Ken Leung: Quiet Actor, Always Kept to Himself . . .

"I feel touched and unnerved. It's magical to have a space made for you": Leung with Evangeline Lilly on "Lost." (By Mario Perez -- Abc)
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By Walter Dawkins
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Actor Ken Leung, specializes in playing creepy and intense characters.

His gripping performance on "The Sopranos," as Uncle Junior's violent mental ward protege, was one of his most memorable. The troubled character, an MIT student who cracks under the school's academic pressure, grows fond of the aging gangster, even helping him write a letter to Vice President Cheney requesting a pardon from prison. The letter says: "Like yourself, I was involved in an unfortunate incident when a gun I was handling misfired."

Leung's scenes grabbed the attention of "Lost" executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who were so mesmerized that they decided to write a part in the island drama just for the actor. The role was Miles Straume, a creepy, quick-tempered, psychic ghost buster who removes spirits from people's homes -- for a fee. He's a member of the mysterious Freighter People, who recently landed on the island via helicopter to rescue the castaways -- or not.

"We had been batting around the idea for this character to be one of our 'Freighter folk' and we wanted him to feel unique, fresh, dangerous . . . and perhaps a little nuts," said Lindelof of Miles, who can communicate with dead people. "Once we saw Ken's episode of 'The Sopranos,' and he filled all those criteria and made up a few of his own, it became clear to us that we wouldn't need to hold auditions for Miles."

The shy Leung, who says his "Lost" character trusts the dead more than the living, concedes that he has some similarities to his on-screen persona. Speaking by phone, Leung said he, like Miles, is not exactly a social butterfly. "My face frowns by default, so when I'm most calm is when I appear the least approachable," said Leung, who was hard to get to know on the set (though he found a smoking partner in actor Naveen Andrews, who plays former Iraqi torturer Sayid). "This combined with a reclusive nature can make me hard to talk to."

Leung said he was honored to have a part on "Lost," one of television's biggest shows, written just for him. "I feel touched and unnerved," he said. "It's magical to have a space made for you." And the New York-based actor said he had the time of his life during his tenure on "The Sopranos." "The moment Dominic Chianese [Uncle Junior] said, 'It's just you and me, kid,' it was a joyride."

Leung, 38, who studied physical therapy at NYU, became serious about the profession after taking an elective class in acting. He did local theater, including working with a traveling group of actors from Mount Sinai Hospital who used drama to educate youth about teen pregnancy, AIDS and other issues.

In 1998, director Brett Ratner cast him in his first major role as the villain in Jackie Chan's "Rush Hour." "The greatest thing about Ken was that after everyone saw the first 'Rush Hour,' every single person said, 'Yo, that guy was . . . a bad martial artist,' " Ratner said. "But he didn't throw one punch in the entire movie. His persona made you think that he was [tough] because he's such a good Method actor."

During filming, Ratner played a trick on star Chris Tucker to make their scenes more authentic, telling him that Leung was a dangerous fifth-degree black belt and didn't like African Americans. "Ken's a guy you can pull that off with because he's so serious," said Ratner, who asked Leung to stay in character whenever he saw Tucker on the set. "He's a great actor. In my opinion, he's equivalent to Philip Seymour Hoffman as far as talent is concerned. There are so many great character actors out there that aren't necessarily big stars but are brilliant actors, and he's one of them."

After his breakthrough in "Rush Hour," he went on to play many notable offbeat roles including a sadistic human-porcupine mutant in "X-Men: The Last Stand," a high school psychologist in "The Squid and the Whale" and a bizarre karaoke machine salesman in Edward Norton's directorial debut, "Keeping the Faith."

Norton said that Leung's showstopping performance, as a kooky karaoke salesman who will do anything to make a sale, turned a throwaway scene into one of the film's best. "He came in and read for us and made us laugh so hard we went from thinking we might cut the scene to making it bigger," he said. "It got such a big laugh at every screening that we had to keep adding dead air before the dialogue in the next scene or people were missing it."


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