(Copyright, Harry Fellows 2012)
Louis Ozawa Changchien is a man of many faces so it’s a good thing he’s a damn good actor and not a thief. You may know him for having the most memorable scene in Predators (2010) in which his yakuza character Hanzo fights through a kendo match with a Falconer Predator. Changchien, who is of Taiwanese and Japanese descent, will be seen next in The Bourne Legacy (Aug. 10), although action movies aren’t his only forte. New Yorkers have an opportunity see him on stage in Kenneth Lin’s “Warrior Class,” playing Asian American Assemblyman Julius Lee making a run at Congress. “There is nothing more terrifying,” Changchien says of his role in the play, which opens today. By the way, his name “Louis” is pronounced the French way.
Giant Robot: Please explain how you can have major roles in action-oriented films such as Predators and The Bourne Legacy and yet still play a lead in a staged political drama such as ‘Warrior Class.” What’s more dangerous: going one-on-one with a Falconer Predator or running for public office?
Louis Ozawa Changchien: Running for public office for sure. At least I knew who my enemy was in Predators! I’ll take my chances with a sword over just using my mouth any day. It’s a rare opportunity for an Asian American actor to play a politician in a contemporary play. No special effects, no explosions, no guns to hide behind. Just three actors on a stage speaking the unspeakable to each other. There is nothing more terrifying. I’m hoping that the audience will enter Julius’ journey into the backroom battle that is politics. In Hollywood, I’m asked to look tough and shut my mouth. Don’t get me wrong, these action movies can be physically demanding: tumbling down volcanic rock that is razor sharp in nothing but flesh-colored Vibram Five Fingers and a cashmere silk three-piece suit in the middle of a sweltering hot rainforest is pretty intense. Or fighting the Falconer Predator in 30-degree weather shirtless while being sprayed down with water for 12 hours in the dead of winter in Austin was pretty demanding, too. And let’s not forget the stomach bug that hammered me while shooting Bourne in Manila. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I was throwing up every 15 minutes on one of my most intense days of stunts. I had a bucket next to me that I would hurl into right before the cameras would start rolling.
GR: You’re a graduate of Stuy, an extremely difficult high school to test into. Did your parents hit the roof when you told them you wanted to act? What advice would you give to young people who need to break the news to their parents that they don’t want to be doctors?
Changchien: Actually, I was lucky. My folks have always been very supportive of my artistic endeavors. But then again, I think they knew that there was no stopping me. For young folks, especially young Asian American children of immigrants, it’s hard to envision a successful life as an artist. I had no clue how to truly live as an artist. We have so little precedence and so few role models. And the path is never so clear. It’s not like being a doctor or lawyer. Going to school is no guarantee of work, although, I’d recommend it to all young actors. There are so few Asian roles out there, you’d better be good when your opportunity comes. Be prepared for some ups and downs. Save money, and try to enjoy the ride. Try to see and be involved in the best shit. And try to communicate all of this to your folks. I know it can be tough sometimes with Asian parents, but it’s only because they don’t have success stories as a frame of reference. Nobody wants to see their kids struggle. My mom is always asking if I’m eating enough, or if I have enough money!
GR: It seems that American actors of East Asian and South Asian descent are hitting a stride now in film and television. In your fantasy TV show, who would play your mom and dad and why?
Changchien: Can we get Pat Morita out of the grave? He’d be a cool dad. And Gong Li would be my dad’s new wife. But then, it’d be an Oedipal story.
GR: I once overheard an actor say that while he was having steady film and TV work, he needs to act on stage to sharpen his acting skills and raise his game. Do you agree? Apart from that, do you find a live audience intimidating?
Changchien: I think that was me who said that! Yes I agree. I think having a live audience is mostly thrilling. But when I’m nervous I convince myself that the spectators are out there paying money to have a good time. I figure if I’m having a good time on stage maybe they will, too.
GR: Recently you’ve been to Asia for film promotions and for filming itself, and I know you’ve spent time there growing up in Taiwan and Japan. Do you ever see yourself pulling a Daniel Wu and moving there for a good chunk of time and working there?
Changchien: My folks live in Japan so it’s nice to have opportunities to work out there. However, I don’t think I’ll move there for long periods of time. New York is my home. And I now have a dog. Who is a monster. He’s a six-month-old pit bull and it’s hard to travel with such a big dog (he’s already 55 pounds).
GR: Are you a coffee or a tea guy? Describe a perfect cup.
Changchien: Coffee for sure. I like making my own coffee. I like Stumptown and Ninth Street coffee beans. Intelligentsia is dope too. My local spot Joe on 23rd and Ninth makes good cortados. Sometimes I use one of those Hario ceramic gizmos to make a nice cup of filtered coffee or I’ve got a stove-top espresso maker, which I’m about to use now. If I’m going to have tea, I like to make oolong. Hey, I’m Taiwanese.
GR: What are your favorite toys?
Changchien: Gee, that’s a tough one. I used to have a lot of toys. I liked cars and motorcycles but I got rid of everything to live in Manhattan. My custom-made Hanzo action figure is my favorite toy at the moment. It’s made by this guy named James Ellis and he did an incredible job. I’m the only person in the world who has one! I also have a small watch collection. I’ve added the watch I wore in Predators and the one I wore in Bourne into the mix. These time pieces mean a lot to me. The one from Predators is the Hamilton Ventura Elvis Anniversary edition. It’s cool cause Predators was my first lead role in a Hollywood film. Any time I put that watch on, it brings back a lot of memories. The watch from Bourne is actually quite rare. It’s made by a small American company called Kobold, based out of Pittsburgh of all places. And the manufacturer was nice enough to engrave “The Bourne Legacy” and my character’s name onto the back. Bourne was a physically and mentally demanding experience for me. I wear this watch to remind me that I can survive a lot more than I think.