One On One With The Long Road Home Star Kenny Leu

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Image courtesy of Benjo Arwas

Taiwan -born actor Kenny Leu is currently making waves in Hollywood. He may look familiar to you because he has in fact appeared in a number of blockbuster films such as Independence Day: Resurgence and TV shows such as NCIS and NBC’s The Player.

Leu initially earned a Mechanical Engineering degree from UC Berkeley, before founding a Silicon Valley start-up and working as a programmer for the early part of his 20’s. Wanting to turn his focus toward creative pursuits and eager to work on projects that promote positive images of Asian Americans, Kenny decided to move to Los Angeles and pursue an acting career back in 2014.

Three years later, he’s now starring as Sgt. Eddie Chen on the highly anticipated eight-hour event series “The Long Road Home” which airs Tuesday’s at 9:00 pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. The heart-wrenching story follows American forces occupying Iraq who was ambushed in a Baghdad neighborhood. It’s based on ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz’s best-selling book of the same name and  Leu appears opposite Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”), Jason Ritter, Jeremy Sisto and Noel Fisher.

 We recently caught up with Kenny Leu courtesy of the Anderson Group and here’s what went down:

How were you actually ‘discovered’?  A chance encounter on the street?  Audition?

“Making it” in this industry involves more chance than I’m willing to admit. I had been in LA for a few months when I was signed by a commercial agent through a showcase that I did.  It’s much easier to be represented commercially since that relies more on looks than anything else.  Getting a theatrical agent in LA is a whole other story…for many, it can take years.  I was with this agency for two months, and this new theatrical agent moves into this office.  She saw my headshot on the wall, and thought, “he looks interesting…I wonder if he can act too?”  She asked to meet me the next time I visited the office and sure enough, we talked for about 15 minutes in the lobby. I guess she liked me because she started sending me on auditions here and there.  A few months after that, I started booking.  And I’m still with her today! I could have just as easily not made a good impression, or not done well on my auditions and that story would have wound up as dust in the wind.  So I would say being “discovered” is as much about kismet as it is being prepared to seize the opportunity when it comes.  Being discovered is easy, but you have to follow through.

What do you like most about acting?

Being able to widen my circles of compassion.  Your job as an actor is to deeply empathize with a person…to a degree that you know how they’ll react and what they’ll say.  And that level of understanding really expands your depth and breadth of love.

Can you tell us what The Long Road Home is all about?

It’s a true story about the events that turned the Iraq War into such a mess.  On that particular day, 19 guys got pinned down by 10,000 insurgents and somehow survived. They were there as a part of a peace-keeping mission, doing things like escorting trucks that suck sewage from the streets and dump them outside of the city.  So they were wholly unprepared for a coordinated ambush.

What makes this story special is that all of the vets who survived came to the set to give us their blessing.  Many of them have no love for the reasons they were sent there and only came back because NatGeo promised them that they would present the story as genuinely as possible, with no politicizing or have a mentality of “Go US Military” like most cheap entertainment would have you believe.  NatGeo promised that the project would show all of the good, the bad, the horrendous things that these soldiers did and went through in order to survive…and the vets were so thankful that they followed through.  They wanted their story told so that people really know what soldiers go through: the broken families, the trauma of war, etc.. The last thing they wanted was to be portrayed as action heroes.  It was cathartic for them because many of them still haven’t told their loved ones anything; it still brings a tear to my eye when I remember them thanking me for helping to tell their story so that their parents, wives, children know why they are the way that they are.

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Image courtesy of Benjo Arwas

What sort of person is going to love this character?

Sgt. Eddie Chen was like a big brother to the men in the platoon…listening to their problems and making them laugh, on top of being a platoon leader.  To him, family and brotherhood were more important than anything else.

 How is this character like you? Different?

Family and deep, genuine connections to people are paramount to me.  Eddie understood that, so much so, that I learned a lot from him when I had the opportunity to play him.

We’re different in that whereas Eddie was content with simply making the people close to him happy, I am massively ambitious and want to reach out to people all over the world with my films.  A cause I fight for is the positive representation of Asian men in our media, and I found such a great chance of doing that when I got to play an incredible guy like Eddie.

What’s the biggest challenge to taking on this role?

My first week there, the production threw a reunion for all of the vets who survived.  These guys flew in from all over the world to be there.

I had done my research, I knew the story and what happens – Eddie Chen dies.  But what I wasn’t prepared for was the reaction to meeting me; to the vets, it was like meeting the ghost of a person that they’ve missed dearly for 13 years, come back to life.

Me, being the only Asian guy in the platoon…once they saw my hair, my skin, my eyes they immediately knew who I was playing.  To see every one of their faces contort and gush tears…was utterly heart-wrenching.  I went from being happy I booked a big role to “holy s***t, this is one of the most meaningful things I will ever do.”

After a few words of conversation, they all rolled up their sleeves to reveal a bracelet that they still wear…13 years after the fact.  “RIP my brother Sgt Eddie Chen.”

Crushing.

Besides yourself, what celebrity would you like to see tackle this character?

Great question, hah!  There’s a limited pool of Asian actors as it is…but I guess the closest would be Harry Shum, Jr?  But I don’t know if there are any.  Maybe I’m just being possessive with my characters.

