Between takes on the shot-at-Dollywood holiday movie “Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas” last August, the film’s namesake herself took a moment to praise the work of her scene partner, Atlanta actor Joseph Yang, who plays harried production assistant Woody in the family film. In response, Yang told the amusement park’s owner, “It’s great to be back.” Parton was confused for a moment until Yang told her that nine years ago, he spent a summer as a college student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga working the front turnstiles at Dollywood’s Splash Country. Recalls Yang: “We had this awesome moment where she said, ‘No way! Joseph, thank you so much for being our Woody.’” Parton then took the time to pose for a photo with the actor.
“It was this full circle moment for me to be back at Dollywood, now as a working actor pursuing my dream,” Yang reflected this week over a cup of Americano at the Chattahoochee Coffee Company in West Midtown. The role in the high profile NBC Christmas musical airing Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. and then streaming on Peacock, caps a busy year for the 28-year-old native Atlantan.
Yang was also notably tortured and shot this year in the HBO Max drama series “DMZ,” based on the DC Comics title, where he was directed by the likes of Ava DuVernay and Ernest R. Dickerson and seeing “In The Balance,” the sci-fi short he stars in, premiere at the 2022 Nashville Film Festival in October.
Yang’s return to Tennessee was a homecoming of sorts for the graduate of Clarksville High School, where he first discovered his love of performing in the school’s theatre department as the only Korean American kid at the school. His parents own and operate a Korean/Chinese restaurant in Clarksville. After graduation, Yang opted for the stability of a full-time job, 401k and health insurance as an account executive selling radio ads in Chattanooga. But two other Hollywood icons and a twist of fate were waiting in the wings to alter Yang’s career trajectory forever.
In 2017, Yang scored the small role of a dealer in the South Korea casino action sequence of “Black Panther.” For two weeks, Yang drove back and forth from Chattanooga to the Marvel film set in Georgia to work under the direction of Ryan Coogler and watching Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira work a few feet away. “This was Ryan Coogler’s big moment, coming off of ‘Fruitville Station’ and ‘Creed,’”recalls Yang. “When I stepped onto that ‘Black Panther’ South Korea casino set, it was filled with Asian actors. I felt like I was finally in the majority. It was beautiful. I had never experienced this level of professionalism on a set. Chadwick Boseman always spoke in his Wakandan accent. He had this complete presence and I got to watch him, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira do their thing. It was inspiring.”
“You know that feeling when you’re watching something on TV with your parents and there’s a sex scene? Now imagine watching your son or your sibling doing that live on stage a few feet from you.Joseph Yang
On the drive back to Chattanooga, Yang could only think about one thing: “How in the hell do I leave this account executive job?” Turns out, Yang wouldn’t have to. Two days after his 23rd birthday in 2017, Yang was let go from his sales job. “At first, I felt like a failure,” Yang recalled. “And then, I said, thank you. That’s when I decided to make the move to Atlanta.”
Yang’s career trajectory closely mirrors that of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” actor Simu Liu, the now-global Chinese Canadian movie star who was also once notably fired from an accounting job at Deloitte. Yang sees the success of lead actor Henry Golding in “Crazy Rich Asians” and Liu’s global box office success as Shang-Chi as pivotal stepping stones for young Asian actors like himself. In September 2021, Yang was so psyched about the release of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” he rented out an entire theatre at Regal Atlantic Station cinemas on opening weekend. “A lot of people don’t realize how many projects were lined up in Hollywood behind ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and a movie like ‘Shang-Chi,’” says Yang. “If those movies had failed at the box office, all of those other projects don’t get green lit. ‘Shang-Chi’ was Marvel’s first Asian superhero. All these people in L.A. and Hollywood were doing these screenings to make the box office blow up on opening weekend. I wanted to do the same thing here in Atlanta, where I work. We ended up selling it out. A lot of my friends showed up to support the movie, thinking I was in it!”
