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'Blockbuster' star Randall Park reflects on what video rental stores meant to his immigrant family

“It was a way to learn about America,” Park told NBC News.
Melissa Fumero and Randall Park in Netflix's "Blockbuster."
Melissa Fumero and Randall Park in Netflix's "Blockbuster."Ricardo Hubbs / Netflix

Randall Park’s new show, which centers around the last remaining video rental Blockbuster store, is — in many ways — a perfect project for the actor. 

The Netflix series — aptly named “Blockbuster” and released Thursday — conjures up nostalgia for a time when viewers brought home VHS tapes to watch big-budget action films and cozy rom-coms. At the time, most were without a single Asian in the cast, but Park said his immigrant family’s experience was still very much tied up in this culture. 

“Video rentals in immigrant families and communities were kind of an essential element of the American experience,” Park told NBC News. “It was a way to learn about America.”

In the series, Park plays manager Timmy Yoon, who attempts to keep his Blockbuster store in Michigan afloat amid a new era of thriving streaming services and social media apps that have increasingly pulled customers into a virtual world. (And yes, there’s even a bold, uncomfortable reference to Netflix’s role in the chain’s demise). For Yoon, it’s a gargantuan task. But he’s up for the challenge in the name of preserving the camaraderie among his staff, and the human connection that the IRL service fosters.

There are also small nods to the way in which certain demographics would see the rental stores. At one point in the first episode, employee Carlos Herrera, played by Tyler Alvarez, points out how he learned English from watching an iconic critic’s film recommendations.

Randall Park in Netflix's "Blockbuster."
Randall Park in Netflix's "Blockbuster." / Netflix

Park said the moment harkens back to memories of his own immigrant parents frequenting small video rental stores in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. He said he’d watch them flip through titles that would help introduce them to American pop culture. These stores, which had Korean entertainment as well, were “also a way to hold on to the TV shows and movies from the homeland,” he said.  

The cultural safe space that the rental stores provided were significant, he said. 

“I do feel like video rental was definitely a part of our lives well after it stopped being mainstream,” he remembered.

Park said many more aspects of his life feel congruent to that of his character’s. Despite amassing an active, meme-proficient online fan base through his work on trailblazing Asian American sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as special agent Jimmy Woo, Park himself has always had an “uncomfortable” relationship with social media and currently has no active public accounts. 

“I missed the days of actually going somewhere, interacting with people and talking to the clerk about a movie, getting recommendations, and watching with your friends, because you paid this much to rent the movie,” Park said. “I do feel like we’re missing out on something that’s very essential to being human.”

The diverse cast — which includes Melissa Fumero, of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” as Yoon’s longtime crush and co-worker Eliza, and comedian J.B. Smoove, who plays best friend Percy — makes the environment feel authentic as well, he said. Even Yoon’s job itself, Park said, isn’t a far cry from the gig he had in high school.

Randall Park and JB Smoove in Netflix's "Blockbuster."
Randall Park and J.B. Smoove in Netflix's "Blockbuster." / Netflix

“I actually worked at a video store while I was in high school, and it was a very diverse school and I grew up around every group of people,” Park said. “The cool thing about this show is for me, it feels like my upbringing in so many ways because … it’s so just kind of naturally diverse.”

Over the years, and after projects that have spanned different genres, the fight for diverse representation has evolved for him, Park said. As an Asian American, he admitted there was a time when he felt the burden to “represent right.” Nowadays, he realized that responsible representation hinges on an authenticity to himself. Ideally, Asian Americans in entertainment will get to see themselves as masters of their own craft alongside representatives of their community, he said.  

“It is genuinely more of an appreciation, if anything. … It’s changed in that I’m not so worried about being the perfect representative of this community, but I am more concerned with just being myself and always keeping the community in mind,” he said. “But that is also a part of being myself because that’s just who I am. It’s a part of me, you know; it’s a part of my history.” 

Park, a self-described L.A.-raised “small-town person,” said bringing his authentic self to roles often means adding a bit of that small-town vibe and intimacy. 

“The community is a part of who we are,” Park said. “But it’s not the only part. There are so many facets of us.”