Actor Sung Kang, best known for his film roles, hits primetime with a new TV drama, Gang Related, on Fox. It’s a role created for him by the same writer behind the Fast and the Furious franchise that made Kang an international star—and lent him a persona that fans just love to love.
by ADA TSENG
photographs by MITCHELL NGUYEN MCCORMACK/CORBIS
Everybody wants to be Sung Kang’s friend. Or, perhaps, more accurately, they want to be friends with the character that Kang so convincingly and coolly played on the big screen: Han, of the Fast and the Furious films, Universal Studios’ biggest franchise. It’s a role that has made the handsome, 6-foot-1 actor, with effortlessly fantastic hair, chiseled jawline and lips made to brood, one of the most recognizable Asian American artists in Hollywood today. It has also earned him a broadly diverse cross-section of fans, from international women who tweet at him with heart emoticons (even though he’s married), to fellow Asian American males who love that one of their own plays the cool guy in mainstream movies, to car fanatics who assume he must be an expert on foreign import vehicles, to L.A. gang members who find him utterly relatable.
And, by the way, we’re not kidding about the latter. It’s a discovery Kang made while shooting in L.A. for his latest role as Detective Tae Kim on the new Fox television series Gang Related, which premiered May 22.
“There’s a Mexican gang element to our show, so we have consultants and background actors who are full-on gang members,” explains Kang. “One day, we shot at a location that used to be a juvenile detention center, and one of the extras said, ‘I actually went here.’ And I was like, ‘For what?’ And he said, ‘For attempted murder.’” Kang’s eyes widen to mimic the disbelief he felt at that moment.
“But the cool thing is that, because of Han, they’re cool with you,” Kang says. “You’re one of the guys. He can talk to me and tell me who he is because I think Han represents a guy who doesn’t judge. And he’s edgy enough that he gives me street cred.”
The actor laughs and adds, “But in my head, I’m like, ‘You went there for how many years? For attempted murder?’ ”
Kang is largely known for his film roles, and Gang Related is his first as a TV series regular. The action crime series centers around Ryan Lopez (played by The Wire’s Ramon Rodriguez), a cop in the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite Gang Task Force who has secret ties to one of the gangs that he is policing. Kang and the Wu Tang Clan’s RZA play fellow members of the task force, led by Terry Quinn of Lost fame.
Though Kang’s role is part of the supporting ensemble cast, he says that some of the scenes he’s shot already—that flesh out his character’ s backstory— have been some of the most exciting of his 20-year career. “It’s the best work I’ve been able to do on camera,” says the 42-year-old, who lives in Los Angeles.
And it’s work that may not have come along, had it not been for Han. The actor’s popular onscreen persona may be renowned from the Fast and Furious films (it’ s worth mentioning that Kang has more than 8.1 million followers on Facebook and 200,000 on Twitter), but Han can be traced back even further to a critically acclaimed 2002 indie movie called Better Luck Tomorrow (often referred to as BLT), a game-changing Asian American film made by then-little-known Taiwanese American filmmaker Justin Lin. Kang credits Lin for creating “Han,” the brooding tough guy in BLT. When the director was later tapped to make The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, he wanted to continue the anthology of the Han character in the racing film, so he pitched the idea of casting an Asian American actor as “the cool guy”—not there for any Asian-specific reason, just one of the boys—to Fast producers.
Han later tested so positively with audiences that the studios eventually decided to make the next three films prequels, in part, so it’d make sense to bring Han, who meets his demise in the 2006 film, back to the big screen. Chris Morgan, the writer behind many of the Fast and the Furious movies, is also the creator and executive producer of Gang Related, and he wrote the character of Tae Kim specifically for Kang.
“Chris was always very respectful, because he grew up around a lot of Koreans,” says Kang, of his longtime collaborator. “He knows that we’re pretty hot-tempered and that we drink a lot. But he’s also a friend, so he sees me as a quintessential alpha-male Korean, and what he wanted to do was to present a character that seems like he’s always brooding and pissed off, but humanize him with a dark backstory.”
