Brian Yang is a Renaissance man
Actor, producer, romantic, Spam aficionado…Brian Yang is all of the above and more.
I stood waiting in front of the doors of the building, phone to my ear. It didn’t help that we had a slight miscommunication about the meeting place.
“I’ll be right there, see you in a bit,” said the voice in my phone. Not long after, Brian Yang rounded the corner.
“Officer 808!” he beamed at me. With a non-Caruso swipe, he took off his sunglasses and shook my hand. I instantly noticed his easy, laid back demeanor – if not Hawaiian, it was at least Californian.
We made our way to the tables. My photographer and I set up for the interview.
Hey Brian, thanks so much for taking the time to talk.
Yeah, no problem. I got some time right now, so I’m more than happy to be sitting right here.
New York City, Alaska, Taipei, Hawaii…you’re a jet setter aren’t you? Are you just an international man of leisure and acting is just a passing hobby?
It’s mostly business, I’m definitely not an international man of leisure! I do get that a lot, and it feels like that in a way. With travel comes the advantages of experiencing different cultures and having leisure time, so I’m definitely enjoying my travels. But I don’t travel that much for fun, it’s primarily all to do with film and television. All those different markets are places I plug into, from project to project.
Sometimes they need me here… to shoot an episode of Five-0, sometimes it’s my own project that I’m producing and I had to run off to Taiwan.
What are you working on in Taiwan?
I’m producing a web documentary series about this NBA basketball player, Jeremy Lin. So he was in Taiwan for two weeks, and we went out there to follow him around. And that’s something we were working on for a couple of months now, so we’re spending the bulk of the summer filming his story and going to different places.
What’s so compelling about his story?
Two years ago when he graduated from Harvard University, he got into the national consciousness because he started performing really well on the court. What made him unique was that he’s second generation Asian-American and he really got the attention of the scouts. They thought he had a shot in the NBA which is rare for two reasons. The obvious one being Asian, there aren’t a lot of Asians making the pro ranks, but there have been an influx of Chinese players, Yao Ming being the main one. He went to Palo Alto High School, right down the street from where I grew up. The second reason is because Harvard is not known for producing pro basketball players. Ultimately he was picked up by the Golden State Warriors.
I’m still tapped in to my hometown and my family still lives there. One year I was home during Christmas, and reading through the paper, and his story was in there, and I was like, “Jeremy Lin,” player of the year? You don’t see too many Lins on the hardwood. And so I started following his career little by little and eventually the timing was right and my film production company 408 Films put together a team with the Lin family. It was a long process but we eventually got approval and started to shoot this summer.
So where does it start, from high school to his NBA career?
We’re primarily focused on his rise…Jeremy Lin went to a small school, Harvard, then the NBA…and the fact that he’s an Asian-American breaking all sorts of stereotypes. That’s a very important part of the story but we didn’t want to necessarily regurgitate what’s been told many different times. So we’re actually going deeper, talking about his family, going back to his childhood, going back to his roots in Taiwan, to see where his family grew up. This story is going to be more of an “A to Z” of his life than just a three to four minute piece.
You talked about breaking stereotypes. You’ve worked with Daniel Dae Kim and I’m sure you know of Kelvin Han Yee. When I read Daniel’s interviews and when I interviewed Kelvin, they talked about how it was hard to break the shell of getting roles not thought for Asians. In 2011, do you still feel that that’s a hurdle?
Interestingly enough as an aside…I met Kelvin in passing on a short film we did in San Fran together. He probably doesn’t even remember me, but I remember him because he has a very commanding presence. And it was the first thing I’d ever done, and inspired me to continue to act.
Starting back in the late 90s ’till today, I’ve seen improvements. To be honest, I still do feel challenges. I still get auditions from my agents for a two liner for a Japanese waiter with an accent. The struggle is not so much that the roles don’t exist, or with the people in charge, but we’re just being marginalized in stereotyped roles. I think it’s opening up a little bit, shows like Hawaii Five-0 help out. I was frustrated at the beginning of my career, but there are a lot of things beyond my control. That’s why I decided I wanted to be a producer. I have more control over the projects I wanted to be involved in, not just as an actor, but crafting stories for and by Asian people.
Do you have any other projects going on?
We’re starting production in Los Angeles on Night Dream Blues. It’s an independent film directed by a young AFI graduate, Nadine Truong. It’s her first feature, and we’re very excited about this.
Are you starring in that?
I’m acting in this as well. In general I don’t necessarily want to act in everything I’m involved in as a producer. There’s a fine line between “producer” and “actor”, and a lot of Hollywood actors go off and start their own production company. I think it’s smart and brilliant- once they’re in the game long enough, they become filmmakers. It’s such an organic process, you’re always going to have creative ideas in your head, you’re going to be in touch with other people floating ideas around you, and next thing you know, you’re an independent filmmaker. Obviously when you’re a high profile Hollywood actor, it’s easier to get a project off the ground. I just figured I was just gonna do this ‘cause I have the energy, drive and passion. I don’t have the profile, but I have all the other things that can help me be a good producer which is one of the reasons why I started 408 films. I don’t care how people see me…but just as long the projects I’m working on are good, I can prove I can do it, and people will accept me. So I’m aware of that, and I happen to be acting in Night Dream Blues, it’s a great script. I really identify with it and want to help see it through.
