Eclipse's second box set dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu provides another perspective on the beloved director.
"Everywhere At Once" isn't only the name of Lyrics Born's latest album, it's a snapshot of his expanding career, circa 2008. Asia Pacific Arts speaks with the multi-talented performer.
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Ken Leung's first feature lead role was in Shanghai Kiss where he plays... an Asian American actor. He talks to APA about navigating through the expectations and assumptions that come with being an actor of color... as well as playing a mutant who has spikes that come out of his face.
APA: I wanted to go back to what you were describing before: when you were starting out, the challenges you faced being an Asian American actor. The character you play in Shanghai Kiss is an Asian American actor, and I'm wondering how much of that character and the challenges he faces as an actor were drawn from your own experience and how much of it was cooked up by David Ren as part of the script?
KL: I totally connected with that. I remember I had an audition once where after the reading, the auditioner would say, "Wow Ken, you speak really good English. Your English is really good." And looking back, I can come up with all these things that could have been witty retorts, but at the time, I was just so shocked, you know? And so I think all Asian American actors probably have similar stories like that. You can only play a part if you draw from your own personal experience. So I would say 100% is from my own experiences, and likewise, 100% is from David's experiences, because he wrote it.
APA: Did he and Conrad have you in mind for the role at the beginning?
KL: I don't think so.
APA: So was this an open call audition?
KL: I had to send a tape because they weren't auditioning in New York. I don't remember how I got this script, but I read it and I loved it. I thought this was very different, and I could relate to it immediately, so I had a friend help me make a tape and I just sent it. And then we met in a coffee shop and it went from there.
APA: What was your impression of Shanghai, going from one massive metropolitan center to another one?
KL: It was very disorienting. I'd been to China before, but never to Shanghai. It was like a new building was going up every day. We didn't have a lot of down time at all, so I really only got to see the city through working in different parts of town. I don't know, a lot of people ask, "What did you think of Shanghai?" My memories of it really [were scene-based]. When you're disoriented, when you're in a foreign place, and when you're playing a part, that's where your head is. You're not there to think, "oh, what is this place?"
APA: To go back to the roles that you've been in more recently, including Miles and the Sopranos, one of the things that stands out to me is that your ethnicity is not really that essential to the character or what the character is meant to represent. It's not that it's invisible. Miles, for example, could have been cast with anybody.
APA: I know, speaking with other Asian American actors, that's what they would like to be able to do: to get to the point where they can take roles where their ethnicity or race is not a requirement of the role, in essence.
APA: Has that been easier for you as you've gotten these more high-profile roles? Does it give you currency to audition for roles that don't necessarily require you to be of Chinese decent?
KL: I don't know, because I don't know what the people on the other end are thinking. You want to be invited into the room for you, and not what you look like. That's true for anybody for any profession. Not what you look like or what you "represent" or anything like that. But it's hard to say because sometimes you're like, "they just want me so they can add some color to their palette." Or, "they just want me so that they can be diverse in their casting." You don't know.
APA: I wanted to go back to what to me was probably your first really prominent role, which was in Keeping the Faith. That's when you first came onto my radar and to other people who saw this movie and thought, who's this Ken Leung guy? The scene that you have: was that scene written exactly like how it ended up being played out?
KL: I remember that morning, I didn't have the accent. It was awful. I just woke up that morning and I just didn't have it that day. I was wracking my brain, like oh I'm sucking today, I can't sound like this idiot. And at some point, I went in there and I was like, you know what? I can't help sounding like I have a fake accent, it's just going to be a fake accent, so how do you communicate that it's a fake accent? And well, at some point you're going to have to drop it. So that's what I did.
APA: I think it worked and just comes across so brilliantly, because I don't think you realize the fakeness of it until you realize how easily he can turn it off. The curtains get revealed and you're like, ah, now I know what the deal is.
KL: A minute ago, I was offended, and now I love this guy. [laughs]
APA: Speaking of the early roles you took, how did you land with Brett Ratner for Rush Hour, and is that the reason you also got cast in X3 down the road?
KL: Yea, I've done four films with Ratner. I auditioned for Rush Hour. He liked what I did, and originally he wanted someone who knew martial arts, but he saw something that he liked and they just adjusted the script. Brett was like, well, he would seem more powerful if he didn't have to lift a finger, if he was surrounded by guys who did that for him, and that was closer to what he was looking for. I got along with Brett, so since then he's called me for various things here and there.
APA: What was it like playing a mutant?
KL: That was weird because I wasn't an X-Men fan. I had just come back from Shanghai after Shanghai Kiss, and I actually told Brett that I didn't feel like I was right for it. Brett was just like, "oh just come over," and I was like, "what am I playing?" And he said, "I don't know, we'll figure something out for you." So it was kind of like that. I think the thing with the character's spikes was really because Brett wanted something visual -- he wanted a power he could see. And so I remember spending days and days and days with him in the chair trying to build this prosthetic on me, which ended up changing my face too much, that they ended up going with special effects. But, you know, that wasn't really a part where there was something for me to do -- it was just a lot of posing and looking, I guess, mutant-like. Imagining a bridge falling apart, when there was nothing there. So that was new, and I kind of took it as, "Oh, this is a part of filmmaking that I don't know," and so it's good in that respect. But when I think of roles and experiences on films, X-Men doesn't really register because there wasn't really anything for me to play.
