The Amazing Mr. James Hong

By: 

Kate Pehrson

With an IMDB page so long and storied that it’s probably eligible for its own award, he’s worked with some of film’s biggest actors and directors. By HIS count, he’s racked up close to 500 credits. He suspects that he could possibly be THE actor, living or dead, with the most film and television roles in history. And I believe him.

You say 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, I say 3 degrees of THAT GUY.

Actor, producer, director, teacher – THAT GUY is one of the most recognizable character actors in Hollywood.

He was the evil sorcerer David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China. He was the guy that told Rutger Hauer “I just do eyes!” in Blade Runner.

BLADE RUNNER.

He’s a go-to voiceover guy, famous for his role as Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda movies, as well as for roles in Mulan, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Scooby Doo, Star Wars Rebels, Kung Fu Panda Legends of Awesomeness, video games galore, and some vintage Godzilla films.

For good or bad, he’s played the whole field of stereotypical Asian characters: Chinese Buddhist priest, Japanese military officer, waiter, butler, laundry worker, wealthy businessman, wise old man.

As a television actor, he’s been in everything that was ever important to the medium: from Dragnet to The X-Files to The Blacklist, with a iconic Seinfeld episode moment in the middle.

He runs an acting school with his daughter April, and he’s an incredible impersonator – once doing a killer Minnesota Swedish accent in a movie for the late great Gene Wilder. Weird huh?

Nope. Because he’s from here.

When I got on the horn to the bossman and told him that THAT GUY was born in Minneapolis, he said “What?!” and then I said “Yes!!” and he said “you mean THAT GUY?!” And I said “Yes!!” and he said “Kate…I WANT THAT GUY IN THE MAGAZINE.”

And so I invite you – lucky reader – to come along with me and let a man who I might suggest is one of Hollywood’s greatest one-person storehouses of movie experience and knowledge, a man who graciously answered some of our most pressing questions about his life and career via the magic of instant messaging, usher us into the Chinese Year of the Fire Rooster, into his 88th year and into our latest movie issue - THAT GUY – James Hong.

KP: I’m exhausted just looking at your IMDB page. My finger hurts from scrolling down so far. You obviously are a person of great energy, enthusiasm and passion for your life and work. What keeps you going?

JH: It’s the challenge…and a whole page can be written on that. Come to acting class - the work keeps me going. I love what I do and every role is different, so it’s like a new beginning, in a sort of fashion.

KP: You were born in Minneapolis, but you returned to China (Kowloon in Hong Kong) at about the age of 4 or 5 because your parents thought you were becoming “too Americanized”. At about ten, you came back to Minnesota where you were a part of the small but strong Chinese community centered on Hennepin and Westminster Church downtown.

JH: Our family store and residence above was 713 3rd Ave. So, in downtown.

These days, that’s on the corner of the Ameriprise building and the Hennepin County Court House in Minneapolis.

KP: You were a natural performer from the time you were young – giving speeches at the church, and being a part of some of the productions at your middle and high school. Although you enjoyed the stage, in the Chinese culture and in your family, you said that acting was considered a “low-rung” profession, and that the household you grew up in encouraged you to become a professional.

You entered the University of Minnesota Engineering School and worked at the Nankin Restaurant as a dishwasher, because the owner said that as long as you were in school, you would have a job there.

JH: I was [also] in the National Guard in the Minnesota Vikings Division which was activated during the Korean War. Our outfit was sent to Camp Rucker, Alabama to train to go to Korea. General Peterson of the camp decided to keep me at Camp Rucker because I guess he thought this talented soldier would be killed either by the Koreans or the Americans by accident. That started the seed to my entertainment career.

James was put in charge of entertaining the troops at the camp, putting on and coordinating the live entertainment shows. He mentioned in an interview in 2009 with China Insight that “… let's admit it that with a G.I. cap and this face charging at the Korean army, the Koreans would try to kill me. But then if we were to retreat and I turned around and ran back the Americans would try to kill me too because they'd think I'm an enemy in disguise. I definitely think I would have been shot from one side and the other.”

Back home, he did a stint on WCCO radio. James was (is) a gifted impressionist, and was fighting against prejudices that wouldn’t get him more mainstream acting jobs. He has mentioned in other interviews that he was really part of a comedy routine with Donald Parker, calling themselves Hong & Parker. One summer they decided to hit the road for California, and see about making it in the entertainment industry. But, at the time, there was really no such thing as a comedy venue. Agents and entertainment venues didn’t know what to do with their routine, so they didn’t get any bookings. He said they “knocked on every door in San Francisco and got NO gigs.”

