An interview with Kenny Leu (The Long Road Home)
I was recently able to interview Kenny Leu, who plays Sgt. Eddie Chen from The Long Road Home. Here’s what he had to say about the weight about playing a veteran, what it meant to him, and some sneak peaks to what he has coming up. I hope you all enjoy and take something away from the show and the interview. Here’s a trailer for The Long Road Home, showing on Nat Geo on Tuesdays at 1000.
1. How did it feel to portray fallen Veteran Sgt. Eddie Chen?
I felt an enormous responsibility to capture his story properly. When you’re playing a real person that meant so much to a lot of people, you’ve got some pressure to get him right! And in a story that moves as briskly and has as many characters as The Long Road Home, you’ve only got so many lines to convey his essence. It was a huge honor. Especially so, because he was a great man who happened to be Asian. I live to play strong Asian role models, and Eddie was definitely someone people looked up to.
2. Did playing an Army soldier change your view or impact how you think about veterans?
Absolutely. Prior to The Long Road Home, I didn’t have much knowledge about what sacrifices our soldiers make to do their jobs. National Geographic was adamant about capturing their reality…from their newlywed wives and newborn children they leave behind on the homefront to the traumas of war. We at least got to live a taste of it. The actors spent two weeks in bootcamp, lived in real Army housing on Fort Hood, became close friends with the real-life veterans. And that depth of immersion really gave us a good sense of what they stand for, and what they represent.
It shames me to say that, just as we’ve misrepresented many minority groups, we’ve really misrepresented our vets. Many of them feel exploited for their traumas. They don’t think of themselves, or want to be portrayed as, action heroes. Being in war is traumatic. And we use a lot of our media to make war glorious to sell more tickets and to feed a patriotic spirit, and it’s the last thing they want us civilians thinking.
3. What do you want people to take away from your performance and the show?
That the soldiers are not, and never were, action heroes. They’re a very diverse group of people, and many of them are normal guys wanting to feed their families, and to be of service to their country. They’re human. When even one of their comrades die, or when they kill someone, it weighs on them heavily.
4. What was the most difficult thing about the show?
When I first arrived on set, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The show is based on a bestseller by ABC Journalist Martha Raddatz…I had read it and done all of my research as to what happened, etc. The facts.
Well, when I arrived, the first week, Martha had organized a reunion for all of the vets who survived. Like two dozen (maybe more) vets were there from all over the world.
When I walked into the restaurant / bar where it was being held, I was happy to have booked such a great role, and to be able to meet some of these guys…but I wasn’t prepared for their reaction.
Eddie Chen was the only Asian guy in this platoon that got pinned down, and the only one to die. So as soon as some of these vets saw me, they knew…tears started streaming down their faces. Nearly every person I met could barely look me in the eye before breaking down in tears. After recovering, they would apologize, shake my hand, and ask, “Are you playing Eddie?”
After I would confirm that, they’d say “I wish I could have done more for him, he was the best guy I ever knew”, with fresh tears spilling forth.
And then they’d roll up their sleeves with a bracelet that said, “RIP my brother Eddie Chen”. 13 years after the event. Some of them have it tattooed on their bodies.
My heart was not prepared for that. That was the first week of shooting
5. Can you tell me something about the Army soldier you were portraying?
Eddie was born in Taiwan (my birthplace), but grew up in Saipan, Guam. He was a police officer before he joined the military, intending on using his military benefits to become a lawyer.
He was a bit older than everyone else, 31 to their 23-24, and was thus a sort of big brother to them…always looking out for everyone. He didn’t say much but loved cracking jokes, singing country songs poorly, and laughing. Many guys felt close to him…so when he passes so early on Black Sunday, it was very tragic for the guys.
6. What do you want people to think about after watching the show? Do you think it’ll change people’s minds about veterans and the war?
I hope so! It’s rare where we get to see so many sides to a military story. The soldiers are not action heroes, they hurt and mourn when they kill and when one of them die. We show the horrible things that they’ve had to do (which I should note: certain vets came to support us ONLY when they found out NatGeo was going to portray EVERYTHING). The wives have their own war to fight at home…we even get a glimpse into the life & motivations of their Iraqi translator Jassim, and why many Iraqis hate Americans. It’s a show that tells a usually one-sided story in a multi-faceted way…our hope is that it bridges people’s understandings of our differences.
7. Let’s talk about your upcoming projects. Tell me about the series. (Untitled New York police-drama)
Haha. I can’t talk about this much precisely because of how politically sensitive it is. It’s a heavy police drama set in New York.
8. Who’s your character?
He’s a young New York police officer, who grew up in Brooklyn. He is Chinese.
9. Is he a good guy, or bad guy?
He’s a good kid.
10. Why did you take on such a politically hot topic?
I think that’s one of the responsibilities of being a filmmaker…getting people to understand a world completely different than your own. This film explores, and opens to discussion, a very hot topic in our country right now. Done properly, it helps us understand.
11. What are you hoping comes across about police, this one character, or police and civilian relations in general?
Again, I can’t say much. But my biggest aspiration as an actor is to tell stories that bridge gaps in understanding that exist between all of us.
12. Do you think this will help change the way people view the police right now?
13. Do you want to keep taking controversial roles? What’s your endgame? Are you even thinking that far ahead right now?
I’m always thinking ahead, and trying to figure out how I can use this life that I have, to give and to be of service the most.
I’m very comfortable taking on controversial roles if it presents sides fairly and opens an honest discussion about how we as a species can do things better.
My endgame is to uplift us as a people, empowering those without voices and to acknowledge those that feel forgotten.
14. What do you want to work on next?
I’m very open, haha! I’m very willing to work on a lot of projects, even ones that are barely paid, if I believe in it. My dream would be to get cast as an Asian superhero…our community has yet to really breach that barrier. Or an iconic romantic lead.
15. If you could work with anyone, who would it be and why?
There are so many to list! Quentin Tarantino comes to mind…but also the future versions of people that I know now, who are on the rise. I did a great live action adaptation of the ever-popular anime Dragon Ball Z (playing an Asian superhero named Gohan). The team behind that is a husband & wife team named Donnie & Rita McMillin…I think they’re going to become amazing filmmakers. I can’t wait to see what they do in the next ten years, and to be able to work with them again when they’re at the top.
16. Lastly, is there anything you want fans to know about yourself that would surprise them?
I am thoroughly American, but I wasn’t born here! I was born in Taiwan, and I can’t become President.