When considering whether to take on his latest role, Ken Leung found himself consumed by “a nausea-inducing fear.”
“Not an intellectual fear — like, a physical thing,” he specifies. “And I was like, ’What is this? What’s going on?’… I think something in that means I’ve got to do it. You’re called by the play.”
The role in question was Basil, a salt truck driver in “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing.” Basil’s boisterous energy and sunny optimism run counter to his job of salting the roads during bone-chilling Chicago winters — and, as we learn later in the play, is a coping mechanism masking some inner demons. From playwright Will Arbery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” the play follows Basil, his co-worker Peter (Jeb Kreager), their boss Jane Maiworm (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and her daughter Jane Jr. (Rachel Sachnoff), through three consecutive winters.
Reading the play, Leung wasn’t sure what to make of it. On the page, the stage directions and character descriptions are sparse. It’s only as it unfolds that the darkly comedic play reveals itself to be about a lot of things, from the climate crisis to local government gridlock to depression and suicide.
Leung’s overwhelming fear of the play’s ambition kept calling out to him — and is still there in every performance. Directed by Danya Taymor and produced by the New Group, it’s running through Dec. 18 at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York.
“Every day, I wake up and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a show day. How is this going to go?’ Even though we’ve done it for weeks, every performance is its own child,” Leung says. He returns to the metaphor throughout our conversation. “Every child is different and has different needs. So it’s to really be here with tonight’s child. And since it’s a child, it may pull different things out of you to care for it.”
“It’s never not scary,” he continued. “And then you think about it from the child’s point of view. Everyone is scared of me all the time. It’s like, ‘I just need someone to tell me a story. And everyone is scared.’ So when you think of it that way, you’re like, ‘There’s no thinking involved.’ It’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to jump off the cliff with you, especially since you chose me. Fuck it, whatever happens, let’s go.’”
You wouldn’t know there’s fear involved because there’s a confidence and boldness Leung brings to every role, big or small. It’s especially evident on the fantastic HBO drama “Industry,” where he stars as Eric Tao, a veteran stock trader at the London office of investment bank Pierpoint and a mentor (and sometimes-toxic boss) to young trader Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold).
Listening to Leung talk about acting is a reminder of how seasoned he is, someone who is both clearly very present, but has also thought a lot about where he’s been and where he wants to go. At 52, he’s one of those actors who has made a career out of playing often small but memorable parts in big things, like his breakout role as Sang, the platinum blond-haired villain of 1998’s “Rush Hour.” You’ve probably seen him in something, maybe without even realizing it. He’s Jesse Eisenberg’s therapist in Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy “The Squid and the Whale,” and one of Clive Owen’s hostages in Spike Lee’s bank heist thriller “Inside Man.” He’s mastered the art of elevating seemingly minor characters, like on an episode of the final season of “The Sopranos” as Carter Chong, who befriends Junior (Dominic Chianese) when both are patients at a psychiatric facility. That part led to three seasons as Miles Straume on ABC’s “Lost,” among his dozens of film and TV credits over the last 30 years.
2022 has been a big year for him, with meatier roles befitting his long and rich career, like on “Industry” — and now with “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing,” his first time doing theater in 20 years.
“I didn’t know if I could. I was like, ‘Oh, do I have a screen mind now? Am I going to be able to do eight shows a week and keep it fresh and all this?’” Leung said. “But ultimately, I decided I wanted to be brave more than I was scared of it. So often, that is the thing that tells you that you should do something: If you have a strong feeling of it one way or the other. Sometimes, it’s fear. And so, those are the things, I think, you should think twice about moving away from. Maybe you should move towards it.”
The role first came about when Arbery, whom he had never met, reached out to him out of the blue. “He wrote this letter to me that was … it didn’t feel like we didn’t know each other,” Leung remembers.
That ineffable sense of kinship is also part of the special sauce that coalesced into making “Industry.” The first time he met Herrold before filming the show’s first season, “it was like we were meeting again, it was like we knew each other. And there was a comfort. And one could ask, ‘Well then, what is that?’ And I don’t know. Some people you feel that with.”
It’s similar to the dynamic their characters share. Eric and Harper are bonded because they’re outsiders on several fronts: two Americans in London, and a Black woman and an Asian American man in a very white profession, both accustomed to being overlooked and underestimated. Watching their dynamic unfold and the way Leung and Herrold play it, their bond doesn’t need to be articulated — it just is.
“We try to explain it, and then we’re like, ‘Oh, well, it must be because they’re outsiders. Oh, well, it must be because they’re similarly marginalized’ — this and that, all this intellectual connecting of dots,” Leung said. “But sometimes, it’s just two people seeing themselves in each other or recognizing something. That first interview, I think Eric saw something of himself in her, in a way that he’s never seen and did not expect to. Maybe that’s part of it, too, the not expecting to, that makes you go: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a second. I thought I had this all figured out. I didn’t.’”
In the last scene of the show’s electrifying Season 2 finale in September, Harper’s recklessness, including forging her college transcript, finally catches up with her. After Pierpoint’s HR department discovers the ethical breach, Eric is forced to fire her. In some ways, it felt like a shocking betrayal: Each of them had previously protected each other at various points, and Eric already knew about Harper’s fabricated credentials.
