In the run-up to the release of A Shot Through The Wall, I was given the chance to talk with lead actor Kenny Leu about his involvement with the film. An up and coming Asian-American actor that is most famous for roles in Yakuza Princess and the fan-made Dragon Ball Z: Light of Hope, Leu may not be a household name but is hoping his role in Aimee Long’s timely film will spark discussions that lead him (and Asian-Americans, in general) to better things.
“I hope this film starts a conversation,” Leu told me when asked about his aspirations for A Shot Through The Wall. “This is obviously a very sensitive, timely topic. I hope that it starts people talking about this because we need to talk about this.” As Leu explains, there is a ton of outrage around police brutality and tactics in the media. While I wouldn’t call many cops saints, the current discourse is focused on the negligence of individuals rather than how broken the system is.
The plot of A Shot Through The Wall deals with the fallout of officer Mike Tan’s accidental shooting of a black man while chasing a perp through an apartment complex. It is loosely based on the shooting of Akai Gurley in NYC at the hands of officer Peter Liang in 2014. Similar to the film, Liang was hung out to dry by the NYPD as he was a minority officer. With no support, he took it upon himself to fight a guilty verdict and avoid jail time for what was improper training in his department. “I hope that our story was told in a very sensitive and nuanced way,” Leu adds. “I just hope that we can talk to each other more. That will be the only way we can build towards a solution.”
As for why Leu was drawn to this film, it stemmed from his desire to promote more lead roles for Asian-Americans. “I had just moved to LA to become an actor. I had some small parts in shows like NCIS and The Long Road Home and this audition came down the pipe.” Leu’s manager hyped up the film, telling him it was a great part. “This was at a time when there weren’t many Asian parts around, especially Asian-American leads.” Leu quickly booked an audition and within a week, he had three callbacks. From there, it went rather quickly.
Interestingly, Leu didn’t meet director Aimee Long until he was in the audition room. “I did a self-tape first and they liked me enough to meet in person. Right when I booked that was when I met Aimee.” While that could be intimidating, Long’s passion for film eased Leu into things. When the film began production, Long wanted to learn more about Leu, so she asked him to dinner. “When I talked to her, I realized she was young,” Leu laughingly said to me. “Being a Chinese-American, I wanted to sus out who she was. I wanted to understand her idea for this film.”
Before their dinner, Leu asked Long for her age and she simply said, “I’m not telling you.” That may sound cold, but it was more of a power move. Being that Long was a young, inexperienced director, she didn’t want to appear weak around other cast members. Leu even acknowledges that, saying, “She’s a total badass on the set.” Later during dinner, Long said to Leu, “I’M YOUNGER THAN YOU!” She proceeded to explain how she didn’t want to butt heads with anyone on the set. She wasn’t sure if Leu would take advantage of the age difference, so she held off saying it in front of the cast and crew.
One person they didn’t need to worry about was co-star Tzi Ma. An acclaimed actor that has starred in many Hollywood productions, Ma’s on and off-set persona was that of a loving friend. “He’s an incredible actor and he’s always made me proud,” Leu said. “He’s a really great guy, not only as an actor but off the screen too.” Leu threw in that Ma actually has an incredibly thick Staten Island accent, something you wouldn’t expect considering most of his roles showcase a Chinese one.
Even with that friendliness, Leu admits that it was scary the first time he met Ma. “I grew up in America and on TV, you didn’t see many Asian faces. Whenever I saw one, I would say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s someone of my kind!’ That was typically Tzi Ma.” His fear quickly faded away as Ma was simply a joy to be around. Leu told me how Ma would take the cast and crew into Chinatown on the weekends to meet friends and eat authentic Chinese food. “He’d say something like, ‘Meet all my friends. These are all of my buddies,’ and treat us to dinner. He’s that kind of guy.”
With Leu accomplishing his dream of meeting Ma, I asked him what his hopes were for A Shot Through The Wall. “I want to tell stories that are lasting,” Leu enthusiastically said. “I had this whole other career before this. I was an engineer. It was a whole different life. I turned to the arts because I wanted to do something meaningful.” As Leu says, A Show Through The Wall tells a meaningful tale because it’s the story of something going on right now.
“I hope my work can reflect what is happening in our daily lives. I want it to be a reflection of ourselves,” Leu states. “The world is finally becoming more open to Asian-American stories and I just hope that we can create more. There is a lot of history with Asians being a part of America and I’m looking to reverse the idea of Asians as foreigners.” I briefly mentioned Bruce Lee due to my ongoing love of martial arts cinema and Leu happily exclaimed, “One thing that Bruce Lee did for me was to combine the Eastern and Western influences together. He was both Asian and American, yet that often gets left out.”
That led me to ask about Leu’s dream role in a film. If there were no limits and worries on commercial viability, what would be Kenny Leu’s perfect role? “Right now, I only have a very abstract idea of what I’d like to do,” Leu told me. “Something that comes to mind right now is ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy.’”
Recounting the history of that would be way beyond the scope of this interview, but I’ll give a quick summary. During the 1971 World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan, both the United States and the People’s Republic of China battled for supremacy to be crowned Ping Pong champions. The coverage of the event and the negotiations between both star players paved the way for President Richard Nixon to visit Beijing, China in 1972 and open relations between the two countries.
“There was an athlete that was super great at Ping Pong and he was responsible for breaking down the barriers between the US and China. It was a very eventful moment in China’s history,” Leu explained. That man was Zhuang Zedong and he had a fierce competition with US champion Glenn Cowan. It’s not talked about much anymore but remains significant for its impact on global politics.
Another film would be about the story of the 442nd Infantry Regiment of World War 2. One of the most decorated regiments in US military history, the group was comprised almost entirely of second-generation Japanese-American soldiers. They fought primarily in the European theater and most of the soldiers’ families were situated in internment camps back home. “That would be a really great story to tell,” Leu said.
Whatever the future holds for Kenny Leu, he’s very grateful for the position he is currently in. With more Asian-American stars beginning to rise through the ranks of Hollywood, not to mention a film like Crazy Rich Asians blowing away expectations, now is as good a time as any of Leu to make his mark in Tinseltown.