Kenny Leu delivers an incredible performance in A Shot Through the Wall, playing a character caught in an impossible situation. When Officer Mike Tan accidentally shoots an innocent African-American, he ends up on trial not only literally but in the public eye—and the film details how everyone on all sides are deeply affected by one moment.
It’s a complicated role to play because Mike is not only a police officer but also Chinese-American. He’s part of a minority himself and understands everything happening on the other side, even as it’s happening to him. Kenny recently spoke with me about how he approached A Shot Through the Wall and all the work he did to make sure his character was as honest and authentic as possible. Plus, we discussed his previous guest spot on one of the most undervalued TV shows in recent history, The Player.
Brittany Frederick: Where did you start approaching the character of Mike Tan when there are so many different sides to him that are relevant to this specific story?
Kenny Leu: [The film]’s loosely based on a real incident that happened in 2014: the Peter Liang case. I really wanted to understand what people in New York were saying about that case, so I flew out to New York before we started shooting and spent a couple of weeks there—just talking to people at bars and on the street, asking them about what they experienced when that case was happening.
The second thing was this is a Chinese-American cop that this happens to. I wanted to see what it was like to grow up Chinese-American in New York, so I spent my days wandering the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, in a very specific area called Bay Ridge. That is a very Chinese area that you wouldn’t even recognize as New York. I wanted to know what it was like to grow up as a Chinese-American immigrant living there.
Lastly, I wanted to make sure that I was able to portray a grounded take on a police officer. I applied to the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department]. In order to even be able to take their test, you have to fill out this thick of a background check into your whole family history, your drug history, criminal history; it is severe. Then there’s a week long of testing that was physical and emotional and psychological. You had to take a lie detector test. You had to be interrogated several times—by police sergeants, by professional interrogators, by an attorney. And that, to me, was very important because I didn’t want to portray a police officer the way that it’s been done time and time again on a procedural show, or even the way that people perceive them in news media. I wanted to portray somebody who actually believed that they would be a representative of their community…Something as timely and sensitive as this, it needed that kind of work because it’s a lot of responsibility.
BF: The fact that Mike is a cop defines him to an extent, not only within the film, but the audience will come in with a certain perception of him. How much did the film allow you to explore other sides of him beyond his career and show him as a complete person?
KL: The most difficult part about this film is that it centers around a police officer who does something awful, which is he accidentally shoots and kills an innocent black man. It’s so easy to paint people like that in black and white. It’s such a grey area and it’s such a nuanced, sensitive and timely area that we need to as a country talk about it, but we’re never going to have a constructive conversation if we perceive each other as black and white.
This film really portrays him as a Chinese-American. He’s young, he’s a police officer, but fundamentally he’s a human being with a human family, with a fiance and the victim is human. We’re not numbers. We’re not statistics. It’s not so easy to be like, “Oh, this is a bad person, this person is the victim, and they deserve this and deserve that.” It’s so much more nuanced than that. I hope that people see that after watching the film and feel like they would be able to have a nuanced conversation about it.
BF: Is there a particular scene in A Shot Through the Wall that resonated with you as you were filming?
KL: I would say the very first scene, honestly. A lot of people are like “Oh, of course the cop probably shot him in the back and he intended to do it.” In this situation at least—because I know it does happen out there—in this situation, it was truly an accident. And what happens when you are responsible for accidentally shooting and killing somebody? What does that mean? What is justice? What do they deserve? What do they not deserve? What happens to the people around them? These are all questions that I want people to ask themselves as they’re watching.
BF: You’ve played other characters who have been in service before, most notably as a soldier in the NatGeo miniseries The Long Road Home. Did any of that experience inform your portrayal of Mike or help you get perspective on this role?
KL: It did help a lot. The Long Road Home is similar to Black Hawk Down; [it’s] based on a real life series of events about a group of American soldiers that are pinned down in Iraq and it’s the start of the Iraq War. NatGeo did such a great job of allowing us to truly experience what it’s like to become a soldier. They built like 200 buildings for us to simulate Sadr City, Iraq. We went through two weeks of grueling military training with two Army Rangers. And that really informed me because I got to really understand what it’s like to be a soldier and a cop, but also to get myself in the mindset of, why would I want to become this person? I really responded to it.
When I was taking the interrogation part of the LAPD test, I had a police sergeant asking me [looking] straight into my eyes, “Why do you want to be an LAPD police officer?” And I couldn’t exactly tell them oh, I’m doing research for a movie. But in that moment, I was really swept away with this idea of I do want to be representative of my community. I do want to stand up to protect the people around me. I want to be of service. That is really what being in service means and that is why people do join, and it just sucks that we have such a wide variety of perceptions of people that have made that sacrifice.
So it definitely informed me, especially The Long Road Home, because it really made me appreciate telling real-life stories of real people. I don’t feel comfortable telling stories just for the sake of stories. I want to be out there and actually talk to the people who are living now and experiencing something, so I can say something that is relevant to now.
BF: On a lighter note, you guest-starred in an episode of The Player, which is one of the most underrated shows in the last decade. What do you remember about that experience?
KL: It was very underrated. It was an awesome action show. I had just gotten my start in L.A. I’d just moved to L.A. to become an actor, and I have a huge martial arts background but I was hiding it because I wanted to be an actor, not a stunt guy. So [that was] got one of my first roles that I got to perform some action with. I got to work with Philip Winchester and he was such a gentleman throughout. He’s so kind, so professional. They asked a lot of him because if you’ve done any kind of action stuff, you know how exhausting it is. He didn’t just do a film. He was doing a whole TV series about it. They were working him hard and he’s a great guy, so I really want to give a shout out to him too.
BF: Then you went on from that and you’ve played different types of roles, including in some of those procedurals. Based on your experience, are there things you’d like to see as far as creating more full and diverse characters like the ones we see in A Shot Through the Wall?
KL: The world is open for especially Asian-American actors or Asian performers, because there’s been such a lack of storytelling in that regard. I want to tell stories that are lasting, that are relevant to now, that can say something that people are going through right now. For Asian-Americans, there’s a lot of stories in which we are a part of the history of America, that we are part of the political landscape [but] we’re often left out of the conversations [about] racial tensions and political justice. I want people to understand that it’s not black and white again; there’s a lot of us here who are trying to make our way and trying to do our best and that we belong. Those are the types of stories that I want to be a part of next.
BF: What did you walk away from the film with? After so many years and all of that preparation, how are you different now than you were before playing Mike Tan?
KL: it really made me understand that things like this are not black and white. There’s so much nuance to the things that happen, especially in something as complicated as this. Our film doesn’t really have the answers. I don’t have the answers. But we do know that we need to talk to each other. We need to understand one another and listen to one another. If we really want to find a solution for something like this, we can’t be snapping at each other on Twitter. We have to have conversations, and I hope that is what this film ends up doing, is that we can start some kind of conversation.
A Shot Through the Wall is now streaming on Amazon Video and other digital platforms.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.