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The stars of Chris Chan Lee's Undoing, Russell Wong and Sung Kang are the contemporary representations of Asian American masculinity in Hollywood, be it by devouring watermelons salaciously or getting phone numbers the hard way. They tell APA why bringing sexy back is harder than it looks and how it takes some educated manuevering to navigate through Hollywood.
In their respective times, Sessue Hayakawa and James Shigeta were the Asian American male faces of Hollywood. More than that though, they exuded something else: a raw sexuality that won female audiences irrespective of race. Hayakawa was a silent star; his expressions and gestures may have embodied the controversial "Yellow Peril" cinema but they also defined Hayakawa as an electric, carnal aggressor. Shigeta had the look but also the sound; prior to becoming the quintessential Asian male lover in the 1960s, he was a pop idol.
Ironically, no Asian American male star today, with the possible exception of Daniel Dae Kim, commands that sort of undeniable sexual allure within the mainstream imagination. That's not to say today's stars aren't sexy; it's just that the market and the marketing has changed. Further, Asian American males today are looking for their own styles of sexuality just as Asian American cinema is attempting to blaze its own identity.
But the icons are there, and Chris Chan Lee's new film Undoing has two of them. Russell Wong stormed into the popular consciousness with his memorable role as the steamy hunk in Wayne Wang's Joy Luck Club. Sung Kang stole the show - as a comic presence as well as a playground pimp - in Justin Lin's Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Put the two in a room and you sense not only generational differences, but two types of Asian American male charisma.
Wong is quiet, well-groomed, and grateful to be a part of Lee's indie noir. But despite his pleasant demeanor, he doesn't scream model minority, in part because of his size (six feet, well-built), and in part because in talking to him, you realize he's been through a lot to get to where he is - he's earned the right to be genteel.
Kang is the opposite. Young, fresh in the industry, and hot off a blockbuster picture, Kang's got swagger and, unlike Wong, rarely cracks a smile. He likes to test his interviewer; he disagrees because he doesn't want to be pinned down or categorized. Because he's quick, he can twist interviewers' questions around and challenge them to rethink their assumptions. But because he's smart, he knows that his challenge to authority can't be an ends to itself, but rather must serve the long-term interests of Asian American representation in the business of Hollywood. Unlike Wong, Kang doesn't look like a classic stud. But he's finding that by being himself he can pave his own path to iconic status.
A few days after the premiere of Undoing at the Los Angeles Film Festival, APA sat down with both of them to discuss what it's like to be an Asian American male in Hollywood, off-Hollywood, and abroad.
Interview with Sung Kang and Russell Wong
July 7, 2006
Interviewed by Brian Hu and Chi Tung
Camera by Melinda Tsai, Ada Tseng
Transcribed by Ada Tseng
Video: Coming Soon
APA: The film Undoing is set in Koreatown. Can you talk about using Koreantown as backdrop for the story?
Sung Kang: We set the environment in Koreatown for no specific reason. It's more LA., Los Feliz. It's not a Korean American-specific story either. In the Q&A [after the film], people were saying it was a very Korean American story, and I think the only reason people were saying that was because they saw the Asian faces. Americans do a film in Chinatown with white actors, and they don't say it's a Chinese American story. We don't speak Korean, and we don't go into the idea of being Korean American. It was an interesting backdrop. We asked ourselves where a character like Sam Kim would live, and he would probably live at 6th and Hobart, and he was probably born in Koreatown. He's more urban American. For us it made sense in terms of budgeting, as an independent film. We have resources because we have friends here, and we could probably get some free locations.
APA: Sung, you were a producer for this film. How did you get involved in the production side of things?
SK: Four years ago, I was in SF and Better Luck Tomorrow was playing. Chris had just got back from Singapore doing television, and he was really excited about the prospects of Asian American film. He thought it'd be nice to try and do a feature. And from that day on, he wrote the script. I came on as a producer because if you just have the perspective going in that you’re just a hired gun, these films are never going to get made. I just think we need to pull our resources, financing, and locations together and kind of develop the script together. I think [becoming the producer was] kind of by default. I don't particularly enjoy producing; if it were up to me, I would just act. The reason I produce is because if I don't, the movie will never get made, and then I'm sitting at home twiddling my thumbs waiting for a phone call that's never going to happen. So that's how that started.
APA: Do you think you're going to continue going back and forth between Hollywood and independent films?
