2010 is gearing up to be a big year for Louis Ozawa Changchien. The half Japanese half Taiwanese actor has a major role in Robert Rodriguez’s Predators coming out this summer and Michael Golamco’s Year Zero at New York’s Second Stage Theater, as well as Doug Liman’s Fair Game about former CIA agent Valerie Plame.
But let’s get back to Predators. I know I’m not the only one excited about this return to a classic Hollywood thriller. While most of the movie industry seems preoccupied with remaking old projects (see: Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen), Robert Rodriguez is presenting a new chapter about the alien race that still haunts my nightmares.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Louis to talk about Predators, pursuing his acting career, growing up bi-ethnic and where we can find him next on the big screen (and stage!).
Tell me about your background being both Japanese and Taiwanese. What was your experience growing up with those two cultures?
My family background is pretty interesting because my father studied in Japan and my grandfather went to medical school in Tokyo. And he speaks Japanese fluently, and my great grandfather spoke fluently, as well. So on my father’s side, which is Taiwanese, the one language that’s common (since I don’t speak Taiwanese or Mandarin) that we could all communicate in was Japanese.
When I was born, Japan was really a superpower in Asia and he thought English and Japanese were the most important languages to learn. So I went to Japanese school on the weekends. I grew up in New York City.
Those weekend schools were awful.
They were terrible. My mom was manipulative in the way that she made it seem like it was my choice [to go]. She’d guilt trip me, like “You know, someday you’ll thank me. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. You only have to go until 6th grade.” I really didn’t have a choice; she just made it sound like that.
Did you still identify with your Taiwanese side?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There were a lot of times growing up where I was like, “Oh, my dad’s not the same as my mother.” I had more contact with my Taiwanese grandparents because they traveled a lot to the United States. I actually didn’t meet my Japanese side of the family until I was 12. In some ways, I was culturally more Japanese but I had more contact with my Taiwanese side of the family.
So what led you to pursue a career in entertainment, especially with the stereotypical problem of having strict Asian parents who wanted you to become a doctor or a lawyer. Were your parents encouraging you?
Well, my mother is an artist; she’s a jewelry designer. She moved to Kyoto when she was 18 and dabbled in acting and modeling. She claims she always thought I’d be an actor.
I went to a progressive Montessori school until second grade, and the music teacher there was amazing. He’d write these original shows that were often musicals. I guess I shined in that class. He recorded my voice and sent it to a talent agency. They booked me on my first two jobs. I think I was 8 years old. I did two TV commercials, a 7up commercial and then a Jello pudding commercial with Bill Cosby.
It wasn’t until college at UC Davis. I thought I wanted to major in Bio. I was kind of lost. I only did it because it was a legitimate thing for my folks, and then I stumbled across an Intro to Acting class. This teacher was this young MFA student who recommended that I audition for shows and that’s how I got started.
It was dumb luck. It was a good time to enter the entertainment business for an Asian. There were more and more opportunities that were sprouting, especially in commercials. It was right at the peak of the economy and [the industry] diversifying their commercials. So I quickly booked a bunch of national TV ads and thought it was easy, like I could make a living out of this.
Then I realized that the kind of stuff that I really wanted to do, like film and tv, required actual skill. So I got into a graduate school program [at Brown University] in 2003 and spent three years there.
What are your views on Asian Americans working in entertainment industry right now?
I think it’s even better. It was better because I was at an old enough age to start working, and there were finally some opportunities out there. We’ve gone from zero to some, and now we’ve gone from some to a lot more. It’s not a huge number [of roles] now but if you look around the TV shows and mainstream media, there’s a lot more Asian American actors and Asian American characters, which is cool to see. I think the next wave is going to be even better.
So you have this big movie coming out called Predators. Do you want to tell me how you got that part?
It’s really funny, actually. I was in the middle of a move and my manager was trying to get me an audition while I was out in LA for a wedding. For some reason, they couldn’t get together an audition for me in time so I was back in New York when my manager asked, “Can you send me a tape?” I really didn’t have much time, because I was in the middle of a move. My girlfriend records all of my auditions when I put them on tape, and we did two takes: one with an accent and one without. And that was it. A week later, my manager called to tell me I was in the running and I should hear by Thursday. The following Thursday rolls around, I didn’t hear anything so I give up hope. Then Friday rolls around and I got the part.
Fox made me prove to them that I was culturally Japanese, what my parent’s background was, and if I spoke Japanese.They finally OKed it at the last minute on Friday and by Sunday I was on a flight to LA for a costume fitting. A few days later, I was in Hawaii to start shooting, and I never once met the producer or the director. It was all because of the tape and honestly, I’ve done better tapes. I guess there was something that the director saw.
Wait, tell me more about Fox wanting to confirm that you were Japanese in some way? Is this normal?
I think marketing at Fox was afraid because of what happened with Memoirs of a Geisha.
So the studio realized that maybe the ethnic background of the actor should match the character?
I think they just wanted to make sure.
Did you have a submit a family tree?
I did! I had to submit a biography, believe it or not. It was crazy, like “My parents met in Japan, my father studied there, I grew up speaking Japanese, they live in Tokyo now,” all of that.
