Jimmy O. Yang on replacing Erlich, becoming the Urkel of ‘Silicon Valley’

Jimmy O. Yang in Silicon Valley
HBO

News flash: Facebook isn’t safe. Following this year’s revelation that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to data mine tens of millions of people without their knowledge, Facebook has come under fire, and it appears the rabbit hole just keeps getting deeper.

HBO’s Silicon Valley actor Jimmy O. Yang knows all of this, and it doesn’t change a thing. “Look at all of that Facebook stuff that’s going on,” Yang told Digital Trends. “But, to me, at the end of the day, I kind of don’t care.” For him, a lack of privacy is just the new normal. “I assume I have no privacy, anyway.”

The 30-year old Asian-American actor plays Jian Yang on Silicon Valley, a show that satirized Facebook’s privacy concerns. With Silicon Valley renewed for a sixth season, Yang reflected on how his role on the show went from a three-line part to a series regular, why he doesn’t mind being spied on, and how he maintained the authenticity of an Asian character on a predominantly white-casted show.

Your character Jian Yang is one of my favorite characters on Silicon Valley. How do feel your character has evolved? Has series co-creator Mike Judge talked to you over the years about your character’s development?

Yang: Yeah. I’ve been a series regular for four seasons. In the very first season, when I auditioned for the part, it was just a three-line part when I open the door, and I say “This is Pied Piper.” There’s no backstory or anything. Then, they wrote me in two other parts. At the time it was pretty cool. It was like my first recorded part. But, I never thought it was going to be — a part of me hoped, but I never thought I was literally going to pull an Urkel and be a series regular from just being a guest star. Mike has become one of my best friends on the show. We chat, we talk over drinks, but we almost never talk about the show too much, because a lot of times they’re still writing it leading up to the show.

“I never thought I was literally going to pull an Urkel and be a series regular from just being a guest star.”

People ask me, “Oh, what is season 6 is going to be about?” I seriously don’t know. [Silicon Valley writers] probably don’t even know yet. Every time I get the script, and expressly when I became a series regular, I get super excited. I almost can’t believe I went from this two-, three-line part to now. But I guess, there are fans like you that have really supported the role and tweeted about it, and stuff like that helps to give me this opportunity. Early on, working with TJ, there was just like an instant chemistry, you know? We got each other’s sense of humor and we played off that so well that I was like, “OK there might be something more here.”

I’m glad you mentioned T.J. Miller. You said before that Miller called you before he announced that he was not going to be on the show after season 4. How soon before the announcement did he tell you that? What was that conversation like?

I don’t remember the exact timing, but … I also wrote about this in my book. Let me do a quick plug: It’s called How To American. [Laughs]

Jimmy O. Yang with TJ Miller
HBO

T.J. called me at midnight one night and we talked. Usually, we just text or we go hang out or whatever. But, he called me and I was like, “What’s going on?” He was like, “Man, you’re the first person I called. I just want to tell you I’m not coming back for the show next year.” I was like shocked out. I was half asleep. I didn’t see this coming, really. He’s like my partner in crime on this show, so I was a little taken aback. I know his mind was made up but I still had to kind of, you know, do my duty. I was like, “You should come back, blah blah.” But his mind was made up. I was just glad that he cared about me enough as a friend and respected me enough as a colleague to really give me a call, as my scene partner.

Season 5 was the first season without Miller playing Erlich, and your character seemed to assume some of Erlich’s asshole traits. He even (spoiler alert) goes to China to make his own Pied Piper clone, which was a hilarious episode. Where do you see that character going next season?

“Who knows, maybe Jian Yang versus Russ Hanneman. I would love to see that.”

The villainous part was great. I just want to see him do different things and a wide range of things. It’s so interesting to see this guy do what’s unexpected, in a way. I would love to see Jian Yang go up against more big personalities like how originally when he went up against Erlich, and last year when he went up against Gavin Belson. I think that’s very interesting. Sort of like a David and Goliath style. I really enjoyed doing that. So, who knows, maybe Jian Yang versus Russ Hanneman. I would love to see that.

I spoke with Carly Chaikin from Mr. Robot and she said that being on that show she doesn’t leave her laptop open out of fear. Jeffrey Wright from Westworld also told me while on the show that he noticed his phone was so in tune with sleep patterns. How has your relationship or understanding of technology been affected by working on Silicon Valley?

I’m generally pretty excited about new gadgets, new tech, A.I., stuff like that. When the consultants made the not hotdog app for the show, I was really excited to learn how that all worked. I think that part of me knows, “OK this is kind of scary. People can listen in, people can spy on you.” Look at all of that Facebook stuff that’s going on. But, to me, at the end of the day, I kind of don’t care. Hey, look through my laptop. Who cares? What are you going to see? Me typing a script? I might masturbate occasionally. Come, look at my house. I ain’t got nothing to hide. If you went through my browsing records, to suggest that I go buy this grill or this guitar, great. I don’t even know it’s happening.

not hotdog app

It’s a fine line between convenience and privacy. I assume I have no privacy anyway. I think in China they have a camera for every street corner, and if you jaywalk, they don’t give you a ticket. They put you on the big TV screen to shame you. My brother lost his wallet in Shanghai. He went to the police station and they were able to trace, step by step, how he lost his wallet, and this lady that turned it into the local store and found his wallet in like a few seconds. Obviously, there’s fear of what they can do with that information and all that stuff. But I’m fine with it. What am I going to do? I’m just passively letting them spy on me, and if they can find my wallet, that’s great.

Is there a tech story or trend that Silicon Valley hasn’t tackled that you would love to be addressed in later episodes? If so, walk us through a little bit of how that would work as an episode or a scene in an episode.

