By APA Staff
Leonardo Nam had his breakout role in Brian Robbins' The Perfect Score, the SAT heist also starring Scarlett Johansson and Erika Christensen. Before the final cut of the movie was put together, the test audiences' reaction to Nam's performance as the stoner Roy was so favorable that the filmmakers re-edited the film to tell the story from Roy's point of view. Clearly, Nam made a memorable impact in his first mainstream Hollywood movie.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nam, of Korean descent, spent most of his life growing up in Sydney, Australia. He had studied architecture at the University of New South Wales, but always knew in his heart that he wanted to act-- that he needed to act. At 19, at the urging of his acting coach, he decided to take the plunge and move to New York with almost nothing in his pocket to pursue his dream. He even spent a night sleeping outside on a bench in Central Park-- a low point that only gave him the strength and confidence to realize that he had the capability to overcome any hardship.
With his various and multicultural surroundings growing up, it is no surprise that Leonardo Nam loves to travel--a skill that will do him well with the multiple projects that are coming up on his plate: Debating Robert Lee, Little Athens, Red Doors and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
With his unconventionally piercing looks, laid-back sense of humor, and that Australian accent girls seem to love, Leonardo Nam is definitely one to watch in the future, for his great passion for film both in front of and behind the camera. -- Ada Tseng
Interviewed by Jennifer Chong and Ada Tseng
Interview Date: June 1, 2004
Transcription by Meina Banh
APA: Please introduce yourself.
Nam: I was born in Argentina, Buenos Aires. I was there until 6 [years of age] or something, and then moved to Australia with my parents. My parents are Korean, I guess. They moved from Korea to Argentina, and got married in Argentina, Buenos Aires. That's where I was born.
APA: What is your career timeline?
Nam: Well, I've been kind of doing theater acting for awhile. I used to do church plays and stuff like that. I used to write them with my brother, and all that type of jazz. Well, when I first went to a university, there was the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) right behind us. I studied architecture, and the school was literally opposite of the National Institute. So, I would get off the bus, and the school was on the right hand side, and my school was on the left. For this whole year, I was thinking, "F*ck, I need to go right," but I always had to go left to study architecture. After about a year, I was like, "F*ck it, I cant live in the ‘what if'." I just said, "F*ck it. I need to do this full time and I needed to try it."
After I did it [architecture] for a year, I auditioned and I kept getting called back, and getting through, getting through, getting through, until the final round. It was like well known at NIDA that the youngest person ever accepted was 24 or something like that. Or 23, and I was 18, you know? So I'm in the final round, and everyone knew about this. I'm the youngest kid there, and everyone else is 25. I'm like, "F*ck, this is cool, I'm down here." Finally, I got to the final round. It was the end of the speeches and the dean of the school pulls me aside and says, "Leo, you know, I want you to realize why I'm telling you this. I also want you to realize why I'm doing this, and why you've gotten this far." So, I was like, "Oh, what the f*ck are you talking about?" He was like, " Leo, you need to have an orgy. That's what you need to do." I was like, "What the f*ck are you talking about? A f*cken orgy?" He said, "Well you've got the heart for it, but you don't have the scars for it."
Needless to say, I didn't get in that year. I went to my acting coach, and she said, "I'm really glad he said that because I've set up an audition in New York." So I said, "Oh alright. F*ck it, I'll leave." Two weeks later, I left for New York with twenty bucks in my back pocket, auditioned, got into the school, and got into the classes I wanted. So essentially, I moved to New York when I just turned 19. It was essentially like, "Boom, this is it, this is what I gotta do--that's it."
APA: So what was it like to grow up in Australia and how did that shape how you saw Hollywood?
Nam: Well, Australia was kind of like different. Australia was cool, but there is a sense of isolation. You understand that you are so far away, but at the same time, there is a sense of acceptance. Everything is okay. It is like, "Oh sure, don't worry. You'll be fine." That kind of helped me. It allowed me to get along with basically being a Korean person who was born in Argentina, living in Australia--that juxtaposition. That's kind of weird, but a beautiful aspect of it. It helped me to allow things to roll off my back, and see the other side of the line. Australia is good. I mean, if I had kids and stuff, I would bring them up in Australia. That's the kind of atmosphere I'd like to bring my kids up in. You know?
APA: We kind of addressed this earlier, but has architecture been helpful in any way in your life now?
