Independence Day: Resurgence star Chin Han is heartened by Hollywood's increasing diversity

Chin Han (with co-star Angelababy) plays a Chinese space squadron leader in Independence Day: Resurgence.
Chin Han (with co-star Angelababy) plays a Chinese space squadron leader in Independence Day: Resurgence.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Singapore actor based in the US is heartened by the shift in mindset towards having more Asian representation in movies

Chin Han, probably Singapore's most successful actor in Hollywood, says there has been a growing awareness of the need to improve Asian representation on screen in the nine years since he first moved to the United States.

And to those offended by the controversial casting of Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming Ghost In The Shell manga adaptation, in which he has a part, the actor says this is a universal story that bears multiple interpretations and that this version is not necessarily the definitive one.

The Straits Times caught up with the 46-year-old over coffee last week in Los Angeles shortly before he jetted off to the China premiere of his new film Independence Day: Resurgence.

In cinemas now, the action adventure flick starring Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman sees him play a Chinese squadron leader who helps man the Earth's defences against an alien attack.

Los Angeles has been his home since the actor, whose full name is Ng Chin Han, moved here in 2007 for his first big Hollywood project, the Batman adventure The Dark Knight (2008).

Since then, he says he has noticed a shift in how Asian representation is discussed behind the scenes.

"I do feel that in private conversations and in business conversations it has come up more and more, and it's a good thing," he says of the issue, which has gained momentum following the recent controversies over the casting of white actors in Asian roles and the outcry over host Chris Rock's Asian jokes at this year's Oscars.

"Also, as an Asian actor, you get a sense that it is a more consolidated effort as well. I think in the past you'd hear, for example, (Star Trek actor) George Takei talking about it, but he'd be one lone voice.

"Now you have (film directors) James Wan and Jon M. Chu talking about it or (actors) Daniel Dae Kim and Constance Wu talking about it. It's more of a collective now and I feel like all these conversations have also served to bring Asian- American and Asian actors closer, which is not a bad thing."

Yet the Singaporean performer - who has racked up an impressive list of credits that includes blockbusters such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and 2012 (2009) as well as TV series Marco Polo (2014), The Blacklist (2013) and Arrow (2013) - reveals that he still sees scripts with Asian characters speaking in pidgin English.

"Yes, that still happens. It's a big industry and you run the gamut. But my managers understand what appeals to me and what doesn't, so thankfully, I don't get sent these too often," he says.

But when it comes to the "whitewashing" of Asian roles - in particular, the outcry over Johansson's part in 2017's Ghost In The Shell, which some Asian actors have condemned - Chin Han has a different take.

"There are just some stories that lend themselves more easily to adaptation because they address certain universal character arcs and concerns," he says.

"For example, William Shakespeare's plays lend themselves to adaptation quite easily, like (Japanese movie director) Akira Kurosawa doing (his 1985 King Lear adaptation) Ran.

"So I feel that in the context of those scripts or those kinds of source material, adaptation is just a natural course of the life of that piece of art or literature. I'm not too fussed about that."

He would like to see multiple versions of the 2017 movie.

"The canon of Ghost In The Shell, from the anime to the manga to the video games and even now, a stage version of it in Japan, is just so intriguing and so relevant to the times in terms of our reliance on technology now.

"I don't think the version I'm in is the final version."

He does, however, condemn some of the more egregious examples of Hollywood whitewashing.

"When it is characters like the one that Mickey Rooney plays in Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961), where he's pretending to be an Asian person, or even as great an actor as Marlon Brando, who's pretending to be Japanese in Teahouse Of The August Moon (1956), then that is at worst offensive and, at best, misguided."

Overall, the actor believes Hollywood is headed in the right direction when it comes to diversity, thanks in part to the development of television shows.

"Television started becoming interesting when they started doing long-form television or limited series of 10 episodes a season.

"That form of TV really opens up a whole new way of storytelling and many types of shows as well. Because you're not committed to 26 episodes a season, a network can order a greater variety of shows in a year and more variety means more opportunities for not just actors of diverse ethnicity, but also older actors and more interesting female roles."

He is content with the opportunities he has had in his career, and has not felt hampered by the fact that Asians are underrepresented on screen.

"I can speak only from a personal point of view... but I've had the opportunity to work with great directors," says the performer, who was directed by Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, Steven Soderbergh in epidemic drama Contagion (2011) and Gus Van Sant in Restless (2011), a romance.

"So I haven't felt it as much, but perhaps my requirements for being in movies are a little different. I'm happy being in smaller movies or doing roles that are ostensibly supporting roles, as long as I get to work with the directors I want to work with."

Working with great actors such as Morgan Freeman, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale in The Dark Knight, John Cusack in the science-fiction flick 2012 (2009), and Marion Cotillard in Contagion, has also taught him much.

"From Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale and the late Heath Ledger, to Marion Cotillard and John Cusack, they are so innately talented, but they come so well- prepared.

"That's one thing I've learnt - that no matter how talented you are, you've got to put in the time and work on the scripts that you've been entrusted with."

However, the co-star that has most impressed the actor's family - specifically, his teenage nieces, whom he sees about once a year "whenever I can fit in a trip to Singapore" - is Hemsworth, the 26-year-old Australian heart-throb from Independence Day: Resurgence.

"My nieces ask me about working with Liam Hemsworth because they watched him in The Hunger Games. They get very excited," says Chin Han, who occasionally tweets pictures of himself and co-stars such as Hemsworth.

But the actor, who is single, is more than happy to oblige their curiosity, especially now that they are old enough to watch his films.

"I have nine nieces and nephews in a wide range of ages. It's great because in the past, some of them were very young and were not able to see the films that I'm in. Now they're all older and can go to the movies together."

•Independence Day: Resurgence is in cinemas in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline 'Chin Han on diversity in Hollywood'. Print Edition | Subscribe