Entertainment

Sydney Park Is Unafraid To Use Her Voice

Sydney Park

There's no easy way to define a generation (trust us, because we've really tried with millennials), but who wants to do that anyway? Rather than trying to put a whole cohort of people born within the same 15-year span into some kind of box, let's just celebrate them, in all their distinctiveness.

More specifically, let's celebrate Gen Z, a generation who refuse any attempts to be seen en masse, and instead can best be understood through their individuality, their unique hopes and dreams, desires and demands. They are idealistic and unafraid, motivated and headstrong; they are icons and iconoclasts, and they make us excited for the future.

Last year, we took a look at 25 Gen Z'ers changing the world, a group that included activists, musicians, and actors. This year, we narrowed our focus to Hollywood, and are excited to share with you five young actors who are all primed to be the next big thing. Get to know them, below, and get ready to see them everywhere, soon.

Sydney Park wanted to be an entertainer since before she even knew what an entertainer was. "There's actually a videotape of me at three years old saying, 'I wanna be on that TV!' to my mom," she told me. "It's kind of been in my head and in my brain since before I can remember."

While some of our mothers might have dismissed our pleas, Park's mom did mock interviews with her daughter and played an integral role in the beginning of Park's career. And that career? Well, it started only three years after Park first declared she wanted to be on the small screen.

At just six years old, Park, who is 21 now, became the youngest comedian to perform at the famous Hollywood Improv, where her mom was working as a server at the time. Even though the Improv stage would be the pinnacle for many other performers, for Park, it was just a launching pad. Soon enough, she brought her stand-up routine to an even bigger stage and auditioned for America's Got Talent under the name Syd the Kid. Although she got to the next round of the show, she ended up leaving because she was swooped up by a Disney executive who wanted Park to appear in their hit series, That's So Raven. Park's role on the show was a riff on her persona as a comedian, and she was known as "Sydney the insult comedian." It was, Park told me, "my first official gig. Before that, I was really doing fun commercials here and there."

But there would be a lot more to come: Following Raven, Park made appearances on everything from Entourage to Hannah Montana to Instant Mom, before finally landing a recurring role on The Walking Dead in 2016. Since then she's worked on other, similarly intense sets, landing roles in the horror film Wish Upon; Netflix's dark zombie comedy, Santa Clarita Diet; and, most recently, The Perfectionists, the Freeform spin-off to the mega-hit, Pretty Little Liars.

Though it seems like Park made a sharp turn, career-wise, shifting from comedy to much darker things, it actually seems like this is Park's true niche. After all, her birthday falls on Halloween, and though she says she wasn't a fan of the holiday as a kid ("I wouldn't really last very long when we went trick or treating… I was so terrified of the dark and Scream masks were the worst ever"), she's come to appreciate it more now: "I was just watching a horror film last night, and I was saying to myself, That would be a great role, to get the lead of a really solid, cool indie horror film."

But before any of that happens, Park is busy playing Caitlin, the straight-A student-athlete on The Perfectionists. "I was really drawn to Caitlin because I loved her poise, I loved that she comes from a political family… I loved how quirky she was, too," Park said. "And, on top of that, the character in the book is of Korean descent, and me being half-Korean was perfect." While That's So Raven was Park's first major gig, this is, in a lot of ways, Park's breakout role. She's the main cast member on a show with a built-in, devoted audience; this is the kind of thing that gets you stopped on the street. Of that kind of sometimes overwhelming fandom, Park said: "It's been a dream, because most projects don't get the recognition, but they're great. And so the fact that we have a great cast and a great project, but it actually gets the push, the love, the attention... it's really amazing."

A big part of that push is thanks to social media, and Park has embraced it, building up robust Instagram and Twitter presences. But whereas many members of her generation are very conscious of every word they say on their platforms, Park isn't afraid to speak her mind—no matter how others might react. When I asked her about what she hopes other generations might learn from hers, she said, "I hope they learn that tradition is okay, and it's okay to be more conservative or be more out there, you don't always have to follow the trend of the millennials, the Gen Z'ers, of being outrageous or being hypersensitive to social issues."

This can be surprising to hear from someone Park's age, but it makes sense when you remember that Park started out as an insult comic, back in a time—the early '00s—when that sort of comedy was expected, and even encouraged. Still, it can be startling to watch Parks in her 2006 America's Got Talent routine, and see her, at eight-years-old, riff on Black people and their weight: "If I see another fat Black lady in a tiny dress, I think I'm gonna die." It's even more startling to see Park's mother and all the show's judges—Brandy, Piers Morgan, and David Hasselhoff—laughing in the background. It's hard to imagine that happening now.

"We all get the same 24 hours in a day, just go out there and be great—whatever that is. Be good at what you do, and strive to be better."

And yet, Park doesn't see it as something to get upset about. "I think stand-up is all controversial anyway and that's kind of the point of stand-up comedians is to be offensive and be weird and have opinions," she told me when I asked about the clip. "I am a Black person, and this is part of my culture, and at the end of the day a lot of hard work went into performing stand-up at such a young age, and I'm proud of that accomplishment."

Perhaps there's something to learn from Park's stance, a reminder that Gen Z is not a monolith, and not totally filled with people who see the world in only one way. Perhaps this is also a reminder that, even though today's young people are often criticized for being too sensitive, their exposure to so much media has made some of them—like Park—push back against this perception, and use their voices however they want, even if some people get upset.

As for what's next on Park's docket: using her voice in a totally different way. "I was always so busy with acting, which is great, and I tried working with some music producers when I was younger and doing little girl groups here and there, but my acting career really took off, which is a blessing, but now I have this different platform that I can use, and I really love using my voice," Park said. Her preferred genre is alternative R&B but not, she made clear, the, like, depressing kind. "A lot of music from some of our female artists is about relationships and can be a little whiny," she said. "I'm thinking of starting something that's more like the female Anderson .Paak in a way."

No matter the medium, the one message that Park hopes to pass along through her ever-growing platform is that anyone is capable of everything. "I came from a working-class family, and my parents have reinvented themselves like 10 times," she said. "They came from nothing, so the fact that they sacrificed so much and poured their love into me so I could pursue my dreams, it's inspiring. We all get the same 24 hours in a day, just go out there and be great—whatever that is. Be good at what you do, and strive to be better."

Credits:

Director: Dani Okon

Co-Producers: Charlotte Prager & Alexandra Hsie

Production Manager: Alison Yardley