I saw some information on Night Dream Blues on Kickstarter. What’s that?
They help artist seed their projects by raising money from the community, but it’s done in a way where you’re making a donation, not an investment. So basically, we pass the hat around and see what we can come up with. You have to set up a timeline- 30, 60 days, or 90 days and people will sponsor you. People can kick in as low as a dollar to as high as whatever they want and they get their credit card charged. For us, we wanted to raise a goal of $7500. We have most of our financing raised, but we wanted to have a little bit of a buffer. So $7500 is the goal, if you hit it by the date you set, Kickstarter releases the money to you, if not, you don’t get the money, and the donors don’t get charged.
I know people want to help out and finance the production, but is there any swag that you guys are giving out? Like an autographed 8×10, or a bag of popcorn?
More than popcorn! There are different tiers of rewards; from $5 to $5000 you can get different things. Nadine [the director] is offering a photography session. There are scripts, DVD copies, stills from the set, visits to the set… you can buy your way into a lot of these perks. You can get a mention on the Facebook page if you have a business you want to promote. People want to get something out of it, and we understand.
We’re at about $5500 [at interview time]. We’re almost there but we need a big kick in the next two weeks. What I think tends to happen is that people tend to rush in at the end to help…we’re crossing our fingers that’s going to happen.
Another project you were involved with was Shanghai Rush. Did you produce it?
No, I was the host, just a hired gun. They needed an Asian face with a western speaking ability. I’m glad I had that experience! I got to see Shanghai a lot of residents probably don’t get to see. Talk about cramming in the entire city in one month’s time!
It’s like the Amazing Race? So you were the Asian Phil Keogh?
You said on Twitter that Taipei was one of the most romantic cities?
When I got older, I spent more time in Taipei, and started to appreciate more of the beauty. I haven’t been to every romantic city, but I’ve been to Rome, but not Paris. But out of all the cities I’ve gone to, there’s something about Taiwan. There’s something sleepy, more relaxed, people are nice to one another, just like Hawaii. There are these night markets; these in particular are what makes me think that it’s romantic. There are food stands, gift stands, games you can play. It’s nothing spectacular, but you see couples holding hands, nibbling on food together, guys playing a game to win something for their girlfriends.
Basically it’s where you go for date night?
Yeah, but I go there just to get food, it’s amazing, and cheap!
So bottom line, if I wanted to meet girls in Taipei, this is where I go?
Alright I’ll make a mental note of that…
You mentioned in your blog before that you’re surprised that actors who want to be in a show never actually watch the show, can you explain that?
Well, I’ve been a fan of Five-0 since day one. I was too young for the old series, but my parents watched it. I remember when we were kids, my dad, we used to make fun of him, ‘cause he used to look like the original Chin Ho actor. We’d call him ‘Chin Ho’ when he wore a Hawaiian shirt. But when I heard the show was going to be remade, I said “That’s great!” I love Hawaii; I’ve been here many times. I thought it was a smart idea to do this one, the obvious factor was setting the show in Hawaii. It is a show that helps to put Asian-Americans in the forefront which I thought is fantastic; especially after Lost went away, since they cast a number of Asians. So I just jumped in from day one and loved it. When the opportunity came up [getting cast], I had to pinch myself. I guess I thought it was possible. But when it happened it was amazing…I already felt like I knew the characters, the storyline. So when I got the sides to go into the read, I was reading them like I knew the back of my hand. I knew Kono and the relationships that she has. It was a treat to see the words on the paper, rather than waiting for it to happen on the screen. It felt so familiar, like I had the advantage of doing my homework, that I didn’t have to do my research on the relationships on the cousins. So when I say I’m surprised that actors want to act, but they say they refuse to watch TV, or they don’t have the time or they don’t own one. If you want to act, you have to treat this like your profession and do everything you can to put the ball in your court and empower yourself. Watch film, TV, get to know who’s who. You don’t have to watch every minute of every series, but at least have recognition of different shows. But if you get the audition for that show, you have that much advantage over the next guy who didn’t. Everyone has their own way of preparing. My experience of being a fan and watching every minute of this show has done nothing but help me.
I’m sure that will make Peter Lenkov happy!
[laughs] I can’t guarantee that’ll get you a part on the show, but it doesn’t hurt. I think it makes sense…I encourage actors who are trying to get into shows to start watching what they want to get in.
How many episodes are you going to be in this season?
