James Hong Looks Back on His Career

James HongWhile not exactly a household name, any cult-film fanatic would know the name James Hong in an instant. Known best for his roles as Hannibal Chew in BLADE RUNNER and David Lo Pan in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, Hong has a career in film that spans nearly 60 years. At the tender age of 84, Hong still plays an important role in the world of movies. He was just seen this past summer starring opposite of Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds in R.I.P.D. (REST IN PEACE DEPARTMENT).

Hong appeared in front of an enthusiastic crowd during the Fan Expo in Toronto this past August where he answered questions from those in attendance. Not shying away from any question nor afraid of boasting his comedic side, an incredibly charismatic Hong immediately jumped into questions as soon as he took a seat.

When asked whether there was any actor or actress that he’d like to work with, Hong simply replied, “Stupid question,” which of course garnered laughter from the audience. After the crowd died down, Hong looked to the audience and asked them, “Who do you want me to work with?” One member of the crowd said that he should be a Jedi and star in the upcoming STAR WARS EPISODE VII. With a blank expression on his face, Hong looked at the Jedi fan and replied, “I don’t want to work with George.” He then broke the expression and began to laugh maniacally, the audience joining in with his laughter.

After everyone calmed down, Hong was asked whether BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was fun to shoot. “It was very hectic because it was low-budget for such a big film. I think the budget was just something like $25-million which is just ridiculous for a big-size film like that. Nowadays, if they made that film, it’d be $200-million I would think.” After that response, a member of the audience jokingly declared, “Well Kurt Russell got most of that money, anyway,” to which Hong quickly snapped back with, “True, true. So why weren’t you there to speak up for me?”

When asked if he’s ever hopped back and forth between cities for small roles, Hong said that he hasn’t really had to travel a lot between roles, but did recall a small role that he shot in Toronto that went nowhere and has since vanished from the face of the planet. “When you think of it, after I’ve done over five-hundred films and TV, you know some of them have to be hidden.” This remark caused the audience to cheer, to which Hong responded, “Yep, and I’m still alive.”

Hong said that he just wants to make films now that he thinks that his fans will enjoy and then went into great detail regarding a new film that he’s making — based on Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN — which his fans can learn more about on his Facebook page.

“It’s about me as, not Frankenstein, but something like Hongkenstein… and I make a monster. In other words, I’ve been an outcast and I want to do something with my talent as a monster-maker, so I make this monster — and it’s an Asian Frankenstein. So I make a girlfriend for this male Frankenstein — so the male’s Chinese and the girl was made from parts of three girls who attended a rock concert and got trampled to death. She’s made up of these three girls and she happens to be blonde, so when this Asian monster is finally created — my dream son, almost — and when I created this girlfriend for him, the girl says, ‘I’m not much for Asians.’ So the rest of the story is about the townspeople after me — this crazy Asian doctor — and they want to kill me and so forth, but it’s all still being finalized, so tune in to find more of what it’s about. Those are the kind of films that I’d like to make — funky films with some kind of fun to it.”

In regard to his BALLS OF FURY role, Hong said that he did some improv because they didn’t know how to treat the role. “I said, if you don’t have an answer on how you want this character to be, I’ll just improvise.” He then quoted Wong, his character from the film, to please the BALLS OF FURY fans in the crowd (to which there were many): “Remember, you suck when you are nervous.”

From there, a fan in the audience asked Hong what his favorite role was. “I’d have to say it’s Big Trouble. There’s people like you and all over the world that loves Big Trouble in Little China and I really don’t know why, but that film just keeps coming bouncing back. ‘You’re not put on this world to get it!’ Out of the mouth of Lo Pan came a lot of words of wisdom, right?”

“I think along the way, they just recognized what I could do,” said Hong when asked to describe how he became involved with the CALL OF DUTY video game series. Noting that he had previously had roles in both DIABLO III and WARCRAFT, Hong honestly declared, “I don’t know — they just hire me,” much to pleasure of the fans in the audience. “It is fun doing voiceovers. You get a chance to just do it over and over again if it’s not perfect.”

On whether he was actually involved with the original GODZILLA film, Hong replied, “When they first got the black and white over here (in North America), I did about eight voices. It was another experience that I’ll always be grateful for.” While on the topic of roles that he’s grateful for, Hong took a quick moment to mention BLADE RUNNER. “That has to be another of my greatest experiences,” he said to a round of applause from the audience. “It’s very gratifying that a few out of those five-hundred movies, I’ve done a few of the classics like Big Trouble and Blade Runner and Chinatown and… Wayne’s World and Revenge of the Nerds.”

After the audience calmed from his last comment, Hong switched over to a more serious note, answering an audience member who was wondering how he’s seen the roles of Asian actors evolve in Hollywood. “I think very, very slowly for Canadian and American Chinese or Asian actors — it’s very slow. You’ll see an Asian from Hong Kong like Jet Li  or Jackie Chan and so forth — Chow Yun-fat — come over and make it big, but all the local boys, very few have really made it. You ask that question and through the sixty years that I’ve been in show business, I think (it’s evolved) just a tiny bit. In essence, the Asians are still the silent minority in a sense. They never demonstrate or fight for their rights enough to make it heard. I admire — and in a way envy — the black people because you see them up and getting the roles — they’re on every show there is and there’s huge stars. They do voice themselves; they’re not afraid to speak up. I try to do my best through groups to fight for our rights and it did do some good when I did my service of about twenty-five years, but when I quit, it all died down again.”

Regarding last summer’s R.I.P.D., Hong was questioned on what it was like running around the streets of Boston with a banana and a supermodel. “Well, it bombed,” he immediately spurt out, the audience bursting into laughter. “We worked three months in Boston and my role was very big, but they cut it down to nothing. You know, the avatars were prominent in the script, so seeing it come out with the part cut down and then seeing it failing at the box office really hurts in the sense that you’ve done your best and you lived with that crew for three months. I think it cost $150-million — compared to the 25 spent on Big Trouble in Little China — so how can you compare? Some things just hit it on the target and they’re big hits and people never forget it and then you spend three times as much and it just doesn’t touch the audience.”

“I love to direct,” Hong answered when asked whether he’d like to sit behind the camera one day. “Actually, that’s my forte. I can always tell people what to do!”

After the laughter died down, Hong moved on to his final question; what does he like more: live-action or voiceover work? “Live-action, of course. You never get seen when you do voiceovers. In fact, that’s how I almost got started. When I went to the University of Minnesota, there was no drama that required an Asian, so I went in for voiceover and I did an audition where they wanted me to do something — I can’t remember what — and I got the role. They wanted me to stay in their radio department, but I’m never seen, so I didn’t want to do it and I got out of there to find acting.”

R.I.P.D. arrives on Blu-ray in North America on October 29th.

~K

About the author

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF | Ken loves film -- whether it's collecting them or making them. He's a massive fan of creature features and giant monster flicks and hopes to create one himself one day. He also obsessively collects ThunderCats, King Kong, Pacific Rim and The Last of Us memorabilia.