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Interview: Ken Leung on “Year of the Fish”

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08272008_kenleung1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

38-year-old New York actor Ken Leung (“Rush Hour,” “Saw,” “The Squid and the Whale”) may have only gigged on a single episode of “The Sopranos” (as Junior Soprano’s violent protégé in a psychiatric hospital), but it was enough to inspire producers to write him into another TV pop phenomenon, “Lost.” As brooding spiritualist Miles Straume, one of the elusive strangers to parachute onto the island, Leung brings to the role both quiet menace and caustic wisecracks.

Leung can also be seen in writer/director David Kaplan’s rotoscope-animated indie “Year of the Fish,” a contemporary retelling of the Cinderella fairytale set in a seedy massage parlor and the streets of Chinatown. Leung costars as Johnny, an accordion player who may also be the Prince Charming to disillusioned immigrant Ye Xian (An Nguyen). Notoriously shy, Leung graciously offered up a phone interview from Hawaii while preparing to shoot his next puzzling episode of “Lost.”

When the Washington Post profiled you in May, they said you specialize “in playing creepy and intense characters.” Do you think that’s true, or is it just how you’ve been cast?

I guess it’s probably true from an observer’s point of view, but it’s not anything I was ever conscious of. Maybe since “Rush Hour” was one of the first [jobs] I ever did, it was a first impression thing, and then I started to get cast in stuff like that. If I’m in a room full of intense people, I’m pretty normal. If I’m in a room full of people aren’t, maybe I’m intense. I don’t know, I don’t think of it that way.

Perhaps you’re attracted to roles with those traits?

I haven’t been in a position to have the luxury to pick roles for most of my career, so I’m not practiced in that. Usually, when you want to be an actor, you take whatever comes along. If there’s an audition, you go for it. If you get the job, you do it — just to get experience, to act, to meet people.

Then in hindsight, what have you enjoyed most about the projects you’ve worked on? Have there been any standout experiences?

Yeah. I did this thing for HBO called “Strip Search” with Sidney Lumet, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. We actually had a rehearsal period before we shot, which is unusual. We shot pretty much in sequence. I played an interrogator, it took place in one room, and so it felt like a play. Sidney directed it such that I felt unafraid and encouraged to give feedback. I had some idea about my part, so I called Tom Fontana, the writer. They actually put in something that accommodated my idea, so I felt like a part of [things] more than anything else I’ve ever done. Sidney’s amazing. He makes you feel like you can make no mistakes; anything is worth trying.

What is it about Lumet that put you at ease?

From the get-go, I think it was his personality. He’s very calm. He’s very no-nonsense, but he’s not scary. And he reads with you, so you don’t feel there’s this omnipotent eye watching your audition. Also, once he sees what he likes, he stops the audition. He’s schooled enough in the process and knows what he wants in actors to not have to go through the whole rigmarole. He’s really a fathering presence on the set. He loves what he’s doing. That’s infectious.

08272008_kenleung2.jpgYou were raised on the Lower East Side, not far from where “Year of the Fish” takes place. What do you remember about Chinatown from your youth?

I grew up there in the ’70s. One of the things I miss most is the movie theaters. There were, like, five theaters, none of which are there anymore. I remember being taken to see movies [in] these cavernous, dark halls, and the floor was really sticky with gum or whatever. I remember my first experiences of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan — and Chow Yun Fat, when he used to do romantic comedies before he became this hardcore, gun-toting kind of character.

One [theater] was three blocks from where I lived on East Broadway, but it’s not there anymore — The Pagoda, I think it was called. One night they had a live performance, like a variety show. There was noise in the back of the auditorium, and then gunshots. Everybody hit the ground. I still don’t know what happened, but probably some gang came in to disturb the proceedings, and I remember thinking it was really exciting. [laughs] There was yelling and whatever, then the show continued, and nobody left. It was as if nothing happened. I fell asleep after that. Nothing in the show was more exciting than that.

When “Year of the Fish” premiered at Sundance in 2007, a question was asked about Asian-Americans of different backgrounds all playing Chinese. What has your experience been like as a Chinese-American actor, in terms of the roles that come your way?

