A Conversation with Leonardo Nam: Actor, Advocate, Ambassador

The 'Westworld' and 'Tokyo Drift' actor talks about his experiences advocating for Asian inclusion in Hollywood.

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The Westworld and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift actor talks being this year’s ambassador of HBO’s Asian Pacific American Visionaries Short Film Competition, and his experiences of Asian inclusion in Hollywood.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, Leonardo Nam has been in a lot of stuff that the average film watcher has seen. He caught a big break with the teen heist film, The Perfect Score, featured in Justin Lin’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and ended up with a gig on HBO’s hugely successful sci-fi western, Westworld. It’s safe to say that Nam’s acting trajectory is on the up and up, despite dire expectations of Asian inclusion in Hollywood productions making it hard for actors of Asian descent to become household names. Nevertheless, he is determinedly carving out a place for himself and his advocacy for the right kind of representation in the industry.

Part of Nam’s activism is ambassadorship: he is the face of this year’s Asian Pacific Americans (APA) Visionaries Short Film Competition, hosted by HBO. The competition, now in its second year running, gives APA filmmakers the chance to explore issues of identity, culture and belonging in short film form. This year’s theme happens to be “home” — normally a timely subject anyway, but given the tumultuous political and social climate in America right now, it’s even more vital. Any submissions should be made by November 1 and more information — submission details, guidelines, and the like — can be found at hbovisionaries.com.

FSR caught up with Nam to discuss his ambitious and proactive past, present and future in navigating Hollywood, and why HBO Visionaries serves as a crucial opportunity for up-and-coming filmmakers.

FSR: Did you always want to be an actor?

LEONARDO NAM: It’s always been part of how I expressed myself and communicated with the world. As a kid – my brother and I and my sister – we would perform. We would do these church plays and be in these community groups. It was only in my late teens that I really recognized that it was a real job. Previous to that, there weren’t any faces that looked like my brother and sister and I that were out on movies or shows that I would watch. I originally was studying architecture at [University of New South Wales]. Then I eventually transferred to study drama in New York [at HB Studio]. There was a school – the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia – which I had originally auditioned for. It was only after realizing that I didn’t get in and I was studying with a mentor, [Sydney-based acting coach] Annie Swann, that [I was] pointed the way to the wider world. She was always someone that had said to me, “If you really want to pursue acting, you need to get out there and you really need to study. You need to find the craft, respect the craft and hone it, and own it.”

I didn’t really know I wanted to be an actor until the opportunity presented itself that there was a path forward. That only came from something that I still follow and believe in today, which is mentorship. [Swann] was also someone that would introduce me to different producers and production companies in Australia. This was at a time when there were only 3 channels. No cable, no nothing. 95% of it was imported from the US and 5% from England. And half a percent was news. I remember when I met one of the producers of Neighbours or Home and Away – the two shows that are Australian – they said to me, “You’re great! [But] unless you want to be the takeaway boy for an episode or so, you’ve got to go find [work] somewhere else because it wasn’t in Australia.” And I really respect them for that. It’s harsh to hear that but that also set me on the path to say, “Stuff it! I’m going to do it!” And that led me to New York and the path of acting.

Do you remember the first time you saw an Asian actor in a Hollywood film?

I actually do! I was too young for the George Takei Star Trek. Even though I had heard about him, that wasn’t my first exposure to him. He really busted open the doors for so many people. But for me, my first introduction to an Asian face – that was a lead character that held emotion, that carried through, that really saved the day – was Dustin Nguyen in 21 Jump Street. I remember that very clearly. There was an episode where they went undercover into high school, him and Johnny Depp — that was when I was first exposed to an Asian face that looked like myself.

How did that affect you — seeing that representation onscreen?

I didn’t know that [representation] was not there. For me – I was born in Argentina and grew up in Australia – I didn’t know to look for faces that looked like me on TV. It just wasn’t an option. So, I think when I saw Dustin, it was the first time I thought, “I can do that!” And he did a fabulous job in making it such a fun show. I remember going to school afterwards – I went to an all-boys school and it was very different from the show I saw [set] in America. I knew there was that kind of separation but I remember thinking when I went back to school, “I could be undercover!” I started to replay the images that I had of that show in my life. It was a very exciting time for me when I look back and think about that boy that was watching TV on Thursday nights or whenever it was. Very exciting for this little kid to see someone that looked like myself in a show as fun and as huge as that.

Fast forward to the present. Now that you are acting and doing auditions, what’s the casting process like for you as someone of Asian descent?

I can’t speak for what it’s like for people who aren’t Asian. But I can speak for what it’s been like for me and how that has evolved. I remember people sending me out for these Asian-specific roles. And I remember very clearly knowing in the core of who I am – I just walked to a different beat. I grew up in Australia, I speak differently, English-wise. At the beginning, especially in drama school, you’ve got to learn to figure out where your strengths are and also how you can enhance a project. If someone has what people perceive as an accent, then that can take people out of the story. I had to learn how to craft different accents. I then knew very quickly that my strength is my uniqueness and I found a way to really embrace that.

