Sung Kang is becoming a familiar face to action fans, thanks to his popular and recurring role in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise. As one of Hollywood’s most prominent and vocal Asian-American actors, Kang is overdue for big roles, and “A Bullet to the Head” is a major step forward, letting him share the stage as Sylvester Stallone’s reluctant partner.
Kang joined the cast amid some controversy, replacing a very vocal and angry Thomas Jane, which isn’t exactly the most auspicious start to a project. But Kang shrugged it off while talking to us, focusing instead on just how unusual and exciting it was to get a call to be Stallone’s costar in a Walter Hill film.
It’s easy to want to talk to Kang forever. Funny, charismatic, and verbose, he was open about the issues facing an Asian-American actor, the tricky line one walks with ethnic jokes, and just how many bullets to the head there are in the film.
Talk about who you play in the film, let’s just start with that.
SK: Well, I play Taylor Kwan, who is a Washington D.C. detective. And I’m here to investigate my former partner’s shady activities in New Orleans. My ex-partner was kicked off the force, he went blackmailed politicians who were lobbying in D.C., so he moved out to New Orleans to cause havoc, hang out with hookers, take drugs, and leech off these politicians who are feeding him blackmail money. So, I’ve been sent to stop him, and when I show up, I realize he’s already been taken out by a hitman, hired by a local faction, and that hitman is Jimmy Bobo and his partner. And his partner gets wiped out, so he and I, we team up, totally opposites, but we are forced to team up to find the guys who did the killing of our partners.
Is there a lot of animosity between these two characters?
SK: Oh yeah. We hate each other! We’re so different in every way, we’re different generations, ethnic background. Everything that comes out of his mouth is like old-school racial slur. You know, Charlie Chan this, samurai this, and everything out of my mouth is like “Hey, at least I speak English, you sound like you have marbles in your mouth.” You know” “Kumbayya, yabba dabba do” “You’re a criminal, you’re a greaseball! I’m a cop! I have integrity! I have morals, what are you? You’re a petty crook and a killer.”
So there’s a lot of humor there.
SK: Yeah, it’s very, you know, redefining that whole “48 Hrs” dynamic between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. But in the past, any time there was an Asian in a film, let’s say, opposite an African-American, the jokes were always on the Asian guy. Like, “You don’t speak English!” “What do you do, kung fu?”, it’s more making fun of his ethnicity, but he couldn’t return it. But this is more acceptable, because it’s this old-school guy in his 60s, and it’s a guy’s guy kind of thing. He also does dirty work for a living, and his goggles of the world, he sees an Asian guy, he thinks whatever, you’re Chinese. Ching Chong. Vietnamese. Whatever. And I’m this new generation Asian-American that speaks English, that’s overachieving, that’s athletic, that is also three-dimensional, sexual. Women find him attractive. I can stand up for my own. You put these two people together, and it’s water and oil, and you shake it up, and it becomes humorous. It’s really funny.
It must be a real thrill to be doing action scenes with Stallone. Can you talk about some of the ones you guys have filmed?
SK: The most exciting scene was where Taylor – I tamper with Jimmy’s gun, so he’s not able to fire, because I’m trying to stop him from killing people around me, because I am actually a cop, and I can’t just be witnessing these things. But he just shoots everyone in the face! So I mess with his gun, and we’re walking out, and we’re talking, and he just turns around – and BLAM! Slams me in the gut! I actually, after I went home, I called my dad. “Dad? Remember when I just to pretend I was Rocky? [ laughs] Remember when I was a kid? Rocky actually punched me!” It’s off my bucket list! I actually got to do this with him, you know? So that was really exciting for me.
With these two guys backgrounds, and the scene with the gun, do you ever get the feeling that you’re not sure they’ll survive, that they’ll be at each other’s throats?
SK: Oh yeah. I think it’s a constant, the audience will be at the edge of their seats going “Is Jimmy going to shoot him? Or is Taylor going to shoot HIM?” And we’re always, at every moment, every time you think maybe we’re getting close, or things are, or the pressure cooker is relieving a little bit, I have to remind myself, and remind him, that I am a police officer. I am going to have to arrest you. We are going to have to deal with all the dirty work after this business is done, and vice versa. But there’s also this side story going on with me becoming smitten with Jimmy’s daughter, and vice versa, and that’s an interesting twist in the story too.
Sarah was telling us a little bit about that, that the romance wasn’t something originally in the script?
SK: It was always in the script. Maybe she just read it, so … [laughs]. I don’t know! But it was always the intent. But I think her character was originally Jimmy’s sister, and then became daughter to kind of match that up. It would have been a little MILFy if the sister fell in love with the young kid from D.C.
We watched Jason shoot a bunch of people earlier today. It sounds like Sly gets to do a lot of that. What do you get to do action wise, if you’re not getting to shoot people in the head?
