Kenny Leu is an actor you’ve probably seen before in your favorite shows and films, like NCIS, The Player, and Independence Day: Resurgence. He’ll make his biggest mark yet as Sgt. Eddie Chen in the upcoming National Geographic miniseries The Long Road Home, based on ABC News’ chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz’s book about the true story of American forces who are ambushed in Sadr City, an Iraqi neighborhood. But before that, you can get to know him better as the star and an executive producer of the new webseries, Munkey in the City, which follows a young man who is trying to find fame–and himself–in the big city.
In my hour-long conversation with Leu, I got to better understand Leu’s commitment to increasing Asian American visibility in the media, his thoughtfulness on nuanced topics such as colorism, his willingness to learn from others’ cultural and racial experiences, and what he learned on the set of The Long Road Home. Here are five takeaways from our conversation.
•On landing the part of Munkey:
“I’ve been in LA now for almost four years. Before I moved out to LA to pursue acting full time, I was pursuing acting part-time in the San Francisco Bay area. I forget how I got this audition notice,but I was told about this project…went into audition for it, and ended up getting the part. We started to collaborate after I read the script and…it just reads as a very genuine story.
Our version of the series came out all right; there were a lot of things I felt I could have done better; I was still growing a lot as an actor and he was still growing a lot as a filmmaker. We shot our first draft of it in the San Francisco Bay before I moved down. I had already moved down to LA for a year before I saw his latest draft…By that time, I had taken really great classes, I had really learned a lot. I was like, “Michael, if I get another chance, I want to redo it.” He was like, ‘Dude, let’s do it then!’”
•On Munkey’s importance:
“One of the biggest things that drew me to this project is that I relate a lot to Munkey. He’s an aspiring writer, he moved to the city to become someone. He’s still figuring out who he is and what he wants in life. I feel that’s a very universal theme for a lot of people. What kind of struck me most about this project is that it’s a character who’s Asian American yet has these universal themes. He’s very human—he’s not perfect, he’s not a bad person, he’s just a guy who’s trying to get by. There’s a lack of stories in mainstream media where you have an Asian guy who’s just trying to live. That was the first thing that really drew me to this project; he just felt like this very real person and he just happened to be Asian American.
I relate very much personally to this to because I feel this is something very unique to Asian Americans. I feel like Asian Americans in general don’t ask ourselves what we want until later in life than most other cultures. At least, that’s me personally and a bunch of my friends who went through the school system, were very successful students, and before we woke up to what we wanted in life, we kind of already had this career going for us.
Before I was an actor I got a degree in mechanical engineering from Berkeley, and I was working…before I realized acting was something that fulfilled me more deeply than engineering will. It was a matter of taking everything that I’d had, everything I’d worked hard for—terrific salary, great job, terrific opportunities, potentially a family, your parents’ smiling faces, knowing they’ll have grandkids soon, health insurance—it’s all in my hands. I remember the moment I took all of it and threw it away. That’s something I think a lot of Asian American families, especially the ones who immigrated in the ’80s, really had to go through, that there is a choice between what everyone tells you is happiness and what you really want for yourself.
I think Munkey is reflective of that. I’d like to imagine Munkey had a career before he became a writer and that’s why he’s so lost,[thinking] ‘Am I stupid for doing this? Why do I want to become a writer? I’m not making any money from this, my roommate’s hooked on coke, I’m living such a shitty existence and some instinct tells me this is the only path forward.’”
•On Asian representation in Hollywood:
“I think things are definitely changing. Me being a part of the industry down here, I know for a fact that executives are trying. I think their efforts are still pretty clumsy and they’re still just holding onto some old beliefs that just aren’t true anymore. For instance, they still don’t believe an Asian American man can be the lead of a movie. …It’s very discouraging to see that that’s still a belief, because it’s still very much reflected in how people see each other here, I believe. My take on it is that I’m very optimistic, but cautiously [so]. I think there could still be more changes.
I think this is the first time ever where Asian American voices are united and persistent on something…It’s very hard to unify our voices because we come from such different backgrounds. But this is the first time I feel like we’ve worked in unison on something, and it’s made an impact, especially on Twitter, #OscarsSoWhite, [etc]. I’m very excited this is happening.
My hope is that we get an Asian American movie star whose name transcends his ethnicity. I feel like if you’re African American, you’ve got Denzel Washington and Will Smith, who I believe are such stars that their ethnicities aren’t as important as their names. I feel like we as Asian Americans don’t have that. That’s the crux of how I feel like a lot of Asian Americans get treated out here. It’s very easy to feel like you’re invisible, to feel like you don’t matter. Personally, I’ve received this a lot—a person treats me based on my race rather than on who I am. We’re fighting for the constant visibility that I think is specific, but not unique to, growing up Asian American in the United States. It’s not the overt hostility that African Americans face; it’s the complete opposite. It’s complete apathy.”
