There’s no denying that Le’s accomplishments have broken traditional stereotypes of Asian men in mainstream media. Despite how successful he is now, Cung Le also has quite the backstory.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1975, Le’s grandfather was the former chief of police and had the choice to stay or be executed. Three days before the Fall of Saigon, Le’s grandfather and his family decided to flee the country.
“He had two hours to pack one suitcase for himself and every member of the family was also able to bring one suitcase,” Le told NextShark.
Le and his mother left Vietnam in a helicopter under heavy gunfire. They ended up in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about three months before getting transferred to Guam for roughly one month. Shortly after, Le’s family was sponsored to go to California and they settled in San Jose.
Cung Le had a rough childhood in America — he didn’t know English at the time and was constantly bullied and called racial slurs by his peers.
“By the time I was 10 years old, I just remember always being picked on, always being made fun of, and the name ‘Nip,’ ‘Gook,’ ‘Chink,’ was basically an everyday thing,” Le said.
After frequently coming home with injuries from getting beaten up by bullies, Le’s mom got fed up and enrolled him in Tae Kwon Do classes so he could learn to defend himself. This allowed him to start fighting back at the bullies. Being new to martial arts, he wasn’t successful at first in defending himself and ended up getting beat up still.
“[I was] getting beat up every other time, but at least I got a punch in. Things started getting better when I started hitting harder and I started learning how to punch properly. The punch landed and the kids were affected and the bullying stopped.”
Growing up, Le idolized Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” and was inspired to pursue boxing and wrestling competitively at age 14. He was an All-American athlete by his junior year in High School. At 19, he started training in Sanshou and Kickboxing and his fighting career took off.
In 2007, Le was coaching the U.S. Wushu team when he got a call from his mother at two in the morning.
“She’s like, ‘You have to call this guy right now.’ I’m like, ‘Mom, it’s two in the morning. I have six fighters in the semi-finals. I have to be on as a coach tomorrow.’ She’s all, ‘Son, call him.’ I’m like, ‘Why you doing this Mom?’ She’s all, ‘I don’t want you to fight M.M.A.’ So the real truth came out.”
The man his mother urged him to call was producing a movie about fighters, and Le fatefully listened to her.
Le flew out to Toronto and was offered a part in the movie called “Blizhniy Boy: The Ultimate Fighter”. His role was to star in a fight scene against the leading man played by Mark Dacascos and he would be paid $20,000. However, some drama lead to Dacascos walking off the set. Shortly after, the producer asked everyone to get together.
“He pulls me out and says, ‘Welcome, this is our new star.’ I’m like, ‘Uhh. What do you mean? Like, star of the fight, or what?'” Le recalled.
Suddenly Le had went from being the villain to the star of the whole movie, acting alongside legends like David Carradine and Bolo Yeung from Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon”. Both men proceeded to step up and school Le on the basics of the industry.
“Bolo told me, ‘So, what are you getting paid?’ I’m like, ‘$20,000,’ He’s all, ‘You flew coach class? You’re supposed to fly first class. You’re supposed to have certain things. You need an agent.’”
During a scene with David Carradine, where Le’s character was in a job interview with Carradine’s, the late legend decided to give Le his first lesson in acting.
“Carradine said, ‘Have you ever cried before? Were you ever so angry you wanted to kill someone?’ He started naming a whole bunch of things, and I said yes to all of them. Then he goes, ‘That’s your library. So, you plug into each emotion, depending on the scene — you can pull from all that. For this scene, go off my queue. We’re doing a job interview. If I ask you a question, yes, no, whatever, you add ‘sir’ to that, because that’s what I expect of my character.’ I’m all, ‘Yes sir.’”
From there, Le’s acting career was born. However, despite all his hard work to hone his craft, Le admits that his ethnicity made it challenging in being an actor in Hollywood.
“I’m either going to be that triad with a bunch of tattoos who’s going to make the white actor look good, or I’m going to be feared by everyone because I’m some crazy killer,” Le said. “Obviously I’m not small enough to be a nerd, which most Asians are stereotyped.”
Le has frequently turned down roles that were too stereotypical, but recognizes the privilege of being able to say that. After all, many minorities are forced into playing certain stereotypical roles due to the simple need to survive.
“Everyone’s got to make a living, and if I was desperate and I didn’t have any food, shit — I’d probably have to do the role too,” Le said. “Luckily for me, if I need to make extra money, I’ll go and do personal training. I would not stoop down and do a role that low.”
Despite all the fame and success, Le has never lost his fighting spirit no matter the situation. Back in 2014, Le had his last fight with Michael Bisping, the reigning UFC Middleweight Champion.
“You always have some kind of injury leading up to a fight. It doesn’t matter what fight it is, but actually against Michael, I didn’t have any injuries, I felt great,” Le said.
However, early on into the fight, Bisping landed a jab on Le, breaking the bone under his eye. From there, blood started flowing down his nose and chest.
“When I got hit, I knew something was wrong with my eye, the pain was so bad,” Le said. “The only way I can explain it, is it hurt so bad that I felt like throwing up and shitting at the same time.”
By the end of the third round, Le’s face was completely bloodied and swollen, which had caused him to lose vision in one eye. When Le went back to his corner, his trainer had already made the decision to stop the fight. However, Le had other plans.
“He’s like, ‘I’m stopping the fight,’ and I’m like, ‘no you’re not, you know how we do this, if I lose I’m going out on my own terms,'” Le recalled.
Soon after, the doctor came out to examine Le’s injuries. He told him he was going to stop the fight. When Le refused, the doctor decided to test his vision. On the first eye that wasn’t wounded, Le passed. However, when it came to testing the eye he had lost vision in, things got crazy.
“He puts up four fingers and I couldn’t see, but my trainer Scott Sheeley patted my back four times, and I said, ‘four’ and doctor’s all, ‘how the f*ck can you see?'”
The fight ended in the fourth round after Bisping built up momentum and pummelled Le to the ground, earning him a victory with a TKO finish. While this might not be the result Le wanted, it’s undeniable he went out like a warrior.
As an Asian actor, Le spoke about one of the most controversial issues that the Asian community has with Hollywood: The whitewashing of Asian characters in culturally Asian films. Films like “Ghost in the Shell” and “The Great Wall” sparked outrage for whitewashing, white savior themes, and cultural appropriation. However, Le has a unique take on the industry until Hollywood gets its “Asian savior”:
“Look at the big picture and look in a positive way instead of critiquing it, because if you critique it, what is that going to do? But if you look at the positive side, first of all, they had Scarlett Johansson play the role of a Japanese character, and she played it because she’s able to make that movie happen by being attached to it. Now, the investors are willing to invest in it.
“Until some Asian guy comes out of the woodwork and commands that attention, don’t critique it. It’s being made. In ‘The Great Wall’, Matt Damon is a white guy in an Asian setting. No matter what, the Asian setting is the bigger picture. He’s the lead character, but everything you see is Asian, so in a way it’s promoting Asians.
“You got to look at it that way instead of ‘Well, they should have had an Asian guy play it.’ What Asian guy is going to step up right now? Donnie Yen is doing his own thing. Jackie Chan only wants to do certain types of movies. Jet Li I believe is not doing so good with his health right now, so the only other guy is going to be me.”
Today, Le continues to push for more diversity in Hollywood through his own work as an actor. His latest project is his show, “Flight or Fight” with Tu Lam, a retired Green Beret and one of the most decorated Asian Americans in the U.S. Special forces. The show aims to educate viewers on the best practices of surviving home invasions, car jackings, mass shootings, and other modern day threats.
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