Bitcoin. We always try to stay very current. Last year, I was learning about Bitcoin. My friends were talking to me about ICOs and saying don’t miss out on Bitcoin. Then we did a full episode on ICO and Bitcoin. That was so cool. It’s even educational for me. So I’m just excited to see what comes up. The not hot dog app seems dumb, but there’s a lot of knowledge in it like machine learning and stuff like that.

Your book How To American: An Immigrant’s Guide To Disappointing Your Parents details your life and immigrating to America. How long did it take you to write the book?

“[Playing Jian Yang is] just playing a version of myself 15 years ago when I didn’t have too much of a grasp of the language, the slang, and the culture.”

Really took me like six months. Once I figured out I could just write it in my voice, all these stories, half of them I told doing my stand up and stuff like that. It just came out, and it was a fun process. It’s talking about me assimilating in America. Much like drawing a parallel to the Jian Yang character. I would say [playing Jian Yang is] just playing a version of myself 15 years ago when I didn’t have too much of a grasp of the language, the slang, and the culture.

There’s this part in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Bill says something to the effect of how Superman’s Clark Kent alter ego is his critique of how he sees humans because those traits are what Clark Kent embodies in order to blend in with humans. What are some American traits you used to, or still do, integrate into your own personality based on how you view Americans?

I think a lot of it I did subconsciously or it was just when I was younger, and I wanted to fit in so bad. You observe the people around you, and you kind of take in and copy certain things, right? Eventually, you do it for so long it becomes part of you. I think, for me, coming here was sports. Football was not a thing in China, but it’s a huge thing here. That whole culture of a very physical, manly thing. It’s kind of like WWE wrestling, which I still love. Also hip-hop. That whole hip-hop culture. I tried to be a rapper. I tried to make beats before I got into comedy, and that’s still one of my hobbies. That whole culture in itself, the masculinity of that which could be unhealthy for sure, at times, or just the flashiness of that. A part of me, I want to put some spinning rims on my car. That’s in a way a caricature version of America that I think is cool, much like how Superman thinks that Clark Kent is the caricature human version that he observes.

Jimmy O. Yang with book How to American
Jimmy O. Yang/Instagram

Ok, let’s get to the bottom of this, real quick. What style of rap were you doing before you got into comedy? What about you was in your rap persona.

I think when I was rapping — I was like 15 — I was copying everything everybody was saying. Shooting people, pimps and hoes … and I was a virgin going to Beverly Hills High School. What the fuck was I talking about? That’s what I observed, and that’s what I felt was cool. Now, I would definitely have, you know, a more well-rounded opinion and things to say. But if I go back in the music scene I may stay behind the scenes a little.

In the book, you speak about identity and representation. Playing an Asian character on a show created and largely starring white men could sometimes be hard to navigate without falling into stereotypes. Are there some scenes you may have improvised or notes you had for the script ensuring the character’s authenticity?

I think the very first day I went on set I asked Mike if we should do a Cantonese accent or a Mandarin accent. It’s not just a Chinese accent. It’s much more specific than that, and being an immigrant myself, I need to approach it that way, or it wouldn’t be authentic. I can speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, and Mike was like “You know better. Why don’t you just do what feels right.” I decided to do a Mandarin accent, because it’s just more specific, in a way. The Cantonese accent is very easily falling into the cliché of bad Bruce Lee impressions kind of a deal. So, I was able to really just take a lot of accents, words, things that my mom would say. Things my family in Shanghai would say. Knowing that is real, I would try to approach it as if it’s real.

“It’s not just a Chinese accent. It’s much more specific than that, and being an immigrant myself, I need to approach it that way, or it wouldn’t be authentic.”

This year I think [in one scene] I said: “You guys are just like victims of circumstance.” It’s a very specific American idiom to say. I’m like why and how would Jian Yang say this. I think [Silicon Valley executive producer] Alec [Berg] or Mike might’ve talked about this. I realized it’s like me rapping, in a way. Why am I talking about being gangster and shit? Because he saw it on TV and learned it. Whenever Jian-Yang has these really interesting, very American sayings, sometimes he’s maybe copying. Maybe Erlich just said that to him, and he’s throwing it back into his face, which I find very interesting. He is doing some kind of assimilation by imitation thing, which I certainly have done. Every scene, every line, I just try to draw from my own experience of being an immigrant when I was 13 years old when I first came here.

You’re also in Crazy Rich Asians, the first major film with an all Asian cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. What is the set of Crazy Rich Asians like as compared to Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley, I mean, the comedy is amazing, and it’s one of the best-written shows with some of the best talent. I’m really happy to be a part of it. But, with Crazy Rich Asians, there’s something beyond, there’s something special, even for me, emotionally. I couldn’t really find an ending for my book until I shot Crazy Rich Asians. I went back to Hong Kong, we shot in Singapore. It was just like when we met up at the lobby, it was just like a certain feeling. It was a feeling of camaraderie because, in most things you do, you’re the only Asian person. You feel a certain weight of representing Asian people, and stuff like that.

Whereas this movie, there’s a whole spectrum of us. There’s the good-looking Asian. There’s the sexy Asian, the funny Asian, the ridiculous, crazy ones. So we can just do our best, and we felt normal. We didn’t feel like we were Asian actors, we just felt like we’re actors. I really found my creed. I think every show, every movie I’ve done I have one or two friends that I hang out with and I’m very close with. But after shooting Crazy Rich Asians, we’re like a sorority now. Everybody still hangs out. I’m still best friends with all of them. We have a WhatsApp Group with about 120 people in there. It’s just been an amazing experience.

Silicon Valley season 5 is available on digital download 

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