Hmong actors making history: The bad guys of Gran Torino


Legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood is making history in the Hmong community with his upcoming film Gran Torino. But this is not only Hmong news. By creating a mainstream Hollywood film that features mostly Hmong leads and supporting actors (other than Eastwood’s character), he’s giving unprecedented visibility to Hmong Americans. Says veteran Hollywood actor Wa Yang, who worked with Eastwood through a small role in Letters from Iwo Jima, “It’s creating exposure in Hollywood, where no one knows who the Hmong are. Hopefully it will pique interest and one day the story of how we came to the US can be told.”

The film is being shot in and around Detroit this month. From the publicity so far, it centers on a grumpy Korean war veteran (Eastwood), who is estranged from his family after his wife dies. He meets his new Hmong neighbors, especially teens Tao and Sue, and eventually gets involved in trying to shield them from the Hmong gang that wants to recruit Tao. Whether he succeeds is the best kept secret, but in the process his friendships with Hmong transform and soften him.

How did this production get off the ground? After open casting calls were held in Fresno, Detroit and Minnesota, interested Hmong Americans waited with baited breath to see who would be cast. As days turned into weeks, fear spread that Hmong would be passed over for more experienced Asian actors. But then, in early July, people who least expected it started getting the calls. Elation spread with the news that ten key roles had gone to mostly first-time Hmong actors, and that Hmong extras, production assistants and others were also going to be on set. Eastwood seems to be putting a mountain of faith in Hmong talent, and it looks like he will be well rewarded for it. Working on Gran Torino is stretching the actors – many of whom have backgrounds in other art forms like music – to reach potentials they didn’t know they had.

This article is the first of two to introduce the people behind the characters in the production that everyone is following. In this issue, get to know the five guys in the Hmong gang. In the September 1 issue, watch for leads Bee Vang (Tao) and Ahney (Formerly known as Whitney) Her (Sue) plus other cast members.

The Boys of Gran Torino

Who are the bad guys of Gran Torino? Five Hmong actors, chosen from several states and from five different clans, make up the gang that is menacing Tao. Most of them have little experience acting. Sonny Vue, born in Fresno and now from St. Paul, plays the ringleader, “Smokie.” At 19 years old and only 5’5” tall, he was a surprise pick for the gang’s toughest guy. Even he was surprised. He’d taken an acting class at Vessey Leadership Academy but never been in front of the camera before. He even confesses he has stage fright.

Sonny was playing around with his cousin when they found the casting call on the internet. He boasted that he thought he could get Smokie. He describes driving by the HAP open auditions that weekend in May. It was Friday night and the guy was there. “I got a private audition.” They were looking for a Hmong American look. He was wearing a brown t-shirt that said ‘I’m hiding from the cops.’ Everyone was trying out for Tao, the good guy. Instead, he showcased his bad boy persona. “I think it’s the way I talk,” he explains in a familiar Hmong street voice. He sounds like he still can’t believe it.

“Exhilarating” is how Lee Mong Vang, Gangster No. 3, describes the experience of Gran Torino. The 26-year-old was born in Dallas, moved to Toledo, then spent most of his childhood in rough neighborhoods on the east side of Detroit. “You grow up all your life thinking you’d never be able to do anything like this. Going on set, seeing Clint Eastwood…it’s really awesome.” Lee Mong ended up in the show because a friend who studied acting told him he was “personable and talented and should give it a try.” An outdoorsman, he remembers with amusement that he skipped the first open call. “I went fishing,” he chuckles. But the second audition reeled him in. He was cast without even a callback. He knows this had to be a blessing from his deceased grandma who had just passed away before the audition. “I’m her oldest grandchild,” he muses, “She loves me.”

Lee Mong had no acting experience but he had done some singing so he had no stage fright. As a self-described jokester, he hopes to introduce some humor onto the set. He says he’s the muscle of the gang since he’s 5’7” and a brawny, heavier guy. Before this experience, he’d been working in manufacturing and studying to do auto cab design. Now he wants to go back to his music and maybe even pursue acting. “Live your life like it’s your last,” he wants to tell the young people out there, “You can’t predict the future, so go for it.”

