Kenny Leu stars in A Shot Through The Wall. (Photo credit: Kenny Leu)
It’s an understatement to call 2020 “rough.” Not only have we lived through a pandemic and an election season, but we’ve also seen an accelerated amount of racial violence.
Anti-Asian violence about COVID, stoked by President Trump, and the murders of several innocent Black people, with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor garnering the most headlines, were on the minds of Americans day in and day out. While A Shot Through The Wall was filmed several years before the hellscape that is 2020, the film’s debut–and its subject matter– couldn’t have come at a better and more poignant time.
I was happy to connect once again with Kenny Leu, who I first got to know when he was starring in the webseries Munkey in the City and History Channel’s The Long Road Home. Now, for audiences who got to know him through Roland Emmerich’s Midway, they’ll be able to see him as the lead of A Shot Through The Wall, written and directed by Aimee Long and starring Tzi Ma, Fiona Fu, Lynn Chen, Ciara Renée and Clifton Davis.
In the film, Leu plays Brooklyn cop Mike Tan, who accidentally kills an innocent Black man while on the beat. The events that happen afterward cause emotional tidal waves between him, his girlfriend, his family, and the family of his victim. I talked to Leu about the film and what he thinks the film says about race relations in America. A Shot Through The Wall debuted at the Bentonville Film Festival this August and recently showed at the Urbanworld Film Festival this September. You can learn more about the film on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
*Portions of this interview have been condensed and/or edited to prevent revealing the film’s major spoilers.
Monique: I feel like one thing I thought of when I was watching A Shot Through The Wall is that this pretty much dovetails into what we were talking about many, many moons ago about race relations and things like that. And I think it’s a pretty important movie for today, especially since…when it comes to Asian Americans and America, it seems like there’s always like wedge politics, so to speak. And it seems like we don’t talk about how that relates to…the police department and how there are all these different layers that don’t get discussed. So I thought it was a pretty, important film, for that and for a lot of other reasons. but as for you, how did you get to work on this film? Or what brought you to this film?
Kenny Leu: Wow. Actually, can I address the wedge politics actually for a second? I really appreciate you saying that because I think Asian Americans have always felt kind of like we’re guests here. Like, we don’t feel like we fit into the fabric of America. Like we’re not included in the history book or like we don’t feel like our political identity even much belongs. And so then as somebody else that recognizes that we’re often used as like a side piece [to] change public perception about this or that, thank you for recognizing that. And I think a film like this is really important, especially for Asian-Americans, because it kind of allows other people to see how… we’ve kind of been here for several generations now, at least, and, and how we fit into everything.
And sometimes I think we, us as a community, Asian Americans, like we struggle with staking our ground and saying, “Hey, like we belong here too. And this is our story.” And we struggle with, you know, fighting for the space to say, ‘Here’s, here’s our experience.” And, when you say something like, “Hey, you know, I recognize that this is kind of like, wedge politics,” it allows us to feel like, okay, like we have a say here.” So yeah, that was a very welcome thing for you to recognize that. I think a lot of us don’t believe that other people even identify that, you know, and it helps us feel understood and stuff. So thank you.
As for how I got into this film and actually audition for it–it was a long audition process. Apparently, they were looking for the lead for the film for, I think, like eight or nine months. And then, at the time when I auditioned for it, like I still hadn’t really booked many roles. I think the only role that I had gotten was The Long Road Home. And, I was actually shooting that, when I had a month break, of a three-month long shoot and I flew home from Texas, back to Los Angeles. And then the first audition that I got was A Shot Through The Wall.
What was really [wild] was that in The Long Road Home, I’m playing a military veteran. And it’s like a very realistic depiction, you know…there was this moment where I had to like, shoot this a 50-caliber machine gun. And I knew that I was shooting it into like a bunch of women and, and [the scene] sank into me deeply. And so then for me to imagine shooting a killing an innocent black man for an audition was, like, visceral. I still get emotional just thinking about it [tearing up]. And so then in the audition, it was just so easy to bring out everything that I was feeling and like the guilt and like what it feels like for that kid [I have to pretend to shoot] and the gun to [go off]. And to relive that over and over again in your head and, and to see like somebody dying in front of you, was very visceral for me.
I think that’s what they were looking for with somebody that, although he was a cop, he also feels incredible guilt and shame for what he did at the same time. He was like, “Well, is this fair?” …It was like tectonic plates smashing together and all needed to be there internally for this guy. And [they have to be there] because he’s this lead as the cornerstone of this film that talks about a lot of these really nuanced, very current, very relevant topics today. …I think I went in for two or three callbacks and, yeah, finally I got it. And then it was right after I finished shooting The Long Road Home. So it was really back-to-back.
One of the things that I thought it was fascinating was that the film decided to bring the theme of race relations even closer to home by having your character be in a relationship with a Black woman or, I should say, a biracial woman. I wanted to know you thought about that and what was it like working with Ciara Renée and the actor who played her father to develop those types of discussions or layers to the character.
