Some stories call out and speak to an actor in ways that simply change their lives. One such role was the chance to portray Sgt. Eddie Chin in the National Geographic miniseries “The Long Road Home,” in which upcoming actor Kenny Leu found that the role simply touched his heart and has inspired him to pursue so much more in his own life. In an exclusive interview, Kenny revealed the initial appeal of the rile and the profound effect had on him as an actor and as a person.
What initially appealed to you about the role of Sgt. Eddie Chen and working on “The Long Road Home”?
KENNY: The fact he’s Taiwanese, ha ha. I was born in Taiwan and am proud of it. I see myself as American, but have a deep respect for my roots, and having the opportunity to play a fellow countryman (in a media landscape where you don’t see many Asians on TV) offered both satisfaction and catharsis. I would come to appreciate playing an Asian American soldier. Cheap media often has us thinking that soldiers are of one look and we forget reality, like the most decorated military unit in U.S. History is the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a unit comprised entirely of Japanese Americans. Asians are as much a part of America’s fabric, yet are thoroughly under-appreciated and under-represented. I have had many Asian soldiers and vets come up to me, thanking me for representing them.
How would you describe who Eddie is and his story arc in the series?
KENNY: Eddie was a little bit older than everyone else, 31 to their 23, 24, on average, so he was not only a platoon leader but also a big brother to a lot of them. He didn’t speak much, but had a ready laugh and was almost always in good spirits. He was also a goofball and liked making others laugh. A lot of the soldiers were in their early 20s and basically kids when they joined the Army. At that age, their primary conversation points were complaining about long marches, girlfriend drama, etc. [Matt] Fisk told me a story about how once he was in his bunk with Eddie, complaining about girls or something at the time…he was ranting for about half an hour, when Eddie put his hand on his shoulder and said (Fisk is fond of saying that Eddie was like Buddha), “Fiiiiiiiisk. You can’t let that stuff get to you. So take all of it, ball it up, and just…let it go.” [Pedro] Guzman (the medic) told me a story about how once they were in boot camp, they had marched so long that his feet ached unbearably…he had to stop. Other people told him to suck it up, but Eddie marched right up to him, took off Guzman’s boot and massaged his ache out and got them back on track. He was that kind of guy. He was chosen to be the Lieutenant’s personal guard, manning the most dangerous spot of the convoy, the lead gunner on top of the humvee where the officer is. He was a man that everyone looked up to, respected, and admired, and when he gets shot down early on in the ambush…it is a very rude awakening for the men in the platoon, “If a man like Eddie is dead now, then what chance do we have?”
What do you most admire and/or like about Eddie?
KENNY: My first day of shooting, we were shooting the scene on Coopers Field where all of the soldiers are saying goodbye to their families, 400 extras, a huge gigantic scene. I was walking through my scene with director Phil Abraham, getting a feel of how he works, how the set is, where the cameras are, where I say this line. Pretty anxious and on edge getting ready for my first scene, I’m in uniform and am moments away from shooting. Suddenly, a half dozen big Texan dudes — and I’m talking the cowboy hats, the sunglasses, the big belt buckles, big boots, handlebar mustaches — surround me. Get right up in my face, and at this point, I’m worried that I had done something wrong. Being Asian, I’ve always been conscious of traveling to places that are pre-dominantly white, especially the country… and here I am on set suddenly about to be attacked by six of them. The lead one points at my chest and says, “You’re Sgt Eddie Chen” and a ll I could stammer was, “Yeah…well we’re shooting a TV show right now… and I’m playing him, yes.” Then they abruptly back away from me, like I just blew their minds. They had to walk away, shielding their eyes for a few seconds. I’m left wondering, “what the hell is going on?” Then they turn back to me and in a quivering voice, the lead guy says, “We served with him 13 years ago.” At that moment, the earth about damn fell out from under me, as I grasped what was going on. I mean, I had read about what happened, so I knew the facts of what happened, in my head. My head knew the story, but it was at that moment that my heart understood it as well. By this point they all had tears in their eyes, “He was the best guy that we had ever known.” I was absolutely touched to see these grown Texan men with tears streaming down their faces, who I had just seconds before thought were going to kill me. Then they all — all six of them — rolled up their sleeves, held up their wrists, and showed me a bracelet that said merely “RIP Sgt Eddie Yijhyh Chen”. Tears gushed from my eyes and my heart damn skipped a beat. These guys were still wearing their bracelet as a tribute to Eddie, 13 years after the fact. And that’s what I admire about Eddie the most, he made such an impression on people, despite being a person of color, an outsider. These men loved him like one of their own. And being a person of color, I am really not used to having tears shed over me, or people like me. It’s a strange feeling.