But when Leung read the script, Eric’s move didn’t come as a surprise. As the two ascend the elevator, a nervous Eric leads Harper into the meeting room where only he knows what’s about to happen, and he tells her: “I’m doing this for you.”
“He did it to protect her, which I wonder if that will … it must be addressed when we do Season 3,” Leung said, adding later that production on the new season is expected to begin next April.
It’s all a reminder that as much as you try to analyze something, sometimes it’s better to trust your intuition and let whatever’s already there lead you to the answer. For instance, in his initial approach to understanding Eric as a character, “I started off taking big swings.” (When I point out that, early in Season 1, Eric literally carries around a baseball bat on the trading floor, Leung laughs heartily. “I wasn’t thinking of that! But yes, that’s perfect! It’s actually more perfect than the way I had anticipated to say it.”)
To make up for his unfamiliarity with the world of finance, Leung thought he should read about it and talk to people familiar with that world. Eventually, he realized his character would not react that way.
“Eric is the one who says what’s what. So he’s the opposite of going, ‘I’m missing this. Where do I find it?’ He has everything,” Leung said. “So once that flipped, it helped me go in, and I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t know stuff because that stuff is not important. I don’t know stuff because I say I don’t need to know stuff.’”
Leung’s decisions about these roles found him, rather than the other way around. Similarly, it seems like acting found him. A native New Yorker born to Chinese immigrant parents, Leung recalls that as a kid, he had a penchant for performance, describing how he would give “little shows if we had visitors.” He also did a running bit of imitating a newscaster giving the weather report, to the delight of his dad. “He’d be like, ‘Do the news,’” Leung remembered. “I was a very performative child.”
In college at NYU, he fell into acting by happenstance. In a required course called Speech Communication, “we had to write skits and perform them,” Leung said. “I really loved that part, and a classmate noticed that I did. He was like, ‘Ah, you should take Intro to Acting.’”
When he signed up for the class the next semester, it was like finally finding the thing he didn’t even know he needed. “It’s almost like it raised me. It gave me a way to learn how to be a person: how to talk, how to feel things, how to have a person in front of you and what to do,” he said.
One day in class, he performed a scene from the movie “Ordinary People,” when Conrad (Timothy Hutton) goes on a date. “I had not gone on any dates prior to that. My first date was an acted date. I think that serves as a good kind of explanation for what I got out of it,” Leung said. “You don’t have to worry about the words — you’re given the words. You put all your heart and curiosity and attention into this, on how to be present with somebody else, under just all kinds of circumstances. And so I feel that it raised me in a way, it parented me in a way.”
“It’s not even something that I was like, ‘Oh, I’m interested in this, let me dabble in this.’ It was like, ‘I think I really need this as a person,’” he continued.
“It’s almost like [acting] raised me. It gave me a way to learn how to be a person: how to talk, how to feel things, how to have a person in front of you and what to do.”
When it came time to tell his parents he had decided to be an actor, it didn’t even elicit a face-to-face conversation — reinforcing why he needed the emotional and visceral connection he got from acting. At first, he tried to break the news over dinner.
“Nothing. No acknowledgment that I even said something,” Leung recalled. “I think my dad walked out of the room and was pacing in a room where I couldn’t see him. That was the reaction. I was like, ‘OK, they need this explained to them a little bit. How else am I going to do that?’”
He wrote his parents a letter and left for a couple of days to “let them absorb the letter. And then I came back and it was late, everyone was presumably asleep. I was going to sneak back into my room. Then, I hear my dad’s voice: ‘I read your letter.’”
“It was never this,” he continued, pointing at our faces on our respective Zoom screens. “Never saw him. He had the conversation with me obscured in his room. That’s how we had the conversation. I just heard his voice, just talked to his voice. Actually, I didn’t do any talking. I was like, ‘I know what’s coming. I’m going to be rock solid. Say what you want.’ And my dad’s take was, ‘That’s great,’ but predictably — and not wrongly, now that I’m a parent — that you should have something to fall back on.”
At that moment, Leung needed to feel emotionally connected, understood and acknowledged. Instead, his dad wouldn’t even speak to him directly and seemed to dismiss acting as just “a hobby I found.”
“Maybe if he had acknowledged that a child needs to feel that they are heard first before they can take the next step — not even a child, just a person — you need to feel you’re seen first,” he continued. “And then, my mom came out afterwards crying, just crying, just crying. Didn’t even add anything to the conversation. Went to the bathroom, cried in the bathroom, came out, went back into the bedroom, still crying. Yeah, that’s how it went.”
Having found something that spoke so deeply to him, Leung was determined to make acting work “for as long as it will have me,” he said. “I didn’t even know what expectations to have. I mean, I said yes to whatever said yes to me.”