KP: You worked for the County of LA for a while in the Civil Engineering department, all the while keeping a foot in the industry. Eventually while you were doing the rounds, A writer told Groucho Marx that you did a great impersonation of him, so you got on his television show You Bet Your Life. There, you did an impersonation of Marx himself (JH: and James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart and Peter Lorre) that went over like gangbusters and got you a ton of fan mail. After that, you started getting offers, jumping in with both feet right into movies with the likes of Clark Gable, John Wayne and William Holden.

When it became clear that you were going to be in the film industry, what was the response from your family, especially your parents who may not have understood or supported it at first?

JH: They had hoped I would stay in engineering - a steady and much-needed job for the city of Los Angeles - however, when my dad saw that I got paid for acting, he proudly said: “That’s my son! He’s Charlie Chan’s #1 Son and going to London!”

KP: Do you remember if your boss or co-workers had anything to say to you?

JH: My boss, Mr. Thompson at the LA County Road Dept. said, “Are you crazy, you got a degree in Civil Engineering and a job which will pay you a great pension for the rest of your life! (GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE) All right, I’ll give you a one year leave of absence and if you fail as an actor, you can come back. Your job will be waiting for you.” I imagine the job is still there waiting for me.

KP: Lately you’ve been in the spotlight for your role as Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda movies. You are a gifted voice actor, and have been doing voice work practically since you landed in Hollywood, ever since doing voices for the English dubbing of the 1956 film Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Do you prepare for voice roles the same way as for live-action films and work?

JH: Thank you for your kind words. I approach all my roles the same; reading the script ahead of time, making sure I am pronouncing names and places correctly and trying to find that persona for the role at hand. Every role is different and it needs both a voice and image. With voice-over work, you have to find that voice that matches the image they are creating, just like in film and TV. However, laying in the voice for a feature animated film is very luxurious because I can do many more takes and express them in different ways and tones, whereas in films, we can’t do that many takes. It’s too expensive … unless you are a big star!

KP: Generally, you do voice-over acting alone – just you in a studio working with sound people in the booth to get tracks down to the animation. How is that different for than when you have other actors to bounce off of on-set?

JH: You are usually by yourself and on rare occasion you will be in the same room with another actor. Or they will have someone read the opposing lines to you so you have a better frame of reference and also sort of get their reaction; however, you have to stretch your imagination even more. You have to imagine the surroundings and the other character’s presence.

KP: I know you do an awesome Scandinavian accent/Minnesotan accent – have you ever had to use these in one of your roles?

JH: Oh yes, one of my favorite roles was doing a Minnesotan accent in the late great Gene Wilder’s The World’s Greatest Lover opposite the late Dom DeLuise. I played Yes Man #3 and you wouldn’t expect an Asian gentleman with that accent. It was so much fun.

KP: Clearly, you have spent much of your life on set. I bet a lot of us don’t know just how much goes on – how many people there are, details to set up, and how much waiting around there is. How do you spend your time and stay “in it”?

JH: I try and continue to rehearse the lines and possibly try it different ways in case the director wants it slightly different, I am prepared for it. It’s not easy to analyze what the writer had in mind and what the director wants. Also what is the style of the leading actor?

Between being in costume, make-up and waiting, short naps help, since an average day can last 10+ hours. But I like to stay focused, and at the end of the day, that is when you can relax.

I visit craft services quite often if it’s good.

KP: Did growing up in Minnesota winters prepare you for shooting the “I just do the eyes” scene from “Blade Runner”, which was filmed inside an industrial freezer, or had you become soft from 30 years of living in LA? ;-) wink.

JH: It had been awhile since being in the cold, but the costume was pretty heavy so that helped keep me relatively warm during the shooting. I have become a warm-weathered soul now.

KP: My editor is especially fond of your character of Snotty, from Revenge of the Nerds II, and loves quoting the line: “To truly hock a loogie, one must not retrieve the phlegm from the lungs, but from the soul”, or something disgusting like that. I know that you have improvised some of the great lines from your characters, did you improvise that one?

JH: That was the line in the script. I did some improv such as holding my cigarette, I took that from Peter Lorre. I designed that neat hairdo, did you like it? I can also burp/belch on cue, one of my great accomplishments.

KP: You’ve spent a lot of time in the make-up chair. For the role of David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, you clearly spent a LOT Of time in the make-up chair becoming an ancient old man. I get really impatient when someone else is doing my hair or makeup or nails or something. What do you do to get through that time?

JH: Several things could be going on. Rehearsing is top of the list for sure and trying to remain focused. You are also communicating with whoever is doing the make-up to make sure you are both understanding what the director wants and to be able to repeat it over the course of filming. In doing the old Lo Pan, I had to move my face with all that heavy make up in front of the mirror and converse with the make-up man. …”is this registering??”…in the first shot on the first day, it took 9 hours for Steve Johnson to do the old man make up, and I had only 2 hours to do the scene. So I wheel my wheelchair into my mark and did the scene in one take. ….looking back…Yes, it was a miracle! Lo Pan WAS put on this Earth to get it!

