Admit it, “30 Rock” fans: When the show’s version of Kim Jong-il, the now deceased North Korean dictator, showed up on screen, and you realized you were watching Margaret Cho do her impression of him, you knew it was one of the funniest things Tina Fey and company had ever cooked up.
It seems that the television academy felt the same way, as it’s nominated Cho for an Emmy in the outstanding guest actress in a comedy category for her turn as the diminutive despot — and his silent son, Kim Jong-un — in the episode “The Return of Avery Jessup.”
Cho, who is about to embark on a stand-up tour called “Mother,” talked to Zap2it about taking on the role of one of the world’s most feared men, why it’s a little bit of “karmic payback” for her to do it, what’s coming up for her at her usual TV home, “Drop Dead Diva,” and who she’s taking to the Creative Arts Emmys.
Zap2It: Who from the show first approached you to play Kim Jong-il?
Margaret Cho: It was Tina Fey’s idea and she just decided that that was going to happen, and I did it last year for an episode. It went over so well that I came back for two this season, and you know Tina Fey is great and she’s so funny and she’s really smart; she just knows what’ll work, and it was a really perfect thing. So I was very excited to do it.
Did she ever tell you why she picked you out for this?
Well, I think it’s just pretty obvious and anybody can see that I would be able to do that. [laughs] I think it’s great, you know, but, yeah, she just knew that it was the right thing.
You actually have North Korean relatives or you’re of North Korean descent, correct?
Yeah, I’m of North Korean descent. So it’s something that has affected my family — certainly that regime and the insanity of it. It’s pretty tragic what really does go on in that country as far as we know. So it is a great thing to be able to come back and do something that is so outrageous and funny, and really get a little bit of a karmic payback. It’s not enough, but it certainly is fantastic.
What made him, in the eyes of Americans, easy to make fun of even though he was dangerous?
Well, I think it is a kind of an Asian myth. There is an inert quality to Asian people at times. So there is a feeling like … you know in general most people don’t really know what’s happening in North Korea. I mean in general people think, “Oh my God, there’s this crazy dictator and [it’s] so funny.” He’s really short but he doesn’t admit to it and he also doesn’t pretend to just be a dictator. He’s also this acclaimed director and author and the best golfer in the world.
And it’s insane like all of the hype that surrounds … the actual story is a couple of generations of insane people who have bred themselves insane. And they have taken all the money in this country and they don’t provide the people with aid because they don’t want to admit to the United Nations that the people are starving. They don’t want to admit to the agricultural problems that they have, the social problems they have, the drug problems they have there. It’s like they try to keep the people in the dark, the whole country in the dark. You know they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t even have electricity most of the time.
It’s a really terrible, terrible situation, but I think he is a comic figure because he was portrayed in that “Team America” movie [laughs]. There’s a kind of a comic element to who he is. You know, it is almost like Charlie Chaplin as “The Great Dictator.” He made it comic and made it ridiculous, but the truth is it’s actually very tragic. There are some stereotypes that go along with the idea of him that negates some of the terrible qualities of him. That defangs him in a way, which is crazy.
What’s your approach to playing him? Do you just try to play it up as funny as you possibly can?
No, I just try to make him close to the people in my family, because there’s no actual record or audio mixed with the visual element of him talking. His image is so tightly controlled that I didn’t have anything to go from other than people from my family and people that I knew. And so that’s really what he’s based on, which is actually probably the right thing.
So when you were in the makeup chair and they put the wig on, and put the big glasses on, and the uniform and you look in the mirror, what was your reaction?
I really actually do look like him in the face, like we actually have very, very similar facial features. It is sort of like Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin; it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s her.” It’s just so perfect and so right that that’s sort of what … I knew that it was going to be perfect because I knew that’s what I look like.
How close is the voice you use for Kim Jong-il to the voice you use for your mother when you do your standup?
It’s pretty close. She’s got a little bit more of a sing-songy thing and he’s more guttural, and yet that’s the North Korean dialect of Korean. It’s quite guttural; it is kind of in its own way very close to Japanese, which is something he would not want to hear, but it really is.
Gold Derby counted your screen time in the episode and it was less than 60 seconds. How do you think the academy will be able to judge the performance against maybe someone who was on a whole episode or an “SNL” host?
