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SYFY WIRE Interviews

James Hong gets a multiverse movie, a Hollywood star and finally some industry change in 2022

James Hong has seen it all in his 70-year acting career, but this year he's getting a long-overdue Hollywood star and a featured role in Everything Everywhere All at Once

By Tara Bennett
A still from the film Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022).

Name a major TV or film franchise in the past 70 years and there's a good chance that actor James Hong's left his tremendously talented mark on it as a live-action or voice performer. Especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, Hong has long been a go-to character actor that even makes small roles feel monumental. From the early days of television on The Outer Limits or I Dream of Jeannie, to film favorites like Blade RunnerBig Trouble in Little China, and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, Hong's work is an indelible part of genre landscape to this day. And his latest role as Gong Gong Wang, the grandfather of the Wang family in Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's multiverse masterpiece, Everything Everywhere All at Once, also starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, just further cements the actor's ongoing impact on cutting edge sci-fi storytelling as well as his continuing influence on the evolution of Asian American cinema.

SYFY WIRE had the honor of Zooming with Hong during the press day for Everything Everywhere All at Once where he got candid about how his own immigrant history inspired his multiverse character, the current trends in Asian storytelling and how he's going to celebrate his impending Hollywood Walk of Fame star. 

A still from the film Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022).

You've played more than 600 roles in your long career. Was there anything special about securing the role of Gong Gong in Everything Everywhere All at Once?

I remember it very well. I met these producer/directors and read for the part. I guess they pretty much had in mind that I would be perfect for the role. But I just went home and forgot the interview. In essence, I thought they had forgotten too. However, I think the problem was that they were waiting to cast some of the other roles for the people they liked, so that waiting period was not good.

Like everyone in the film, you get to embody several variations of your character from the frail, noodle-eating grandfather to the hardcore multiverse boss. How was it navigating that range in one movie?

Being a grandfather is very easy because I lived in Minneapolis' Chinatown, which is very small. But still, there were a lot of old people in the store my father owned and I hung around them. It's still playing in my mind, that little herb store that my father had and all the old men Hip Sing Tong [members] gathering around there to chat and to gamble a little bit. It was a great part of my life as a child growing up, so all that memory of the old grandfather's life came into being. As far as the evil Lo Pan [the villain from Big Trouble in Little China] version, it's very easy to do Lo Pan or that kind of evil character in this movie, too.

Several recent films about Asian families, including this one and Turning Red in which you voiced a character, dive into generational divides and the toll of not feeling understood. Does that topic resonate with you?

Yes, I feel the turmoil in that family reflects a lot of what I went through with my family. My parents were from Taishan, China, and then traveled to America, so that part is very real. And then getting into a school where everybody speaks English, I was just a child speaking Chinese with great conflict. All that came through in myself, and then they reflected that same feeling and what I saw on the film of being torn between one thing and another, and with the multiverse on top.

And oddly enough, this is more or less the same theme that I am producing my own movie called The Five Kingdoms in a few months. It's funny. I'm living in this era where I'm creating my background and acting in movies that have that theme.

Let's talk about that crazy robotic wheelchair they have you in during the third act of Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Yeah, the wheelchair was very nice because I didn't have to stand up and wait. And being at this age, sitting down is better for posture than standing up. And wheeling myself around, it was fine with that motor. But every time I got in trouble with that, then my assistant would come and push me. It was very nice to be helped by all elements of this story. [Laughs.]

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In your career, you've lived the disappointment of not seeing Asian actors be respected or even being included at the creative table. But there seems to be a change finally taking hold. Do you think it's shifting in the right direction now?

In my early career and even now, but certainly in my early career, I was only cast into these villain roles and these helpless Chinese roles, which were stereotypes. At that time, and even now, I would like to play the character that is in control, that is on top. He is the boss, he is a lawyer, he is the doctor. I would like to play that kind of role, which is reflected in the Asian community where Asian Americans are leaders in this community instead of being just a subservient role. Although since I've started East West Players, now I am seeing the Asian American actors playing roles and directing movies that are winning awards, even Academy Awards. That effort has now blossomed to where it is. It's amazing.

Looking back, I would say I don't understand it. Why did it take 70 years for Hollywood to put us in this position of playing good roles that represent the community, rather than just cliche roles? To me, it took 70 years to get here. Maybe in another 10, we'll be a very, very important part of the industry. Right now, it's still a minor part of the industry and there's not enough attention paid to the Asian American artists. But I think that time will come.

Speaking of something finally coming to you, this is the year you get your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How do you feel about it?

I've waited for this moment for 70 years. Actor Daniel Dae Kim raised the necessary funds, over $50,000 in four days through GoFundMe. That is a compliment and joy in the sense that there's enough fans out there. It shocked me that the fans were that involved.

Do you know how you're going to celebrate yet?

It happens in May and I'm going to really celebrate. I'm going to do something that's never been done on the Boulevard, I'm gonna have the lion dance and I'll get out there and dance with the lion!

Everything Everywhere All at Once is now in theaters.