APA: You're walking effects.
KL: Yeah. It just taught me a side of filmmaking that I hadn't known before.
APA: Looking back over your 10-15 years in film and stage, what have been some of your favorite roles to do?
KL: I was part of this serial play in the mid-nineties called Hot Keys in New York, and I miss that more than any other show. What I mean by serial is that every week -- it was a weekend thing -- it was just hundreds of characters and scenes. It was like a soap opera, and I got to play a Nazi war criminal, I played a woman who had had a miscarriage on stage. It was just this crazy show that started at midnight and went till three in the morning. It had kind of a cult following and it was at the PS 122 school building. It was this crazy show where if you were the audience and you came in naked, you got in for free, and some guy would come in buck naked and sit in the front row. So it was so much fun. Jeff Weiss was the mastermind, and I think one of the greatest actors ever. There was music, there was dancing. It was so theatrical, and we served beer. It was just so much fun, you meet new actors every weekend that you do it with, who came in just for that week.
APA: And how long did that last for?
KL: A while. I think I was in a couple of seasons of that. Maybe a few months at a time. I just remember walking there before every performance and it was really exhilarating. Like, oh it's going to be really good tonight, I'm going to have a good time tonight. Just crazy characters. And because of the setup it wasn't about, "oh this Asian..." It wasn't about that at all.
APA: So what's next on your plate? What can we expect to see from you in the next few months?
KL: I don't know. It's hard to say because I have to wait until Lost is finished because I don't know what my schedule is like. When I say they tell me very little, that includes timeline. So, right now I'm very interested in seeing how Miles plays into all of this, because it's kind of hard to tell.
APA: So you literally have no idea if you're going to be there another month?
KL: Yeah, I have no idea.
APA: Anything that you had wrapped up before then that's going to be coming out this year?
KL: No. I suspect I'm going to, because of this experience, maybe take a little time off to kind of regroup. Maybe write something. I started writing something early last year, but I'm not ready to let go of it yet.
APA: Have you done much writing in the past?
KL: Every so often, every two years or so, something will hit me and I'll start something and never finish it. And now it's been a few years and I've realized that I'm really trying to get to the bottom of one question. I've written two screenplays that seem different but I think they come from the same place and so it might be time to meditate on that. It also teaches me to tell a story, because I don't think I know how to. It can only benefit me as an actor, but it's also a fascinating thing to learn how to do. So I need to write when I have something to say. I'm not a disciplined writer. So I don't know, it's kind of wide open.
APA: The last question I have, and I feel almost sheepish asking this, but you mentioned that before acting, you were studying physical therapy because you thought your parents would like it. What have your parents thought of your acting career, first when you started out and now that you're at the stage that you are at now?
KL: They hated it in the beginning and I was very scared. I was very afraid to tell them. I think I told them at the dinner table and it was met with the loudest silence you can imagine, so I was like, "okay, I'm not going to get anywhere by talking." So I wrote them a letter and put it on my dad's desk and I disappeared for a couple of days. I think I went to stay with a cousin and I came back and I was really late, and my father was like, "alright we gotta just talk about this." My mother was crying. It was as if I had told them something tragic.
APA: Like you were terminal or something.
KL: Yeah exactly. And my father was a little less severe about it. He was like, "you can act, but maybe you can do something else too." I mean, I think all parents just want to know that their kids will be okay. And if he's doing something that's seemingly just following his heart, as good as that sounds, you know that he's going to live in a world where not everybody's going to look out for him. So you worry. So they accordingly behaved as most parents would. Especially parents who don't understand what it means to be an actor. They read stories about actors: if you're an actor, you're going to become a drug addict and all these terrible things will happen to you. And it's true enough for them to worry about it, so it was hard for a long time. Even now I don't really talk to them about it. I don't want to remind them that I'm still doing the thing that they didn't want me to do. Although I think they've come to accept it. My father recently retired but he was a high school math teacher and a lot of his students would be like, "Hey, we know who your son is." So I think he's come to realize maybe I'm doing okay.
APA: Do they watch your films? Do they watch the shows you're in?
KL: You know, I think they do when somebody puts it in front of them. Like my brother will be like, "Ken's on this thing, watch it." I think they watch it to check up on me. I don't know how excited they are, or anything like that. They're watching it because, well, first of all, I don't see them very much, so they kind of watch it...
APA: ...to keep tabs on you, in a sense.
KL: To keep tabs on me, in a sense.
APA: But it's not like your dad's calling you to explain what the "smoke monster is" or anything like that.
KL: [laugh] Yeah, exactly. He's like, "oh, such and such wants an autograph, can you provide that?"
Date Posted: 5/30/2008