What is it like working alongside such a talented ensemble on “The Long Road Home”? Who do you get to work the most with?
KENNY: It’s an amazing experience. So many of us are young rising actors. Of course, one of the first things we bonded over were comparing notes about preparation, tips and tricks in auditioning, being on set, etc. Not every actor is successful, so it’s hard to find good advice from other actors. But on this set, almost everyone is a working actor for a reason. Everyone is incredibly passionate about filmmaking, and so so so charismatic. Each person has really discovered and honed their own unique aura. It’s not about booking the next big job, it’s about knowing yourself and knowing what you can give to the next project that will hire you. And that’s what separates the actors who are working, and the ones who are desperate for a job. The older actors, like Michael Kelly and Jason Ritter, we also got to hang out with. It’s fascinating to see what they’re like in person. It’s often so different than what we expected. Michael [Kelly] is like a bro at a frat house buying us beers and regaling us with raunchy jokes. Jason [Ritter] is such an animated jokester, he’s a nonstop one-man show. Then when we get on set, they are all so professional, and so good at what they do. It’s remarkable to see the effects of their years of hard work, and encouraging to know that our grinding at our craft will pay off like that one day.
Any favorite scenes that you got to work on so far?
KENNY: My favorite scene would be when Aguero’s humvee gets separated from the rest of the platoon and Aguero decides to go back. There’s a moment for Chen, who is the only one completely exposed up in the turret, to be OK with going back into that fray again, and he goes back there without a word of complaint. I really enjoyed that scene because Chen’s reactions to being ambushed, running through the barricade, and coming back to find the other men.. .his face is crucial because he represents the whole humvee. From the outside, only Chen’s face is visible, so I knew that my reactions were critical to telling the story, for all of the boys on the inside. The fear, the anxiety, but also the bravery to go back to rescue their brothers, all of that had to be present in my reactions. Those reactions are in so much of the trailers… I guess I did a good job 😉
Then what is your favorite part about working on the series?
KENNY: Meeting the vets. Seeing first-hand, the images behind these guys’ eyes as they tell me their stories. There isn’t an experience like it. Imagine being told a story by someone eyeball to eyeball, and you can see the whole movie play behind their eyes. It’s the closest thing to being plugged into the Matrix as you can get, where you say, “Download memories from Eric Bourquin” and you receive it all. This is one of those rare projects where I received way more than I was able to give. And that’s saying a lot because I always give my 100%. There are those projects where the memories, the experiences, the people will feed your art for the rest of your life… and like a switch *click* changes you slightly as a person. And this was that project.
What is the biggest challenge working on “The Long Road Home”?
KENNY: There wasn’t really anything strenuous about working on that set. Once our hearts were set right after realizing how meaningful this story is to so many of these guys, I would go through Hellfire to tell it right. Probably the most difficult part was how overwhelming the whole experience was, meeting the vets for the first time. My first week there, Martha Raddatz threw a reunion for all of the soldiers who came to Fort Hood, giving us their blessing to tell their story. I still remember walking in there, and everywhere I went… if I made eye contact with a vet, that vet’s face immediately contorted as tears rushed to his eyes… and they would have to turn away for a second to compose himself. Eddie was the only Asian man in this platoon, and as soon as they saw me, a young Asian man, at the reunion, they knew who I was playing. Many of them would break down… and when they would recover, they’d look at me deeply in the eyes and say, “I wish I could have done more for him.” I remember needing to leave about 30 minutes into the reunion. I wasn’t ready for that.
What is the biggest surprise working on “The Long Road Home”?
KENNY: My reps didn’t tell me much about the project when I booked it. The production pretty much kept things a secret. All I knew was that I got to go through two weeks of boot camp, and I was so excited about that. Little did I know, they had built a whole city (200 buildings) to simulate Sadr City, Iraq… with it QC’d by the vets themselves. Kate Bosworth, Michael Kelly were already there. I was really blown away by the scale of it immediately. Then getting to meet the vets themselves, the heart of it stunned me.
What impressed you about this project and the people who bring it to screen?
KENNY: The absolute commitment to telling this story right. It’s not taking the typical route of glorifying war, or casting these men as action heroes. We see the very human side of what it means to be a soldier. From the kids, who are just recently married and getting sent off to kill, to the absolutely insane decisions that would need to be made in war, to the families left behind when they serve a tour of duty. It’s such an intimate, nuanced, and authentic look at military life. It’s so critical to tell stories like this, to build bridges so anyone who watches this will empathize and understand the sacrifices that are being made when you sign up as a soldier. Mikko Alanne was uncompromising in all the right ways: he fought for Tomas Young’s story to be kept in the script despite his political controversy. He ensured that Jassim’s story was just as important to the show as any Americans’. These are the types of stories that NEED to be told, and Mikko, National Geographic executed on that.
