ROBBINSDALE, Minn. — After winning out over 2,000 aspiring young actors to make his movie debut opposite Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang might ask himself: Do you feel lucky, punk?
Vang, 17, grew up watching Eastwood in Westerns and as Dirty Harry. Now he’s part of “Gran Torino,” which pulled in $29 million last weekend and gave Eastwood the best movie opening of his career.
“I thought this was life-changing,” Vang recalls about learning he had been cast as Thao, the Hmong neighbor who leads Eastwood’s crusty, bigoted, retired Ford worker, Walt Kowalski, on a journey of redemption in “Gran Torino.”
Vang’s parents were born in Laos, then moved to Thailand before emigrating to the U.S. about 1987. He was born in Fresno, Calif., and moved with his family (he has four brothers and a sister) to Minneapolis two or three years later. He had never acted before but says he decided “on a lark” to audition for “Gran Torino.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to give it a try,” Vang remembers thinking. A week before shooting began in Detroit last summer, Vang learned he had won the role. He says he learned later he was chosen for his innocent looks and slight build. (The movie originally was set in St. Paul by screenwriter Nick Schenk, but was relocated to Detroit to take advantage of Michigan’s higher tax incentive for movies.)
Working with the 78-year-old Eastwood, who also directed and produced “Gran Torino,” was “kind of scary” at first for Vang, who was 16 at the time. But Eastwood was a patient teacher with a low-key approach to directing.
“He doesn’t ever say ‘action’ when we start filming,” Vang said.
In “Gran Torino,” Vang’s weak-willed character is intimidated by a Hmong gang into trying to steal Kowalski’s mint-condition Ford Gran Torino. When Thao is exposed as the would-be thief, his mother sends him to work for Kowalski as restitution. Recently widowed and plagued by his memories of the Korean War, Kowalski softens in his feelings toward the family and tries to save Thao and his sister, Sue, from the gang.
Vang says Eastwood encouraged ad-libbing among the Hmong actors, who were largely inexperienced. And he says the movie is generally accurate in its portrayal of Hmong, a highlands people who fought for the U.S. during the Vietnam War and later emigrated from Southeast Asia and settled in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.
“This film is not a documentary. We can’t expect 101 percent correctness,” Vang said.
John Carroll Lynch, a 20-year veteran actor who plays Kowalski’s barber in “Gran Torino,” says he was impressed by Vang. In one funny scene, Kowalski and his barber demonstrate to Thao how guys are supposed to talk to each other.
“Playing opposite the biggest movie star in the past 50 years — that’d be fun,” Lynch said. “Talk about intimidating. That must have been crazy. And I think he (Vang) did a great job.”
Vang, a high school junior, is looking at studying pre-med but his experience on “Gran Torino” has him thinking about acting and films.
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