SK: In a perfect world that would be great. Do Hollywood films where you're paid a certain rate, you can send your kids to school, and work with some really established actors. At the independent level, that's where an Asian American actor is really going to get the chance to play a three-dimensional character and take a risk. We can look at Variety and Hollywood Reporter or imdb to see all these films in production, and how many of the first to fourth principle roles will go to Asian Americans. I'd say 99% of them will not, so on the indie level, there might be more opportunity. But independent films are designed to fail, so if these films don't get distributed and tickets don't sell, I think the likelihood of indie films is pretty sparse too.
APA: What about opportunities abroad? Have either of you pursued working in Asia?
Russell Wong: Yeah, I've been working on my Mandarin; I have to have a command of the language. I think a lot of people are working there -- John Woo and Ang Lee are casting. I've been in Hollywood 22 years; I've had a couple good breaks with TV and martial arts things. And martial arts movies are fun – I like to do them, I'm athletic, I can do it – but story wise it's a bit stereotypical and limiting in a lot of ways. And outside of that it's pretty quiet. I get a couple guest spots on TV here and there.
But that's why I really liked doing this project. It was really fun and interesting. There’s more sense of freedom because you're not trying to fit into what the studio wants. As an independent, you have more artistic expression. But going back to your question, there're a lot of people going to Asia. There’re lots of resources and raw material in China as far as stories and content are concerned, so I'm probably going to explore that this next year. [In] Hollywood, there're not many Asians. I just can't wait around anymore.
SK: I grew up on John Wayne movies and Gary Coleman and Pippi Longstockings. I don't have a fluent grasp on the Korean language. If I put myself in the producer/director's situation, would I cast Sung in a three-dimensional role in Korea? I'd say no. My dream started here and I'd like it to end it here. But I do have ambitions of creating a bridge where maybe we can bring Korean directors and producers and maybe even Korean actors over here. Japanese feature film directors and Chinese feature film directors have made transitions here to the States, so for Korean filmmakers, that's something I'd really like to be a part of because there're so many remakes coming from China, Japan, and Korea. There's so much good content there. That's something I'd like to be a part of. Maybe work on a US production with a Korean director here. But to go there? I'm always thinking it'd be nice to go to the homeland and all that, but I feel like if I do that, I haven't achieved the goals I have here. If I go there, I'm the guy who came from the States with an accent. It's a double-edged sword, because I'm a minority there, and I'm a minority here.
APA: What's the consensus among the Asian American acting community of these Hollywood remakes of Asian films? Is it considered something compromised? I know amongst the fans, we don't want to see them butchering the originals. But as actors, do you see it as an opportunity?
SK: I don't think any Hollywood remakes have given Asian American actors opportunities. The Ring, The Grudge… I don't know any Asian Americans that have been cast in those roles.
APA: But let's say Justin Lin does Oldboy. I'd imagine he'd create some opportunities...
SK: But not as lead characters. If it gets made, it's gotta have A-list Caucasian actors. Even if Justin directs it and it's at that level, the studio still gives him a list of actors he can pick. Just because it's a Korean remake doesn't mean it's gonna have a Korean lead. It doesn't really work like that.
APA: So what are your thoughts on Memoirs of a Geisha, which a lot of people have complained about, but it does give an opportunity for Asian leads.
SK: You know, I haven't seen the film, but there're two ways to look at it. If you're a starving actor that needs to pay his bills and you have a family to support, and you get that role of the screaming Japanese prostitute, I don't know. I think looking from the outside, you can say, you're selling out, you're not representing Asians in a positive way. But, as an actor you have to work. So if you're not in the ballfield, if you're not able to make those connections, you're not able to pay for the classes to become a better actor, you're kind of stuck.
In term of the casting, there's been talk of not casting Japanese actors, but you know, I think a lot of people forget that it's commerce. As Asian Americans, we're very sensitive to these things, we're very aware of it. But for the studios, they don't care. It's all about the color green. If you put Zhang Ziyi in the film, it has a worldwide market because everyone knows who she is. She's the girl from Crouching Tiger and Rush Hour. Maybe we haven't even see her films but we know it's going to bring in ticket sales. You put in a Japanese actor that nobody knows, the movie has to sell itself, and it's all about content which is riskier. So I think if you spoke to me when I was doing Better Luck Tomorrow, I would have been “you can't do that” and get pissed off. Now, I'm a little older, I've worked within the studio system, and I realize, it's nothing personal. It's about economics.