Nam: Oh yes, definitely. I mean, I love design. I love ergonomics. I love the environment. What it kind of taught me is that it's kind of like acting and how you approach life-- everything is about the result. Everyone just sees the building; everyone just sees Frank Gehry's design and they don't see the process that goes in before that. Going into school for that year was like...they really broke us down. I had to understand how models were made, how a different brick would affect this and that, how it would affect the environment, and how all the little pieces come together and work simultaneously together. That's how it really is with a play or a film. Everyone has their own specific job or whatever, but it's all pointing towards the same direction. Everyone has to work collaboratively in that one way so it kind of taught me about that.
Architecture was also a great way to learn about life. They wanted you to go out and travel. They wanted you to go out and actually see the buildings that we were talking about. They wanted you to go out and see that a building also reflects its time period. You can't just build a building any where; it has to relate to its surroundings and all that kind of stuff. It's interesting because a lot of those aspects, I still bring into the work that I do now because it's so much of a collaborative work. Everyone thinks it's result oriented, but it's actually background work. A lot of it I still bring into work.
APA: That's a great analogy, actually. Acting can be a very tough profession, as you know. I read that at one point, it got so tough that you were unable to tip the taxi driver, and you even slept on the benches of Central Park. How were you able to make ends meet at that time in your life?
Nam: Yeah, through a lot of bludgeoning, and a lot of asking for things. I didn't really see it as such a tough time. It was kind of a fun period in my life when I look back at it.
I just arrived in New York City, and I didn't have a place to stay. I mean, right now it would be absurd to be somewhere and not have a place to stay. But, that was the kind of spurt that I was in, where I was like, "F*ck it! I just need to go. I just need to get the f*ck outta here and do this." You kind of always find a way to make ends meet. After I've gone through that, I kind of realized that I could do anything and get through anything. You know, I really can. I mean, I didn't have a place to stay. I didn't know anyone in New York City. I didn't have a f*cking clue on what I was doing, and yet you find a way through. You find a way to be resourceful. Right now, it empowers me because I believe I can do it. I believe that other people can do it too. Coming from nothing really, I'm still alive. I'm eating. That's important.
APA: And you have a place to stay.
Nam: Yeah, and I have a place to stay. I have a place in New York and LA, so it's okay now.
APA: Along the same lines, there are so many actors out there, especially minority actors, who struggle hard to get where you are today. You obviously struggled to earn what you have today. What do you think enabled you to be in the privileged position that you are in today? What was it that distinguished you from the thousands of other eager actors?
Nam: Well, I don't know. There's a mixture. I believe that persistence, consistency, and passion (those three mixed), will lead you. Yes, there is a lot of competition. There's a lot of competition with everything. I just find that those three elements put together for the duration of your life will really pave a way for you. Whether you are a lighting designer, an actor, or whatever, I find that if you have those three elements, eventually there's enough work for everyone. You have to be in it for the right reasons. Like I said, so if I was a Wall Street broker, there is enough money for me there, if that's what I want. If the reasons are right, there will be enough for everyone. So that's ultimately what helped me to distinguish who I am.
I'm still learning, but I don't know. It's been a blessing-- teaching me about life, and teaching me about who I am, to have the three elements. I was very adamant about being consistent in my work, and consistently being out there. I was willing to sacrifice parts of my life, whether it was going out with friends, or doing this or doing that, so that I could shoot a film the next day. Even if I had no money, [I] just [wanted] to be able to show up. I believe that if you get paid for something, as respect, you need to show up-- you need to be there. That's where I've built my self up, and I still need to do it. Who knows what's going to happen? I believe that there's enough work for everyone out there.
APA: You were singled out for a reason in The Perfect Score. They labeled you as "one to watch," and a "natural scene stealer." Also, many celebrated your performance for being a non-stereotypical Asian character. So, was all that a validating experience for you?
Nam: It's always wonderful when you receive an "A" on your test. But it's like a catch-22, because you need to do the work for yourself. Before the film was shooting, I had gone in and said that I had some ideas about the character. It wasn't fighting, rather, it was talking and questioning about it--the way trust needs to be built between the actor and the director. Ultimately, I'm trying to serve his vision. It was kind of unexpected. You do your work, you forget about it, and when the grade comes in, then so be it. At the same time, I remember the same time people were saying, "They're either gonna love you or they're gonna f*cking hate you." I remember the other cast-mates saying that.