SK: I do shoot people in the head! I shoot Jason in the head. I rescue him. I have these fight scenes at the beginning with the New Orleans police – Crescent City police, actually, they say we can’t use New Orleans because supposedly they don’t have corrupt cops here. [laughs] So yeah, we’re Crescent City here, right? And he takes my gun away, and then bad guys know that I’m looking for them, and chase me down, so I gotta defend myself. And then I shoot people in the head, in the face, and then I get shot, and throughout this film, hand-to-hand combat stuff. So I get my share.
You’ve been in some pretty action driven movies in the past. But how is working with Walter different than these other, bigger movies [you’ve been involved with]?
SK: Walter has been, I would say, a godsend. At first, you look at his resume, and he merits my respect just based on his body of work. But then you work with the man, and you think – at first, to be totally frank, I thought “Is this guy going to phone this job in? Is this just a paycheck?” Who knows? You never know. But then you meet him, and first of all – I’ve learned so much as a man. He’s been kind of a father figure, and Sly being that cool uncle you always want to hang out with all these great stories. Both of them, being able to work with both of them, they redefine what right and wrong is. Because all that time, you work on these big movies, and you learn what not to do from the bigger actors and directors, they take this approach like “Ehh. I’m entitled. It’s all going to work out.” They take maybe a backseat approach to things. They don’t take it seriously. That said, Justin Lin on “Fast and Furious” was, for me, a younger version of Walter Hill. And Walter, being his age, he brings that passion for the work, and also it’s so just easy to respect the man, and like the man. You can tell by the wrap party, and we had the wrap party yesterday, by how many people show up to the wrap party, because we’re all going to miss each other. This was one of the good ones. And I feel blessed, because I don’t know how many movies Walter has left – to be with the guy who wrote for Peckinpah, who wrote ALIENS, WARRIORS. Remember CROSSROADS? Yeah, as a kid I watched that film, and getting to work with the guy, you go “This is why he’s at that level as a director.”
Do you feel he’s doing things differently than some of these other, younger directors?
SK: Differently, I think, he doesn’t depend on technology to come in and save his ass. I think he goes back to things that I was taught when I first learned how to act. You come in, you have a good time with what you’re doing, you’re on time, you come prepared. You prepare, you prepare, and then you show up, and hopefully some movie magic will happen. It’s very black and white. Very pragmatic. There’s no secret recipe. With Sly and Walter, I realize that, it’s very simple, you just work your ass off at it. And hopefully, you make a good movie.
Having been in the Fast and the Furious franchise, do you think this movie has franchise potential? Will there be a TWO BULLETS TO THE HEAD?
SK: [laughs] Definitely, the mojo is there. But I’ve learned that also, that’s all we can control. We put our hard work and our heart into it … Walter has this great quote, from Gene Wilder I think? I think it’s Gene Wilder. It’s Peckinpah? It’s somebody. “But being on time, and being under budget, and everything running smoothly does not ever guarantee a hit.” So, hopefully when it goes into the world, the audience will embrace it, and then, purely economics there.
But you guys leave it open?
SK: Yeah, we’ll leave it open. None of us get shot in the head. [laughs].
Was this one of these projects you went after, did it come after you?
SK: Joel Silver called Management. It was over Memorial Day weekend, and my manager called me. He never calls during weekends. I rarely even hear from the dude. When he’s calling, it’s something that he’s excited about. And he calls, and said “Hey, Joel Silver called and he wants you to go meet Walter Hill tomorrow, and then Sylvester Stallone.” “For what?” “For a movie that Hill’s directing and Sly is in.” I go “For what? Like, for the Vietnamese gangster that shows up? For fifteen minutes? Why am I meeting them?” “To play opposite of Sly.” “For what?” In my mind … I just kept going “For what? For what?” “It’s a double banger, a partner-cop movie.” “Well, what part do I play?” “The partner.” I go “What world are you living in?” And then when I was on my way to meet Walter Hill, I called his assistant, and I said “Look, if I’m getting punked…” Because Fast Five had just been released. “If anyone wants to punk me, if this is someone’s idea of a joke, this isn’t going to be funny. Because this is really serious for me, both of these guys are, they’re on my hero list. So, just let me know, so I’m prepared, and I don’t just punch someone in the face.” And the assistant goes “Noooo, you’re not getting punked. This is serious.” So that’s how it happened.
Was the role kind of tailored for you?
SK: Actually, there was another actor that was hired. And then when Warner Bros came on, they had reservations. So it wasn’t overnight. The novel does not have an Asian-American or Asian character in it. So yeah, I was on the shortlist of potential actors, and when I met Walter, and we just had a great, sincere conversation, and then I met Sly, and it all worked out.
I knew the other actor had been fired, but after you came on board, did they tailor it more to your capabilities?
SK: No. Well, I think as we went on, because Walter is a writer. As he got to know me, and my sense of humor, what kind of mojo I could bring to the table. And also, you’re dealing with that racial gray area, and neither of them knew if I could handle that kind of stuff, and then come back with stuff. Some people are called like, Jap Face, and they start getting angry or call the NAACP, or call SAG, and go “This is inappropriate!” But my belief system is that you laugh at racism, and that’s how it goes away. You throw it on the table and you go “Look how ridiculous these words are.” And you throw those words on me, Charlie Chan, Ching Chong, Ramma Lamma Ding Dong, and it’s hilarious.
