For all the talk of the need for more diverse casting in Hollywood movies, particularly with Asian actors, one actor has been quietly appearing in many of the biggest genre blockbusters of the last few years. Singapore-born Chin Han has played the crooked money launderer in The Dark Knight, an epidemiologist in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, a politician in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the commander of the moon base in Independence Day: Resurgence.
I spoke to Chin Han on the phone when he was in Hong Kong shooting Ghost in the Shell. We discussed his journey from Singapore to Hollywood, including his most nuanced role as the duplicitous politician in the first season of the Netflix epic Marco Polo who plots against Genghis Khan's empire.
"The counselor Jia Sidao was the most fully-realised and satisfying character I've played on screen. That is a process for me. I started out in theatre back in the 80s and 90s in Singapore, a very vibrant scene at that time. There wasn't really an English television production industry at that juncture. When the time came for them to explore TV production, they called on me to do a few shows with them. They were interesting experiences, kinks to be ironed out and it was experimental, so a lot of risks were taken, and they succeeded in various ways. By which time, I thought I had given what I could in television, so I went back to the theatre and started producing and directing, which was very satisfying."
"Then as fate would have it, Chris Nolan came in, pulled me out of acting retirement and put me in The Dark Knight, which reignited my love for acting and I haven't stopped since. That was how I came to Hollywood. After The Dark Knight, with a movie that big, you're going to be faced with options and lots of choices. At that point in time, I decided to be very selective with my choice of movies. I chose to work with Roland Emmerich. Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant. That also helped pave the way for more diverse, different kinds of roles. I can't ask for a better range of roles where I played a virologist in Contagion, a shipbuilder in 2012, a 13th Century Chancellor in Marco Polo and the commander of a space station in Independence Day: Resurgence."
Roland Emmerich has said that he insisted on a culturally diverse cast in Independence Day: Insurgence because he wanted to reflect the multicultural, global realities of the present, an idealistic representation of a united world fighting against aliens, including heroic soldiers from all over the world, including a gay couple, battling aliens.
"I have to credit Roland Emmrich. He has such a humanist take on the world and life. If you went back to the original Independence Day, you see a wide range of races and characters. Same with Stargate, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. I think it comes from his worldview. I have enjoyed the experience – this is my second time working with him. In playing the Chinese commander, he is part of a larger coalition called The Earth Space Defence, where countries have now banded together after the war in 1996 to build an armed forces that can prevent another invasion. It's interesting that he's an equal with all the generals. I think that is significant."
As an actor fluent in both Chinese and English, Chin Han is in a unique position now of being able to work in both Hollywood and China, even as the latter is opening up to become an even bigger market than the US.
"It's an incredibly exciting time for an actor like myself. We don't see the domestic and international markets are separate anymore. We talk about global box office. It opens up the number of opportunities for Asian actors because you have a market that is hungry not only for American movies but for their own movies as well. Look at the success of movies like Monster Hunt or, more recently, The Mermaid, Lost in Thailand. Appetite will drive the product. It is very exciting, and I look forward to doing Chinese movies more frequently."
"So that's how I got here. Anyone knows it's such a capricious business, but I have very little advice to give but to be lucky," he said with a laugh.
Independence Day: Resurgence is now playing in theatres.
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