I think I’ve paved the way for myself here in Hollywood, where at least for a large part, a lot of the offices, casting directors and producers that I see usually are willing to see me in a different light. And that has become more and more open over the years. In the beginning, it wouldn’t be as many roles like that and, also, I was a lot younger then. If you look at the kinds of roles that are available that are leading or supporting, there are not a lot of young kid or early-20s roles. But as it’s come along, it has slowly evolved and different roles are now being presented to me that are not ethnic-specific. I’d say 40% of [opportunities I get sent] have changed. For the better. But we still have a ways to go. If I quote the legendary Daniel Dae Kim, he said, “The road to equality is rarely easy.” But we all fight a good fight to get there.

This proactivity that you’ve adopted for your career — is that something you’d want to impart to other Asians in the business?

A hundred percent. I think that you need to understand that there is a way, and if not you, then who? Individually, we may not be the one that stands on the top of that mountain but we will get there. I feel like no matter what age you are, you have a responsibility to yourself and to the creator that you want to be to really show up for yourself.

Is that also why you teamed up with HBO for the Asian Pacific American Visionaries Competition?

Yeah, the HBO Visionaries Competition is something that is so special and unique, and it’s so wonderful to have a huge and a global company that really represents quality film and storytelling. I was super grateful to be part of that and to have them see me as someone who could really represent and speak to the community as a whole – globally – to say we have an opportunity to tell our stories. Now, in its second year, it’s really starting to take better and bigger shape. I’m looking forward to seeing what our community is going to say, write, tell about us. About their lives.

This year’s theme is “home”. That’s a broad one that could potentially go micro too, because it could draw from so much – it’s a theme that everyone can relate to and there’s a notion that everyone can participate—

—Yep, everyone has to do it. At some point, they say every storyteller needs to tell their own story, and so this is a 101, a baseline. That from this, we are speaking volumes for the eternity of time! I’m excited to see what stories we get to see.

You’ve worked with Jennifer Phang on Half-Life and with Justin Lin on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Is there something about their approach to filmmaking that’s more sensitive to the climate of Asian representation onscreen?

Let me give the example of what it’s like when I walk on any set. Throughout the day, I will always make it an opportunity to say hello to anyone that is Asian on set. And especially anyone that is Asian and especially anyone who’s female. Because it’s important that I give a direct reach out to people that I know, from experience, I do not see on set [often]. It’s important that you recognize that’s the frame of mind of someone that looks like me, that is working as I do and has been working in this industry for maybe 15 years. So, when I get an opportunity to work with a director that is of Asian descent, especially on projects as unique and as special, it’s a rare opportunity that we rejoice in. I know that moment with Justin and also with Jennifer where you’re looking at each other like, “We’re really making this movie. And it’s going to be good.”

Doing a movie like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift where it was such a huge project, a studio film, and to have so many people there when we were working together that I knew before the film – it was so fun! And I don’t know if that’s got anything to do with our ‘Asianness’, I don’t think necessarily that at all. But it was just great to see so many people that I have known over the years come together in one project that is under the umbrella of Justin Lin and The Fast and the Furious franchise.

Because then – as someone who has grown up in the minority my whole life – to be in the presence of that grouping of people where you’re not thinking about your Asianness or your ‘minority status,’ you’re just getting to the fun and getting to the work. It’s also always wonderful to work with such professional people that can really elevate a project by not only their own mastery – whether they are a set designer or a stunt guy or a hair person – but also from the sense of who they are. We’ve got such wonderful people in our community. So skilled, so talented that it was just exciting to be a part of something like that.

Do you hope that the HBO Visionaries Competition would foster a similar camaraderie in the community?

I hope so, because the longer that I’m in the industry, the more I recognize that you start to work with similar people. We get together for these clusters of work and then we leave. Over the years, you tend to find these groupings of people and then that creates a link and a loop. I certainly do hope that people find their people…because you need that. Not everyone is going to have an experience where they’re going to be just given roles or projects one after another. You’re going have to find ways and moments in your life of creating and putting together stuff.

That’s what I think is the most important thing in having a competition like this where it brings in people of the community together to just jam. Making a movie is a beautiful mess. It is magical, insane, from the core of your soul. You’re a different person after every project and if you are with people that, along the way, you like, then that is a great day. Hopefully, people find these clusters of community and keep jamming together, keep making shorts…

…and then one short will, lead to another, will lead to a bigger project, will lead to a play, will lead to a TV show, will lead to an Oscar.

 

And it’s a group effort.

A hundred percent! No one can do this alone and if you do, it’s going be a real slow effort.

