Imagine one month in Vegas. Hotel accommodations and all your meals comped. $200,000 in chips at your disposal and Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne hanging around to keep you company. For former The Bedford Diaries star Aaron Yoo, it’s not a dream, it’s a job.
Yoo co-stars in the new Columbia Pictures film “21“, a high-stakes adventure inspired by the true story of a couple of very smart college students who broke the bank in Vegas.
“Its like poker porn the way Russell [Carpenter] and Rob [Luketic] shot this thing. It’s so sexy,” says Yoo, but he’s not talking about lip-locks or scantily clad women, no. “They did these straight-up, extreme close-ups of fingers sliding a stack of five thousand dollar chips across the table.” And the way he says it you would think he was describing a hot chick or at least a Maserati, but 21 is all about seduction — the lure of the glitz, the glamour, and the lifestyle that is Las Vegas.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a brilliant M.I.T. student who needs to find a way to pay his school tuition. He finds the answer in a group of gifted students who spend their weekends beating the odds at the blackjack tables. With math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) leading the team, they become an unbeatable force but winning isn’t everything and soon Ben is risking it all for one more walk on the wild side. Seduced by the Vegas lifestyle and his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth), Ben can barely stay one step ahead of the casino’s enforcer, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).
Aaron Yoo, who moviegoers may know as Shia LaBeouf’s pal, Ronnie, in Disturbia, plays the geeky but flashy Choi.
“My character loves everything about Vegas, he loves the idea of going to this fantasyland, and being a pimp. We found these silver jeans with reflective dust on them — but badass, you know. This guy’s the best-dressed character I’ll ever play. I’ll never look cooler in my life. I saw a couple things during playback where I would just turn to Jim [21 star, Sturgess] and be like, ‘we’re going to keep this for our grandkids. Grandpop was a pimp back in the day, just so you know.'”
But while Yoo thought they were all looking particularly fly during the shoot, he barely attracted any attention while traveling with his entourage (aka cast mates).
“This is the best thing about Vegas. I would walk into the casino wearing two grand worth of bling and someone would come over and be like, ‘oh, there you guys are,’ and we’d look at each other and go, ‘wow, the only place in the world where we could be wearing this and still blend in. ‘ Wait, is that woman dressed as a peacock?”
But then Vegas does have a memorizing effect on people and it was something Yoo noticed when he saw the ‘real’ 21 gang step inside a casino.
“They’re totally normal, but as soon as they walk through the door of the casino they get shark eyes, predator eyes. They become balers, pimps, as soon as they walk in. Its in their heads, its just where they feel most comfortable. They have this mindset of, ‘I own this place, I own this town.'”
Then again, maybe it’s only something Yoo sees because he’s been there.
Yoo on Gambling
“Am I a gambler in life? I am and I amn’t. I try to stay away from gambling as much as possible because it’s a take-over kinda thing for me. Once I sit at that table, Aaron ceases to exist. I honestly am the kind of person that will play my bank account to zero. So, I have to get very strict. You know the worst thing? They charge you four dollars to withdraw money at an ATM on a casino floor. Four dollars! I’m thinking to myself, why? They’re pulling the money out of the casino for one reason, to give it back to the casino. It’s just a little mean and it’s just not a good sign ever for anybody in the world to visit one of those ATM’s. What does it mean? It means you lost the money and you’re pulling out X amount of money to lose more.”
Having said that, it still didn’t stop Yoo from playing a few hands with his co-stars during the month he spent filming in Vegas.
“That’s one of those truly amazing things about gambling is that it’s like the normal life version of a buzzer beater. It’s your version of Michael Jordan. Like, ‘damn, I just killed that table!’ So yeah, we did a fair amount of ‘research’ for the film.”
Research? Sounds like Yoo was dangerous enough already, but then he learned a few more tricks of the trade from the ‘professional gamblers’ who were consulting on set.