Oh, I think it’s just a different thing because it is such a striking transformation for even a woman to play that role, and to really be like this old man to really transform. It only takes a second to understand it visually and to know that “Oh, this is like totally an amazing job by this actor.” Really, it just takes a snap sort of decision.
How surprised were you by the nomination?
Well, I was really surprised, but I was also promised from Tina Fey that it would result in the actual Emmy. It was so great. So she told me that if I did it, it would be great, and it would win because it’s so amazing. So she knew she was already preparing for it.
She has that experience from playing Sarah Palin. And it’s also the thing that we refer to much more than the actual Sarah Palin, is her impression of Sarah Palin. You know that’s what people think of when they think of Sarah Palin, because it was so funny and so genius and so what everybody was thinking and feeling, and so that was the best.
I liked though in the season finale where he’s not dead, he’s actually just a bartender in New York working for a caterer. It seemed like just one of those things where you think only Tina Fey could come up with that kind of stuff.
I love it. Oh, I love it. I mean, I love that she can imagine that, and she could imagine that here’s somebody that can cheat death, that can go beyond the grave and do whatever he wants to do and escape. So that adds to the myth of him and the mystery of who he actually is. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was really somewhere among us in New York. That if he was out there in the world and just decided to skip his job and do something else. It’s utterly possible.
Have you gotten any word that Kim
Jong-il or Kim Jong-un might be back in the final season?
No, I don’t know. I would hope so. Well, he was able to actually do the show after his death, so I think if death hasn’t stopped him I don’t know what could. So I would love to do it more.
And he’s a lot more interesting than his son because his son just kind of stares out into space. So I imagine you want to play him more than you’d want to play the son.
I don’t know. I mean, I think the son has got something to prove, you know? We’re sort of waiting and seeing what he’s going to do. He’s been really not very … you know there’s not a lot of information about him, and you’re just going on photographs, but at least with the other one we sort of had the legend of Kim Jong-il. You don’t have that with Kim Jong-un yet.
What’s the contrast of being a guest actor on an established show and being a regular, like you are on “Drop Dead Diva”?
In “Drop Dead Diva” it’s something that we built together, the cast and I and the crew and the writers and everybody involved in it. We’ve all been there and a part of it from the very beginning. So it is a different thing — it really does feel like home. I just feel very much like it’s something that we’ve all been doing together and so that’s really a different kind of an animal. And you know, going and shooting in Atlanta is very different from shooting in New York City, and it’s a different kind of a world.
I think [guesting on “30 Rock” is] sort of like a new school. You know everybody at your old school, and now you’re in a new school. The thing about “30 Rock” too is that there is such an element of high-profile guest stars and just people around. Like the day that they shot the scenes in that wedding, Bill Clinton was just there, and not on camera — just hanging out. So he wanted to visit and be part of it but not actually be on camera. So you know you have a great deal of high-profile people kind of walking around that set.
Did you get to say hi to the former president?
No. I’d met him before. He’s a very wonderful, wonderful guy. So I would have known him to say hi, he already knows me.
It would have been interesting to walk up to him in the Kim Jong-il getup and see what his reaction might have been.
Yeah, I know. That would have been great.
What can you tell us about what’s coming up for you on “Drop Dead Diva”?
Yeah, they’re in the middle of their season. There’s going to be a lot of really exciting developments and lots of crazy plot twists and also cliffhangers. And you know my character goes through a whole musical evolution through this whole season. So she sort of has like songs and discovers this musical side and wants to be like a Lady Gaga kind of figure, because she’s gone through a lot of different changes.
Was singing on the show something that you were nervous about?
No, I love that and you know it’s something that I do also. You know a musician, and singer and songwriter so it’s part of my life, so it’s appropriate that it would be part of this character I play too. So I really appreciate that I get to do that, and I get to play my beautiful Gibson Hummingbird guitar and you know show it off on television, which is awesome.
What’s your plan for the night of the Creative Arts Emmys, where your category will be awarded?
My parents are coming. Somebody is making me a dress, which is very nice. So I’ll take a shower, I guess, and go [laughs]. I don’t know. I mean, I’m not really that sort of a dress-up kind of girl, so it’s going to be a new thing for me, but I want to get really done up for it. I think that’ll be cool, so that’s what I’m doing.