Leon Quang Le, who has acted in several Broadway musicals such as Chicago and Miss Sai Gon, talks to Luong Thu Huong
about his love of the stage and his future plans.
Leon Quang Le is among few Asian actors on Broadway, widely considered the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world. On his recent trips back to Viet Nam, he took part in several movies, namely Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro (The Brilliant Kisses), De Mai Tinh (Deal with It Tomorrow) and Tham My Vien (Beauty Salon)
Inner Sanctum: How did you become an actor and what are a few of your favourite shows to date?
Growing up in Viet Nam, I've always been interested in film and theatre. My dream was to be come a cai luong (Reformed Drama Opera) performer. However, I had to give up that dream when I moved to California with my family at the age of 13.
Then a friend told me about Miss Sai Gon, a new Broadway musical about a love story between a Vietnamese girl and an American solder during the Viet Nam War. I had no idea what musical theatre was at the time, but the show was playing in Los Angeles so we went. The minute the overture started, I was mesmerised, completely hooked. I knew at that moment that that was what I wanted to do. My goal was to be performing on that stage. If I couldn't be in Vietnamese musicals, then this is what I would do. So I started taking voice and acting lessons, and all kind of dance classes (jazz, tap, ballet, modern, hip hop, you name it!) to prepare for all the countless auditions I went to.
At 21, I booked my first professional gig in a national touring company for The King And I. Since then I've worked everywhere from Disney World, dinner theatre, national tours, European tours, Radio City Music Hall and Broadway. Some of my favourite shows I've done are Chicago, Miss Sai Gon, Flower Drum Song, Cats, West Side Story.
Inner Sanctum: Can you share some of your initial difficulties as an Asian actor on Broadway?
There are many hilarious stories from the beginning of my career when I didn't have a clue about what I was doing. But I don't think the difficulties stop once you become a "professional" actor. The actual pay available is very little in proportion to the volume of performers in New York. Much of our time is spent looking for work and going through rigorous auditions, all of which don't pay a penny. And this is probably the only profession in which you can be legally rejected because of your looks, shape, size, age, race, etc., before you even get to showcase your talents.
All in all, working as an actor anywhere can be quite a roller coaster ride – you may have long periods of inactivity followed by a flurry of work. So if you take all of that and double it, you might have an idea of what it's like to be an Asian actor in New York City, since most of the shows and roles are not written for Asians. Even though they always say in the casting notice "actors of all ethnic background will be considered", "colour blind" casting is something us Asian performers still have to fight for every single day.
Inner Sanctum: You have taken part in several Vietnamese movies, such as Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro (The Brilliant Kisses), Khat Vong Thang Long (Thang Long aspiration), Tham My Vien (The Beauty Salon), to name a few. Do you prefer to be on camera or performing on stage?
Even though I've done some commercials/TV and film work in the States, most of my performing experiences are on stage. In theatre, you get to tell the story from beginning to end and this allows the actor to go through the emotional journey. And it's wonderful to get the immediate response from a live audience. Plus in theatre we have a long period of rehearsals before the show opens, so you feel much more prepared and comfortable with your characters and the show.
Meanwhile in film, especially in Viet Nam, most of the time we have no rehearsal time scheduled during production; often, your first real run-through of a scene is Take One. All of your actor "homework", memorisation and character development has to be done before you come to the set, with new pages of scripts and changes throw at you sometimes right before a take, and scenes shot out of sequences. With no ensemble to create a "world" to live in, a stage actor like myself is left feeling a bit stranded at times.
But I do love the challenge. I enjoy the fact that all the hard work is being captured on film forever and each project is completely different from the next; I'm not recreating the same show eight times a week. Though to me, nothing can beat the feeling of standing behind the curtain, listening to the orchestra playing the overture and feeling the audience's energy on the other side of the curtain before the show starts.
Inner Sanctum: What are your up coming plans?
It's hard to have specific plans in advance when you're in this business, since things usually pop up at the last minute and change everything. So I've learned to just go with the flow and I find it rather exciting not knowing what will be my next job or next adventure.
My most recent project was Spider-man: Turn off the Dark on Broadway. And now having some free time, I'm back to editing my short film, which I wrote and directed last year, shooting another short, and learning how to write a full-length screenplay. I'm also looking forward to more travel this year, taking a couple of months off to explore India, then maybe back to Viet Nam. — VNS