There was a lot of experimental theater and odd jobs, like approximating a French accent for a play about Thomas Jefferson and his French friend Pierre that Leung and his co-star performed for schoolkids — carrying a board that served as the scenery, which they would unfurl at each school. A turning point came in 1996, when he was cast in the play “Flipzoids” opposite Ching Valdes-Aran and Mia Katigbak, two veterans of New York’s Asian American theater community. Written by Ralph Peña, now the artistic director of the Ma-Yi Theater Company, it was a demanding piece, following three Filipino American characters of different generations grappling with questions about identity.
During its run, Leung had his audition for “Rush Hour.” He went with the same platinum blond hair required for his part in “Flipzoids,” which he suspects must have helped him land that big Hollywood break. The experience of being plunged directly into a massive movie taught Leung not to get hung up on Hollywood as “a big shiny object” but to just focus on the work, he said.
Getting cast on “The Sopranos” was another major career moment. “That was a turning point of trusting myself, I think, looking back, because I went into the audition — he’s in a mental institution, so I went in with a condition. And I remember getting the callback. They were like, ‘OK, that’s not at all what we were thinking about, but we loved that you went there,’” he said. “I think that gave me a kind of throwing caution to the wind-ness that served me from then on, a kind of trust.”
That self-confidence allowed him to rid himself of the “you’re just lucky to be there” mentality, an all-too-familiar feeling for Asian Americans in creative professions.
“The instinct, when ‘you’re lucky to be somewhere,’ is to fit in, to not upset the cart. There suddenly becomes a right and wrong way to do stuff. Everything that kills acting comes into play. Acting is not a polite profession. You have to take leaps off cliffs,” Leung said. “The very natural, almost unavoidable, inevitable instinct to do the right thing — I think it has taken our community, I don’t know how long it’s been, to shake ourselves out of that. I think we have now. Now, we’re saying, ‘Fuck you, we’ll do our own shit.’ And that was a journey to get here. Thankfully, we’re not there anymore.”
Like many Asian American actors, Leung has gotten a lot of unoriginal scripts over the years, with lazy tropes and barely any lines, like playing the “menacing triad boss” or “the information giver.” “There came a point where I didn’t want to do something anybody could do. Why ask me? This guy is just saying: ‘He went that way.’ Get anybody!” Leung said.
“To this day, once in a while, I will get a script that I swear I have read 20 years ago, word for word,” he continued. “It’s almost like they use computer software to spit out these scripts.”
“The instinct, when ‘you’re lucky to be somewhere,’ is to fit in, to not upset the cart. There suddenly becomes a right and wrong way to do stuff. Everything that kills acting comes into play. Acting is not a polite profession. You have to take leaps off cliffs.”
Even now, with the success of “Industry,” he’s seeing the effects of Hollywood’s risk aversion again, getting offered variations of Eric. “You play something, you’re gonna get asked to do stuff that’s similar. That’s so annoying. Why would I just want to come now and take off my suit, walk into the next room and put on another suit? Why do I want to do that? You know why? Because it sells. Because we know people bought it in this room, we predict that people will buy it in that room,” he said. “Why are we in a creative field? We could sell things, make things, put them on shelves and sell them. Why do it in a profession that conjures our dreams and imagination? But yeah, it’s frustrating sometimes.”
Leung’s audition for “Industry” came during the crapshoot that is TV pilot season — he recalls it might have been one of multiple auditions he had on the same day. But unlike most of the pilot scripts he’d read, there was something distinctive there, a product of “Industry” creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay’s lived experiences as former bankers.
“It felt real. I think because of the nature of pilots, you’re not just telling a story. You’re trying to sell the story, and you want to capture interest fast. That’s the theory going in, anyway. And so, that results in scripts often that kind of skew that way and don’t feel so real. Characters are drawn with sharp, broad strokes because we want to know right away. And sometimes that’s fun and sometimes it’s pushing. It’s often pushing, actually,” Leung said. “And this script didn’t feel that way at all. This felt like you were dropped in the middle of a slice of something that was living. And that comes from Konrad and Mickey. They know this world.”
Throughout our conversation, there’s a theme of following whatever feeling is calling out to you and trusting your intuition — even, or maybe especially, when it’s hard. “You can’t mastermind a path in this profession. You don’t know enough. There’s just too many variables,” Leung said. “To hearken back to the play, go with that thing that you can’t explain. Lean into the mystical, lean into that which there’s no precedent for it.”
Every night on stage, Leung is leaning into that ineffable feeling. “Before every performance, I sit on the wings 10, 15 minutes before the play. I try to feel the audience coming in, feel just the energy in the room, and it grounds me, to a degree,” he said. “And if I start there, start with these specific people who came, the specific energy tonight, which is unlike last night or any other night, will never happen again, start there and then, OK, go here and it will take me.”
He’ll often pay attention to the audience’s laughs and silences, which can be totally different each night. At certain points, the play acknowledges the audience as a participant, whether we realize it or not.
“You are here, we are here with you. We’re talking about stuff that affects all of us. So let’s be in this room together with that,” Leung said. “Yes, we don’t know what it is. Yes, we don’t know what words to use for it. There’s no correct way to do it. Let’s just be in the room with the unknown and unknowable. See what happens. Maybe nothing will happen. But let’s see what happens.”
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