Ok, we confess we have a soft spot for someone as uber artistic as Norman Yeung! So that makes us really happy that we were able to get this great interview with some insightful answers you won’t wanna miss. In fact, you may wanna hear more about the story behind landing the role in Resident Evil: Afterlife!
1. Anyone who looks at the diversity of your background that includes art, illustration, design, playwrite, directing and how very “independent” you are as an writer/actor/artist/director might be suprised that you are in a film like Resident Evil: Afterlife. It seems so contrary to you as a person since it is a horror, mainstream movie. How did this role come to your attention and why did you chose it?
Norman: True, most of my work isn’t as mainstream or accessible as “Resident Evil: Afterlife”, but that’s exactly why I’m thrilled to be in this movie – it’s nice to make work that many people will see. Working in the mainstream model can help an “indie” artist because of the experience…after all, the broader the experience, the more the artist can draw upon. Everything I’ve gained from working on “Resident Evil: Afterlife” I can channel back into my personal work. It’s a rare opportunity to work with zombies, stunts, explosions, green screens, 3D cameras, so of course I’d want to be in this movie. It’s fun. A lot of my personal, independent work isn’t necessarily fun. Also, I love acting because it allows me to live many lives through many characters. This movie is my chance to live in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by the undead. That’s pretty damn fun.
Getting the role of Kim Yong involved an audition in Toronto and a meeting in Paris. There’s a whole lot more to the story involving renting a laptop, renting a hotel room with Wi-Fi, giving the laptop guy 600-Euros deposit in a Parisian McDonald’s washroom, over-preparing for the meeting, a casual conversation with Paul (the director) and Jeremy (one of the producers) over Skype, bonding over graffiti, an embarrassing confession, and a delayed trip to Berlin.
2. Many people say that non-white actors are often the “first to go” in horror movies and/or always the “non-important” role in such films. Tell us how you think Hollywood views asian actors, where you think asians in Hollywood are going and what you think about your character in the film Resident Evil: Afterlife.
Norman: My fundamental belief is that we need to stop complaining and create the roles ourselves. That’s the main reason I started writing and directing films and plays. I’ve written characters named Jorge, Davinder, Safina, Giancarla, Shiraz to suggest they be played by diverse actors. My play Pu-Erh offers three huge, complex roles to Asian actors who speak both English and Cantonese. My goal is to create opportunities for under-represented actors. Instead of crying foul, we should become creators and create the change we want.
In terms of Asians in film and TV, it’s getting better. I’m noticing a lot more roles for Asians, and the roles are getting better. I’m happy to see prominent roles being played by Sandra Oh, Grace Park, Maggie Q, John Cho, Ken Watanabe… the list goes on… It’s getting better but there’s still work to be done. Our screens still don’t realistically reflect the Asian and visible-minority numbers. Look at many North American cities, especially multicultural cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, etc. You stand on any street corner in these cities and you’ll see every race. Then look at what’s being represented in our movies and TV shows: an unrealistic ratio that is hardly diverse.
I appreciate the diversity in “Resident Evil: Afterlife.” The L.A. survivors are a myriad of races and authentic accents: a Korean, a Latino, an African-American, a Brit… Kim Yong never struck me as The Asian Guy. Paul never asked me for a bogus accent or for martial arts or anything stereotypical, and I appreciated that. Still, the issue of tokenism and stereotypes always comes up whether a movie, any movie, has few visible minorities or lots of them, and I can see how some people might be critical about “Resident Evil: Afterlife”’s diversity. I believe that one solution to stereotyping is to inject more humanity into the role. Stereotyping is merely shorthand to understand a character instantly, so to combat stereotyping, let’s make the character more complex, more nuanced, so that an audience has to spend more time considering the character rather than making instant judgement. That is how I approached Kim Yong: I gave him a journey. I start as an obedient lackey, then I make a decision on my own to not betray my fellow survivors, then I conquer my fears and decide to go down the tunnel. My journey with Kim Yong was to grow from timid submissive to being my own man, especially since my mentor, Bennett, has abandoned me. Kim Yong’s journey is one of maturing.
Paul did indeed write moments where Kim Yong was more forceful and commanding, and I created some moments myself. We shot moments where I kept guard (yes, with a big-ass machine gun) while Angel burned through the lock to the garage. We shot me discovering the disassembled engine and chastising Angel for not being able to put the engine back together. We shot me making the decision to defy Bennett, in the airplane, by refusing to betray my fellow survivors. We shot me performing my own stunt: Kim Yong versus the oncoming plane. Also, I do decide to go down the tunnel, albeit a split-second too late. But as is the case with almost every movie ever made, certain moments get cut out and we don’t see Kim Yong’s moments of bravery.
