Photo courtesy of The Anderson Group
Interview by Editors
Actor Kenny Leu stars as Sgt. Eddie Chen on the eight-hour event series “The Long Road Home” on the National Geographic channel. It’s a heart-wrenching story that follows American forces occupying Iraq who gets ambushed in a Baghdad neighborhood. He speaks with Beautifully Said on why telling these true accounts in history help to heal some of the trauma experienced by real-life soldiers.
Talk to us about your character in the series The Long Road Home.
My character is Sgt. Eddie Chen. He’s a platoon leader who leads a group of soldiers who get ambushed at the very beginning of the Iraq war by thousands of insurgents. It’s a story of survival. In the storyline I’m older than the other soldiers so I’m like everyone’s big brother.
How did you prepare for the role?
I was very fortunate because I think National Geographic (Nat Geo) was trying to herald in a new form of storytelling where it’s not complete make-believe. They want to tell true stories and ground it very much in reality. What Nat Geo did for us was actually hire a couple of army rangers to give us two-weeks of boot camp training. This gave me and the other actors the space to know what it felt like to be a soldier. We filmed in Fort Hood, Texas. The army base gave us a huge plot of land to basically construct the city for the set—where there were at least 200 buildings for us to destroy for the movie. We were also given some of the equipment used in the military to play the parts right.
Journalist, Martha Raddatz’s (who wrote the book turned television series) and Executive producer, Mikko Allanne invited some of the vets who survived the war to give us their blessings and to have a reunion so we could meet everybody before we started shooting. That was intense, to say the least—because about two dozen of them came back from all over the world and met with us and talked to us about their experiences. It was very eye-opening because I didn’t have any military experience prior to taking on the role and meeting the vets made me also realize what kind of people they are. Both Raddatz and Mikko promised the soldiers that if they came to speak to us their stories would be told truthfully and accurately…the good and the bad of what the military did. The soldiers thanked us for the portrayals.
Do you believe true storytelling detailing military experiences help veterans to recover better?
You all are right on the money with this question. One of the biggest realization I had as a person of color is being misrepresented; as I am sure you may have your own experiences as well. So in the way that you and I may feel the veterans, on the other hand, feel exploited. “Exploitation from the war.” There is such a mass misunderstanding of the vets as people because of the way we’ve regularly portrayed them in our media. I think this series does a great job of empathizing what really happens when soldiers leave their kids behind or their new wives. Some of these guys were just regular guys…recent high school graduates or people wanting to make something better of themselves. And to be thrown into the Iraq war was just an awful thing.
You didn’t start out acting. Your background is a Mechanical Engineering degree from UC Berkeley. When did you realize this is something you wanted pursue?
My heart drives a lot of my decisions. It was a long process—me getting into acting. To transition from engineering into acting took several years, but of the roles, I’ve played so far I made sure they meant something to a lot of people. In The Long Road Home: The vets thanked me for telling their stories in a way where they had not been able to tell their families. Telling me, “Thank you! Now, my wife, kids and parents know why I am the way I am.” It’s stories like this that matter to people and it helps me to bridge together perspectives and mindsets. It opens discussions of what it’s like on the other side and how do we come together. I love these types of stories because as artists our biggest goal and aspiration should be to empathize with each other. I want to do projects that bring people together.
Your advice for anyone following their dreams?
Don’t give up! There will be cases where something feels close enough to your dream but don’t settle. Don’t compromise on what you truly want and again…never give up!
Kenny Leu was born in Taiwan but raised in the Bay area. His upcoming project is playing a Chinese-American police officer who accidentally kills a young African-American while in the line of duty. It’s an untitled New York-set police drama, directed by Aimee Long. Leu has also appeared in major blockbuster films including INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE and appeared on TV shows including NCIS and NBC’s The Player.
“The Long Road Home,” based on ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz’s best-selling book of the same name, the series re-examines a day during the Iraq War when the First Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, was ambushed on April 4, 2004, in Sadr City, Baghdad, on what would become known as “Black Sunday.” Leu appears opposite Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”), Jason Ritter, Jeremy Sisto and Noel Fisher.
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