Doua Moua, 21, hails from New York City, where he moved when he was 18 to pursue his acting career. A towering 5’11”, Doua plays Fong, aka Spider, Tao and Sue’s older cousin and an ambivalent member of Smokie’s gang. Born in Thailand, he grew up in Minnesota where he got into acting in middle school. He started college, but dropped out in order to refocus his heart and energy. He got a manager, and started auditioning around New York for both theater and film. His success rate speaks for itself: He’s been in numerous films and theater shows holding large and small parts.

“My dream is happening,” says a thrilled Doua, “I have to appreciate every moment that I’m riding this ride.” He wants to be part of a new generation that will make strides in getting Hmong people and Hmong art known. But even as he wants to impact the mainstream, he remembers the sacrifices and hard work of his parents. He wants to give back to his community. No matter where else his career takes him in the future, he affirms, he’d love to have a chance to work with Hmong filmmakers making movies for Hmong audiences.

Jerry Lee, 22, 5’9 ½” is a native of Chico, California who moved to St. Paul only in 2002. He’d done choir and acted in a play and a musical in high school and later in a 48-hour film festival short. When his girlfriend told him about the casting call, he’d already moved on. He had studied Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement and was going on to do Business Administration. But he decided to try out. He thought about Smokie, his off-the-chart pride. “I can portray myself as someone else,” he recalls. It happened: He got the part of Gangster No. 2. Jerry treasures all his time on set, “Eastwood’s a real humble guy, not what I expected,” he says with reverence. “I’m picking up things from other cast members. And what’s most important is building networks and friends….Kids, never stop chasing your dreams. And hold on to your contacts.

Jerry’s personal passion is writing stories and screenplays. He’s written a comedy short to be posted on Youtube. Now he’s working on a feature-length screenplay about sexuality. It focuses on how Hmong culture adapts to the modern world by looking at lesbian and gay Hmong and how hard it is for them to come out.

Elvis Thao, 26, plays Gangster No. 1. Born in Kansas, he moved to Modesto and then Milwaukee. “I’m very passionate about my city,” he says, “My heart is set on community issues.” The bald-headed, 5’6” powerhouse burns the candle at both ends. A member of the hip hop group RARE, he is co-owner of Shaolin Entertainment and a veteran of the Hmong music industry. Meanwhile, he takes philanthropy courses, lectures to youth at universities, and runs summer programs for kids.

“I’m based on revolution,” says Elvis. He is critical of corporate control in the music industry and “not too fond of Hollywood.” “What I hate is stardom.” If you call his cell phone the voicemail recording taunts: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. So what? So I’m shootin a movie with Clint Eastwood. Woo woo. What’s all the fussin for?” Instead he is inspired by Michael Moore and Don Cheadle, and sees the potential for real life documentary to create change. He almost didn’t audition for Gran Torino, but people in his network kept calling him. At 8PM on the Friday night before the Minnesota auditions his head was pounding. He got in the car and said “Let’s go or I’ll regret it forever.” And he has no regrets despite the gangster image he’s been hired to recreate. His vision is that audiences will see that they are actors playing characters, that they are examples of professional excellence, at being who they are while they create someone else. The income he makes will be used to promote awareness of the issues he cares most about – from police brutality in Milwaukee to human rights in Laos… “I’m going to be speaking out against gang violence after this,” he adds with determination.

Remaking the Image?

One of the things that makes this production so historic is that Hmong have been targets of others’ negative images for as long as they’ve been in the United States (or even much longer). Hmong gangbangers…Chai Soua Vang’s killings…Guerilla warriors in Asia…Uncooperative new immigrants in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. These are the kind of images that Hmong have had to deal with as newcomers to the American scene. The presence of these actors will make audiences see that there is somebody behind the role…and that somebody is a person of substance.

In Gran Torino, much of the dialogue is being created through improvising even though the original lines were written by white Minnesotan Nick Schenk (with Hmong input). Hmong actors describe ad-libbing their own lines on camera. They talk about drawing on their own grassroots experiences to make their characters authentic. They’re advocating for cultural accuracy, even when the Hollywood spectacle might be producing distortions. With so many talented Hmong working together, the ground is laid for the creation of three-dimensional people, a much more realistic portrayal of Hmong by Hmong for American audiences. Will it work? We’ll have to wait for the movie release…

Louisa Schein teaches Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She is writing a book about Hmong media. She can be reached at