•On colorism in Hollywood, as seen in Crazy Rich Asians
“On the one hand, I think this Crazy Rich Asians is terrific. I hope this is going to be our generation’s Joy Luck Club and people will see that it’s interesting to watch Asian Americans on the big screen…and people will become more confident in investing in films like that in the future. Me personally, I tried reading the book, and I read a lot, but for some reason I just couldn’t finish this one. There was nothing interesting about it to me; a lot of it was just talking about clothes and a culture I couldn’t relate to at all. Maybe I was expecting it to be more of an Asian-American story…it’s not; it’s very specifically Asian, and it’s also very specifically the ultra-ultra-ultra-ultra-rich Asian. That’s very hard to relate to. I think going back to the crux of what Asian-Americans need to tackle in order to become accepted in the mainstream is this idea that we’re human too and we deal with universal issues like what Munkey’s going through and not like kung fu movies and math problems.
On top of that, something that bummed me out was when they cast Henry Golding in the lead. The reason why is because…something that I’ve noticed a lot is that our faces are kind of getting erased. Almost all of the parts go to Eurasian people. It sucks because we’re being horribly misrepresented, like our features aren’t good enough to be on the big screen. ‘He looks too Asian to ever be all right. It’s just a very Eurocentric way of looking at what beauty means and what it means to be handsome and that kind of stuff…I’m very cautious of our faces getting erased for an ideal that I believe is not true.
I know that this is something that has stemmed back [with black America] for hundreds of years; I’m reading a Malcolm X book, his autobiography, and he talks about that even back in the 1930s. Being lighter-skinned was a thing that made you more accepted by white society. It’s very analogous to what all the other minorities will be going through [in Hollywood]; the whiter you look, the more accepted you are, but only on screen. It’s such a nuanced, yet perverse thing to have happen to us, which subconsciously tells all of us that if you’re ethnic, you’re less than, you’re beautiful, and you don’t deserve [someone relating to you].”
• On playing Lt. Eddie Chen in The Long Road Home
“Our whole platoon is incredibly diverse, reflective of true life. It’s just something you would never see Hollywood casting if it wasn’t based on a true story. Our lieutenant commander is Hispanic, and we’ve brought in a whole number of ethnicities. I’m the only Asian man in it, but you’ve never seen that in a military show. All kinds of people are being represented in this platoon[.]
The vets all came out to give us their blessing. This is the first week that I showed up, and the vets were already there, saying, “Thank you for telling our story, thank you for not making us heroes.” [The miniseries] is about these really awful, difficult decisions they had to make in order to live. It was such an incredible experience on that level.
On my first day of shooting, I was really nervous because we were shooting this big scene, and there were 400 extras in the scene. We’re all soldiers saying goodbye to their families; obviously, it’s very emotional. I’m walking through my scene with the director, making sure I’m hitting all my marks and that I know where the cameras are. In the middle of all of that, there are all of these extras that come up to me. Imagine the most Texan guys you could think of—they had the long mustaches with sunglasses and the big boots and big belt buckles and big bellies—they surrounded me and came up to me, and I was wearing my uniform at the time and they were reading my [character’s] name and my insignia. There was like a moment of silence. I was like, “Oh f***, what’s going on?” They were like, “You’re Sgt. Chen…we served with Eddie 13 years ago.” He was like a big brother to them and he was the guy everyone looked up to. He was the most honest, genuine person they’d ever known. I’m standing there on this field suddenly realizing how meaningful this story is to all these people. I was like, “Oh my God.” …That was something that rattled me to my core. You realize how important it is to tell stories like this, where people are represented properly. It makes you realize what a responsibility storytelling is.”♦
Watch Munkey in the City on its website , Vimeo page and YouTube page, and follow the series on Facebook, Twitter,and Instagram. The Long Road Home premieres on National Geographic November 7 at 9/8c.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Official synopsis (courtesy website):
Munkey in The City is a whimsically poignant dramedy series about a delusional young novelist in search of a dream–of fame, of fortune, and the pursuit of happiness. But he also brings the one thing standing in his way: himself. His name is MUNKEY, and he’s learning that The City is one big jungle he needs to survive.
Munkey dreams of writing the great American novel. The problem is, it’s already been written. He’s also looking for love in all the right places, but he’s just the wrong person. And just what is that thing that’s following him?
Determined yet confused, hopeful yet awkward, he comes to The City, one of the most vast and wildest places on Earth, in order to “make it.” On his journey, he struggles to connect with the people around him, escaping instead through alcohol, drugs, and his own writing. Through much trial-and-error, and with the help of an eclectic band of friends, Munkey must come to realize his own purpose in life, before The City swallows him whole. Though he soon realizes that the singular Evet is the key to unlocking his full potential and future.
Can our hero make it out alive with his sanity intact? Possibly not. But he’s going to try anyway.
Munkey in the City, the debut webseries from Michael T. Nguyen, is one that deftly weaves surprising turns of mystery and surrealism into a coming-of-age meets fish-out-of-water story about a young man who wants to find himself. The only problem is that he keeps getting in his own way.
