It’s been months since Gran Torino debuted at the box office with new faces, amateur actors and one very lucky seventeen year old who landed the part of Thao Vang Lor. First time actor Bee Vang landed the opportunity of a lifetime, working alongside Academy Award Winner actor/director Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Space Cowboy), who is famously known for his western cowboy films. Gran Torino is the first film, the only film to feature a cast of authentic Hmong characters in their native language and the only movie to feature an all Hmong cast. Who knows, it might possibly lead to other opportunities for the Hmongs in the United States. It might be possible. So Brenda Song, move over, you just might have some competition in the long run after all.
Within its first week, Gran Torino was the number one film at the box office thanks to the support of Clint Eastwood’s fans and fellow Hmong community members. However, the film, plot and story could have been told in a different light, other than of a troubled young teenager. The film does shine some light into what some Hmong youths are going through in their everyday lives. It’s not just Hispanics and African Americans who share the same dilemma. It gives us hope that we can do something to make a difference. All it takes is one act of kindness from a stranger to be your friend and help point you in the right direction.
The film highlights a Detroit neighborhood of two different generations, a cynical disgruntle old man Walt Kowalski and his trouble young neighbor Thao Vang Lor. However, the Minnesota teen is completely different from the character he portrayed in Gran Torino. Bee Vang after all has an outgoing personality, is loud and not afraid to express himself.
ASIANCE: Why Gran Torino?
Bee Vang: I saw an ad for casting calls online. I consulted with my sister and cousin. They told me I should take the opportunity that came my way.
I remember reading the description about Thao. I was intrigued because you don’t often get an Asian American male being depicted with character or depth nor have them as a lead supporting role. Growing up and having mainly only one Asian role model on television and in films, Bruce Lee…I felt that this was also a great opportunity to make a difference.
ASIANCE: Take me through the process of how you auditioned for the role of Thao?
BV: I initially sent in my contact info and headshot to one of the Hmong contacts that was working with the casting associate at the time. There was just a long period of waiting and auditioning before I finally found out that I landed the role. For the auditions, you definitely have to memorize your lines beforehand. If you don’t know what you’re saying, you won’t be able to act very well. At the audition, I basically just got into character and did a reading in front of the casting directors. They told me what I needed to work on and then we did another run through and that was it.
ASIANCE: What did you do the whole time after you were done shooting a particular scene of Gran Torino?
BV: While not shooting, I would often hang out with my sister (who was my guardian as I am under age) and the other cast members. We all got to know each other very well and developed into a small close knit family.
During the actual shooting of that scene, Chee Thao, the Grandmother let out a heartfelt cry and brought tears to many of the actors on set.
ASIANCE: What are the similarities between your character Thao and yourself? In what ways is he not you?
BV: The similarities would have to be that we both are teenagers coming into age. We both are studious and subtly searching for a male role model. We are different in the way that he is a loner and quiet, whereas I am outgoing, fun and not afraid to be myself.
ASIANCE: What do you have to say about your co-star Ahney Her? How was her performance compared to yours?
BV: It was a great experience working alongside Ahney. We both had shared interests in many things besides acting, so we often would hang out along with the other cast members. We also helped each other by doing run throughs with our lines the night before a shoot. Since it was a first experience for us, we both tried to support each other the best we could. As for her performance, I think that we all did equally well in the film. Of course, being first time actors, we all have our faults and still need to work hard to get to where we want to be.
ASIANCE: How did Gran Torino affect you about the real issues that teenager’s face every day of their lives? Gang violence that has the world in an uproar because of race and discrimination, cliques that usually form together when you walk into a lunch cafeteria: the jocks, cheerleaders, the smart ones, the Asians, etc. etc…
BV: Initially, it didn’t really affect me because I have never been directly involved or experienced a situation like that of Thao’s. I was aware though of how much these things do affect a large amount of teenagers. I knew that this would be a very sensitive topic to many. It wasn’t until after the film came out that random people started to write me, telling me about their own experiences. I realized then just how big this issue was. It really made me think and wish I had done a better job in portraying Thao’s character in a more effective way.
ASIANCE: Have you ever been pressured into joining a specific group before like that of your character Thao? In your opinion what do you think of gangs in particular when they are your fellow family members, friends and other relative like Thao in Gran Torino?
BV: I have actually never been pressured into joining a specific group before. I was raised pretty strictly and often was not allowed to or encouraged to hang out with friends outside of school. I was often limited to hanging out with my cousins or studying at home.
