The Scene Stealer: An Interview with Ken Leung

The Scene Stealer: An Interview with Ken Leung

For those casually observing the industry, it's easy to forget Ken Leung, a modest young actor on the margins. For those who have seen his mesmerizing performances in Keeping the Faith, Lost, and The Sopranos, forgetting is not so easy. Asia Pacific Arts talks with Ken Leung about breaking into acting and breaking the rules.

By Oliver Wang

Though Ken Leung's first major movie role came as the henchman Sang in 1998's Rush Hour, it was a much smaller role, in 2000's Keeping the Faith, that left a more indelible impression. In that comedy about inter-faiths and crossed romances, Edward Norton and Ben Stiller enter an electronics shop, searching for a karaoke machine. In saunters Leung as Dong ("rhymes with flung!") singing Rick Springfield's '80s hit "Jessie's Girl" with the awkward, accented bravado of a proto-Will Hung.

The audience gets it -- Dong is an immigrant Chinatown hustler, out to fast talk Norton's priest and Stiller's rabbi into overspending. But then, in a moment of largesse inspired by Dong getting "a piece of ass last night," he brings the two in close, and utters, with a perfect New York accent, "alright, here's the real deal." As Leung himself describes, viewers react by thinking, "a minute ago I was offended, now I love this guy."

That ability to surprise and confound expectations has been true for many of Leung's roles, especially of late where he's gone from modest bits on shows like Law & Order and movies such as Saw to some of popular culture's most heralded projects. The 38 year-old New York native ended 2006 as both an evil mutant (X-Men: The Last Stand) and bank robbery victim (Inside Man), then began 2007 as Junior Soprano's mental ward mate in a memorable episode from the final season of HBO's The Sopranos.

That role led directly to where people can find him most recently -- on the fourth season of ABC's hit show Lost. As "ghost whisperer" Miles Straume, Leung's presence on the famed island was one reason the show has regained some of the critical acclaim it lost with last year's overwrought season.

Last but not least, 2007 also saw the release of Kern Konwiser and David Ren's independent feature film Shanghai Kiss, where Leung plays the dramatic (and romantic) lead opposite both Kelly Hu and Hayden Panettiere. In the film, Leung is cast as... an Asian American actor struggling in Hollywood, a role that allowed Leung to channel some of his own experiences as an actor of color. In a nice twist where real life exceeds fiction, in his Sopranos and Lost roles, Leung has been able to achieve something that his Shanghai Kiss character struggled with: finding opportunities to act where his personal race/ethnicity is secondary, even irrelevant.

APA's Oliver Wang caught up with Leung over the phone in Oahu where Leung recently returned to finish filming this strike-delayed season of Lost.

Asia Pacific Arts: Before you got back to Hawaii, you had been in New York, rehearsing for a play?

Ken Leung: Yeah, I spent the last month or so rehearsing this new play that opened last night. I had to leave three days before previews, but left it in good hands though.

APA: Were you not able to participate in it because of the production schedule for Lost?

KL: Yeah, I had to leave.

APA: I'm curious how the writer's strike impacted what you were able to do at the time in which everything was in limbo, because I know production was halted. Were you able to do some side projects?

KL: I did some readings, I rehearsed this play. Things here and there.

APA: How do you balance your work in film and television with your stage work, because I know it's a big part of your career.

KL: I don't know. I try to balance it the best that I can as they come. I try to return to the plays as much as I can. You get to rehearse things, and you get to take part in good material, in ways that you can't when you're doing network television. You get to collaborate on something, and it's really closer to what I do.

APA: Can you elaborate on that?

KL: When you rehearse a play, you get to sit down with the writer and the director, and you get to read it through, you get to have input, you get to talk about it and ask questions, and you get to spend time with the material. So, that's obviously more preferable than just showing up somewhere and it's: "This scene is about this, so do this." 

APA: Based on what I've read and heard about the acting experience on a show like Lost, where because everything is kept so under wraps, you often don't have a sense of where the character is going beyond the episode you're filming, I'm wondering what kind of challenges that brings in terms of preparing for the role.

KL: It's really hard, because you're kind of preparing in a bubble, and you're not sure if you're in a vacuum. You prepare the scenes that you're doing so they make sense to you, and you're coming from some perspective, and it's really up to you to make decisions on why you do things or what you're after. Meanwhile, you know that it's your own concoction, and you really don't know how it ultimately fits into the grand scheme of the story. So it leaves you feeling a little isolated in that sense. So it's really hard. I'm finding it really hard.

APA: When you first signed on to play Miles, how much did you know about the role that you'd be playing in terms of backstory?

KL: Nothing, almost nothing. They just said: come over here, just be present, trust, and just kind of play with it.

APA: Did you audition or were you approached for this?

KL: I didn't audition for it. The creators saw my episode in the Sopranos, liked it, and called. It was as simple as that.

APA: Not a bad way to go through things compared to the rigamarole that you might have to go through.

KL: I would rather go through the rigamarole. I don't know why, but I love auditioning. And if I'm not right for the part, then I shouldn't be doing it. And if I am, then I get to audition for it, and I get to begin the process of it. Whereas if someone asks you to come over and play some unknown, yet to be determined, never explained role, you're in the dark. Although I do understand that that is their process, and it's not unique to me at all. Every actor on the show faces the same predicament, and some actors don't see it as a predicament. Some actors love not knowing, or don't need to know, so there's something to be said for that.

APA: Production for each show must take place months ahead of time. Now that the episodes are airing and you see how your character fits in as a puzzle piece to a larger portrait, what has your experience been?