According to the script, it’s easy to pass off Kim Yong as simply “the scared guy”. So I tried to give as much depth to Kim Yong as possible in a small amount of space. His role among the group of survivors, and his role as a character in the movie, is simply human. Kim Yong is not a superhero. Kim Yong is a young man (only twenty) stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong world. I wanted him to be a sympathetic and empathetic character, a point of access for the audience. Sure, it would be cool to be a hero like everyone else, but that’s simply not Kim Yong’s character. Yeah, it would have been fun to mow down zombies with expert aim, but we’ve already got Alice, Claire, Chris, Luther doing that. Kim Yong’s role – my job – is to contrast the many bad-asses in the group, and I remained faithful to that dynamic. Kim Yong is hanging desperately to some kind of hope, hanging on to his father-figure Bennett. When Bennett betrays him, his already-destroyed world becomes a lot more destroyed. And that is why he doesn’t have a gun.
While shooting the scene where we are ambushed by a horde of zombies after Bennett has stolen the plane, we all contemplated why Kim Yong doesn’t have a gun. Milla was the first to say, “Why doesn’t Norman have a gun?” And we all stood there for a moment, Paul’s arms akimbo, considering. I looked at the given circumstances: my friend Angel was just murdered right before my eyes by father-figure; my father-figure has just betrayed me; we are being attacked by an enormous mob of zombies; and while everyone around me is firing guns, I’m forced to confess that the vehicle ain’t working and Angel’s dead (this got cut out). All things considered, Kim Yong is fucking terrified. And justifiably so. So he doesn’t get a gun.
“Resident Evil: Afterlife” is full of bad-asses and heroes. Kim Yong doesn’t have to be a bad-ass. He adds a different dynamic to the group of characters. He is simply human. And I believe that a character with some depth and journey – a realistic human – is the antithesis of a stereotype.
3. Your art work in a word is mezmerising! It is simple, yet has such complexity and is so thought provoking. And the mediums you use (we have to name some of our favorites), Blue Pit (spray paint on concrete), Party No. 2 (oil & spray paint on hardboard), Camera In Corner (spray paint on canvas), Man and Woman At Door Frame (spray paint on plaster), One Conservative and Twenty Immigrants (spray paint on garage door) are as diverse as your talent. Do you see yourself more as an artist, writer, actor or director and which is your greatest passion?
Norman: Whatever excites me at the moment is what I do. I’ve always got a handful of projects on the go simultaneously, at various stages of development. After I write a draft of a play, I don’t wanna touch it for a month or longer. In the interim I’ll work on a draft of another play, or act, or do something else creative. I think of it as rotating crops so that my mind can renew itself before revisiting a project. And when I do revisit a project, my abilities will be strengthened by taking the time to explore a different project. My painting feeds my filmmaking which feeds my writing which feeds my acting and so on…I love all my disciplines equally, like loving each of your children. The key is to always stay busy, and practising a few art forms keeps me constantly productive. I admire artists like Julian Schnabel, Vincent Gallo, James Franco, David Byrne, Miranda July, Michael Snow, Rainer Werner Fassbinder…the list goes on…who practise a few art forms. Practising more than one art makes for a more interesting artist.
4. Your theatre background is both part of your training and your focus in years past. Is your Hollywood success something that you see as a way to further your theatre opportunities or do you see acting on the big screen as a focus of your attention now?
Norman: There’s a certain freedom in making theatre that can’t be found in filmmaking. A live performance can happen anywhere at anytime, instantaneously, and all that is required is a performer, a spectator, and space. Even writing for theatre has a malleability, an organic quality, that can’t be found in filmmaking. Filmmaking requires at least some modicum of technology and equipment. Filmmaking is resource-heavy, while theatre requires almost nothing. They are vastly different yet completely intertwined mediums, and it’s this fascinating dichotomy that will keep me practising both. Some artists who influence me the most are Ingmar Bergman, Robert LePage, and Sam Shepard, who navigate both film and theatre with incredible strength. I’m not sure how being in a Hollywood film will directly affect my theatre work, but surely one experience will feed the other as I mature and develop in my work. I try not to think too hard about cause-and-effect between the projects I do because it’s really just speculation. All I care to do, really, is just bury my head in the sand and keep making creative work. And yes, acting in films is incredibly exciting and gratifying. It’s requiring more of my attention now. Happily so.
5. Are you involved in other film projects currently and has your role in Resident Evil: Afterlife opened up more acting possibilities?
Norman: I’ve got a TV series called “Todd and the Book of Pure Evil” premiering on September 29 on Space (www.toddandthebookofpureevil.com). It’s a Faustian tale about a high school loser who finds a book that will make your wishes come true. But then guts get spilled and penises attack and students start bleeding out of their assholes. It’s a comedy. I play Eddie the Metal Dude, one of the gatekeepers to The Book of Pure Evil. In this show I’m a bad-ass and my wardrobe is fucking awesome. As Eddie, I ain’t scared of nothin’ except for maybe not being able to get some weed. Oh yeah, and there are zombies.