By 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 protÃ©gÃ© 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.
You 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.”
Besides “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.