The best advice I ever got was from a Jewish American agent, and he said, “Look Sung, I don't care what color you are. If you can make me money, you could be blue. It doesn't matter. You don't have to speak one word of English. If you can make money for us, you're going to be put into movies.” And a lot of people point fingers at the actors and say how could you take this role, but Asian Americans need to step back and take a look at themselves. Besides the educated filmgoer, the general public doesn't care about Asian Americans. They're not going to go out to buy a ticket because there are Asian American actors or an Asian American director. Paramount showed us this chart: Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics. And we asked them, where's the yellow part? And they said there is none, because Asians consume like Caucasians. You guys buy, you dress, you read and you're educated like white people. There's no demand for it.
When Better Luck Tomorrow was released, less than 5% of the ticket sales were from Asian Americans. So we also go, maybe it's because of lack of content. And there has been. Slowly though, [as with] Tokyo Drift and The Motel. I've realized that with the younger generation, there is this demand for someone to identify with. So I think there is positive change. But you can talk or argue, and you end up going in circles.
APA: So you're pretty positive that there will be an Asian American audience that will be identifiable within the next generation or so?
SK: I think it's happening now. I'm very positive. I was in New York and I realized [there are] these 13 to 16 year old girls and boys. It's the Fast and the Furious demographic: they want something that's quick – a popcorn movie, a summer action flick. But they see a character that speaks English, and they can identify with him, because he’s American. It just happens [that he’s] this Korean American guy in Tokyo. They like that. They want to see their faces without the kung fu, without the accent, without the emasculation, without and the asexual characterization; and you realize with these girls, they want their idol – they want their Johnny Depp. And you know they're going to go to college, they’re going to be educated, and they’re going to be the ones who are buying the tickets. Because it's not about being Korean American or Chinese or Vietnamese or Japanese. It's just Americans that happen to be Asian. I think it's changing. I felt that.
APA: Your character in Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift tested very well. Has that created more opportunities for you in terms of visibility or juicier roles?
SK: Juicier roles, no. It's too soon. Test screenings have scored very well and it seems like a lot of people enjoyed the character. It has opened doors in terms of meetings, and that's about it. But it's just a bunch of talkety-talk. I've been acting for 12 years now. I'm used to it. It's great. It's a nice pat on the back: you did a good job. But I'm not going to sit around for some guy to call me. And Fast and the Furious is a certain type of movie, and I dont' want to be identified as the guy from Fast and the Furious; I want to be identified as a versatile actor. I have meetings now and I've met people I thought I’d never meet. People want to talk to you: they feel like there's potential to make money off of you. And that's about it. It's talk until the movie's out. So I take it one day at a time. I'm very grateful. Justin created this role and fought for it. But you know, we just gotta keep doing our thing. Justin Lin and the team is getting together right away because we don't want to wait for the studio. We have resources now. We know people. We can raise a limited amount of money. We have the education now of how to get films distributed. We kind of understand the formula. If you make an Asian American movie on a political soapbox, it's gonna remain on your Final Cut Pro system at the corner of your house for you to show to your friends. And that's not how you're going to get fans. Visibility is about getting your movies out there, and it's also about legitimizing yourself to Hollywood, getting non-Asian Americans to think it's a breakthrough. If Asian Americans say “oh the character in Fast and the Furious is great,” no one really cares about that. It's about mainstream Hollywood. If it's a great character and he did a great job as an actor, everyone starts paying attention. The reach is a lot greater. Half the job of the actor is promotion.
APA: Russell, you've been in the game longer. How has your career outlook changed? Have you had to make adjustments?
RW: Yeah this is a game of adjustments, that's for sure. I wanted to do the martial arts thing for a while and I got to a level. I got to work with Jet Li which is where I wanted to be. But I didn't have the resources or I didn't use my resources well enough to do what Sung did and make my own movie. That's what I should have done. But I did the TV thing – Black Sash. It might have been a better decision to make an independent action film. It's just a matter of doing it.
APA: Have there been opportunities you've passed up and regretted?
RW: Yep.[laughs] I passed up the TV series, because I was run down. Doing action 8 days for an episode, 2 action sequences a week – it takes a toll on you. That's why I like film. It's a 22 day shoot; it's less of a grind than 5 months. That's why I like this role in Undoing. Where else am I going to get a chance to do a character like this?
