More Work to Do
Sung Kang, who co-stars with Sylvester Stallone in the action flick Bullet to the Head, reflects on his own Rocky Balboa-esque story.
by ADA TSENG
Sung Kang can check one more thing off of his bucket list: co-starring in a Sylvester Stallone movie.
“I was a big fan of Rocky,” says Kang, referencing the famous rags-to-riches boxer film from the 1970s. His dad collected all the early Stallone films, and their family would often watch action movies together when Kang was growing up in Georgia. “Whenever I felt like the chips were down or if anybody was picking on me, I’d put on Rocky, and it’d always cheer me up. Rocky is all about a nobody having a chance, and I feel like that’s the story of my life.”
This “nobody” didn’t even have to audition for the role of Taylor Kwon, “a young NYPD detective who needs the help of abrasive hitman Jimmy Bobo (played by Stallone) in order to catch the bad guys who killed both their respective partners.
Inspired by Alexis Nolent’s French graphic novel Du Plomb Dans La Tete, the film adaptation Bullet to the Head, which opened Feb. 1, was relocated to New Orleans, and Thomas Jane had originally been cast for the role of Stallone’s sidekick. Later, when the filmmakers decided they wanted to switch up the typical (read: traditionally Caucasian) cop action genre by casting a minority actor to go up against Stallone, they called up Kang on Memorial Day weekend of 2011.
The Korean American actor insists that his fortune was circumstantial. At the time, Justin Lin’s worldwide blockbuster, Fast Five (in which Kang reprised his ultra-likeable character Han), had just come out, and Bullet to the Head producer Joel Silver happened to see an episode of Kang’s YouTube series Car Talk (renamed Car Discussion due to copyright accusations), where Kang plays a sendup of himself: an actor who thinks he’s God’s gift to man because of his role in the Fast and the Furious franchise. It also helped that Kang had previously played a loud-mouthed character named Hollywood in 2009’s Ninja Assassin, another film Silver had produced.
The comedy in Bullet to the Head largely stems from the fact that Kang and Stallone’s characters hate each other.
“It’s mean humor,” explains Kang. “Jimmy Bobo is the quintessential alpha male. He’s very old-school, and basically everything out of his mouth is a derogatory stereotype. I know for a fact that Stallone’s going to get a lot of laughs at my expense. If I weren’t Asian American—if I were from China or Korea and had an accent—it wouldn’t be funny because it would be true racism. But everything he says doesn’t make any sense because I’m just as American, maybe even more American, than him.”
Working with veterans like Stallone and director Walter Hill, known for helming 48 Hours and producing the Alien franchise, Kang says that, while they all put 100 percent into their work, everyone gets that they’re making a popcorn action movie. More specifically, a Stallone vehicle.
Although most of the fight scenes are designed to showcase Stallone’s skills, Kang has a few solid action scenes, one of which required him to spend a day’s filming underwater. He also gets a beautiful love interest in Sarah Shahi, who plays Stallone’s daughter, Lisa Bobo. After Taylor is shot in the chest, Jimmy doesn’t want the injury reported, so he drops Taylor off with Lisa, a tattoo artist who just happened to have completed one year of medical school. Sparks fly.
The role is a far cry from the types of parts Kang was up for when he first started acting.
“I was playing the waiter!” he says, laughing. “I went out for maybe 500 commercials, and I never booked a single one. I’d spend all this money on workshops trying to figure out why I couldn’t get a job on a commercial, and the best answer I got was from a casting director who asked, ‘Would you buy Crest from yourself?’ And I said, ‘That’s a great question. Probably not.’”
Kang explains the fact that he’s one of very few Asian American male actors getting legitimate roles in mainstream Hollywood as circumstantial.
“It started when I worked on Better Luck Tomorrow,” says Kang, tracing his own trajectory to the breakout Asian American indie film directed by Justin Lin. “I met Justin Lin, who always had an agenda to change Asian American male stereotypes. He gave birth to the character Han [from the Fast and Furious].
He went in and fought for an Asian American to play that role, before he was even called Han. I don’t think it was the studio going, ‘Let’s cast Sung Kang as the cool guy.’ And then that movie happened to be massive.”
With the still-limited Asian American male roles in Hollywood, Kang understands that if he really wants to play a specific type of character, he’s going to have to write and produce it himself. He and his co-collaborator Anson Ho, whose friendship dates back to their Better Luck Tomorrow days, created Car Talk knowing that no one else would ever cast Kang in a comedic role. Kang’s alter-ego resurfaced in a spinoff web series, Acting for Action, which premiered on the YOMYOMF Asian American YouTube network in 2012.
While Kang’s involvement in blockbuster action films has given him a supportive international fanbase, YouTube gave him an entirely new audience—a younger, uncensored and sometimes vicious one.
“It gave me a lot of respect for these YouTube stars,” says Kang. “After a few months of YouTube, I wanted to pull the videos down. I thought, ‘I look like a fool. It’s not that funny.’ You start to second-guess yourself. But you can’t do that. It’s a testing ground. There’s no money. We just got to play for a few days. That’s how you show people you’re not just that cool guy from Fast and the Furious.”
In interviews, Kang often appears unimpressed with his career, contemplating leaving the entertainment business and claiming that every project could be his last. But if you go back far enough, you’ll find that he has been saying the same thing ever since Better Luck Tomorrow premiered, over a decade ago. Kang insists that it’s not a love-hate relationship with acting; instead, he thinks that acknowledging that his career could end at any time is a realistic perspective in an unpredictable industry.
“I’m very careful about getting full of myself and thinking that I’ve made it,” says Kang. “I’ve done movies that people say will definitely give me the next opportunity, but nothing’s happened. Growing up in the South, you’re constantly aware that [Asian Americans] are a small percentage of the pie, and the demand for your face is going to be limited in this country. The world’s becoming more global, and maybe I was born in the right time to ride that wave. But I’m constantly aware that there’s so much more to do.
“I came into this town to be an actor, and there’s still a lot I want to accomplish,” Kang continues. “I haven’t been able to play the funny guy, the husband or the gay guy. I want to be in more movies. I’d love to be on a TV show for a while, see what it feels like to work with an ensemble cast. I’d like to win an Oscar.” Kang laughs. “You know, the little things.
“But it’s all temporary, right?” he says. “The food, the clothing, the trailer, someone combing my hair, feeding me breakfast and driving me back, after I play pretend. It’s there for a couple of weeks, maybe a few months, and then you go home.”
This article was published in the February 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)