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Ken Leung’s Stock Is at an All-Time High

The 52-year-old actor stole scenes from the margins of ‘Rush Hour,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ and ‘Lost’—but now he’s at the center of them on ‘Industry’

Dan Evans
Spoiler warning

Ken Leung is looking at baseball bats. No, he’s not joining a softball league for Hollywood’s underrated character actors. He’s shopping for an onscreen accessory. The creators of HBO’s Industry have decided that Eric Tao, their enigmatic mentor with a heart of green, should always have a bat near his desk on the show’s busy trading floor.

“I had a selection to choose from, and only one was wooden, and I was like, ‘That’s the one,’” recalls the 52-year-old actor. “Eric has to have the baseball bat that can break. It may look intimidating and ‘I can do whatever I want because I own this place’ swagger, but to have something like that reveals some insecurity. Why do you need something so threatening, unless you feel threatened? What are you arming yourself against?”

It’s been almost 25 years since audiences were introduced to Leung when he jumped off the screen as a menacing, bleached-blond kidnapper in the smash hit Rush Hour. Over the next decade, he’d pop up in films from Edward Norton, Steven Spielberg, Tony Scott, Cameron Crowe, James Wan, Noah Baumbach, and Spike Lee, as well as an X-Men installment, followed by a memorable one-episode arc on The Sopranos and a series regular role on the final three seasons of Lost. Yet despite his impressive run in the industry as a versatile actor who reliably aced his supporting assignments, whether it be as villain, sidekick, or scene stealer, the juicy, leading-man-type role failed to materialize. And then came Industry. No longer is Leung laying down a bunt to set up the bigger stars.

“This is your chance,” Leung remembers thinking upon being approached to audition for Eric, the hardened elder statesman in a show of brash 20-somethings. The financial drama was a project from first-time creators featuring a cast of young unknowns and had a much smaller budget than the likes of Game of Thrones or Deadwood, but it reminded Leung of another legendary HBO series, as if he were having déjà vu. “On one hand, there was something so foreign,” he says of Industry’s high-finance setting. “And yet, written in a way that was very easy to enter for me that was similar to The Sopranos.” And with a career filled with “bit parts,” Leung finally saw the opportunity he’d been waiting for. “I’ve come across a lot of roles [that] exist for the purpose of serving the main character,” he explains. “In Industry, I didn’t feel that. I felt like, this corner of it is about this guy. I can just discover him and build him, because I trust by the way it’s written.”

“To have a seasoned actor with Ken’s résumè was a tremendous coup,” says cocreator Konrad Kay.

“He has a movie star’s charisma and intensity which people should use more often, and we hope we’ve written a role meaty enough to be worthy of his talent,” adds Kay’s partner, Mickey Down. “We truly think Ken is one of the greatest actors of his generation.”

Becoming an actor worthy of such glowing praise was never the goal. Growing up in New York City, Leung cherished his trips with his dad to the theaters in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but that was the extent of it. That is, until he took a speech communication class at New York University. After enjoying an assignment that involved writing and performing a skit, a classmate suggested Leung try his hand at acting. He wasn’t prepared for how it would forever change him. “It gave me something that I felt I really needed as a person,” he admits. “My parents are immigrants and we don’t know how to talk to each other, or be with each other—never have. And it gave me a way of learning how to be a person. I was like, I think I need to do this, regardless of whether or not I can turn it into a career.” Leung was grateful for being thrown into new situations, with new people, and not needing to know what to say—he had a script, after all. But at the time, the most substantial roles for actors of Asian descent were in Asia, not Hollywood, as it was even still years before the American breakout of Leung’s Rush Hour costar Jackie Chan, and decades before success stories like Crazy Rich Asians or The Farewell. “Being an Asian American actor, I didn’t have great reason to expect that I would have a career. But I didn’t care about any of that, because I needed to do it to know how to be in this world—and that is what sustained me. … I found a way to kind of raise myself through this.”