Besides yourself, which actor in this production is going to blow people away?

There is a huge cast, and I’ve seen the first episode three times now!  I love so many of my cast-mates performances; Jon Beavers, EJ Bonilla, Darius Homayoun.  Jeremy Sisto…the one scene between Micah Pediford and Zeke Swinford (“at-risk youth”) was just so perfect.  It’s hard not to gush, but if I had 10 seconds to think I’d say those right off the top of my head.

If you could play any other character in this show, who would it be?

If the way I look wasn’t a factor…I’m drawn to Jassim.  His character is the most interesting to me.  He’s caught between two worlds, literally…but with death on both sides.  It’s a wonderful role that I think Darius knocks out of the park.  I can’t wait for the chapter that focuses on his backstory (I have yet to see it).

 What has been the most memorable experience of your career so far?

I’ve had many of those…lots of good, lots of bad, and lots of embarrassing, more than most people would experience in a lifetime!  Lol

But the most meaningful?  It would have to be the reunion with the vets (as) I said above.  Not many experiences can rock you to your core and that did.

Who have been the most interesting people you’ve met so far?

Man, that’s an unfair question!  I can go on and on.  Even on this project, I can name dozens of people!

As a group though, I’d say the vets themselves.  Prior to this project, I had a very limited exposure to military anything.  Me, I’ve always been big on fighting for representation for Asian Americans, as many people of color have felt so misrepresented for so long.

Getting to know them, I’ve learned that they feel misrepresented as well, despite all of the military shows & movies out there.  They feel exploited for their traumas, to make a quick dollar in explosion films.  Many of them are so articulate, smart, open-minded, liberal, libertarian, grounded…and it shattered any unconscious bias that I had against them.  It was very eye-opening.

I’m guessing you’ve been in the entertainment industry for a few years now, what has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned. This can be about the industry or about yourself.  Or both!

Honesty with yourself is more important in this industry than anything.  You can be hard-working, good-looking, and/or rich…and it still will not get you anywhere because it will lead you down the wrong path.

You need to know yourself so well, be so honestly critical of yourself and your work to be able to be successful as an artist.  Any delusions will quickly be shattered.

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Image courtesy of Benjo Arwas

Working in an industry whose only emphasis is on the outside characteristics of a person, how have you stayed grounded?

I don’t entirely agree with that.  Outside characteristics are very important for certain, but it’s what’s inside that makes stars.

If you want to be a famous actor for selfish reasons, you will be unhappy and you will ultimately fail.  This job requires so much heart & heartache for anything less than you feel like this is your calling in life.

For me, I had to be certain that I’m doing this for my convictions.  As I said before, I’m fighting for the positive representation of Asians / Asian Americans / Asian American men.  So when I work my 16 hour days…the only way I can do that and be happy is to be dedicating all of that effort to helping other people, to tell stories that mean so much to people (like the vets I met).  To make that difference in someone’s life…it’s the highest aspiration I can ask for.  I won’t ever be tired of that.

 What are your future plans?  Inside your career or out of it.

My career really took off this year, so I’m looking forward to what opportunities the next year brings!  I want to tell more meaningful stories and get bigger, more difficult parts.

As for work that’s coming out…fans of Dragon Ball Z would be pleased to know that a group of friends and I did an incredibly popular live-action adaptation of it!  The first episode, released two years ago, has over 28 million views.  I star as the lead in the highly-anticipated second film, which was released on Nov 14.  It already has more than 2 million views!  We aspired to create a blockbuster-level film for YouTube, on a $50K budget, with cast and crew who could only commit their weekends/weeknights to it.  Hollywood is failing to properly adapt properties like Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, Akira, Cowboy Bebop…and if the numbers tell us anything, it’s that our little group is the only one doing Live-Action Anime right.  Also, take note, we (finally) have an Asian lead (playing a superhero, Gohan), and a crew who are mostly people of color.  The co-creators are a husband and wife team: Donnie (Black-American) & Rita (Hispanic-American).

I also just wrapped an independent feature in New York.  I literally was home for two days after TLRH and had to jet off for this one.  It’s a deeply relevant film like TLRH is, and similarly inspired by a true story.  I can’t talk about it yet…but it’s a heavy police drama.  Still untitled, directed by Aimee Long.  I’m the star of this film, and we’ve got quite a cast: Ciara Renee, Tzi Ma, Lynn Chen, Fiona Fu, Dan Lauria, Kathryn Erbe, Clifton Davis.  Coming out 2018.

Now, 6 questions for the ‘LIGHTNING FAST’ Round:

1. Last good movie I’ve seen: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri!  Some of the finest acting I’ve seen, and it’s hilarious too.

2. What do you consider beautiful and why? Truth.  Because with so much excess now (food, information, people, etc), truth cuts through it all.

 3. What haven’t you done yet that you wish you could? Singing has always been a fear of mine.  I’m going to get started on that as soon as I get back from vacation!

4. Complete this sentence: “If I had no fear, I’d…” Be an actor.

5. What is the one “flaw” you wouldn’t change about yourself? Intense focus, and ability to be brutally honest with myself.  These don’t sound like flaws, but you try living with it.

6. Lastly, is there anything you want fans to know about yourself that would surprise them? I didn’t speak English until I was 6.

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