An interview with Kevin Ung – British Chinese and Vietnamese actor, filmmaker

Emmanuelle Khoo – Film and Entertainment Editor 

As part of our interview series on British-Chinese talent in the entertainment industry, Nee Hao interviews yet another young aspiring actor, whose interests also lie in film directing and film editing.

Kevin Ung lets us in on his thoughts on the very much-needed support for East Asian actors, his interests in film, and his plans.

The thrill Kevin felt at his first professional audition for a children’s programme has left an indelible impression that carries onto his 19 year old self, reminding him of his long-held fascination and passion for acting. Born and raised in Tooting, South West London with a Chinese-Vietnamese background, Kevin knew the path he chose is not easy but with the support of his close friends and family, he believes the passion that drives him will be worthwhile.

Having just started his second year in BA (Hons) Theatre, Film and TV Studies, Kevin also has the intention to further his interests in film editing and directing through the course. Adding these into his repertoire and drawn into understanding the technicalities behind productions, he believes these skills would only further propel his acting capabilities. This passionate and ambitious young man does not intend to let it stop there. Earlier this year, Kevin also joined the Yellow Earth Theatre’s Academy program, a company that supports emerging and established British East Asian talents in the arts, to further advance his acting for screen.  This is his story…

What thrills you about acting?

The versatility and the fun in it hooked me in at a young age. The whole concept of completely transforming into someone else is what fascinated me most.

Your favourite film of all time?

Bulletproof Monk (2003), starring Chow Yun-fat. It was the first film I have watched inside a cinema with my uncle. I was 5 then but remembered being mesmerized by all the kung fu action sequences in the film.

Tell us about your first audition experience.

When I was 10, I remembered being super excited during my first audition for a Children’s BBC program (CBBC), called Sprit Warriors (formerly known as Bo and the Sprit World). I applied for the role of Timothy (Bo’s younger brother) through the CBBC website. So, I turned up, checked in and remembered seeing a room full of nervous children and parents. They later rounded us up for some icebreakers games. Partnered with an older girl, we had to prepare and present a given scene, followed by a brief one-on-one discussion with the casting team on our special skills. I was lucky enough to stay for the second round and was subjected to go for another scene, but in front of a rolling camera. When the day was done, I remembered thinking what a great experience it was!   

If you could choose any film character to play in, who would it be?

Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars. As a huge Star Wars fan, I like how Anakin is a multi-dimensional character, from the sweet and innocent kid to a capable young man who slowly goes into “the dark side”. Getting a chance to play Anakin would be really fun, especially when I have my own view on reinterpreting the character.

You can speak a variety of accents and dialects: American Standard, Cantonese, Chinese, English Standard, Heightened RP, London, Liverpool, Scottish Standard and South London. What is your next favourite accent or dialect to learn?

I would like to work on my American accent, due to the variety within them and also because I am a big fan of American TV shows. I find it challenging to learn the different accents, especially ones from Mid-West/Texas. People in the UK are generally more accustomed to hearing American accents from New York or California.

As a British-Chinese actor, have you experienced any Asian stereotyping in casting?

I have not really experienced much Asian stereotyping in casting aside from the general expectations to speak English with a stereotypical Chinese accent. I do find being East Asian in castings has been helpful to an extent, especially when I looked back to the Facebook commercial I did in 2015 with director, Gus Van Sant. Being the only East Asian there was advantageous, as the director saw something in me which he liked for his commercial and ended up giving me the role. It was a great experience being on a professional film set especially considering it was my first acting job!

There is a growing awareness of “whitewashing” and a different, yet controversial debate of “yellowfacing” in the entertainment industry. What are your thoughts on this and how might you want to deal with it in the future.

I think the problem is that casting directors do not see enough East Asian actors, hence the whitewashing and yellowfacing. However, the industry is getting better in recognizing East Asian talent and in addressing ethnic diversity. The awareness of whitewashing and yellowfacing are recent, notably thanks to the criticism that surrounded the new “Hellboy” casting for American-Japanese character and the decision to put an all-white cast for “In The Depths of Dead Love” – taken from an Ancient Chinese fable –  at The Print Room Theatre earlier this year. To encourage diversity in the arts, we need to see, hear and support more East Asians joining the acting profession.

So you are adept in American football, badminton, basketball, cycling, football, parkour, judo, stage combat, swimming, and weightlifting. You were also a competitive table tennis player!! Have you put any of these skills to use in any of your roles?

No, not yet. Although one day I would love to put my sporting skills into a role, especially American football!

Based on your personal opinion, what kind of sport would you advice young actors to learn first and why?

I would have to say either a team sport or combat sport, mainly due to the things you can learn from them, which may carry over into an acting career. Playing American football since I was 14 has boosted my confidence and taught me about self-discipline, work ethics and team work. 

You are also keen on directing and film editing! Please tell us more about how you might want to take them further.

I would definitely like to gain more experience in both. Whilst at university, I have selected filmmaking as a module where I can put those skills to use. Being both an actor and director has been helpful especially when I was working on “Cannabis is Illegal”(2017). The director utilized my film background to help with certain shots, camera difficulties and maintaining continuity in shots. In regard to the future, I would like to gain some real work experience in editing so I have been looking into places where I could do a two-week placement during Easter break and Summer.

Tell us about one of the films you have directed.

I would like to draw attention to a music video “Heart of A Warrior” (2016) which I directed and edited for my Sixth Form final project, in response to Dizzee Rascal’s song. I chose this song, firstly because it did not have a music video and the range of ideas I could apply to it. I settled on a sports theme where I would show a wide range of sports and would film the respective athletes in the midst of their training, before ending up on a rooftop together and looking down on the city, signifying their metaphorical “rise to the top”. I found my first directing experience to be really fun because I got to travel across London to film these shots at the Olympic Park and Greenwich Observatory. It was a long and tiring process but overall I am really proud of it.

Choosing to pursue medicine, law, engineering, and economics would be considered a standard preference or a safe choice within the East Asian community. Did you have to deal with any pressure from friends and family when you chose to study a BA (hons) in Theatre, Film and TV Studies? What advice would you give to someone who is currently in this dilemma?

Good question! My friends did initially make some jokes about my degree choice. However, once I got a role in that Facebook commercial, they realized how serious I was, and were very supportive after that. I think my parents had seen this coming since drama has always been one of my favorite subjects when I was at school. I was fortunate to have very understanding parents who let me pick my degree of choice, and would support me wholeheartedly.

My advise to those stuck in this dilemma is to just do what you love because as much as your parents want you to go get a safe degree and do a safe job, it is you who has to live with it. What is the point if it does not make you happy? Follow your passion.

To found out more about Kevin:

Website: www.kevinung.co.uk

IG: @thekevinung

Facebook: www.facebook.com/kevin.ung.1998

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