In the new sex-and-stocks HBO drama Industry – the answer to the hypothetical question of what would happen if Succession had a baby with Billions but was raised by Girls and The Wolf of Wall Street – investment banker Eric Tao dominates the trading floor of his London firm with an anxious swagger. Caressing a baseball bat and whisper-barking orders to underlings as his hungry eyes dart around the room, Eric quickly and eagerly announces himself as the series’ standout character. Maybe, even, the breakout of the entire 2020 television season.
But talking with Ken Leung, the 50-year-old actor who plays Eric with such nervy confidence, you gain a deeper appreciation for the act. Especially when Leung is Zooming from his five-year-old son’s bedroom, Transformers toys scattered about.
”Hey, he has the most comfortable chair in the place,” a mock-defensive Leung says with an easy smile. After I show him my similar circumstances – a home desk strewn with Lego bricks – he nods with an eager familiarity. “Ah, that makes you want to just dive in there, test all those toys out to make sure everything works, right?” Right. Except that I could never imagine Industry’s Eric playing with Autobots in a million years, let alone do so with a goofy grin.
But such is the great trick that Leung pulls off in the new HBO series. Eric, a demanding mentor figure with a heart of index-traded gold and dialogue thick with oft-impenetrable lingo about credit default swaps and call options, is neither hero nor villain to the show’s central cast of young bankers, but he does cut a magnificently intimidating presence that demands attention. Which makes Eric just one of Leung’s many indelible creations over an impressive, if underrated, career.
While attending NYU for pre-physical therapy, the lifelong New Yorker caught the theatre bug – not because he harboured a desire for celebrity, but simply because he felt like there was no other option but to act.
”As an Asian-American actor, you have no reason to anticipate a career,” Leung says today. “I went into it because I needed to. Not because it was fun, but because it gave me a way to engage with people, which I needed at that time. It gave me a way to be part of the world, regardless of a career or whatever.”
His theatre work led to the kind of IMDb credits that most young Asian-American performers accumulate before getting to play someone with an actual emotional and narrative arc. He was “Forensic Technician Chung” on Law & Order, a gangster in Rush Hour, a bank hostage in Inside Man. But then Leung got a one big break, a guest spot on The Sopranos’ final season as the wily hospital roommate of Uncle Junior. The night that 2007 episode aired, the creators of ABC’s blockbuster series Lost created a character especially for Leung, which led to the actor’s 35-episode run as twitchy ghost-whisperer Miles Straume.
”The idea of going to Hawaii to shoot, it was so far and foreign, especially for a show where nobody’s able to tell you anything,” he says. “All of it was so uncomfortable at first, but by the end, Hawaii was part of me. When we wrapped, where I was bore no resemblance to where I started.”
Since then, Leung has done the pilot-season rounds over and over, with some productions lasting longer (35 episodes of NBC’s The Night Shift) than others (ABC’s Marvel experiment Inhumans). Few of the series were memorable, save for the work Leung put into them. But in Industry, whose pilot was directed by Girls mastermind Lena Dunham, Leung gets his best showcase ever. There is also a slight bleed between Leung’s career and Eric’s, given that both men had to fight for their opportunities, rather than wait to be handed them.
Ask Leung about his journey when it comes to on-screen representation of Asian-Americans, though, and he has a decidedly less TV-easy answer.
”If you get a drink of water in the desert, it’s better. But it’s still a desert that you’re in,” he says. “I get asked this every few years. How’s it going? What needs to change? I started to hear different questions in those questions: ‘Are you happy yet? What are you still doing here? Can you stop clamouring for more representation?’ I’m at a place where I have a five-year-old boy and my hope is that when he sees a show that he sees his life represented in that. That’s all I care about. So sure, it’s better. But better from nothing is a dubious measuring.”
Less dubious is Leung’s headspace when it comes to Industry.
”I’m in a fairy-tale playland. My job is to simply play all the time, and who can say that? This may be a longer conversation or a different conversation, but, I try to keep my radar on for things that are, for lack of a better word, ‘mystical,’” he says. “So, shooting Industry in Wales, I had never been away from my son for that long. And he happened to love dragons at the time. And then I get to Cardiff, and it’s dragons everywhere. It’s their national mascot. It’s like, ‘Oh, I am supposed to be here.’ Sometimes it’s small like that, sometimes it’s bigger and deeper. But it’s something to grab onto.”
The future of Industry, which is being released in full binge-watch mode this weekend via HBO Max and Crave, is so far unclear. But Leung is just going to keep his eyes trained on the next project. Already, he’s shot a film, the new shrouded-in-secrecy M. Night Shyamalan thriller Old, during lockdown.
”We were totally in a bubble, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere or come in contact with anybody who wasn’t working on the film, which created a kind of collective consciousness,” he says. “I loved that element, and it was also the nature of the film itself. When it comes out, that will all make sense.”
Until then, Leung will continue playing – both with his kid’s Transformers, and on-set – happily.
The full season of Industry is available starting Nov. 27 on Crave; new episodes will continue to air weekly on HBO Canada through December.
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