KL: I haven't been watching.

APA: Is that circumstantial or purposeful?

KL: No, it's deliberate. I didn't want to be distracted to the point that suddenly I have a relationship with the show where I'm the audience, and I have to go back and then watch myself. It gets a little confusing.

APA: So in essence, you have no real idea about what's going on, outside of the script you're given?

KL: Yeah, pretty much so. I'm beginning to accept that that's the case and maybe I don't need to know as much as maybe I would like to... just take it scene by scene and play it from a truthful place. I'm thinking, in the end, I'll learn a little something I didn't know before about how TV shows like this work, and that's also part of being an actor. You have to learn what the animal is that you're in.

APA: I was wondering if we could take a small step back and talk about what's happened in the past year. You've gone from having a fairly significant role in X-Men 3, you're in an episode of the Sopranos' final season, you're in Shanghai Kiss as your first major lead in a feature film, and now Lost. It seems like a pretty impressive set of roles that you've landed. What's the experience like for you in terms of going through all these high profile projects, all around a small period of time?

KL: I don't think of them that way. I don't think of them as high profile or low profile. They're just different stories that you're trying to tell. I remember Shanghai Kiss came in the middle of a particularly hectic year, both professionally and personally. So when I think back on Shanghai Kiss, I think yeah, that was the summer of 2005. That's when this and that happened. I mean, being an actor, you're not in the position to chart your course. It's pretty much one step at a time.

APA: You were saying before that you got the role on Lost because they saw you on The Sopranos. Talk a bit about that role.

KL: That was really great. It's probably one of my best experiences, in no small part due to Dominic Chianese, who played Uncle Junior. We really bonded right away and we remain friends to this day, which is a rare occurrence when you're just meeting people for a short period of time. We really had a connection right away and it was very freeing to have a scene partner who was with you at all times. I felt free to play around and trust myself and trust the process. It was really great.

APA: You guys have very good chemistry in that episode. Was it something that you were recruited for, or did you audition for the role?


KL: No, I auditioned for it. I remember I was totally off the mark in my interpretation. 'Cause I was like: "Oh, he's in a mental institution, he's crazy." I went in kind of in a state. And they were like, "okay that's not it." [laughs] "But we like your chutzpah in taking it there." So that made them interested.

APA: And in preparing for that, knowing that you're not supposed to play a conventionally crazy person, how did you get into the mindset of what the character was supposed to be?

KL: That's such a hard question because I don't fix stereos, so it's not like I plug this in here and I reconnect these fuses and then bingo. I don't know. I don't know how to answer that. I know that the character's predicament had a lot to do with his history with his parents, in particular his father, and so I guess in answer to your question, my preparation went there. His attraction to Uncle Junior was based on him seeing him as a father figure, and needing a father figure, and so your preparation comes from that starting point. Why is that? What does the father figure mean to him? These things are hard. If I were to ask you, "Hey Oliver, what does your father mean to you?," it's a very hard question. It's not like my father means this or that.

APA: Right. How much time you got, right?

KL: It's really a feeling-based preparation. But that was the starting place: his family relations. I was going to say that when you play a "crazy" character, it's important to remember that they're not crazy. Their reality is different, as is true for all of us. All our realities are different, so you just have connect to that.

APA: One of the things with that character, and also with a lot of the characters I've seen you play over the years, which has struck me about your work, is that even though the bulk of your work has been dramatic, most of your characters have, not quite a comedic, but maybe a sardonic streak. You rarely play things straight. There's almost always a dry, withering wit, no matter what the character is. I see it in Miles. It was there in the Sopranos and in other roles I've seen you in.

KL: That's funny that you say sardonic because on Lost, every time I ask for help or a direction or something, that's what the director says: "Do it sardonically." It's become maddening. [laughs] So I've learned to not ask for help from this particular director anymore, because that is seriously the only direction that he has ever given me. He's probably said this half a dozen times. More sardonic. Say it sardonically.

APA: I'm wondering where that comes from. Is that something that's reflective of your general personality or is it something that you've molded into your roles?

KL: What's an example?

APA: I think, looking at Miles in Lost, the reason why the director uses the word sardonic is that there's always this sort of slightly sarcastic, but not mean or aggressive...

KL: Well, Miles is written that way, or he has been written that way so far. It's been in the script. It'll say "he says this sardonically." Or gallows humor. So it's written in, as far as Miles is concerned.

APA: But with Shanghai Kiss, your character has a layer of bitterness that is in his character. In the way I interpret it as an audience member is that there's a comedic quality to it -- funny about seeing you be bitter.

KL: Why do you think that is? Why is it funny to you? I'm not disagreeing, but is it because there's an element of truth to it?

APA: To me, I think I associate it with a very New York attitude in some ways. That sardonicness is a way of indicating that you're smarter than other people in the room. You don't flaunt it, but it comes across in a way where you're able to demonstrate that you are ahead of the game. To me, I think of you as a comedic actor, but not in a conventional Jim Carrey sense.

KL: Yeah.

APA: It's not really a physical humor, but there's a very humorous element in terms of how the characters come across. It's that intangible that I'm trying to get at.

KL: Yea, well that's as interesting to me as it is to you. I mean, I don't go in with a certain quality I'm trying to get across, so it's interesting when I hear that. It's also interesting to me when I notice that. I think I'm just trying to get to the bottom. I'm trying to tell the truth, and maybe it comes across that way.


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Published: Friday, May 30, 2008