What has been the one thing you as an actor haven taken away from working on “The Long Road Home”?
KENNY: That I want to tell stories that are this meaningful to people, for the rest of my life. This is my highest bar of aspiration — and that many people feel so mis-represented. As an Asian man, I’ve always known that TV has lied to its audience about what we’re really like — painting us as emasculated, nerdy, undesirable, weak, broken English, forever the outsider. But I never knew that vets have felt incredibly mis-represented as well. They hate the fact that TV glorifies their traumas, among other things. In fact, they feel exploited, TV making a quick buck off of their experiences. We have a deeper responsibility as storytellers that we’ve been completely neglecting for dollars, to tell stories that more accurately reflect reality. A great power of storytelling is getting people to empathize with others completely outside their usual circles of compassion. If we embraced this higher calling, perhaps we’d be more together as a country, and subsequently, as a world.
What do you hope viewers to take away from watching “The Long Road Home”?
KENNY: The true meaning of being a soldier, and who our soldiers are. Not the hogwash that we’ve been fed so readily by money-grubbing explosion films.
Then what has surprised you most about your career to date?
KENNY: That this would be the project that breaks me out. As an Asian actor, I always expected it to be an Asian independent film that was made really well, socially relevant like our modern “Joy Luck Club” or something. But I get so much attention for this part, because Eddie Chen’s story arc is such a defining moment in this harrowing story. The droves of people who give me a kind word for simply portraying this man… because there is such a lack of visibility for Asian characters like this in our media.
At this stage of your career, what do you think you have learned from the amazing variety of roles and projects you have worked on?
KENNY: That there are so many projects out there, and so many different ones. There’s a wealth of content out there nowadays, and a wealth of talent out there. So how do you choose what to work on, what prepare myself for? With all of my success lately, I’ve really crystallized my life’s purpose: to tell the stories of substance, of meaning to people like it was for “The Long Road Home,” for the rest of my life. I want to create projects that are like a beacon of light for a lot of people out there who are the forgotten, the misunderstood, the passed over. And I want to tell them in some way that someone out there sees them, empathizes with them, and will fight for them.
Then what are the perks of where you are in your career right now?
KENNY: A big luxury is having clarity of purpose. I’ve worked on enough sets where I’ve cared a lot, and some where I don’t care so much… and I know now what gives my life meaning. It’ll help guide me in how I want to spend my time, where I want to lend my efforts. Playing a variety of roles has really widened my circles of compassion, and somehow that translates to almost everyone liking you. I can walk confidently out into the street, or into a store or anywhere really, and assume that I will be embraced for the most part. I sometimes get discounts / free food / free stuff by simply being me. Ha hah.
If there were one role you would like to revisit, which would it be and why?
KENNY: Pretty much all of them! An actor’s work is never done… and watching your own films is often an equivalent to torture. I could have done this better, I could have done that better, etc. Strangely enough, I don’t feel that way about “The Long Road Home.” The team did such a great job of capturing my best moments… and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Do any of your characters and the situations they find themselves in ever leave a lasting impression on you?
KENNY: Yes. I don’t know if this is the same for other actors, but I act primarily to get to know myself better. Some projects like TLRH give you experiences to feed your soul, memories that will last you a lifetime, that shift your perspectives. Building a character is a chance to explore that side of myself to its fullest extent .
Has there been any great advice you have gotten? What advice would you offer to other upcoming and aspiring actors?
KENNY: I read a lot, so most of my knowledge comes from books. There is an amazing book called “Give & Take” by Adam Grant. As a young aspiring actor, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being desperate, being stuck in a mode of “What can I get NOW?” But you won’t find your answers when you are asking the wrong questions. You should be asking “What can I give?” Be powerful, generous, and know yourself, your value. You will never be out of work.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share that fans should keep an eye out for?
KENNY: Yes! 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 will be released Nov 14. Just a week after The Long Road Home, haha. 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 of note is that 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.
To see Kenny’s pivotal role in a story that touch so many lives, be sure to check out “The Long Road Home,” which airs Tuesday, November 7th at 9:00 p.m. on National Geographic. Then to find out more about Kenny’s upcoming projects, be sure to follow him on Twitter @thekennyleu
“The Long Road Home” trailer: