The plot of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is a closely guarded secret. But now that shooting has wrapped up, how the Hmong actors fit into their roles is becoming more visible. Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt, stumbles into the middle of a struggle within the Hmong community. He tries to intervene in a contest between a war-torn family and a ruthless street gang over the soul of a teenaged boy.
In Part 1 (Hmong Today, August 16) we met the five guys who make up the gang that menaces lead Tao: Sonny Vue (19, St. Paul), Doua Moua (21, New York), Elvis Thao (26, Milwaukee), Jerry Lee (22, St. Paul), and Lee Mong Vang (26, Detroit area). In Part 2, we cross to the other side of the battle lines, to meet the remarkable people that bring Tao and his family to life. What we find is not only arts talent, but a big dose of smarts.
A Teen Supertalent
What defines the young man who plays Eastwood’s alter-ego in Gran Torino? Bee Vang, 16, is as humble as the character, Tao, though not quite as bookish. With a mild-mannered countenance and a slight build, he’s equipped to fill the role of neighborhood wimp. At 5’5” he says the height difference with Eastwood’s 6’2” is part of the point. “Tao is literally ‘looking up’ to Walt” in the story, Bee explains.
Bee is still starry-eyed, despite working opposite Eastwood for weeks. Born in Fresno, and now from the Minneapolis suburbs, he never thought he would go into acting. In fact, he was buried in his high school books, already taking courses at the University of Minnesota. He was planning to go pre-med.
Bee thought medicine was his passion, but “I was hoping that getting this part was trying to tell me to follow my other passions.” Although he has no more than drama club for his theater training, this multi-talent also loves filming, painting and drawing. He plays classical music on piano, viola, oboe and flute. And he does school band.
Bee landed a private audition for Gran Torino before the May open casting in the Twin Cities. After his callback, he waited and waited. One day the phone rang. The guy said, “Are you driving?” Bee said, “No.” “Are you doing anything that would put your life in danger?” “No.” “Well, Clint would like to work with you!”
“I got down on my knees and started crying,” he recalls, with emotion. “The whole thing was really life-changing.”
It’s not surprising that he was “floored” by the news. Bee had been a longtime fan of Eastwood, owning videos of Letters from Iwo Jima, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the first Dirty Harry and several others. Eastwood, he informs me, has been known to Hmong since they used to watch his movies in Ban Vinai.
It’s clear that Bee savors his work with this 78-year-old icon of Hollywood. He’s making Clint a mentor in life, just like their roles in the show. Bee’s had his share of being picked on, even had his bike stolen as a kid. But despite bringing up bad memories, he’s “enjoying every second of working with the entire crew…They know I’m inexperienced and young. They let me know when I need directing. I’m learning a lot.”
The big sister
Ahney Her, who grew up as Whitney, is the same kind of self-possessed young woman in life as she plays on camera. The sixteen-year-old from Lansing, Michigan plays Sue, Tao’s bossy older sister and Walt’s guide into the Hmong family.
Ahney has been a performer for years. Mostly she did hip hop dance with a group of friends and cousins. One day in her teens she watched a video of herself that had been taped when she was 4 or 5 years old. She suddenly realized that she’d been acting all her life. She enrolled in drama classes at a local talent school and put in three years of training.
But she never thought the unimaginable would happen to her. She happened to be at a soccer tournament in Detroit when she heard about the Gran Torino auditions. One of the last to audition, she never expected a thing. “Who would think that some random girl like me would get it? With all the Hmong that auditioned in Minnesota…?”
On set, she stepped up to the plate effortlessly. “It’s really fun. Amazing!” She loves meeting all the new people. “I feel at home with the script. And with being a different character.”
“Clint Eastwood is the most humble person I’ve ever worked with,” she exclaims. “The whole set is really calm. He makes you feel comfortable, gives you that vibe that you’ll be OK.”
Like so many of the actors, this experience might be life-changing. Ahney is serious about school and wants to go to university for interior design and photography. After Gran Torino she’s thinking she might apply to performing arts schools.
She also never thought about Hmong movies until now. “They’re pretty corny. I wouldn’t have acted in them. But I probably would now…”.