That’s kind of good, on their part.
Yeah, and you know, Asians can be funny about that. They want to know that this person is authentic, and maybe in some people’s eyes, I’m not authentic enough.
Can you tell me about your character on Predators?
Well, I play a Yakuza who is part of the group of thugs, criminals and military people — we’re a motley crew of 8 people who are dropped on this alien hunting ground.
I’M SOLD. And then what?
And then all hell breaks loose.
So one by one, people are killed off?
Well, we band together out of necessity… for a little while. We’re not like the typical team; nobody really gets along at first but eventually… well, I don’t want to tell you too much. It’s an action movie. If you’ve seen the first Predator, that’s kind of a jumping off point. Hopefully we take it to the next level from there.
How do you feel about your role?
It’s every boy’s dream. I mean, it’s like when you’re a kid and you’re playing make-believe. You’re running away from a monster, shooting guns and stuff.
And you have a samurai sword?
I do have a samurai sword.
How was that?
Well, we explain it in the film. That I can’t tell you about. It’s not like I’m running around from the very beginning with a sword. It’s organic and when you see it, it’ll make sense. I can’t say too much more about that.
Did you have to undergo special training for the sword?
I’ve been practicing Kendo since I was 5 years old, and I asked very nicely if [my Kendo teacher] could come in and assist in the fight choreography. He’s kind of a second father to me and he was over the moon [at the opportunity]. He’s been in a ton of movies, but he’s never been called on to choreograph a fight in a big movie. It was incredible and it couldn’t have been done the way it was without him.
With all due respect, everyone was great and we had top notch stunt people and choreographers, but when it comes to Japanese sword fighting, he’s the expert. We wanted to make it authentic. I did the entire fight myself.
Did you do all the stunts, or did you have a stunt guy?
My stunt guy, Ryan Ryusaki, is amazing. He actually looks a lot like me from behind; we’re the same height and build. By the way, stunt people are the craziest mother fuckers out there. They are the life of the party. If you want to go out, go out with stunt people.
He comes from a family of stunt people, and he’s my stunt guy for life. That’s the thing with Asian actors. There are so few parts that to find the perfect stunt men is really difficult.
How was the set?
It was really great, because the cast was so small, we started [shooting] in Hawaii and we sort of shot the film chronologically… basically, as the movie goes on, people get sent home, but I was on from day one to the very end.
Have you seen the final product?
I’ve seen some footage during my ADR session, but I haven’t seen it all put together, with the finished special effects.
But you don’t need any special effects, right?
No, only “enhancements.” Yeah.
What can fans expect from this latest movie in the Predator franchise? It seems like it’s a return to the original movie, and you’re supposed to forget that Aliens vs. Predators happened.
Yeah, or Predator 2 for that matter. It’s a new take on it, but there’s certain elements that are amazing from the original Predator that the director and producer wanted to carry on, like the ensemble feel, the jungle, the whole mash-up of genres between monster, horror and action. You’ve got some killer actors in it. They’re all great actors.
But we felt very strongly about this movie from the beginning. The stunts are great, the action sequences are great.
What else do you have on your plate?
I have two things coming out this month. I have Fair Game, a film premiering at the Cannes film festival by Doug Liman with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. It’s the only American movie in the competition. It’s a political drama and I play an American in it, which is cool.
What role do you play?
I play a CIA Analyst. It’s a CIA thriller based on the true story about the Plame-gate scandal in 2003. I’m part of Naomi Watts team — Naomi plays Valerie Plame. I’m one of the guys that does the research on Iraq’s viability to produce weapons of mass destruction. So it was a lot of tech stuff, but it’s fun. I have two or three fun scenes.
Tell me about your Year Zero play? It seems like a totally opposite direction from Predators.
It is an American play by Michael Golamco that takes place in Long Beach, CA but the characters are Cambodian-American. I play a guy named Han, who is recently out of prison and is a refugee of the Cambodian genocide. The story centers around the death of Vuthy and Ra Vichea’s mother. Vuthy is really the protagonist as a young boy who’s played by Mason Lee (Ang Lee’s son). It’s his off Broadway debut and just finished his second year at NYU.
It’s a great play written by Michael Golamco and it’s a great cast of four. It’s a great cast of four Asian American actors: Peter Kim, Maureen Sebastian, myself and Mason Lee.
The play revolves around the death of a mother and the repercussions from that, the past and how all these people converge at the same time, like the sister who’s been gone for a long time who has to take care of the house and everything. And a lot of drama ensues. It’s also very funny. It’s a “dramedy.”
Well, they clearly didn’t do a background check on you for not being Cambodian.
Yeah, right! They did a pretty extensive casting, I guess, and I’ve always wanted to work with Michael. I’ve known him personally and I’ve loved his writing. So this is a great, great role. It’s fun. And it opens Wednesday, May 26th.
If you’re in New York, check out Louis on stage for Year Zero at the Second Stage Theater, which runs from tonight, May 26th until June 13th! Then catch him on the big screen, where I hear he has some serious Predator kills in store for us.