I don’t know. Charlie Fong comes and goes when the writers put him in. I don’t have a guarantee on episodes; I’m just here when they call me. They don’t have the whole season planned out, but all I can say is that Charlie Fong will be in the next few episodes.
Keep in mind, it can be briefly, or a little bit more. These procedural crime shows like CSI, NCIS, they fill their shows out with supporting characters like lab techs. You’ll never know when they come and go. Trust me, even the actors don’t even know.
Did you see the internet response to your episode?
… I did see a few things like on 50undercover.com, but I don’t know how to necessarily find the feedback.
Generally speaking, the fans loved the chemistry between your character and Grace Park’s character.
I’m thrilled to hear that!!! Charlie Fong…I have no control over what happens, but I know sometimes fans can influence what the writers and producers decide how the storyline goes.
What kind of trouble does Charlie Fong get into this year? Or how does he help?
I don’t know much more than the next few episodes, but I do know that he cares about Kono and her well being. That’s probably all I can say, and quite honestly, all I really know. We’ll see how that unfolds.
Intriguing! So, the press release says that William Baldwin is filming. He’s going to be in a multi-episode arc, and he’s showing some interest in Kono. Is there gonna be some arm wrestling over Kono?
[laughs] First of all, he’d probably beat me, but I haven’t heard of anything that would put the two of us together and have any Jerry Springer-type moment. All I can say to that is William is going to be a multi-episode arc which suggests he will no longer be in the show at some point. The lab guy, hopefully he’s here to stay.
Do we find out anything else about Kono’s and Charlie’s past? Did they play truth or dare in the ninth grade? Go to junior prom together?
[laughs] I would presume, but I don’t know!
What’s the most complicated thing that Charlie Fong had to say that Brian Yang didn’t understand, chemically speaking?
Hah! That’s become a catchphrase with my friends. I can’t remember the specific dialog, but it had to do with the plastic melting and the chemicals being released. But what’s so impressive was that the effects guys are controlling the monitor in front of me, and I had to react to it…I’m not controlling it. But hey, as long as I sold the scene, I’m happy!
It must be the Punahou education, Charlie. So, you love Hawaii, do you eat Spam?
I like my Spam! I make Spam musubis for parties with my friends, and I’d bring a huge tray to a party. Do you know what the secret is to forming the perfect musubi? Use an empty spam can. Get the rice and cube it, lay the spam, then the seaweed, then push the can onto it all. It comes out perfectly!
Any food discoveries while you’re here?
Local food here kills me, it’s that good. I’m inspired by Daniel and Alex and the shape that they’re in despite being surrounded by all this good food. Even though I’m just Charlie Fong the lab tech, I can’t go crazy eating all this food.
I also found this place called The Pig and the Lady. It’s a pop up kitchen started by Andrew Le who used to be a chef at Mavro’s. It started up about a month or two ago, and it’s already making waves. It’s sold out every night it has been open. They got five course meals…it’s really good.
I love shave ice, spam musubi, laulau, Zippy’s…you’ll find me there every once in awhile. I love the food of the land, it’s so unique.
Well my friend, that’s all I have, thanks again for your time!
Check out “The People I’ve Slept With” from Brian’s 408 Films production company on Netflix!
Since the interview, Night Dream Blues, has hit their goal of $7500, but they can still use your help. If you’d like to be part of the independent film making process, help Brian’s 408 Films and donate to Night Dream Blues on Kickstarter!
Get ready for the Jeremy Lin documentary.
My cameraman and I wrapped up the interview and started getting our gear together.
“Brian, how’d you get involved in Hawaii Five-0, anyway,” my cameraman asked.
“Brah, don’t you read my blog?!?” I laughed.
Brian laughed and gave him the story.
“My friend who’s on the production team invited me to the Hall and Oates concert here in Hawaii last year [Brian is a huge Hall and Oates fan]. We went to the concert, and he happened to mention that there was a role in Five-0 that I was perfect for. I auditioned for it and got the part.”
“So what’s your favorite Hall and Oates song?” I asked. “Let’s say Charlie Fong and Kono are on a plane and it’s going down in flames. You have time to download one song. What song is it going to be?”
“Hmm…that’s tough,” Brian started. “When I was here at the concert, Daryl Hall said that Hawaiians here have a Hall and Oates song locals are crazy for…”
“That would be “Goodnight and Good Morning”, since a local group Cecilio and Kapono covered it back in the 1970’s,” I added. “For me, I like “Say It Isn’t So…”
“Yeah, that’s from the 1983 album “Rock ‘n Soul Part 1,” Brian said quickly.
I looked at my photographer. Damn…Brian is good.
“But yeah, the crowd here went wild when they played Goodnight and Good Morning,” Brian said. “But for me, I think it would be “One On One”.
“That’s the perfect song to be trapped on an island with Kono,” my photographer said, smiling.
Mahalo to the ladies of The O’Laughing Press for contributing questions.