While he might not have expected it, Leung’s career quickly got off the ground. His onscreen credits started in 1995 with a small role in the Sundance standout Welcome to the Dollhouse and, like every New Yorker, a guest spot on Law & Order. But 1998’s Rush Hour was the game changer. At the time he got the call to audition for the Jackie Chan–and–Chris Tucker–led action-comedy from filmmaker Brett Ratner, Leung was starring in a theater production of Flipzoids, in which he played a young, bleached-blond Filipino American boy going through an identity crisis. “I think that’s partially why I got the role, because it just looked so weird,” says Leung, crediting the look for how he landed the role of Sang, the big bad’s chilling right-hand man. “It just added to this, ‘Who is this crazy blond Asian guy who wants to kill everybody?’”

The experience was a “dream” for Leung. Not only was he getting his big break in a movie that would prove to be so successful that it would spawn two sequels, but he was facing off against an icon in Asian cinema in Jackie Chan. In their off hours, Chan brought Leung on a late-night tour of Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Studios, where many of the movies he once watched with his dad were filmed. “I remember sitting in a restaurant with Brett in Hong Kong and I was like, ‘I want to treat this like I’ll never be able to do another film again,’” Leung says. “He’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But I treated it that way, as I still do.”

It was a “whirlwind” after Rush Hour, according to Leung, who appeared in Norton’s Keeping the Faith, Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Scott’s Spy Game, Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, Wan’s Saw, Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, Lee’s Inside Man, and Ratner’s Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand. Leung felt lucky just to be there. “When we did A.I., one of the actors admired Spielberg so much that he’s like, ‘I’m not going to be able to say these lines.’ He asked Spielberg, ‘Can you give them to somebody else?’” Leung says, cracking up at the memory. “I was grateful to him. Whenever you are in the presence of somebody more nervous than you, it relaxes you a bit.”

And fans of one of the greatest series of all time—as well as the minds behind another—were about to find it impossible to forget him. In the second half of The Sopranos’ sixth and final season, Leung turned heads as Carter Chong, an MIT alum whose anger issues landed him in a mental care facility, where he’s become an eager follower of Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese). “When I auditioned, I had an idea of how the character enters this institution, so I went in a crazed state and just kind of went for it. And they came back to me, like, ‘OK, that’s not what we want,’” he says with a laugh. “‘But we love that you went there, and we think we can play with you.’”

“Remember When” features Leung giving a powerfully animated, physical performance. There’s a glisten in Carter’s eyes whenever he looks at Junior, who has taken to his troubled partner-in-crime, assigning him crucial tasks like setting up illegal poker games and dictating unsolicited letters to Vice President Dick Cheney. But the budding relationship takes a turn when Junior becomes a more obedient patient. Carter abruptly explodes and brutally attacks the old man. “Dominic is the greatest scene partner and friend that you can have,” says Leung, comparing the chemistry to what he has on Industry with Myha’la Herrold. “I was in the makeup trailer and I remember feeling very nervous. He just looked at me and was like, ‘You know, it’s just you and me, kid. So you stay with me, I’ll stay with you, and that’s how we’re going to do this.’”

Leung calls the role on Sopranos “foundational,” believing it allowed him to come into his own. From there, he jumped straight from one iconic series to another. “Literally, the morning after his episode of The Sopranos aired, I said to [co-showrunner] Carlton [Cuse], ‘Have you seen that episode? There’s an actor on this show—I’m not going to tell you who he is—and I wonder if he has the same impression on you that he had on me,’” Lost boss Damon Lindelof told EW in 2007. “The next morning, Carlton came in and he had seen the episode and said, ‘Ken Leung?’ And I said, ‘Bingo.’ … The part he’s playing—it’s a character we wrote very specifically for Ken. Nobody else read for it. It had to be him.”