APA: Sung, you mentioned earlier about Asian Americans wanting their own Johnny Depp character, and to me, that means some sort of cool sex icon. In a way, Russell's been filling in that void for the last 15 years. What do you think it's going to take for an Asian American man to attain that level?
SK: When I say the Johnny Depp character, I don't think I mean one type of sexuality, one type of actor, or one type of character. The more films that are made with Asian American actors, the definition of sexuality for an Asian man broadens. I don't think you need to have long hair and chiseled abs and be brooding and smoke cigarettes to be sexy. I think a student at UCLA can be sexy. A guy who lives in Diamond Bar can be sexy. The representation has been so limited.
I think yeah, Russ has been filling that void. Even with Joy Luck Club – it's that animalistic sexuality. It's in-your-face sexuality. But I think that definition needs to broaden a little bit. The more dimensions you put into a character, sexuality eventually comes out. Harrison Ford is a very sexy man. But compared to Johnny Depp, does he hit the 15-16 year old demographic? I don't think so. But his sexuality is very different, it's a different definition.
APA: Do you think that for the representation to change, is it more important for certain roles to be geared towards that, or do you think you as an actor have control over that as well?
SK: Well it always starts with the script. That's the map. You can make a horrible movie out of a good script, but you can't make a good movie out of a bad script. Opportunities for me as an actor to bring out more in a character starts in the script. “Sexy brooding Asian man stands behind the sushi bar yielding knife.” There's only so much I can do with that. So they're going to cast a guy who they think is sexy – maybe have his shirt off with his abs. Is that sexy? No that's not sexy, that's ridiculous.
But if it's a character who's a grad student at UCLA, who has a Brazillian or Spanish girlfriend, who has issues with making money and has to become gigalo, but he comes from a conservative family and he's loved by his family but a parent is dying... You know, if the script can allow the actor to use all these elements to bring out a sense of sexuality or different dimensions, then the audience goes, “Wow, the way he played that was very unique, very sexy.” So it's the story. The more writers we have, the better characters there are, and the more opportunity there is for the actors to create something that hasn't been seen before.
APA: Do you ever look at a character in the script and see that you can bring your own personality?
SK: [I do in] everything I look at, even the bad parts. I remember I auditioned for this guy who was Burmese. It was your quintessential stereotype: guy with a machete works for leading white male. Tarzan and boy basically. And they were like, read like he's sexy and full of power. And I was like, what? How is this guy sexy and full of power – he's waving a machete and eating bananas. So I thought maybe I'll change it and give him a Southern accent instead and it'll be more interesting. So I did it, and they looked at me like I was totally insane. Of course I didn't get it. But that's all they wanted. A guy six feet or taller, with a certain build, with an accent: there are no dimensions to that. You yield a knife. You go and you're the first ones to get killed. But yeah, with everything I do, I try and see what I can bring into it. It doesn't mean I'll necessarily get the job thinking that way. [laughs]
That's what I like about Russ' character, Leon, in Undoing. It was interesting and it was so much fun doing the scene with him and being part of this project. We sit around and talk about lack of opportunity, but then you get to say, "Look what Russ brings to the table.” I remember he'd goof around and do his Christopher Walken thing, and there was so much energy and so much life in it. And we said, that's memorable cinema right there, that's classic. And to see an actor you've admired and respected in the business and to see him do something that you've never seen before, you go "This guy's an actor!" He loves to act; he's very good at what he does.
RW: Yeah, well it's the opportunity to play. It's called a screenplay and you're always going against this ceiling and this wall of being stereotypical, and it takes the play right out of it. You want to fight it, because you want to fight, but it does take the fun right out. So that's why this was so refreshing – hanging out playing cards, making up impersonations. I always do impersonations, and he liked it. It's supposed to be fun.
APA: How did you get involved in this project?
RW: We had mutual friends. We played cards together. They said let's make a movie.
APA: How did the others [Kelly Hu, Leonardo Nam, Bobby Lee] get involved?
SK: Kelly was one of those situations where you see her in The Scorpion King and XMen 2 but I had overheard from a mutual friend of ours that she was really unhappy with her career as an actress. She was in these Hollywood blockbusters and it was great, but after you're on the fifth magazine cover half naked, it gets old quickly. I don't think that's why she became an actress. So I said, what an interesting idea to work with Kelly and ask her to read and tell her to look at the script. And it’s a total 180 of what people are used to seeing her in. I think it's the type of work that would challenge her.
