“Ken Leung?” Actor-filmmaker Edward Norton gushed when I mentioned who I had just interviewed. “He’s genius! I’ve cast him in everything I’ve ever directed.” Norton is not alone in his adulation of this actor who is having what can only be called a moment.
Leung, 52, is streaming in one of television’s hottest shows, and appearing off Broadway in a work by one of theatre’s hottest playwrights. In the first, HBO’s “Industry,” he is — how shall we say —the adult in the room of an investment behemoth in London, managing a pack of young and ambitious hotshots. That has just completed a second season and will soon start shooting a third.
Meanwhile, he is opening, this week in the Signature Theatre’s New Group production of “Evanston’s Salt Costs Climbing.” In that one, he portrays a Greek trucker. That is somewhat notable, since Leung is of Asian descent. (His parents were born in China; he was raised and lives in New York.)
He confesses he was rather stunned when the script by Will Arbery arrived. “I didn’t know him, or anyone, involved with it,” Leung says. “And I hadn’t done a play in 20 years. I was looking for a reason to say no, but somehow, I felt drawn to it, and that reason never came.”
“I thought of Ken for this role because it is an almost impossible one” says Arbery (who is also a writer for TV’s “Succession”). “He is mysterious, haunted, funny, heartbreaking, sexy, strange, grounded, and tormented. And when you have an impossible role, you ask one of the best actors alive. I knew in my gut that casting him would take the play to a new level, and he has proven that to be true. He’s a masterful artist — precise, alive, hilarious, playful, and unfathomably soulful. I am so lucky he said yes.”
Leung was at first skeptical he could pull off a Greek accent. “I had no idea what that sounded like,” he admits. “But I worked on that for three or four weeks with a vocal coach. For some reason, it began to feel comfortable within my mouth.” (In Norton’s film, “Keeping The Faith,” he played a Philippine karaoke machine salesman.)
“Industry,” which shoots in Wales but takes place in London, features a large cast of graduates vying for jobs at the fictional Pierpoint and Company. Leung’s Erik is the one who hires and fires. He is impressed by a young woman named Harper, and their relationship is one of the series’ most interesting. (“I’m an old crank, this is a young person’s game,” he says in a remarkable final episode.) That world, too, was a new challenge. ”The financial business was so foreign to me,” he says, “and I eventually had to become what they call a world killer. Though by the end he’s lost some of his mojo.”
In that series, Leung’s ethnicity is of no issue at all. While he is grateful for his ability to diversify in what is a more open time, he takes no comfort in the real world and any temporary reckoning. “Asians are out there right now getting beat up in the streets,” he says. “It’s a mistake to say this doesn’t matter anymore.”
He worries about his seven-year old son who, the day we spoke, was on a field trip crossing the Brooklyn Bridge (Leung resides in Brooklyn). He tries to choose work that allows his family to be with him at least part of the time.
Leung admits he would not want his son to see his father on the current off-Broadway stage: a show filled with profanity and frankly, not a lot of hope. Though it does end nicely, with a sentiment about “noticing our neighbors and our children” in these bleak times.
It is clear that Ken Leung — unlike his Erik character — has lost none of his mojo. His philosophy was pretty much summed up when he agreed to do his first play in many years. “When something scares me, that’s when I know I should do it.”
Michele Willens’ “Stage Right or Not” airs weekly on an NPR affiliate.