In the pilot, Tae Kim shows he is fully capable of intimidating Koreatown gang members. Later, we find out he was born in Korea and escaped to the United States as a child after a devastating family tragedy, so there’s a reason he has such a deep-seated vendetta against these bad guys.
As proud as Kang is of the show, he knows that the verdict is still out on how Gang Related will be received by audiences—whether it’ll be picked up for a second season and whether Tae Kim will get the extra screen time in order to grow into the full-fledged, multidimensional character that Kang is confident he can knock out of the park, if given the chance.
His is a measured perspective that perhaps reflects the careful balance of emotions, between skepticism and hope, that one has to carry in order to make it as an Asian American actor in Hollywood. He has been grinding away in the industry since he first moved out to Los Angeles from Atlanta, Georgia, to pursue acting after college around 1994. While it has been a rocky road of both highs and lows, he’s one of the few that has been able to sustain a career in Hollywood for this long—and he thanks, in part, his Southern roots for arming him with the tools to persist.
“Growing up in Atlanta and being one of the very few Asian guys in the area definitely prepared me to be in Hollywood,” says Kang. “You’re always trying to prove your legitimacy to everybody around you. You gotta start growing a thick skin, which really laid a foundation for me to be able to prepare myself to take rejection in this town. Because 99 percent of the job as an actor is to be rejected. You have to be smarter and work harder and not expect anyone to give you applause for it, and if I didn’t have that upbringing, it probably would have broken me a long time ago.”
Before he wanted to be an actor, Kang’s childhood dream was to be a baseball player.
“I was a pitcher,” he says. “That’s all I wanted to do for as long as I can remember.”
He thinks, had he had grown up today—now that there are some pretty high-profile Asian players like Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Texas Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo in the Major Leagues—he might have actually pursued a career in baseball. But at the time, his coach told him, “Son, there are no Orientals in the league. Just have a good time.” And as much as Kang loved sports, he soon quit. He thought, what’s the point?
“Maybe that’s my character, or the way I’m wired, but I needed role models,” says Kang. “There weren’t a lot of Asian Americans in acting either, but you still had the Bruce Lee’s who were respected. Martial arts was paving a new stereotype for Asian American males, but at least [the role models] were there.”
Kang grew up watching screen icons John Wayne and James Dean, wanting to be part of the fantasy of the movies. He even thought it would be cool to play the smart aleck kid on the popular Diff’rent Strokes series, made famous by Gary Coleman, and make people laugh. While at first he didn’t see a natural place for Asian Americans like him in that world, the late ’80s and early ’90s brought the rise of actors like Dustin Nguyen on 21 Jump Street, which aired on FOX, and Jason Scott Lee working on respected films like Map of the Human Heart, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and The Jungle Book. The world was changing, Kang thought.
Against the wishes of his parents, who wanted him to go to law school, the young Kang journeyed to Los Angeles and tracked down Lee’s acting teacher Sal Romeo, who coincidentally also taught Nguyen. Even when he couldn’t afford the classes, Romeo let Kang clean the studio and do lighting work in exchange for free acting training. Romeo also gave Kang something even more valuable: hope that acting was a viable path for him. Kang still studies with Romeo today. “He’s definitely been an angel for my career,” says Kang. “He taught me everything I know.”
Kang did his share of hustling. When no agents would sign him and his fellow theater students, they created a fake management company to send out their headshots to casting directors. Without representation, they couldn’t even audition for roles.
“We had a friend who could do a great British accent record a voicemail [away message]: ‘We’re not in the office right now, but if you leave your name and number, we’ll get right back to you,’” Kang recalls. “And we’d hire a courier service to drop off our headshots because they wouldn’t let us into the gates!”
This got him his very first acting job: an anti-racism video co-starring Romany Malco, the African American actor now known for his roles in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and TV’s Weeds. “It was one of his first jobs, too,” remembers Kang. “It’s me and him at a bus stop, and we have all this internal dialogue of us being racist to each other. And the message was that racism is no good.” He laughs. “But the fact that someone was putting makeup on our faces, the camera was being pointed at us, and we got a $200 check at the end of the night, I was like, ‘Wow, we got paid!’ And I used that tape to get my first agent.”