I thought that was a really great [choice], ’cause it’s inspired by the 2016 case and Peter Liang. but that’s where it ends, you know–it’s a totally fictional story. Having a half Black, half white fiancee was a stylistic and artistic choice on the part of the film that wasn’t, similar to Peter Liang’s case at all, and I thought that was it really brings Mike’s character to light. It really makes him think about what is right and what is wrong as he’s trying to navigate this situation of, “Oh…I killed somebody and I feel horrible about it,” and at the same time, “I don’t feel like it was entirely my fault at the same time. Do I have responsibility for it?” All these like really nuanced questions that I think get lost when, when it comes to politics that I think is important for any human being to really think about.
So I think that the touch of having a half-Black fiancee really swung the doors wide open in terms of like, this is what kind of needs to be discussed. As far as working with Clifton Davis, who plays her father, I thought they were both really wonderful. They’re really talented stage actors and singers as well. Every day on set, they were singing or something and I’ve got the worst voice. So that was just admiring them. But I thought that, to me, it felt like New York when I was with them. I spent a lot of time with, with Ciara outside of just filming.
I’m thoroughly a California boy. I was there two weeks before the shoot to get to know Brooklyn because my character is a Brooklyn cop and I need to know those streets really well. And so I was just, you know, walking the streets, like observing people, but then it was only through Ciara that I really got to see it through somebody who had been there for a very long time. [Renee and Davis brought] a genuineness and an authenticity to the whole experience and, and really allowed me to get into the heart of what the story is about.
There were several moments in the film regarding your relationships with Renée and Davis that made me think. I thought that a few particular scenes in the movie really showcased how there’s like, I guess, a gulf between how to even approach race relations, especially in an interracial relationship. What do you think the film is saying regarding these moments?
That’s a really good question actually, ‘cause it’s so hard to put into words. The first thing that comes to mind is kind of the wedge politics that you were talking about. You know, it’s like, “I’m not racist, but I will use your race to protect myself. You know, like when push comes to shove and I feel, and I feel like I’m being threatened, that I will throw you. I do see you as just a Black person, and I will throw you into the fire to sacrifice and protect myself.” In a way, that’s kind of what happens with politics.
I think, you know, like kind of with how we were talking earlier about wedge politics with how, you know, like sometimes Asian Americans get thrown out as a model minority where like, wait a minute, like, we don’t have anything to say here. Like we’re just kind of a tool for you to feel like you’re safe, your group is safe.” And so when Mike does that [in the film] it kind of shows his hypocrisy, you know, cause here he is in the meantime saying like, “Hey look, I’m being used as a scapegoat.”…So, he definitely is not. Innocent there, you know? And it happens like on all sides in a way, you know, maybe that’s kind of what [the film is] getting at, but it was a very revealing part of the film when he does [that].
And to me, I think it’s his throughline of selfishness and ignorance on a level. I think there’s another part where he’s trying to reconcile certain opinions and viewpoints he’s had while believing himself not to be racist or prejudiced.
I thought that was a really great touch because it really shows kind of the, it, it really points out something that I think happens a lot in immigrant community is that we’ve got these really outdated perceptions of people that we don’t have any experience with and something that, you know, growing up, you do hear a lot. I think it’s really courageous of the director to write that in there because it’s basically calling out your own, you know?
The funny story about [a particular scene] was that was one of the audition scenes, when I had my callback, Aimee asked me to do it if I wasn’t racist. And then right after that, she was like, “Okay, now do it if as if you’re a racist.”…And that way you can kind of see that it’s not so black and white, you know? And that’s kind of why I hate the term “woke” too, because it implies that it’s a light switch when it’s a constant path of learning, there’s always areas that you’re ignorant about. And the worst thing for you to believe is “I know it all.”…Mike is really unaware of his ignorance and he feels so self-righteous and justified in saying that, “I’m not a racist here and, you know, I didn’t kill him on purpose, so it’s all good. It’s all fine.” But it’s not, as you find out later on in the film. And I think that is a nuance that gets lost.
And we can even look at how the man Mike kills isn’t even the person he was initially chasing, but he rationalizes the shooting as, “I was chasing a suspect.” This man wasn’t a suspect; he was in his home.
That’s a really great point. It was so casually brushed aside that I think a lot of people even missed that point, but yeah, he ends up killing somebody that [he had] absolutely nothing to do with. And he was like, “Yeah, boom, suspect—I was chasing the suspect.” Okay, [but] that’s irrelevant.
And the so-called suspect was just on the street with his friends. So, it’s like, there’s these layers of who is a suspect? And is it just because they have a certain skin color and they dress a certain way that makes them a suspect?