This was sort of my big chance. I was part of an ensemble league in a studio film, and I thought, "F*ck it, if I don't do it now, I don't know when the f*ck I'm going to do it." I did it, and wonderfully enough. Thank god it came out positive. I mean, I read some reviews that were pretty f*ucking horrible, and I was like, "What the f*ck?" But, so be it. I'm happy with the work. I believe that at the end of the day, when you and I are dead, and our beliefs have come and gone, our work will stand. At the end of the day, that's something you can't argue with. There it is; it's the choices I've made. It's everything that I've put my heart and soul into. There it is. Point blank-- do what you will, but there's my work.
APA: You're a very versatile person. You've done Broadway, independent films, and you're also very well versed in dancing. I mean, you do ballroom dancing, swing, tap, and hip-hop. Now that you've experienced and accomplished so much, I'm sure that you have more options in terms of selecting roles. What would be your dream role?
Nam: I don't know, the dream roles are kind of always interesting. I don't know if there's a dream role out there, because once you get that role, then what's going to happen? You know what I mean? The beautiful aspect of what I do and the world that I live in is that we receive the opportunity to breathe life into the souls who would otherwise be unheard. Like when you go to a restaurant, I'm interested in the people, not the waiter or the beautiful and charming people. I'm kind of interested in the person that is in the kitchen like the dish-washer, the janitor, or what-have-you. I'm kind of interested in people that aren't on the radar, traditionally speaking. Those are the kinds of roles that I'm most interested in playing.
I just read a beautiful script--on the surface, it's about this guy who goes through this breakdown, but when you bleep past it, it's reflective of a lot of the souls that were in the student revolution in China, Beijing. That's kind of what interests me the most. At the moment, no one is going to blatantly make a movie about the student revolution, but it [the script] deals with the same theme and issues as that. That's the type of stuff that really interests me. You know? And porno. [Laughs].
APA: On that note, how has your family reacted to your success?
Nam: Well, my relative amount of success...it's been good. It's been interesting because my mother was so adamantly against doing this. She still is to a certain extent, but she's loosening up to what I'm doing. She's realizing that there can be life and all that type of stuff. I think I've opened her up to what I can do. I'm not just an actor. There are many different aspects within that because it's a team effort. Whether you're the writer, the producer, or you're this or that, you can be involved in several different areas. I've kind of opened her mind up to that, but she's still very set in her ways, you know? She wants me to establish the "normal" way of life, but she's loosening up.
When I flew her over for the premiere and stuff, she was like "Oh my god. It's all flashy and stuff," with the five star hotel, limos, being on the red carpet, and seeing the premiere and opening nationwide--she's never experienced that before. She, at one moment, she turned to me. Well, she thought first of all that I made up a lot of this stuff, and what I'm telling her on the phone. I gave her a poster, and I was actually in the car with some of the other cast-mates. We were going to the Cold Mountain premiere. Oh, and I think the premiere was at UCLA because I remember driving down Sunset. Anyway, I'm in my mate's car, and my mom calls, so I'm on the phone with all the other cast-mates [around]. We're all chatting and laughing, and they realize it was my mom, so they all become quiet. She goes, "Oh Leo, I received your poster!" I was like, "Cool! That's great." She goes, "Oh, they put extras on the poster?" I was like, "Mom, I'm not a f*cken extra. What are you talking about?" [Laughs]. All of the cast-mates are looking at me like, "Have you spoken to your mom about what's going on?" But, she's loosened up a lot. When she went to the premiere and saw the film, and saw that I wasn't just a "one scene" character, she looked at me and she said, "Oh, you're a good actor." So, she kind of validated that aspect of me. But, to see what's going to happen over the next five years, who knows?
APA: So how did it make you feel when she [Leo's mom] said to you that you're a good actor?
Nam: Oh, I was like, "Finally!" Well, you know, people always want validation from their parents. It helped me. It's like when someone squeezes your hand for a bit. It's like, "It's okay." So she's been more and more supportive, and that's great. It's a great feeling.
APA: So you've been on all these teen magazines as a "heartthrob." What's that been like for you?
Nam: [Laughs] It's rigged! No, it's always funny. It's always strange, because I'm thinking, "Who the hell picks these people?" I don't know. But, it's fun to get a little laugh. Well, I don't know what to say so I'm like, "Well, okay." I don't know.