Ahney recalls that some people questioned whether she could handle a lead role in a Clint Eastwood movie. She brims with self-confidence: “I said I was pretty sure I could – and look!” She loves the improvisation on set, even when she has to do translation between Hmong and English. “It’s fun and very natural, too. I’m learning to be open-minded with the script. You just have to have faith in yourself.”
Brooke Chia Thao, who plays the widowed mother of Tao and Sue, is a mere 36 but she has done her share of mothering. She was born in Laos, immigrated via Oregon and Seattle, and settled in Visalia, California. There she raised four kids who are now 21, 20, 15 and 10. A multitasker, she completed high school with two babies at home.
Now that her kids are growing up, Brooke’s been thinking about her own life again. She’s got no shortage of ambition. She’s attending Fresno State studying Political Science and Business with an eye toward law school.
When the casting agent called with the good news: “I was speechless. I thought I was too young. I didn’t expect to get the part,” she remembers. She’d had no training in acting, but she’d done Hmong dancing when she was young and singing was her specialty.
She approaches the acting with verve. “Clint is very kind. He doesn’t yell at you. It makes my job more creative.” People on set praised Brooke for her energy in a fighting scene where she’s trying to prevent Tao from being dragged off by the gangbangers. “The gang fighters said it felt real,” she remembers with pride, “After that, everyone knew me.”
Never too old
Chee Thao is a sprightly 61, with a beaming smile and a mountain of confidence. Her hair may be gray, but she has the supple spirit of the young and adventurous. Chee plays one of two elderly roles; the shaman character could not be located for interview.
Chee’s 19-year-old granddaughter Kao translates. Born in Laos, with no formal education of any kind, Chee immigrated via California to St. Paul. Having lost 3 sons in Laos, she had 3 sons and 3 daughters remaining when she came to the US. Tragically, one was murdered a few years ago.
With great fortitude, she talks about how she connected with the Gran Torino story, pouring her heart and soul into the acting. Like the grandmother in the script, she herself is a widow. She has a daughter with kids whose husband is absent, just like in the story. And then there is her son whose life was taken from him prematurely….All this pain in her real life makes her credible in her role, she explains.
Chee felt a special bond with Eastwood. One time she was working through interpreters and they kept telling her how to sit. “I just couldn’t get it right. Clint stopped them all and just showed me how. Then I knew right away.” When she got to chat with him at a backyard party, they talked about elderly health issues especially his vegetarianism.
At her age, with no background in school, work, or business, one might expect Chee to slow down and rely on her kids. But the Gran Torino experience has transformed her visions as it has so many of the actors. Her granddaughter Kao is trying to get her an agent so she can try out for more movies.
Would she consider acting in Hmong movies? “Yes, but my own story is more serious than a lot of the Hmong comedies. And now that I’m a star, they might not be able to afford me!”
Getting Hmong Right
Feelings run high among the actors about the coming impact of Gran Torino. Can one big-deal movie change how audiences view Hmong? “Eastwood is a miracle in the Hmong community. I hope that this really sheds some light,” says Brooke Thao, “that it tells people that Hmong exist and how we helped in the war. My own father was recruited to fight for the US when he was only 14.”
Asked about his impressions of the script, Bee Vang debates, “A lot of people are discussing whether this is gonna give Hmong a bad name.” Online discussions buzz with questions – What about the gang image? What about the unassimilated elders? Someone suggests the film will make Hmong out to be barbarians. Others express concern that the way the ceremonial scenes were shot was inaccurate, sensationalized.
Translation is another issue. Since the screenplay was all in English, actors have to struggle to render lines in believable Hmong. And some of the lines actors ad-libbed in Hmong on camera will be tricky to translate back for subtitles. After interpreting on set for her grandma, Kao Vang affirms that “It will take someone really good.”
In the end, Bee and others express confidence in their director, “Eastwood is brilliant. He should be able to do us justice.”
Once Gran Torino is in theaters, the wait will be on for a film that not only tells the Hmong story, but does so from a Hmong point of view. As longtime actress, and production assistant for the Minnesota casting call, Sandy Ci Moua, puts it: “I see this as a catalyst for more Hmong to get into filmmaking.” During casting Sandy was a major advocate for the hiring of Hmong actors. Now she wants something more. “Not just acting in someone else’s movie, but writing, casting and producing – the things that make the story go.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org