On Lost, Leung’s Miles Straume is first presented as a sarcastic hothead who doesn’t play nice with his new islandmates. Many of his characters could be classified as standoffish, at least initially, though they all have a bit of charm. When speaking to Leung, one can sense that he’s immediately at ease, opening the conversation by asking, “What’s your shirt introducing?” After a brief second of confusion, I realize “introducing” is the only word on my years-old T-shirt that he can see over Zoom. Unfortunately, the answer is nothing exciting, just Amazon’s Fire Phone. But more exhilarating is the great pleasure that Leung then finds in the fact that the previous night’s interview prep was interrupted by the discovery of Rush Hour on cable. “That movie is always on,” he says with a laugh. Leung seemingly isn’t one to often reflect on his career, but memories begin flooding back, leading to a moment of astonishment. “When you’re a kid, you run around in your backyard and assume roles—and I still get to do that,” he says with a warm smile. “That kind of doesn’t make sense.”

In the years following Lost’s conclusion, Leung stayed busy with a series regular gig on the NBC medical drama The Night Shift, a brief stint on the short-lived and ridiculed Marvel series Inhumans, and a recurring run on The Blacklist. Then, in 2019, as he prepared to endure another pilot season, “one audition in a string of auditions” caught his attention. Leung couldn’t shake that script. “It was this element that wasn’t entirely trackable,” he explains. “There was a feeling that so much thought was put into crafting it, like, ‘Where is this coming from?!’”

While he was handed just a few scenes to audition with, Leung sensed that Sopranos energy in Industry, a rich, fast-talking British drama that blends sex, drugs, often unlikable characters, and, even more often, financial lingo undecipherable to the untrained ear. Down and Kay’s creation follows a group of university graduates who are competing for full-time positions at London’s Pierpoint, a prestigious investment bank, and at the center is Herrold’s Harper, an extremely talented Black woman from New York whose unorthodox approach and path has earned her a tough-love champion in Eric, a fellow American with a chip on his shoulder. “You could feel from the writing that it came from lived experience,” says Leung. “When you’re at the audition stage, sometimes they’ll choose scenes that showcase a certain side of the character, but there were so many levels to the scenes that I felt like I got something that I wouldn’t have necessarily expected to get.”

Leung’s voice is the first one you hear in Industry’s series premiere, but Eric drifts in and out of the debut season, as the show never breaks from the graduates’ perspective. So, one episode, all eyes would be on Eric as he stands in his boxers on the office floor, simultaneously getting dressed and delivering a grand speech that has his captive audience hanging on every word, and then he’d disappear for long stretches. To that point, it even looked like Leung might be gone for good. After an inappropriate comment loses him an important client, Eric feels the walls closing in, and he takes his anger out on Harper, who, on the verge of tears, asks if she can leave. Eric then realizes he locked the door to the room they’re in. By the end of Season 1’s sixth episode, Eric is fired over the incident, and Leung only briefly appears from a distance in Episode 7. But in the season finale, Pierpoint’s global head, Bill Adler (Trevor White), summons Harper for a meeting—with Eric. In exchange for a job, she agrees to amend her statement to HR, and Eric thanks her for “bringing me home.”

And home is where Monday’s Season 2 episode “There Are Some Women …” finds Eric. Having been betrayed by Harper, he’s on an extended “vacation,” secretly smoking cigarettes, burning food on his egg grill, and spending time with his wife and twin daughters. But a voicemail from another mentee turned rival, Danny (Alex Alomar Akpobome), reignites his fire. “I’m as motivated and as fresh as I’ve ever been,” he says, trying to convince his wife, and maybe himself. It’s the beginning of an hour that sends Eric to New York to confront his past—and future. The start of Industry’s second season has been no slow burn, instead turning things like stock purchasing and phone calls into a nonstop adrenaline ride. But “There Are Some Women …” trades fireworks for a reflective character study: While Eric has shown slight signs of panic and desperation before, Leung pulls back previously unseen layers, replacing the character’s bravado and confidence with frazzled, feeble soft-spokenness. The actor didn’t give much thought to Eric’s expanded role until he met with director Isabella Eklof and she referred to this installment as an “Eric-centric episode.” “It was the first time that occurred to me,” he admits. “I just follow the thread; sometimes he’s barely there, and then sometimes he’s there a lot.”