There are a lot of marginalized roles still. I had an audition — this isn’t so long ago — where they wanted somebody with a Japanese accent. I didn’t have one, so I worked on it two or three days. I called a couple of Japanese friends: “Can you read my script over the phone and have me hear the accent?” I went to the audition, and I bumped into a Middle Eastern friend, and I was like, “Oh, so they’re looking for a Middle Eastern accent, too.” He said, “They don’t really know what they’re talking about. Do your Chinese accent. As long as it sounds Asian, they’ll assume it sounds Japanese.” I went in there, I did my Japanese accent, and you could tell from their faces that they were like, “What is that? Can you do it without an accent now?”

On another experience, [another auditioner] commented on how great my English was. The problem is not so simple as saying, “Oh, we’re being discriminated against because there are so many marginal roles. They just want an Asian face.” It goes deeper than that. It comes from a certain insensitivity, or wanting a superficial aspect for their film, without really knowing what they’re asking for. Sometimes you feel like [you’re] only there because they want some color in their cast. That’s a complicated thing. You can’t just say, “write more roles that are important for us,” because they’re coming from a place of not knowing what an Asian-American experience is, or means. That takes looking into, and they have to want to look into that. It would have to be part of whatever story they’re trying to tell. It gets murky there.

I saw your YouTube clip endorsing Barack Obama. Have you long been politically active, or were you simply inspired by his campaign?

It was him. I’m still not politically active. There’s something about him where I feel like I’m watching a person instead of a package. You ask politicians a question and they have an answer. It’s almost like the more articulate the answer, the more something feels wrong because that question takes thought. The thing I like about him is that he does the thinking. You can almost track him working through his answer. I like that. I was asked by a friend to do that , and I was like: “I’ve never done anything like this before, I’m not sure what I’m going to say, but I guess I can riff and see what happens.”

08272008_kenleung3.jpgBesides “Rush Hour,” you also worked with director Brett Ratner on “Red Dragon” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.” What could you say about him that we don’t already know?

[laughs] What everyone thinks about him is pretty right on. He doesn’t censor himself. He’s like a child with very expensive toys. He has a great time on set, like a child, and so there’s good and bad that comes with that… Hmm, Brett Ratner anecdotes. Let me meditate on that.

That’s fine, we’ll move on. “Year of the Fish” transposes fairy tales for Chinese superstition. Are you superstitious about anything?

I have an awareness of a spiritual realm, and I see signs that I feel speak to me — I don’t know if that falls into superstition. Last season on “Lost,” there was a scene that’d been cut, so nothing really came of it. My character was telling a story… I’m trying to negotiate this because I’m not really allowed to talk about “Lost” stuff… I was talking about about a man who lost his family, and he had 12 kids. There was a tragic accident and they all died. I remember having trouble with it because I had to personalize the story so I’m not just spewing from a script. I don’t have any kids, and beyond the obvious tragedy of a father losing 12 kids, how do I connect to this?

I was walking to get dinner, maybe two nights before the scene was to be shot. I walked by what looked like a postcard on the ground. Something about it made me stop. It was a photograph of a children’s party. [The girl] in the middle had a birthday hat on, and there were balloons; it was obviously her birthday. Suddenly, I had faces to go with this story. There were exactly 12 kids in the picture. Things like that happen to me a lot. It used to floor me, but now I see them as “Wow, somebody’s helping me,” or the universe is built so that if you kept your eyes and heart open, you’ll never be lost. So, things like that, I don’t see as superstition; I see it as a realm of reality that, if you’re open to it, is there. Superstition seems like something to fear: Don’t walk on the crack on the floor. I don’t think bad things are waiting to us, I think good things are.

And real quick, how does “Lost” end?

I’m the island. [laughs]

[Photos: Ken Leung; Leung in “Year of the Fish,” Gigantic Releasing, 2008; Leung in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 2006]

“Year of the Fish” opens in New York and San Francisco on August 29th.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.