Exactly. So we actually played that same very specifically, Aimee wanted that scene to be [that] we were pushing the kids around, you know? We were trying to get a rise out of them. We were trying to get them to reveal something and, and yeah, that’s a very, not a cool tactic [for police]. And then that leads to [the shooting]. And that was on purpose, you know, as, quote unquote, unfair as what happens to Mike–it’s an unfortunate series of circumstances–he did kind of bring it on himself in this way too…What’s marvelous about this story is that it’s very gray…a lot of it is very, very nuanced and it presents a lot of different sides and I think it really blows out all the different perspectives that we have on something like this.
One really great scene in the film is between you and Tzi Ma where he’s chewing you out for upsetting your mother [played by Fiona Fu] and saying you’re selfish and you need to make things right. What do you think about the fact that it does seem like Mike has this selfishness that he doesn’t understand?
I think that is kind of the point of the film, you know? What it’s saying is [that] it’s basically selfish to argue in the event of a cop killing an innocent Black person. It’s kind of selfish to argue that it was just an accident. Because at the end of the day, a person died. A person got killed, and it wasn’t just his death. It’s the mother that loved her son. The whole family is implicated by it, it’s everybody else around [Mike] too, that is implicated by this whole thing. So, it’s really selfish for somebody to just see his part and say, “Well, it was a complete accident” and [think] he shouldn’t be suffering any kind of consequences. That’s kind of a really selfish and very insensitive argument to have, you know?
The end of the film says a lot about how police brutality seems like a never-ending cycle until someone tries to stop it somewhere. How did that ending affect you?
I think it really hits the nail on the head and I think it’s just such a smart choice on the part of the writer and director because it really just captures a feeling of what incidents like that do, you know? It just, it just cuts the potential of the people that are the victims and the whole family that is involved. I don’t want to spoil the last scene, but that’s why the film ends the way it does. It’s about the relationships that need to go on after that life is lost. And the real bad guy here is that this is still going on.
There are these accidental deaths and atrocities that keep occurring and there is no side here. It’s just that this thing is happening and needs to be solved. And in the face of all the politics we’ve got, none of that is important compared to the fact that people are dying and these families need to deal with it. I think [the film’s ending is] just such an apt way of capturing the times and like the situation. And that’s what I think is so relevant now…we can get so lost in [arguments about] whose side are you on when. It doesn’t really matter. Here’s what the real problem is.”
It was amazing working with them. I mean, Tzi Ma is like a New York dad, an Asian dad. I think he grew up on Staten Island, so whenever he talks and is taking us out to eat and stuff, he’s meeting with his New York City Chinatown homies and he’s like a freaking godfather out there. So, it was really cool getting to hang out with him and his posse and his level of experience, you know? That was my first starring role in a film, and so I had so much advice to ask of him…It was just such a privilege to be able to work with Tzi Ma.
And Fiona Fu, she’s an up-and-coming actor. She started relatively late in her life, but she’s absolutely killing it. And it was really cool because she has such a generous, warm energy to her. We would spend our weekends in New York together…we’d go to the museum together, and she is such a Chinese mom [laughs].
We’re walking outside, and I’m here, this grown man, and then she would put her arm through mine as if we’re girlfriends walking outside. And I was like, “Is my mom going to get jealous? I’m a man—will girls see me and think I’m walking with my mom?” All these really strange thoughts, but I was like, “You know what? I’m here for a job and I’d better develop this relationship with her.” It was really cool and really fun because I think she’s a wonderful lady and she’s so talented and every time I was on screen with her, she and Mike have a unique and interesting dynamic. It just made it so easy for scenes. It was a joy to work with both of them.
…[And there’s] my dynamic with my older sister in that movie…she bore the responsibility of the family…and that was something we had to flush out very clearly because that was another reason why Mike was so selfish. In Asian families especially, the boys are prized. So then, you know, he gets everything. So that was another reason why he’s selfish and so Grace, played by Lynn Chen, she’s the older sister who becomes successful and was responsible because she could handle her shit. And he was always in her shadow in a way, you know?
The movie probably didn’t intend for this, but I feel like it’s a good starting point for people to be like, not just talking about police brutality, but to also talk about how families actually work and that there are so many different overlaps in families that if we just look at the similarities, we can see that we aren’t so different. There were a lot of moments in the film that reminded me of my own family and how we interact with each other.
Thank you for saying that. I’ve always talked to people who aren’t Chinese, and I’m like, “Holy crap…it’s so similar to my family.” Because I think at the end of the day, your family wants to look out for you, you know, and whatever way that manifests, there are going to be patterns. …As an Asian American, I think it’s very common for us to feel like we don’t belong and it’s so easy to distance ourselves. But then showing this part of us, I think really makes us realize, especially seeing your reaction, [that it’s] important for us to feel like, “Oh, okay, we’re not so weird and different and foreign,” because I think we’re always made to feel that way.