When Better Luck Tomorrow stormed through the film festival circuit in 2002, a new generation of Asian American actors, including Sung Kang, were introduced to Hollywood. The fact that they all arrived at once, in one generation-defining film, made the impact even greater. Looking back 14 years ago, one would not expect the trajectory of Better Luck Tomorrow to lead to two blockbuster franchises: Star Trek (starring John Cho and directed by Justin Lin) and The Fast and the Furious. Since The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was released 10 years ago, Sung Kang has been a fan favorite among the series with his dry sense of humor, laid back attitude, and of course breaking Asian American male stereotypes with his on-screen romance with the next Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot.
We recently spoke with Sung Kang, who is in two films screening at this year’s CAAMFest, about his favorite roles, current projects in the works…and finding inspiration in mimes.
—Cynthia Brothers and Vu-Bang Nguyen
CAAM: Do you have a favorite memory about coming to CAAMFest?
Sung Kang: This kind of dates me, but I was around when CAAMFest was called NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association, which produced the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) My favorite memory was during the Better Luck Tomorrow times—it was the first time I ever sensed there was an Asian American community that supported actors and filmmakers and if it wasn’t for festivals like NAATA or CAAMFest, then I wouldn’t be here today talking to you. It gave us hope and purpose to have a community rallying behind us. The whole Better Luck Tomorrow screening around that time was after Sundance and it was really important to me. That was my fondest memory of that festival.
What do you like about visiting the Bay Area?
My fondest memory of San Francisco was getting clam chowder by the pier. When I was a kid, the pier was actually the thing that inspired me to be an entertainer. I would see mimes, they would make me laugh and tear up. It was great to see how artists can make people feel that kind of emotion. Whenever I’m up there I try to go, but it’s changed a lot since I was ten. It’s obviously become touristy now. There was an abundance of mimes back then. Marcel Marceau was pretty big back in the day.
What has been your favorite role so far?
My favorite roles have always been comedic stuff. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to play in that arena. We did this film, Finishing the Game, and I got to play this happy-go-lucky character. It was one of my favorite roles to play, and to laugh with the cast and crew after each take. More dramatic roles can get monotonous after a while—it’s tough to take everything seriously all the time. Hopefully I get to play in that world a bit more in the future.
What has it meant for you to be a part of a cohort of Asian American creatives, such as Justin Lin?
It’s great to be a part of the legacy. When we see our movies in Asian American film studies or Ethnic Studies books—it’s an honor to be studied in this field. And it’s been great to share this with friends. If you travel this path alone, you can wonder what the point is, but then there’s a group of us to reminisce and talk about it. That people consider Better Luck Tomorrow a classic film is kind of of funny—hopefully it’s paved way for more Asian Americans filmmakers, actors, and writers.
I’ve been asked before how many mentors I’ve had, and it was tough to answer because we didn’t have a lot. We figured it out along the way. We try to help with the next generation and be a stepping-stone for them. I get messages through social media from organizations and aspiring actors who want to have coffee and talk. Whether it’s a filmmaker or aspiring actor, I always try to sit down and give them my opinion. It’s usually not something they always want to hear. Back then we didn’t have social media, we had to reach out to agents and talk to so and so. I tell people it’s going to be a struggle, that hasn’t changed. It’s not every year you’re going to be a working actor. It’s one of the hardest professions they can do. If it’s not a deep-rooted obsession, you’re not going to make it. It requires a stubborn-ness that you’ll make it no matter what.
There’s been a lot of talk about diversity lately in Hollywood. From the popularity of shows like Master of None and Fresh off the Boat to backlash against whitewashed movies. Are you feeling any positive effects yet? Are you getting offers for roles you never thought could go to an Asian American actor?
Roles that get offered to me that are outside-the-box for an Asian American actor have been a result of my personal and proactive creation of them. I’m definitely inspired by what I see today. Master of None, it’s one of the best TV shows—it gives me hope and inspires me around the material I’m working on. It’s not successful because it’s diverse, it’s successful because the writing is good. It’s funny. You start binge watching because you care about the characters. So there’s a market for it, and there’s reason to keep fighting. People need to know how monumentally hard it is to get this diversity on the air. There’s a formula to get onto TV. Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None are different types of entertainment. Cable gets more freedom; it’s the Wild Wild West. There’s whitewashing, but networks are run by white people. We’re only 5% of the population. As consumers, we don’t quite have that power yet. I have a pilot and I point at Fresh Off the Boat and show them that these shows work. There’s an audience. They wouldn’t be on the air otherwise.
As far as The Fast and the Furious franchise, it looks like there’s no end in sight, and box office returns get bigger with every release. Do you think Han could make a return, maybe via flashbacks?
I haven’t spoken to anyone on the creative side. Knowing Vin [Diesel], it’s going to be get bigger and bigger. But I’ve already died twice. They know Han’s a fan favorite and a lot of people want him back. So maybe a spin-off or a prequel, but you don’t want to disrespect the fans and just have Han show up because he can. I think his exit was very honorable and had class to it; it was cool that it tied up all the loose ends. I’m very grateful for that. It’s great when I go outside and all the fans talk about how much they love Han.
What else are you working on, what can we expect from you in the future?
I’m working on a show with Anthony Bourdain’s production company that does No Reservations and The Layover. I came up with this idea: I travel the world and investigate people’s relationships with their cars. Anthony Bourdain does it with food and I’ll do it with cars, and share their stories. I’ve never been that infatuated with a particular car, but what interests me is people’s personal relationships with them. It’s on Amazon—hopefully we’ll get a full order and start shooting soon. I’m also working on a comedy and another movie too. There’s still the Hollywood hustle, and that never changes.
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Vu-Bang Nguyen is a city planner working undercover in the world of philanthropy. He focuses on affordable housing, public transportation and civic engagement, especially among low-income and communities of color. He is originally from the Valley of Silicon and spends his time watching Steph Curry top ten assist highlights on YouTube and collecting soju ads from famous Korean drama stars. You can meet him in person at a @FriendsDoingGood fundraiser or on Instagram @vb228.
Cynthia Brothers is a nonprofit consultant who has worked in the areas of immigrant rights, online organizing, and arts & culture. She is also the Managing Blog Editor for Hyphen. Cynthia is from Seattle and admits to clichés such as playing in bands and once making espresso for a living – and is proud that she went to the high school where Bruce Lee first demonstrated his “one-inch punch.” You can find her on Twitter @cindybro1
This interview is made possible by Comcast.
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