Between selling tickets for Marvel’s next global box office phenomenon, Yang was in rehearsals for the Vernal & Sere Theatre production of “The Exterminating Angel,” a wild experimental piece of theater based on the 1962 surrealist film. Staged at Windmill Arts Center in East Point in the fall of 2021, the play, one of the first staged as Atlanta slowly emerged from the pandemic, challenged audiences nightly. The production focused on 21 dinner guests trapped in a room together for two acts as characters descend into madness, amidst a 13-minute nap, projected multimedia, a suicide, urination and people dressed up as sheep and a bear. As military man Col. Alvaro Gomez, Yang was tasked with taking off the uniform and simulating a sex scene under the dining table in each performance — notably, one night in front of his parents and sister, who had driven in from Tennessee to see the show. Says Yang: “You know that feeling when you’re watching something on TV with your parents and there’s a sex scene? Now imagine watching your son or your sibling doing that live on stage a few feet from you. My sister does not enjoy surprises. It was awkward. You should have seen my parents’ reaction! But they actually loved it. They were entertained. I’m blessed to have my parents come and see me in a show. This is who I do this for.”
Yang also saw a unique opportunity in playing the role of Col. Gomez: “As an Asian American, there’s always been this stigmatization. We’re not leading men. We’re not attractive enough. We’re not handsome. I was never told I was handsome growing up, except for my mom and dad. And now, I get to play a character who is literally having sex under a table? I wasn’t afraid of it, I was excited. I’ve always wanted to do dangerous work, provoking work. I feel like I got a great deal of training out of that experience. I learned a lot. The only thing I was afraid of was not doing my best.”
The role also got Yang noticed throughout Atlanta’s theatre community. A theatre community that, like the rest of Hollywood, is still struggling with inclusion and equity efforts for nonwhite actors. “I see Hollywood trying,” says Yang. “I’m looking at my auditions now and none of them require me to do an accent. I just did an audition for a character with the last name of McCormack. Clearly, that’s a white last name. But I got to audition for that. Yes, there’s a lot of work to be done. But I focus on the stepping stones. Two big ones were ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Shang-Chi’ and what I can do to help put these other stones into position. There are so many stories about the Asian experience to tell. We’re definitely going somewhere. I get to work in a city as diverse as Atlanta, a city that has literally changed the color of the state. Atlanta has given me a plethora of opportunities.”
As he closes out another year of hustling and hard work, Yang is looking forward to his family and friends getting to check out his scenes in “Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas.”
“Woody is this very endearing character,” Yang previews. “I loved playing him. He tries to be very chillax but he’s really a very frantic production assistant. I know from experience on sets, PAs are always on top of everything. You can’t slack. You’ve got to be on your radio. And Woody is trying to be the best PA possible. He’s a very Type A guy. He always has his itinerary in front of him. He has his ducks in a row. He masks it by thinking he’s still this laid back chill guy until … he maybe has an interaction with Dolly. It’s been a dream of mine to do a Christmas movie. But to get to do it with Dolly Parton? At a place where I worked? In Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and not some soundstage in Hollywood? I feel very blessed to be a part of that.”
Back in Tennessee last fall to attend the screening of “In The Balance” at the Nashville Film Festival, Yang also attended his 10-year Clarksville high school reunion. A janitor recognized him from Yang’s time there as a student a decade ago and unlocked the theatre department for him to take a quick look around. Photos of him in high school productions are still up and his handprints are among the alums of the theatre program on the wall.
“My theatre teacher, Barbara Wesner saw something in me,” Yang reflects. “She saw the charisma but she also saw the insecurities. She allowed me to use her stage and her theatre as escapism. She gave me a platform to do one-acts, to emcee, to host talent shows. It’s where I discovered dance. Back then, as the only Asian kid in the school, I was dealing with a lot of stuff that I’m still working on in therapy — internalized racism I had built up, toxic masculinity, bullying and figuring out my own identity. Dr. Wesner’s theatre is where I found my love. Back in high school, I was trying so desperately to be cool. I discovered I just had to be myself.”
The weekend of his hosted sold-out “Shang-Chi” screening at Atlantic Station in the fall of 2021, Yang posted a series of reflections on his Instagram account about the impact of seeing Tobey Maguire’s “Spider-Man” as a 7-year-old in 2002 and then playing that he was his favorite superhero in the back parking lot by the outdoor freezer of his parent’s Clarksville restaurant. But as a child, he remembered feeling that he could only play Spider-Man while under the mask because “the moment you take off the suit, you don’t have the skin of a white man.”
What would Yang tell that 7-year-old in 2022 now that “Shang-Chi” and “Black Panther” have become global box office smashes?
Joseph Yang ponders the question for a moment, taking a final sip of his coffee. “I would tell him: Be patient,” he says. “There’s another superhero that might come along that you might admire even more. One that looks like you. It’s all going to work out.”
“Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas” airs Dec. 1 on NBC at 8 p.m. The movie will then stream throughout the holiday season on Peacock.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.