“The first thing they taught us was basic strategy; which the vast majority of people don’t know. And the truth is, you go into any Vegas gift store and buy a basic strategy card. You’re allowed to bring that with you to the table and reference it. You can ask the dealer to look at it with you, memorize that thing, it’s the only way you can even have like a 2% advantage, which is the best thing that you could really do.
“Now, if you card count, you’re only winning 3% more than the house is, it’s just the right 3%. Here’s how it works. If you’re a card counter, and you go by yourself, it’s impossible not to get caught because you have to play as little as possible while the count is not in your favor and when it gets to place where you can win you start betting huge, that’s where you make all your money. Any pit boss who’s half awake or dealer who’s even slightly paying attention is going to catch that immediately. What these guys did was they just split the two things up. Have one person count until the deck gets hot and then call in the person with all the money. It’s a con. You have to have the math right, but the rest of it is just a bait and switch kind of thing.”
It’s easy to see how Aaron, or anyone, could get carried away with the possibilities. Especially when you’re acting like a card shark in a real casino with real chips.
“There’s a part where we win a lot of money. Gotta shoot the close-up of the chips… two-hundred-thousand dollars. And do you know what comes with two-hundred-thousand dollars in chips? Two big men with guns, as well logically they should. They were like, hey, Aaron you’re not allowed over there. Am I that suspicious?”
That appears to be a rhetorical question.
But once the neon signs of Vegas stopped shimmering in his eyes, Aaron Yoo saw the reality of it all.
“I’ve been blessed. I’ve had a very short, very very very fantastic career. I’m getting through the all-star team of young Hollywood actors. The kind of people who, it doesn’t matter their age, you still learn stuff from them. Then you get what I call the cheat sheet, which is like Kevin (Spacey) and Laurence (Fishburne). I got to see a lot of Kevin’s work and from day one it was like, ‘wow, that’s acting! Oh my god, what am I doing!’ And when you see an actor bring something to the role that wasn’t on the page, you’re like ‘did I miss that class?’ I love people who love their work.”
And these guys really love their work.
“We have this scene in a diner that lasts two minutes, but this scene was an entire twelve hour night, in a diner, six of us, in a booth, doing this same scene over and over. Four hours into it we started doing all of our off-camera lines as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Have you noticed that all of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characters names in his movies are always a really average Joe first name and a vaguely Eastern European last name. Hi, my name is Peter Heifielenheifer!”
But through all the long nights, the endless waiting around and the lure of craft services, Yoo had a great time on the set of 21. He summed up this way.
“If you’re gonna be stuck in a diner booth for twelve hours saying the same dialogue over and over, you can’t do it with a better group of people.”
Aaron Yoo Gets (even more) Absurd
You have 200 dollars to spend at Best Buy, what are you going to get?
I’m going to go get Away From Her. I heard that’s amazing and La Vie En Rose on DVD, Blu-Ray. I would get, Devil May Cry 4 and Grand Theft Auto 4, for PS3. And I would buy one of those Best Buy employee shirts, the blue ones, and then when I had the time I would go to the store, put the shirt on, and a name tag, and I would troll the place for hot customers who need help. I’d put myself near the confused looking woman who’s like, ‘where do I go’ and she’d be like, ‘excuse me, can you help me?’ And I’d be like, ‘absolutely, yes I can.’
Captain Kirk vs. Captain Jack Sparrow?
It would have to be Captain Jack Sparrow, because he’s brilliantly ineffective. He has gold teeth. Talk about anyone who’s prepared for anything, in a pinch, just break one of them off and sell it, plus he wears pantaloons. And Captain Kirk is dressed in a stocking basically, like a unitard, plus Captain Kirk speaks with a pronounced. . . ‘Spock! What is… the matter… with the way… I talk… why? Do I do it….? I don’t know.’
So yeah, Captain Jack.
21 is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Photos By: Peter Iovino for Sony Pictures