Wang Leehom's teary-eyed Hollywood surprise

He cried tears of joy when he found out he was playing a non-stereotypical Asian in Blackhat

Wang Leehom cried tears of joy when he read the script for what would become his first English-language movie, the cybercrime thriller Blackhat.

Before this, he had never seen a non-stereotypical Asian character in a Hollywood film. So the 38-year-old pop star-turned-actor expected the worst when he was first offered a part in the movie, which stars Thor's Chris Hemsworth as a hacker released from prison to help the American and Chinese authorities catch a group of cybercriminals.

"When I knew it was Chris Hemsworth and that I'd be co-starring with him, I figured I'm going to be the villain and they're going to ask me to speak English with a strong accent," says Wang, a United States-born and Taiwan-based singer-actor.

In the film, which opens in Singapore this week, he plays Chen, a cyber-savvy Chinese government official who ropes in his former Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) roommate (played by Hemsworth) to track down the group behind an attack on a Chinese nuclear plant.

"I'm set up as a Chinese-speaking character in the first couple of scenes and in the third scene, it says: 'And then Chen speaks the rest of the English lines in a perfect American accent.'

"I teared up when I saw that - I'd never seen this in a Hollywood script," Wang, 38, tells Life! while speaking to press in Los Angeles recently.

In Asia, he is a hugely successful and prolific recording artist, known for his blend of pop, R&B and traditional Chinese folk music, which he has controversially dubbed "chinked-out" in an attempt to reclaim the racist term.

Despite his breakout appearance in 2007's Lust, Caution, a risque period spy thriller from Oscar-winning director Lee Ang, this Asian heart-throb has found it tricky getting a foothold in English-language cinema.

"There aren't a lot of roles for Asian men in Hollywood," says Wang, who has a six-month-old daughter with Japanese-Taiwanese wife Lee Jing Lei, 28. "There are not a lot of good roles that I'm attracted to.

"It's absolutely changing, though, and I hope Blackhat's part of the catalyst for that change," he says of the new film, in which he gets almost as much screentime as Hemsworth, whose love interest is played by another Asian star and Lust, Caution alumna, Chinese actress Tang Wei.

In a press conference later that day, Michael Mann, the film's director, says Wang - a son of Taiwanese immigrants who grew up in New York speaking English at home - was perfect for the role of Chen, whom Mann had envisioned as a high- flying, Western-educated Beijing official.

"That's what I was looking for in an actor, and Leehom showed up and said, 'I was born in Rochester, New York, and I live in Taipei - I'm this guy.'

"He is so charmingly precise, terrific in everything and very well-educated - he plays classical violin, jazz piano. And his brother's an MIT grad, the whole family are high achievers. He has this insatiable curiosity and amazing work ethic, so he's a pleasure to work with," says Mann.

Wang - who began learning Chinese only at age 18, when he did a degree in music and Asian studies at Williams College, Massachusetts - now speaks fluent Mandarin. He even translates reporters' questions for Tang, 35, during their joint interview.

He says he now plans to divide his time equally between film and music, although it is music that has given him his biggest successes to date.

One career occasionally gets in the way of the other, as when hysterical fans surrounded the set of Lust, Caution or when Mann was forced to redirect the camera so Wang's face - emblazoned on large billboards in Hong Kong - could not be seen in the background.

Working on this recent film did, however, solve a problem Wang had with a couple of his more overzealous admirers - in particular, two who had hacked into his e-mail and calendar and used the information they retrieved to stalk him.

"There were a couple of people who were always able to know where I was, what flight I was booked on and would show up in the same places unannounced, which I thought was pretty strange," he says.

So he asked one of the film's consultants, Chris McKinlay - who famously hacked into the dating site OKCupid a few years ago - to help him identify them and track them down, which he did. Wang says he is now more careful about his online security.

"I think everyone's following it now," he says of news on cybercrime and surveillance. "It's the realisation that everyone's waking up to - technologically, we have become so advanced, but at the same time, we've exposed ourselves to so many vulnerabilities and we should know about them. And we are getting to know about them more and more."

As for his movie career, Wang is slowly building momentum. He has starred in several Japanese films and, in 2010, went behind the camera for the first time to direct the Chinese-language romantic comedy Love In Disguise, which he also wrote and starred in.

This year, he is also due to embark on what could be his biggest movie yet: the lead role in an adaptation of Stan Lee's Annihilator superhero comics, which are about a Chinese prisoner who acquires super powers after undergoing a secret US super-soldier programme.

The film is still in the development stage, but if it goes well, it could propel Wang's cinematic career to new heights.

The star cheekily downplays the project attached to a name as big as Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. "Stan Lee is… not Chinese, even though he sounds Chinese. And he's not related to Ang. Or Spike!"

stlife@sph.com.sg

Blackhat opens in Singapore tomorrow.