Kay says that after seeing the audience’s overwhelming response to Leung’s performance in Season 1, it was a “total no-brainer” to dive deep into Eric’s POV. “Eric is all armor to this point,” Kay continues. “We knew Ken could find his humanity, so we wanted to show what made this steely exterior. Was it a choice, or was it a function of a toxic, abusive but also tender relationship he had with his mentor? Eric is also coming to terms with his own mortality. The fear of what his life is outside of the institution that made him is making him avoid a question he can’t look at quite yet: Who am I without this place?”

When Eric arrives at Pierpoint’s New York post, he’s escorted up to his late mentor’s old office. (In Season 1, Eric made a few references to the problematic tutelage, telling Harper, “I heard him compliment me once: ‘That little Chink’s a born salesman.’”) With the workspace still intact, Eric picks up and smells a red “Make America Great Again” hat that hangs from the computer. That night, he meets with his former colleague and lover Holly (Anna WIlson-Jones), who also happens to be the widow of his problematic teacher. She’s shocked to learn of all the “laced with affection,” racist nicknames that her husband uttered at Eric, assuring him that that’s not who he was. “It’s not all that he was, but it was him,” Eric replies. “It doesn’t mean I didn’t love him.” The discussions of race continue when Eric learns—for the first time—that there’s been some “trouble” lately, a subtle reference to the rash of real-life violence against Asian Americans in the United States.

Kay reveals that Leung’s “input and questions” were instrumental to working out this scene. “The world now looks like this, and you have an Asian American male, a Black American female, and that opens up so many possibilities,” Leung says, referencing the prominence of Eric and Harper. “And I love the way that they did it. There was a moment [when] it was assumed that Eric knew that stuff was happening, and I thought it would be more interesting if he didn’t. I was talking to people in the U.K. about what was going on in the States and everyone was surprised: ‘Is it really that bad?’ It’s a very small moment but I think it addressed it.”

Eric returns to the New York office the next morning, a “lonely cowboy” ready to fight for his life. In a one-on-one with Adler, he argues against his team’s low bonuses, prompting Adler to interject and divulge that it’s Eric’s numbers specifically that are down, asking, “What the hell happened to you?” Eric keeps up his usual steely exterior before turning to a desperate tone in his plea to not be let go. It’s then revealed that Danny is on the line, sharing the news that Eric is being shifted over to client relationship services, which means shorter hours and lower stress. “It’s a retirement home,” a defeated Eric declares.

Once back home, Eric heads directly to his daughters’ room, where he climbs into the top bunk with one of them. As he silently lies there, a flashback shows that he slept with Holly while in New York. The episode concludes with Eric walking into his new retirement office. Noticeably, the baseball bat is nowhere to be seen.

Unlike Eric, and maybe more like an aluminum bat, Leung’s stock has never been stronger. “I’m feeling a lot of love,” he says, admitting, as someone not on social media, that he relies on his wife to report back on the online admiration for the show and his performance. And all that love has translated to a late-career jolt. Since booking Industry, the Lost alum encountered an even scarier beach with his starring role in M. Night Shyamalan’s polarizing 2021 hit Old, and he’s been cast in Netflix’s highly anticipated, live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But he’s also banking on being in it for the long haul with Eric and Industry, and excited by the challenges that await him.

“Oh man, how am I going to do this?” Leung says with a laugh. “He has built his career against a certain image, a certain standard, and, in many ways, in tribute to somebody he loved and owes a lot to, despite whatever beliefs may differ. And suddenly he’s kind of nowhere, facing a brick wall. More than anything, what I love about Eric is he’s a creator of his own reality. And so he probably sees it as a challenge. But, in the context of his world, he’s just been spat on. So how do you create a reality out of that that you can live with? For somebody who seems certain a lot of the time, he doesn’t know.”

Leung then harkens back to that perfect metaphor. “It’s not just any bat, but a bat that can break if swung too hard,” he reminds me. “As we see, that happens.”

Derek Lawrence is a Los Angeles–based writer covering TV and film. His work has also appeared in Entertainment Weekly, People, and Vulture.

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