The hero of the story, Munkey (Kenny Leu, who will be seen next in National Geographic’s miniseries The Long Road Home) is a man who is scared to use his own voice to make his mark in the writing world. Instead of coming up with his own story to sell to a publisher, he keeps rehashing the plots of famous ideas, plots he knows have found an audience. His creative struggles mirror his personal ones, as he’s a man who has no bearing on his place in the world or who he’s meant to be. These struggles are made known in overt ways, from his alcoholism, has failure with the ladies, and his severe lack of style (except for the glasses–I actually like the glasses, unlike other characters in this show). But there are also unspoken ways we see him struggle, from being adopted into a white family, his fear of adapting to a big, bustling city, and his fear of facing himself.
That’s where the Munkey King comes in.
The Munkey King (spelled that way on purpose) acts as Munkey’s aggressive conscience. The aggression is because Munkey is intent on not listening to it. Each time the Munkey King tries to show Munkey things he has to face, all Munkey can muster is a blank stare, unwilling to tap into the root of that hidden anger.
The inclusion of the Munkey King is just one surprise this webseries has to offer. Even though it’s only six episodes, with each episode only lasting about five minutes, Munkey in the City manages to address certain tropes associated with Asian American male characters and turn them on their heads. Munkey never gets the girl in the end. But his lack of game isn’t based on Asian stereotyping; it’s because Munkey is so messed-up, he’s not mentally ready for any girlfriend (what’s sad is that he doesn’t even realize it). Ditto for Munkey’s dorkiness; he’s a dork because he’s been sheltered and because he’s insecure, not to mention that he’s also emotionally and mentally lost. Basically, his traits are there because of the life he’s lived and the choices he’s made, and seeing a well-rounded character who also happens to be Asian is refreshing.
If you’re wondering if revealing the Munkey King and Munkey’s lack of romance are spoilers, don’t worry; both points are well established before you ever get to the final episode. What I won’t reveal is the series’ biggest secret, and it has to do with this lady, Evet (Monica Barbaro).
Keep an eye on her.
I will say that even with a mysterious character like Evet, character moments become barbs aimed straight at old tropes. Are you sick of the “lesbian-turns-straight” trope? One scene featuring Evet will show you that Munkey in the City is tired of it, too–in fact, it uses the moment as a way to take a stab at its leading man, further showing the place of desperation Munkey is at in his life.
I found Munkey in the City to be fun and surprising. Munkey, like the fabled Monkey King in Journey to the West, is hoping to find his own nirvana at the end of a sojourn. I’m excited to know just how Munkey plans to tackle his demons as he goes along his quest to find himself.
Here’s a webseries that’s been simmering for a while–it’s finally ready for viewers to see, especially if you’ve been following the career of Kenny Leu, who’s starring in National Geographic’s upcoming miniseries The Long Road Home. The webseries? Munkey in the City.
Munkey in the City, created and developed by Michael T. Nguyen, stars Leu as an aspiring writer who wants to make it big in New York City, while having tons of misadventures and growing pains along the way.
Check out the trailer:
A few years ago, I spoke with Nguyen about Munkey in the City. He told me the webseries is partially based on his own experiences as a writer in a big city.
Munkey in The City is actually based on my real life experiences living in San Francisco. I had moved here in 2010 hoping to start a new life for myself, but two years after, I was still confused about the direction I was headed in. I was busy working a job I was unhappy going to, and as a result, found myself delving deeper into alcohol as an escape. I had just dropped out of film school so I could focus on paying my overpriced rent, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything right or connect with anyone. My life was going nowhere and I realized I needed a change. Then, I decided to channel my energies into something more creative. I wrote my experiences down and decided I could use them to help me further my career as a filmmaker. Munkey in The City is really a story about my struggle with adulthood and the real world, while trying to achieve my dreams in a vast new place.
I happened to name the main character Munkey, because “Monkey” is actually a nickname I’ve acquired over the years for various reasons. And I added the fact that San Franciscans simply call San Francisco “THE City.” Thus, Munkey in The City was born. Now I’m determined to bring this story to life, not just for me, but also to share it with anyone striving for their own dreams as well.
Nguyen also laid into Hollywood’s reticence to casting Asian actors for big parts, particularly leading male roles.
Compelling movie and television characters just aren’t written for Asian American males. That, combined with the industry’s unwillingness to take chances on them, for fear that audiences won’t fork over time and money to see them, equals very few opportunities outside the martial arts genre. The industry happens to run on a very basic premise: if you can bring in money, you can be on screen. But even with John Cho’s huge success with the Harold and Kumar franchise, the industry still hesitates to put him into leading roles. So there has to be something else at work here. And I can call it bias and racism all I want, but the industry will just call it a poor business decision.
The fact is that it’s going to take a lot more work by a lot of people to fight for that opportunity from Hollywood, and to sway audiences into accepting an Asian American as a dynamic leading man. But the foundation is being laid, for sure.
If you’re looking for a new webseries to get addicted to, keep an eye on Munkey in The City. The upcoming webseries is written by Michael Nguyen and stars Kenny Leu as Munkey, a guy trying to make it as a writer while figuring out what it is he really wants out of life.
I was excited to discuss the webseries with Nguyen; in this email interview, we discussed the webseries itself as well as the state of Hollywood when it comes to the (lack of) Asian representation.
To learn more about Munkey in The City and where you can find it on social media, visit the webseries’ official site.