APA: It's flattering, I'm sure.
Nam: Yeah, it's flattering. It's very flattering.
APA: Do you get a lot of attention? I mean, do you have legions of teenage fans?
Nam: Legions? Yes. I would use that word, yes.
APA: Can you go to the mall? Are you mobbed all the time?
Nam: All the time. No, every now and then, someone will come up to me. The other day I was over at the Coffee Bean, and it's pretty packed at the one I went to. There's a line out the door, and I'm waiting. I had to go to a meeting, and all I was thinking was, "Get my f*cking coffee. I want my f*cking coffee. I want to get the f*ck out of here." It was taking forever. Mind you, I get to the counter, and this guy was looking at me like, "Hmm." I was like, "Well, I'll have my blah blah blah." He was like, "What?" So I was like, "Oh I'll have my blah blah blah." So he said, "Oh. Okay" and punches it in. I pay him, and he just keeps looking at me, and he's nudging to other people. I was like, "Just give me my f*cking coffee. I don't care." It just makes me feel kind of weird when people are staring at you and you don't know why. So, as I'm getting my coffee, he said, "You're Roy, right?" I was like, "What? No, I'm Leo." He was like, "Oh. No, you play Roy right?" So I said, "Oh yeah." Then he goes, "Hey! He's from the Perfect Score." Everyone from the Coffee Bean was like, "Oh, I loved you in this!" That's interesting. So it'll happen every now and then.
APA: That must be fun.
Nam: Yeah, it's like it's really flattering when it happens. It happened at the post office and when I was walking through The Grove and stuff.
APA: What are some of the projects that you're working on right now?
Nam: I'm actually in LA shooting a film called Little Athens right now, which is a great, great script. It's being directed by a guy called Tom Zuber. I shoot that until June 7th. Then, I go to New York to shoot a film called Red Doors, which is f*cking phenomenal. I love this project. I will shoot that until the end of the month or something. Then, I go to Vancouver to shoot a movie called The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It's a series of books for teenage girls, which they're making into a series of films. In the first film The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, my character comes in at the tail end of the first movie, and it goes in through the second movie, and on like that--that's for Warner Brothers. I'm only in a few scenes in the first movie, but in the second film there are lovers and the conflict that happens, which I'll shoot later on in the year. So I shoot that, and then I go to New York [to do a film]. I don't know if this is going to happen, but it's a movie called Laid. That'll take me off into the summer. Hopefully, I'll shoot a film in Australia. Fingers crossed, we'll see. Those are the projects that I have lined up.
APA: Did you mention Debating Robert Lee?
Nam: Oh yeah, I finished that film previously.
APA: When does that come out?
Nam: At the moment, I don't know if it's going to make the deadline for the Toronto Film Festival--that's where it'll have its premiere. But if not, then maybe Sundance, or something after that.
APA: What is it about?
Nam: Debating Robert Lee is about this teacher that comes into our lives. What seems like a regular class, a regular debating class--what actually happens is that he teaches about life and ourselves, but more importantly, we teach him about himself. He's going through his own struggles in life. We're going through our own, and it's about how we kind of come together. It's this motley crew of people. It's about the judgments we make on other people, and the judgments we make on ourselves because of our parents. There's a little bit of that. It's kind of intertwined together.
APA: So are you interested in writing and directing?
Nam: Oh yeah. Definitely. Definitely. Definitely. You know, I'm writing something now and we'll see what happens. I've just kind of dabbled with that, but we'll see what happens. Directing is something that I'm definitely interested in.
APA: Who were your role models in this industry?
Nam: I don't know about this industry, but in life, there are certain people that you have to mold yourself into. [The] number one person that always kind of sticks in my mind is Sidney Poitier. I think that he's such a phenomenal person for what he stands for. I also believe in how he kind of broke a lot of barriers for African American people and colored people. In the same way, I'd kind of like to transfer that to where we are today, and hopefully break boundaries and pave the way for others that come along who are Asian, Indian, or whatever. He's just someone that I think is a phenomenal actor. And the choices of roles he's been offered and has been able to get... I think it's just impeccable. I love him. And, of course, Denzel Washington. I mean, who doesn't love the work that he does? There's a lot of belief that I have in Sidney Poitier. I just think that he's phenomenal.
APA: Okay. Well, thank you for your time.
Nam: Thank you.