We sent her the script and she passed. I was talking to my mutual friend and saying, “well what is all this bitching about then? Lack of roles, lack of strong Asian American representation, tired of these half naked roles, but you're not even going to read the script?” You’ve got to give the filmmaker enough respect to read the script. That's all we want. I was pretty offended. My friend actually relayed that information to her, and that's when I really gained a lot of respect for her. Because the next day, she came in and she did an amazing job. Which I totally knew; I sensed that she was capable of doing that work. But she wasn't really given the opportunity or chance to get on the plate, to hit a home run. There were a lot of naysayers, a lot of people were skeptical because her body of work represents [one thing], but when she came in, she blew everybody away. Everyone was impressed. So I thought it would be a great marriage where you have these actors where you recognize them in certain films, but you go the opposite direction and see them doing very dramatic work, as actors. It's not about what you look like, it's about what you bring to the table as an actor.
Leonardo Nam comes from theater He's here to act – anything that challenges him.
He came in and hit a home run. Bobby [Lee]. I know Bobby so I thought he'd be perfect for the character. You just look at him and you laugh.
APA: Were any of the parts written for you guys?
APA: Does that happen amongst Asian American films, where someone will write something for you? Because there aren't that many actors around. Does anyone say, “oh this one's a Sung Kang type?”
SK: I think those are the ones you want to run away from. Because then you're not creating anything fresh, you're just mimicking what you did before. I went in an audition once and they said, “can you do what you did in Better Luck Tomorrow?” And I said, “do what?” And they said, “be cool.” And I thought that's retarded. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. If that's what you want, then what are you doing? Are we copying the movie? Better Luck Tomorrow 2? Personally as an actor, if someone says, Russell in Joy Luck Club – that’s what we want, I'd go, see ya. Because you want to bring something new. You want to work on something fresh. But I think it happens. If I'm going to pitch a story to you, it's easier to say, he's like this from this movie. I'm sure it happens.
APA: Well I’d think for a lot of a screenwriters or producers, you'd want to pitch something to a potential investor saying this is something that John Cho could be in.
SK: Yeah well that's different. You can say here's a movie and ideally we'd like to attach John Cho to it. But if you say, remember Harold and Kumar? This is what John's going to be doing in this movie. Then you have to worry. But John's working on a film in New York with the director who directed the motel [Michael Kang], and it's totally different from what John has played before. And the reason he wants to work with John is, first there's the business element because he was in Harold and Kumar and he has a fan base, and number two, John is an actor. And he'll bring something really interesting to the table. And that happens a lot. They say, “I have a project and we'd like to attach Russell to it because he has a set fan base and it would bring this amount of money,” and hopefully investors will say, “Yea, I know who he is.” That happens everywhere. It's a smaller scale within the Asian American community because I don't think yet there is one actor or actress that can greenlight a movie over $2-3 million.
APA: You mention referencing different characters. Your character in Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift has the same name as your character in Better Luck Tomorrow.
SK: Yeah, Justin did that in Annapolis too. Derrick Lu, played by Roger Fan in Better Luck Tomorrow, is Lu in Annapolis. The inside joke is, people always ask what happens to them after high school. So that's our way of saying, well maybe they went there.
There're actually discussions that have broke out in the forums. They actually have arguments about it. "It is the same Han, because he was into muscle cars, and he had to leave town and he probably went to Mexico and that's where he met Vin Diesel." And you're like, that's stupid. And there's a line in Better Luck Tomorrow where they say "Fast and furious.” And these kids go, look Justin already knew! [laughs] Justin did not know he was going to direct Fast and the Furious. There was no way he knew!
APA: What demographic do you think these kids are? Are they young?
SK: I'm not sure. But they're definitely educated. I think the Better Luck Tomorrow demographic is a very educated aware fan base. I don't think it's a kid from South Central or the Midwest who would go see Better Luck Tomorrow because it's probably not even available. If they go to the video store, it's probably in the foreign section anyway. So it's probably an Asian American group talking. College fans of Better Luck Tomorrow are aware of the inside scoop. That's my assumption. It's probably people like us.
APA Interview with Tamlyn Tomita
Date Posted: 9/7/2006