If I were in a situation like Thao, it would definitely be very hard on me because family means a lot to me. I would be conflicted about that family member. I know I would help that family member out and pull him out of harms reach. Although GT did not address that problem, they are out there. I, unfortunately, do not have the resolutions.
ASIANCE: There was a scene in Gran Torino that affected me, it was the part of the drive by and when Sue returned home hurt. In that particular scene, when you were watching it as a regular audience, how did you feel? What was going through your mind during that scene?
BV: It already seemed real enough to me as we were filming the scene. During the actual shooting of that scene, Chee Thao, the Grandmother let out a heartfelt cry and brought tears to many of the actors on set. While watching that particular scene as one of the audience for the first time in its finished form, the blow was double fold and many emotions and thoughts did wash over me.
ASIANCE: Were there any other scenes that you liked? Moments you will remember on the set of Gran Torino? Why?
BV: I’d have to say the night scene where the gangsters and I were in a push and pull match that landed onto Walt’s lawn. Why? Because I got to work with all the main Hmong actors. I will always remember that scene, meeting everyone and forming many great relationships.
ASIANCE: How was it in Hollywood for the Gran Torino premiere? Who did you meet with? Did you get that chance to talk to anyone?
BV: The premiere for GT was overwhelming. I had never done anything like it before, obviously, so I was in panic mode. Before we got to the red carpet, I got out of the car and jumped around to calm my nerves. I admit that it took a while for me to calm down during the rounds of the press junket. I don’t think I could ever forget that experience.
During the after party, I met and talked with some stars that included Tia Mowry, Angelina Jolie, Eastwood and his wife. Of course there were other people there such as the producers, screen writers and other small actors. It was a nice gathering I had a blast meeting new people.
I have just been busy with school, hanging with friends, collaborating with a local film maker and actors on a short film. I’m also shooting scenes right now in a supporting role for Kang Vang’s next film, then another indie film this summer.
ASIANCE: What have you been doing after Gran Torino? I know that college is on your mind. What are you majoring in? How did you get into college at such a young age? I heard that you started when you were only sixteen, is that correct?
BV: I have just been busy with school, hanging with friends, collaborating with a local film maker and actors on a short film. I’m also shooting scenes right now in a supporting role for Kang Vang’s next film, then another indie film this summer. I have also been broadening my experience by taking acting classes here and there for film and theatre.
For college, I am planning on majoring in film for my undergrad. Med School might come later, but for now I am still unsure. I am just taking things one at a time. As for being in college at such a young age, I’m technically not in college yet. I’m actually doing post secondary classes at the University of Minnesota as a full-time student and I will continue to do so for the remainder of my senior year this coming fall.
ASIANCE: What experiences did you gain from Gran Torino that you want to share with other aspiring actors? Any words of wisdom?
BV: Hmmm…Acting is a lot of work. You just don’t memorize lines and go out there to expect a great take. It also depends on the director and shooting schedule. You will have to shoot scenes that you weren’t scheduled for. So just be well prepared and know how to handle situations such as that. That was one situation that I did face while shooting Gran Torino. I managed to pull through. Gran Torino in its entirety was a learning experience for me. So there is not one specific experience that I can highlight for you that I gained from. It would be unending.
For me, it’s not just about hard work and perseverance. It’s also about going beyond what’s in front of you and wanting more and not being willing to settle for anything less. It’s also about believing in yourself, finding the right people to believe in you, to support you continuously– emotionally, mentally…and to show people all that you’re capable of.
Don’t be afraid to let people know “I can do this really well”…or “I really want this”, “Can you help me?” I learned to seek help whenever I saw an opportunity, to chase the opportunity and to find what drives you.
ASIANCE: Some people are wondering, as am I, did you really get to drive the 1972 Gran Torino?
BV: No, I never got to drive it because I didn’t have a permit or license. I wish I had gotten the chance though.
ASIANCE: Thank you so much in taking the time with me, I wish you all the best in all your future endeavors.
BV: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. I’m thankful for all the love and support I have received. They all mean so much to me!
End of Interview
Vang has garnered the Hmong community’s attention since working on Gran Torino with determination and perseverance with the help of his family and close friends. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll see him act alongside fellow Hmong actress Brenda Song (The Suite Life on Deck, Wendy Wu). You never know. As of now, let’s just leave Vang to continue being a regular teen, laughing along with his friends while listening to his favorite possession, his IPod. Gran Torino is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Photos by PRPP_Pacific Rim Photo Press