HBO

But for you as someone working in the industry with a career trajectory, going from films like The Perfect Score to shows like Westworld, how have your personal needs as an actor been met?

I am still that same spirit of a guy that moved to New York with $200 in my back pocket and that’s it. Going for it and believing in myself. When I went to New York, I didn’t have the money to study at Juilliard or NYU or Yale as an international student. So, what I did was I actively sought out their schedule and found the teachers [and fit them into my own].

In that same way, I find the opportunities in the business that I’m in now. Have there been opportunities that have come now because diversity is ‘in’, so to speak? There definitely has. It’s definitely more than before and by more, I mean like two more. [laughs] But better than less! I say that with a smile and loving grace. I’m very grateful that situations like what happened with Hellboy– Daniel [Dae Kim] now stepping in for that role is great. Because that’s one extra one that we’re getting that is actually getting representation, that’s going to get media attention.

I think that these opportunities are now shifting and changing, and I’m hoping to be surfing that wave. Some waves are for you and some aren’t but you’ve got to be out there in the ocean. I’m putting together different projects. I’m learning as I go along – what it means to be in those rooms when making those decisions. And not being afraid to put up my hand.

I’m working very actively in putting together different shows right now, for the US market but also for the Asian market. I’m also directing and doing these poetry music videos. I’m collaborating with different artists, musicians, cinematographers to put together these opportunities for myself and for other people in our community. To really see where we can go from here, what else we can build.

So, you are directing! I was going to ask that.

Yes, I am, and then also producing, and I’m learning! I’m always excited to go to competitions like [HBO Visionaries] because you meet these people that are willing to make these things with you. I’m also part of those clusters of community that are there because I want to keep telling these stories. If we’re all out there and a door opens, I’m like, “Come on everyone, get in!” And then I’m also the one that’s paddling with everyone. Group effort.

If you had to create a short film of your own for the HBO Visionaries competition this year – thinking of that theme of “home” – what would it be?

That’s a really good question. I would have to say it would have to circle somewhere around being comfortable in saying something when you believe it is necessary. Because you have the power to say something when you know it may not be the most popular thing, but is the thing that you truly can stay behind. For me, that’s really the home inside you. You can be 15 or 55 years old and home is inside of you that says, “This is what I want to and need to protect.” For me, home is a global identity. I have a footprint in London, in LA and also in Australia, in Korea and in Argentina. [Home is] more about who you are on the inside, no matter where you are and no matter what situation you’re in.

There’s also the idea of an individual home — who you are, your agency — versus stereotypes in the Asian community that can take away from specific identity and generalize it instead. How do you think Hollywood should accommodate Asianness?

I tend to believe that people are lazy. People have their own lives going on. So, I don’t know if anyone needs to accommodate anyone. That’s why I believe that you need to part of that thing that changes. I think it’s important that there are people like the executives over at HBO that have put together an active plan to find a voice and a platform for different filmmakers and to really reach out into that community and do that. It’s actively asking our community to say,

“Don’t be lazy! Don’t be good, be excellent. Tell your story. Be brave.”

Because when you’re a service to a bigger cause, everyone rises.

You will then turn around and say, “Oh! I was part of that!” And to be able to stand up and say that, “It’s not all me. But well done. And I see you too.” That’s why these opportunities like the Visionaries Competition helps people come together.

I love that answer. The community does need more of that kind of passion and conviction. I’d say that it makes you the perfect ambassador for this competition to inspire people to make excellent things.

And along the way, you’re going to make stuff that’s shitty. That’s okay. You cannot stop there. I remember when I first moved to New York and people were like, “Are you crazy, what are you doing?” I said, “I no longer want to live in the ‘what if.’” I thought if I fail, it’s because I did, and if I succeed, it’s because I did it. No one else.

If I can inspire others, great! Because others have inspired me. Others had the gumption and the balls to say, “I’m going to do that!” We’re in a very special place right now where we as a community are global. There’s no excuse that you can’t go out there and really make a story. You can shoot [a Visionaries Competition entry] on your phone!

Like what Sean Baker did with Tangerine!

Tangerine! Perfect example! That was filmed on an iPhone. That story is unique. I drove past that coffee shop on Santa Monica and Highland all the time [when it was still there]. And it really was an area that was true in that story. It was a real reflection of the times. I was recently in India, I was way out in the boonies and I see these people that have no electricity and no running water, and then there’s a kid that’s lying on the floor with headphones and a phone, watching something. That’s real. This little kid was watching something on his phone and looking for connection, looking for something – a show, a HBO Visionary short – to say,

“Hey! That’s my life!”

Complete rules and guidelines for HBO’s APA Visionaries Short Film Competition can be found at hbovisionaries.com. The deadline for entries is November 1, 2017.

(Contributor)

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.