Legendary actor James Hong sees himself in the cartoonish characters darting, waddling and tumbling across the screen in his latest project, “Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight.”
The 93-year-old Hollywood trailblazer exuded a vigor and energy of someone a fourth of his age when he spoke with NextShark about his latest role, drawing parallels between his own experiences and those of the characters populating Netflix’s television spinoff of the animated “Kung Fu Panda” film franchise.
Though he is famed for his energetic yet sensitive portrayal of Po’s adopted father Mr. Ping, Hong reveals that he was originally cast as Po’s martial arts mentor Master Shifu, a role that was eventually given to Dustin Hoffman, but he found Po’s doting dad to be a far more compelling and layered character than his master.
“I liked Mr. Ping a lot better because Mr. Ping has more personality. He’s buffoon and he’s a loving father and he’s a boss and has more facets to his personality rather than the master, who is semi one [dimensional] in the sense that he was mostly very strict.” Hong says.
Tradition is a prominent undercurrent that drives Mr. Ping, who spends a majority of the first “Kung Fu Panda” film trying to pass his culinary “noodle dream” down to Po. Asked about the kinds of traditions that were passed down by his own father, who dedicated his life to empowering oppressed Chinese Americans as the leader of an organization called the Hip Sing Tong, Hong notes that he inherited his father’s assertive desire to lead in the face of prejudice and adversity.
“We are what we are. I am the genes of my father and therefore I inherited a tradition and a sense that drove me to be aggressive and a leader in my own studio and field,” says Hong. “It’s not that I wanted to be a leader in the first place, it’s just that it fell into place because of the conditions in Hollywood for Asian actors.”
Hong’s acting career began in a version of Hollywood that existed against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act, when prejudice against actors of Asian descent was the norm.
“The leading roles were given to Caucasian actors who disguised themselves as Asian characters because [Asian-Americans] were not saleable; we were not box office,” Hong says. “So in a sense, how do you become box office if you don’t get the leading roles? How do you get leading roles unless you’re box office? We were trapped.”
Frustrated with the dearth of opportunities for aspiring Asian actors, Hong banded together with his acting peers to create their own.
“We formulated the first serious drama class in Hollywood for Asian Americans, and escalated our efforts into the East West Players, one of, if not the biggest and sustaining theater groups, surely of Asian Americans, in the country. From there, [we] encouraged and educated actors to become what they are today– they are now in main roles and are directors and writers.”
While Hong’s acting career may have been rooted in tradition, the direction he steered it towards is far more pioneering and radical. As it turns out, the “Kung Fu Panda” character that Hong resonates with the most is none other than the franchise’s bumbling dreamer-turned-dragon-warrior Po, whose passion-fueled journey closely mirrored his own.
“[Po’s] father wanted him to be a noodle maker and my father wanted me to be a professional person, which I did for a while by doing civil engineering work for Los Angeles County and constructing roads,” Hong says.
“But just as Po found his real passion to be a warrior, a fighter, and a Kung Fu artist, I discovered that my passion was for performance. And so I drifted away from engineering into the field I love and I never looked back.”