James Hong needs no introduction.
The legendary 93-year old actor, with over 500 credits to his name, is still in disbelief of any praise he gets from his roles. He is surprised when he hears directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert aka The Daniels have complimented his work ethic and loved working with such a legend on the new film, Everything Everywhere All At Once.
“Did you really get that much out of my small role?,” Hong asksed The Nerds of Color over Zoom ahead of the release of the film. I assured him that his role as Gong Gong Wang, the father of Michelle Yeoh’s character Everlyn, was filled with so much emotion and was very touching to see him have multiple facets within the film.
In the new film Everything Everywhere All At Once, Hong’s character, at first, seems to be following the stereotypical ‘old school’ generation of Chinese fathers, who are highly critical of his daughter’s life choices. Hong didn’t need to reach far in playing the role. As a first-generation Chinese American, he remembers his immigrant father yelling at him for the littlest things.
“[I play] this old guy who just wants his daughter to do things correctly,” Hong explained. “It’s like my father says to some of us — seven children — ‘无用’ which means ‘you’re useless’ or ‘you are no good at anything.’ So that’s the way I played it. I played [with] my father’s attitude for us.”
Of course, the film deals with the multiverse, which means there are alternate versions of Gong Gong around, including one that likes to wield guns, speak in perfect English, and fights against evil. Hong was given multitudes of personalities to play within the role. It wasn’t hard for the iconic actor to draw from his previous work to bring to the character.
“As you know, in my 500 or so roles, I’ve played the whole realm,” Hong revealed. “I’ve been the underling, the subservient, the villains, the Kung Fu master — all the way to Big Trouble Little China’s Lo Pan. It’s no trouble for me to draw on one of those films and then just stick it back into a character Gong Gong as the benign old man and, also, as the powerful warlord.”
For the iconic actor, Hong found the script and The Daniels very pleasant to work with. “I thought they were very down-to-Earth,” said Hong of The Daniels. After accepting the role, Hong threw himself into the character and the layers he was able to find in Gong Gong.
“It’s in the script.” Hong shared. “As an actor usually does, they follow the script and throw themselves into the role and that happens. That’s everything I’ve done. I analyze the character and sew myself into the character. It’s that innate talent to take on the qualities of a character I play. I don’t know why, but when the camera just says ‘okay, rolling… action!’ It just happens.”
The actor, who paved the way for Asian Americans in the industry, has played numerous roles in his 68-year career, including some that he was not happy in playing, but they were the only roles available at that time for Asians. But, Hong does see the changes being made in the industry and appreciates that it’s finally happening in his lifetime.
“It does my heart good to see so many films and actors come into [the fold],” said Hong. “This is what I’ve worked for my whole life.”
Due to the lack of quality roles for Asian Americans back in the day, Hong and eight other artists established Asian American Theatre troupe The East West Players in 1965 to allow a space for Asian American actors to perform and raise their visibility. Many actors, writers, and directors have benefited from Hong’s contributions to the arts.
“The industry starts to notice that we have talent and we can create different roles and be leading actors in movies like Shang-Chi and all these movies that have Asians leads,” said Hong. “They’re making money, so that spells success to Hollywood and producers. They’re starting to back us up now with more and more films coming into play. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still not enough. I would like to see the numbers grow and the support grow and the audience and producers to pay attention.”
Hong built this legacy with not just his work, but building opportunities for Asian actors to thrive in the industry.
“I’m 93 now and going toward 100,” Hong shared. “I’m still trying my best to be a good actor and produce good movies. I want to just leave to all the people that James Hong tried his best at being an actor and a person that contributed to the betterment of society. And, certainly, they remember me being a good American citizen contributing to the society of America.”
Everything Everywhere All At Once opens in theaters on March 25, 2022.