He steadily started booking bit parts, but not without setbacks. He was cut out of one of his first gigs, on the TV show Felicity, where he played a college student going insane during finals week. “I even bought a new TV to watch it,” says Kang. “I bought some popcorn, invited over some close friends, and we’re waiting and waiting for [my scene], and it never came. And everyone was just really quiet.
“Kind of embarrassing, huh?” Kang says, laughing.
“After you play Gangster No. 1 and Waiter No. 1, and you’re not making any money, you start getting disenchanted,” Kang continues. “I actually called my dad again and said, ‘Maybe you were right. Maybe I was fooling myself, and it’s time to throw in the towel.’ It was six years of just struggling. And that’s when I met Justin [Lin], and we did Better Luck Tomorrow.”
The story of BLT has become somewhat legendary, especially in Asian American circles. Shortly after the independent film was about to go into production, its investors wanted Lin to change the Asian American characters—they were all the leads—to Caucasians, but the director refused. Instead, he maxed out his credit cards, sold his car, put everything on the line for a movie that eventually got into the Sundance Film Festival. After a couple of quiet and uneventful screenings, an argument broke out during a Q-and-A session at the third showing, where the cast and crew were accused of disgracing their community with such negative portrayals of Asian Americans. The late film critic Roger Ebert then famously stood up from the crowd and defended the film, saying, “Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!”
Suddenly there was a great deal of buzz around the movie, MTV Films eventually acquired the film, the cast and crew toured universities and film festivals around the country to promote it, and BLT was celebrated as a break- out film—for showing that Asian American content could not only be critically acclaimed but actually make money. “It was like we were in a boy band,” says Kang. “All these [Asian American] college students are looking at us and saying, ‘That’s me up there.’”
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the film’s theatrical release. Kang says that the period following BLT saw some moves forward, but also some steps back for Asian Americans in the industry. The actor would star in independent films like Michael Kang’s The Motel (2005) and Ernesto Foronda’s Sunset Stories (2012), in addition to the Fast and the Furious films and parts in Hollywood action flicks like Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and Ninja Assassin (2009). In 2013, he co-starred opposite Sylvester Stallone in a buddy action movie, Bullet to the Head (2013).
Though Kang acknowledges he’s fortunate to have landed a TV series now, with a role created for him, he knows the cold reality of the entertainment world, too. Though he and the Gang Related cast and crew have already shot 13 episodes of the show, it’s uncertain how things will play out after it premieres. “Unfortunately, most of the time, I still wonder what is next, and I don’t even know what I’m waiting for,” says Kang. “But then something happens that gives me hope. And it doesn’t even need to happen to me. [YouTube stars like] Ryan Higa or KevJumba will show up, and I’ll look at them and go, ‘Wow. They are self-made.’ They aren’t dictated by any system. A studio doesn’t control them; nothing controls them. It’s a kid in a room that happens to be Asian, but is accepted and seen all around the world—they’re able to sustain a living, and you can’t ignore that face or voice anymore. The world is changing.
“I’m always looking for these signs,” continues Kang. “Looking for where I can get that inspiration or hope. And then I just take one step forward and keep going.”
Perhaps, one of those signs occurred just a few hours earlier, as a young male bicyclist wearing a bright orange striped shirt happened upon KoreAm’ s cover shoot in his Gardena, California, neighborhood and briefly lost control of his bike when he caught sight of Kang on the sidewalk in front of him. After excitedly exclaiming, ‘Oh, sh-t! Oh, sh-it!” he stopped his bike and waited for the chance to shake hands with Kang, who graciously greeted the fan. As he got back on his bike and rode away, the young man kept shaking his head in happy disbelief, as if this brief encounter made his day.
Kang would later say that reactions like that are “wonderful” and “validating” both as an actor and as a person. “Because of Han’s participation in the Fast and Furious franchise, when fans see me, [I’m] just a friend,” he says. “You know, a familiar friend they want to have a beer with.”
Go behind the scenes of our cover shoot with Sung Kang.
This article was published in the June 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).