeglasses was inspired by Tsuguharu Foujita, the Japanese-French artist famed for A Book of Cats. But Park also took inspiration from Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun and temple chef in Korea he saw on an episode of the series Chef’s Table when Eric Ripert brought her to cook at his Michelin-starred New York restaurant Le Bernardin.

“You see what she’s making. It’s amazing and beautiful, and so infused with the spirituality in her heart,” Park says. “I felt like that’s the heart of Nescaffier, there is this deep spiritual essence to what he does, but he’s also a tough guy. He’s police, so he has certain almost samurai-like quality.

“These are the things I came up with. I told Wes that was my inspiration, and, you know, he just went with it.”

The French Dispatch opens in theaters on Friday, Oct. 22.

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