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

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."

Norton said he believes Leung has unlimited potential as an actor. "You sense hidden levels within him and he conveys an intensity of mind," he said. "I don't think anybody's even tapped his full range yet. I'd like to see him do something like Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger' . . . or 'Hamlet.' He'd blow people's doors off."

But despite his track record of playing quirky characters, Leung says he doesn't necessarily seek out these types of roles. "They're [just] kind of offbeat parts of those stories," he said.

Leung said one of his most enjoyable characters was the school shrink in "The Squid and the Whale," where he counsels a student who plagiarizes a Pink Floyd song in the school talent show to get attention from his divorcing parents. "The scene in 'The Squid and the Whale' was shot at my actual high school, so that's a favorite," said Leung of the film shot in Midwood High School in Brooklyn. "It inadvertently brought me back to the neighborhood I grew up in."

It was his role on "The Sopranos," however, that has helped make him a rising star. And the episode, which aired not long after the Virginia Tech killings, was so compelling that many said it was a chilly reminder of the Blacksburg tragedy.

Leung, who is Chinese, said he finds it strange that in a show full of mob violence, the media decided to focus on this one Asian character. "I wasn't critical of those who said it was similar to [Virginia Tech killer] Cho Seung Hui, [but] it was scary that it overshadowed the murder that took place in the same episode involving a gunman," said Leung, referring to a later scene in which a man gets shot in the eye.

Conversely, critics have hailed "Lost" because it features fully developed Asian characters in starring roles, as opposed to the stereotypes often seen in Hollywood. Leung believes the issue may be a lack of exposure by Tinseltown's creative powerbrokers to certain cultural populations.

"How developed Asian American characters are might depend on how developed the relationship is between [film and TV] creators and Asian American communities," he said. "It might not be a lack of certain types of characters as it is an evolving consciousness about those communities."

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