Take away the power
SK: Yeah. And I think that’s how you can change the world.
Do you think it’s getting better in the industry at all? Have you seen any differences at all in the years you’ve been working, in terms of the roles that are coming to you, or do you feel like it’s just Vietnamese gangster, this same stuff?
SK: I think it’s changing, because I think the world is becoming more global. Because of economics, you have to feed the demographics that are buying your product. So, as Asia becomes a much more economic influence on the products that are being made from America, I think people have to be sensitive. Like, Warner Bros isn’t stupid, and I think they have a formula, and roles for myself — I think they tried the whole “Bring the Asian guys over” and they didn’t read domestically. And “Fast Five” was a great example and template to follow. You had such a diverse cast, and it made so much money. People look at it, and they go it’s not Oscar winning kind of franchise, it’s not that kind of story, but it’s entertaining, and you can have representations from all over the world. And then those products, look how much money they make, right? Half a billion dollars. So, I think it is changing slowly. Two years, if I’d had this conversation, I’d go “I don’t know.” But look at the role that I’m playing today. So, obviously, it has changed.
You mentioned Memorial Day for getting a meeting with them. How quickly were you filming from when you met them for the part? What kind of training did you do?
SK: Prior to this? Nothing. Because I had to go and do all my own training. I called a friend who was in the field to come and teach me how to shoot guns properly. And then when I came here, I had a four hour lecture from the ATF telling me not to shoot guns like this, or like this. That’s about it. Everything else is my own homework. We didn’t really have that luxury of a long pre-production training. This movie has been pushed [back] so many times, I think he really wanted – then they had another actor on board at first – I knew that this [character] was an overachiever in the Academy. So I made sure, at least, that my gun skills were up to par. That’s what I did.
Talk a little bit about New Orleans. What are some pros and cons for you about the city?
SK: Nothing, really. It’s great that the movie takes place here … in Crescent City. [laughs] And when they say the location can be a character, it definitely helps in that aspect. This city is so appreciative of the film industry being here, and the producers love being here. It’s always on everyone’s list, like what’s New Orleans like? I think people have a pre-conceived idea like it’s just Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. But really, there’s so much culture, the music’s great, the food’s great. It’s not good for the waistline! But I’m actually from the South, I’m from Georgia, so the weather doesn’t bother me. It’s pretty comfortable for me. And really, I have no complaints at all. I would love to come back here. It’s my favorite city I’ve ever shot in, for long term stay. I’m going to miss it. And I’m glad that the rebates are so high, and there’s so many films here, because I feel like I probably will be back here to film.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the water tank. Do you get to do an underwater scene?
SK: Yeah! I’ve never done it. I’ve never done underwater stuff so I’m looking forward to it. I’m a good swimmer, I love being in the water, so I’m looking forward to it.
What’s the scene they’re shooting here?
SK: Jimmy Bobo’s house, his safe house, he lives on the bayou. It’s his secret getaway house where he keeps all his guns and stuff. It gets blown up. So, he’s right on the water, so we end up swimming away. And once we get to shore, he actually has a remote control that blows up all the bad guys. So, this is post-blowing up and swimming to shore.
What is the big body count in this film, do you know?
SK: I’d say at least 70. [laughs] At least!
I just want to know if it’s triple digits or not.
SK: It could be. Jason, he kills – how many people did he kill today?
At least five
SK: Oh, ok. I don’t think it’s triple. It’s close to. Close to, yeah.
And now that you’re kind of wrapping this movie up, what are you headed to next? Fast Six?
SK: I know that they’re in the works for Fast 6. If I have an opportunity to go see them again, that’d be fun. They’re always fun. And I’ve already done three with them already. And I think Justin Lin is directing that next one, so he and I are pretty much like brothers. We started our careers together. It’s always nice to be able to work with your friends.
Did you ever think Fast Five was going to make the money that it made?
SK: I did not. No.
That’s crazy amount.
SK: I know. It’s amazing. When we were making it, I knew there was good mojo, but … you just never know. You never know how the audience will respond. It seemed like people really loved it. And I saw the rough cut, we kind of watched those … and we were like argh, a little rough. A little long in places. A little short in places. Every time I see myself onscreen in a film, I go “OH! So bad! Why did you do that? So horrible!” And so, I didn’t know. And when I followed Neal Moritz and some of the Universal executives on opening night, the numbers kept going and going. And then we got to Jurassic Park numbers, and if we break Jurassic Park numbers, it’s going to be the number one opening film for Universal. And it annihilated that! Hopefully, Fast Six will have that, hopefully HEADSHOT will have that part two, three, you know – oh, it’s BULLET TO THE HEAD, but we’ll have BULLET TO THE ASS and BULLET TO THE GROIN, you know!
“Bullet to the Head” opens February 1, 2013.