Sung Kang isn't just a cool guy, he plays one the in movies too. As Han in the Fast & the Furious movies, he's built a whole career around being a slick, philosophical criminal, even though his character died in his first appearance, making Fast & Furious, Fast Five and now this weekend's Fast & Furious 6 all prequels to the third film in the franchise, Tokyo Drift. We talked about that, Sung Kang and I, when we chatted on the phone about his performance and history with Fast & Furious 6 director Justin Lin, who cast Sung Kang in his first feature film, Better Luck Tomorrow, shot at UCLA.
As a UCLA Film School graduate myself, it was a lot of fun to talk to Sung Kang about their journey from low-budget filmmaking to major studio projects, and he has some fun stories about that transition, how his character from Better Luck Tomorrow wound up in a series of big budget action movies, and how he and Justin Lin convinced Universal that Asian-Americans could be "cool."
CraveOnline: I graduated from UCLA, and you and Justin Lin were kind of legends over there.
Sung Kang: Oh, thank you. Yeah, we shot Better Luck Tomorrow at the soundstage there.
Yeah, I shot some of my short films there too. It was really kind of cool.
Oh you did!
So my first question for you is, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a serious answer about it, is this the same Han as in Better Luck Tomorrow?
Yes, it is. Justin and I always… He wanted to keep the anthology going. He was always wondering where the characters go after high school. The Daric Loo character actually went into his film Annapolis, and then in Tokyo Drift we have Virgil too from Better Luck Tomorrow as well.
Was that character in the script as someone else, and changed to Han, or was it always Han?
No, no, originally the role was named “Phoenix,” and it was an African-American character, but they cast Bow Wow as Twinkie and so they figured, “Hey, we have this Phoenix character, and it’s kind of a brooding guy who’s an older brother for everybody,” and Justin presented it to the studio and said, “What if he’s an Asian-American?” They’re like, “Well, how can an Asian-American be cool like this?” [Laughs] So then he showed them Better Luck Tomorrow.
So after Tokyo Drift did it surprise you that you would be able to come back?
Yeah, I was very surprised. I thought it was a good exit from the franchise, but it was nice to come back. Especially getting to work with Justin again. We have such a shorthand, and to be able to go on this journey together for our first big studio picture like Tokyo Drift. I remember we walked through the production office and everyone’s like, “Oh, Mr. Lin,” and saying it very professionally, and we would walk into his office and start laughing, because… He’s like, “Look around us, man. We have chairs. We have water. Bottled water. Remember when we were shooting Better Luck Tomorrow, we had twenty sticks of Wrigley’s spearmint gum [and a] box of Entemann’s donuts.” Yeah, it was great to continue on this journey with him and with the franchise.
Working with Justin, aside from the production, has he changed much as a director after all these big movies?
His scale as a director has definitely changed, but I think at the core he’s the same guy. He still wears old Hanes t-shirts and thermals. The tone he sets on set has never changed. He makes sure that all the actors are having a good time and the crew is respected, so there’s a very positive tone. That’s never changed. I think he just gets better as he does each film. It’s really awesome to see that, that growth, seeing him enjoying the process.
Are you a big car guy, or is this just a franchise?
No, no, I was a huge muscle car fanatic prior to this, and as a kid growing up, watching Steve McQueen in Bullitt. I still that ’69 Fastback Mustang. Then we did an homage to that in Tokyo Drift where Lucas Black drives that hybrid ’69 Mustang GTS. I think that was like a ’67 Fastback that he got from his father. It’s really cool to be around those cars.
Do they let you do a lot of your own driving, or do they keep you out of the car because you’re one of the big important cast members?
No, I would never take credit for that. They do send us to get some training, so we understand the logistics of the drifting, but for insurance reasons they don’t really let us behind the wheel. All the credit, it really needs to go to the stunt team and the stunt drivers, because they do risk their lives to make us look like we’re the experts. So I would never take credit for that.
When you showed up in Fast Five, I was wondering if it was a prequel, or if you had got out of that car crash okay in Tokyo Drift. We know the answer to that now, in Fast & Furious 6. It was such a dramatic build-up for your character, because we finally got to see everything that led up to Tokyo Drift. Was this originally part of Han’s backstory? What were your original conversations about that?
Are you talking about the eventual demise…?
Well, yeah, because Han passes away, unfortunately. At least, we’re led to believe he does in Tokyo Drift. And we know for sure that Fast Five and Six are prequels.
How much of Han’s emotional story arc was originally discussed?
Well, in Tokyo Drift Justin and I would always talk about Han’s philosophy of family, and values of what money means to him and what the people around him mean to him. I think when we shot Tokyo Drift I was a little too young to really understand what made Han who he is, and then I got older, and you start to make a little bit of money, and you realize that money will never buy you happiness. It doesn’t do that. It doesn’t equate to that. I’m somewhat lucky that I can revisit him at an older age, and give the character the performance and my life experience, to send him off properly. I was really grateful that we did do Six and give Han the proper farewell, because it was nice to see after Tokyo Drift how many people embraced that character. So I felt as an actor that the least I could do is give it the best performance I could to send him off into that whatever magical Hollywood world. [Laughs]