In the multiverse-spanning sci-fi action wonder Everything Everywhere All at Once, 93-year-old James Hong plays Gong Gong, the stern father of protagonist Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh). She’s been trying to please him her entire life, apparently with little success, and his disapproval has been one of the defining pressures that shaped her many possible timelines. Over his nearly 70 years of acting experience, Hong has taken on hundreds of roles, and has become one of the world’s most recognizable character actors. But he says one of those roles stands out above all the rest for him, and Gong Gong brought back memories of playing that part.
“It’s no trouble for me to go from the benign grandpa to the villain, who is somewhat a version of Lo Pan,” Hong tells Polygon. “I always recall upon Big Trouble in Little China and Lo Pan. It was a great thing for me to be in that movie with John Carpenter and accomplish what I did. That character, of course, replays in my mind, and the creation [of him] jumped into other characters. There is almost always a facet of Lo Pan in other characters I play.”
On a surface level, the elderly grandfather Gong Gong doesn’t seem to share much with the evil demon-controlling sorcerer Hong played in 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China. But both films gave Hong dual roles: Just as Gong Gong manifests differently in different universes, Lo Pan manifests in different settings and moments as an all-powerful malevolent conjurer and a seemingly frail, harmless old man.
It’s an understatement to say Hong has played a wide variety of roles in his decades-spanning career. Chances are, you’ve seen him in something, possibly without realizing it was him. His first roles were nameless background characters, but he’s played everything from comedic scene-stealers, like the restaurant host in a memorable Seinfeld episode, to dramatic roles like loyal butler Khan in Chinatown and the replicant designer Hannibal Chew in Blade Runner. He’s been in sci-fi staples, police procedurals, and action flicks, and he’s lent his voice to some iconic animated roles, like Po the Panda’s business-savvy father Mr. Ping in Kung-Fu Panda, the emperor’s advisor Chi-Fu in Mulan, and even wise ritual-runner Mr. Gao in Pixar’s Turning Red. He’s been in the industry long enough to see the types of film and television roles that Asian Americans are offered shift considerably.
“In the early years, it was always either villains or subservient Asian Americans needing help,” Hong says. “And we were never the heroes... In the 500 or so roles I’ve played, I would say maybe 10 of them were principal people in the American walk of life, like doctors or lawyers and so forth.”
In 1965, Hong established the Asian American theater organization East West Players to help increase representation in the acting industry. Slowly, the industry began to recognize Asian American actors, and more roles began to open up. He cites Lost star Daniel Dae Kim, who also headlined the Hawaii Five-O reboot, as an example of that success, as well as Everything Everywhere All at Once’s Michelle Yeoh. Hong wants every aspiring Asian American actor to have a chance at meaty roles like Evelyn Wang.
“I hope in my lifetime, I see them all, eventually, in much bigger roles,” he says. “So like Stephanie [Hsu], the leading lady [in Everything Everywhere], and Ke [Huy Quan, who plays Evelyn’s husband Waymond], who has returned back to the industry. He stayed off for a long time, because there were no roles. Now there are! I’m so happy. He’s such a good actor.”
The entertainment industry is still nowhere near perfect representation. But it has come a long way since Hong’s initial nameless characters. Hong’s first big role was in 1957 as Barry Chan, the son of Chinese detective Charlie Chan in The New Adventures of Charlie Chan — a character played by white actor J. Carrol Naish (who incidentally also played a Chinese caricature in the first-ever live-action Batman series). Now in 2022, Hong is playing the patriarch of a Chinese family, in a story specifically about generations of expectations, cultural shifts, and struggles. At the same time, that family is mixed up in a universe-hopping martial-arts extravaganza. Movies like Everything Everywhere All at Once are a testament to just how far that representation has come.
“We’re on the same level as all actors in the SAG,” says Hong. “This film proves that!”
Everything Everywhere All at Once will be available in theaters nationwide on April 8.