KP: You’ve done work for both the DC and Marvel universes, most recently as the father of S.H.I.E.L.D agent Melinda May. Are you a fan of the superhero/comic worlds or is it just part of the work?

JH: I do enjoy the superhero comic book genre. It has become so popular! In fact I was in RIPD as the avatar for Ryan Reynold’s character, which is also based off a comic book. The avatars were added to the movie which was not part of the original comics. It almost felt like the fans loved the avatars more than anything else. We shot approximately 50 times as much footage as what was used on screen. I did my best and it ended on the editing outtake pile. I am thankful that my fans have told me that they thought that my character was the most intriguing part of the film.

KP: What do you think would be Essential James Hong roles for viewing?

JH: Definitely need to include Big Trouble in Little China, that is both such an iconic and cult following film for the past 30 years since it was released. Any of the Kung Fu Panda films would be great, especially the most recent one. Another larger role for me was in Balls of Fury which is very funny.

KP: Do you enjoy watching movies for your own entertainment? If so, do you have a genre of film you enjoy?

JH: With so many projects it’s hard to see all the movies that come out every week. I try to keep up on all the mainstream films and watching the amazing talent in the younger actors these days. But I try to never miss a Laker or Clipper Game on TV! I record them and skip around as I please…hee,hee,hee…..INDEED!

KP: The travels and stories of Marco Polo are legendary in the history of Western interactions with China. You said that one of the greatest experiences of your life was a last-minute part in the 1982 miniseries “Marco Polo”. I can imagine that the opportunity to be a part of a project focusing on Chinese history, in China, portraying a historical Chinese figure would have been amazing. Can you speak a little more about that experience?

JH: It would take a whole page. I can only say that it was the greatest experience in my whole career to have worked with the Italians and the Chinese when China was still steeped into Communism. All the people were dressed in green or black uniforms and they lived in communes.

KP: I notice your IMDB page says you can dance: specifically mentioning break, hip-hop, swing and waltz. Do you have any dance scenes in your films? I think I need to see James Hong drop some sick hip-hop moves.

JH: I did break dance in Rocky Boy. It was a pilot for a TV series with actors from Second City including John Candy. Also it does help to keep me loose and active. Especially if you have nothing to do on set while waiting, you can break out into a little boogie.

KP: Have you ever had to call on your engineer training in a film?

JH: I sneak it in once and awhile. Like in Colossus: The Forbin Project, also in my inner monologue I use my engineering training and skills to make sense out of scenes when it calls for it. Like in Blade Runner, I used whatever I learned in chemistry and physics class to make Hannibal Chew more realistic. “I just do eyes … you Nexus? I designed your eyes!”

KP: The lack of representation for people of color/different ethnicities has been a huge factor in the races leading up to different movie awards for the past several years. You’ve been active in working for representation and equality for Asian actors in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. What are your thoughts about the current state of actors of color in Hollywood?

JH: It’s terrible, this industry has very little diversity. The Asian American actor, very talented ones, are forgotten. Not only are we a silent minority, but we are also an unseen minority. We do have a couple of gimmick series and roles here and there but as far as roles in the principle walk of life, they are minute. Heck, there are so many Asian Americans in our everyday life such as doctors, scientist, executives, lawyers and laborers; where are they in films and TV? I’ve fought all my career for better and equal opportunities for us but the fruits are very few. You’re talking 64 years!

KP: Your daughter, April Hong, is an actor and she has worked with you on film projects and as an acting teacher. Did she always have “the acting bug” like you did?

JH: Yes, I still encourage her to continue because she has talent and has done many acting roles. Recently because of the lack of opportunity for Asian American actors, she devotes herself to part time acting.

KP: Do you have a motto?

JH: Keep level. Don’t go overboard with anything you do. Because if you do, you might fall over.

KP: I think Minneapolis needs a statue of you. If you could choose how you would be portrayed, what would it be?

JH: As one of my characters, perhaps Mr. Ping from Kung Fu Panda. But instead of the goose, it’s me in an apron, welcoming all to Minneapolis and to enjoy the hospitality the city has to offer. Or just of that skinny James Hong living on 713 3rd Avenue. “He lived and worked here as a dishwasher, but somehow rose above that!”

KP: You are my first Hollywood actor interview. If I am lucky enough to get some more interviews in the future, what should I NEVER EVER ask an actor?

JH: “Are you still working?”

You can find the most-definitely-still-working James Hong on Facebook at facebook.com/JamesHongPage and follow him on Twitter @TheJamesHong

Kate Pehrson is a celebrated Twin Cities musician, writer, humorist, educator, mother, wife, fire prevention partner and film aficionado. Contact her on Twitter@k8pehrson