Exclusive interview: Kenny Leu on playing Sgt. Eddie Chen in Nat Geo’s The Long Road Home

Kenny Leu as Sgt. Eddie Chen in The Long Road Home, the story of the 2004 ambush in Sadr City. Pic credit: National Geographic

The Long Road Home — ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction bestseller adapted for TV by National Geographic Channel — features actor Kenny Leu as Sgt. Eddie Chen.

The eight-episode miniseries is a heartbreaking true story of American forces in Iraq, ambushed as they were passing through the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. Raddatz was one of the first journalists to report on the events.

The attack, dubbed “Black Sunday”, involved the First Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, and occurred on April 4, 2004, during the Iraq War.

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One of the first casualties, Sgt. Chen is credited with being a hero by the soldiers he served with. He is still venerated to this day.

Leu, who plays him, spoke to us about Sgt. Chen in a poignant interview as he recounted crossing paths with men who actually served alongside him.

He also opened up about his new role in an as-yet unnamed New York-set feature film in which he plays the Chinese-American police officer Peter Liang, who accidentally killed a young African-American while in the line of duty.

Monsters and Critics: Tell us about Sgt. Eddie Chen?

Kenny Leu: Sgt. Eddie Chen is Taiwanese. I was born in Taiwan myself, and my family is culturally and ethnically from Taiwan, so right away, I was like, ‘Oh, I get him.’

He’s foreign-born as well, even though most of his family grew up, well, he was raised in Guam and he decided to join the military to give back to where he’s from, the country that he loves to support. I connect with him on a very fundamental level, because I’m very attuned to my Taiwanese roots.

M&C: When you learned about this particular moment in history, were you introduced to any of the men that were actually involved in the event, or any veterans?

KL: Yes. This is a huge thing about this project that really took it to another level for me. The first day that I showed up, a bunch of the vets that survived the ordeal were already there, giving us their blessing for telling their story.

So many of them came up to us and were like, “Thank you for telling our story. Now my parents, my wife, my kids, know why I am the way that I am, because I’ve never told them anything.”

A lot of them have really shut it out of their minds because of some of the very horrific things that they had to do to survive — the things they had to see to survive that event. And so they were very thankful to us for sharing their story, but also, fundamentally, our show isn’t about trying to glorify or make any of them heroes.

They really just wanted to tell the story honestly, with no politicization of the U.S. military or any of that. It is just the very genuine, authentic storytelling about what happened.

Especially what the vets really liked was how honestly we were presenting the difficult choices that they had to make out there, because that’s what they feel it really is about.

I can’t begin to tell you how many of them were like — I’m going to cuss here — they were like, “I can’t f***ing believe how the military has been so glorified and kind of perverse…for money, for like a great action story, when that’s really not what it’s about.”

What ends up happening is some kid in Kentucky or something wants to be a hero, ends up joining the military, and finds out the hard way that that’s not at all what it’s about.

A lot of them were like, “The only reason why I’m back here is because National Geographic and Mikko (who’s our executive producer), was very straightforward and very honest with saying that we’re not going to do any of that. That’s our commitment. That is our promise to you. It’s the only reason why we’re making this series.”

So many of them came back…specifically people like Ben Hayhurst, who is portrayed by Patrick Schwarzenegger in this production, I know for a fact that he’s so against any false portrayal of military anything.

Our Army Ranger handler, Mike Bumgarner, was the same way, as well as Jericho Denman, all of them were very vocal about making sure that everything was as accurate as possible.

That’s something that I’m so incredibly proud of, because it’s the whole reason why I did acting in the first place, to tell these stories that are so meaningful to people.

That’s ultimately what I think art should be about — to accurately reflect real life, and not be here to weave some fantastical story that ultimately rings false to the people that, ultimately, we should be speaking to. I can talk about that for a while. I’ll end it right there, though.

M&C: In your observation, did you feel that the military strips away the racial B.S? Do you really form a bond that strips away all that?

KL: Oh my gosh. I have never felt brotherhood like these guys have. I’ve never seen something that intimate between these guys before. I want to tell you a story, but there’s a spoiler involved.

Okay. My character dies. Sgt. Eddie Chen passes away very early on in the ordeal, and he’s kind of this big-brother figure to everybody else because he’s a little bit older, but also his character is just one of those guys that takes care of everybody, and everybody looked up to him for advice and for wisdom.

When he passes really early on in the ordeal everybody’s just like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. If Eddie Chen isn’t going to live through this, then for sure, I’m going to die.”

His death was such a huge event for them that it was traumatic. Even on top of that, when I came to the set, I’m the only Asian guy in the platoon, so when a lot of these vets saw my face, immediately they knew who I was and who I was playing. I can’t begin to tell you, tears immediately start appearing on these guys’ faces.

Imagine, as an Asian man growing up in the United States, I’m just not used to seeing people cry over me. My bias was that I perceived them to be very conservative, very military. Having that much heart over an Asian man was heartbreaking.

Immediately, as they saw my face, and just the fact that they’re like, “Okay, he’s an Asian actor, he can only be playing Eddie Chen.” All of them would have to check themselves out and say, “I’m sorry, I just have to walk away for a bit”, tears just streaming down their face.

They would come back to me and just apologize, and say, “I’m so sorry. I wish I could’ve done more for him.” That was my first week there. It was so much to take.

There’s another really great story where my first day of shooting, I hadn’t experienced any of this yet. We hadn’t had a reunion or anything yet. We were shooting the scene where all the soldiers were saying goodbye to their family.

There were about 400 extras on set that day. I was walking through my first scene with the director because I was very nervous, and I wanted to make sure I knew where the cameras were and what was going on. I had my uniform on already at that point.

These six dudes, think as Texan as you can because we’re shooting on an Army base in Texas, and these guys with big cowboy hats, big handlebar moustaches, with the belt-buckle and the boots, and they surround me, and immediately I’m like, “Oh, crap. What’s going on? Did I do something wrong?”

They come up to me really close and they look at my name on my uniform, and they just go, “You’re Eddie Chen.” I’m like, “Yeah, we’re shooting a TV show. My name’s Kenny, but I’m playing a guy named Eddie Chen.”

They walked away for a bit like with their hands over their face, and then they just flipped out for like ten seconds. Then they came back, and they were like, “Man, we’re so sorry for scaring you like that, but we served with him 13 years ago, and he was one of the best guys that we’d ever known.”

I was like, “Oh my God”, and tears just started streaming down my face, and I was like, “Holy s**t”, and then, every single one of them rolled up their sleeves, and they were like, “We still wear this bracelet for him.” It was a bracelet that said, “Rest in peace, Sergeant Eddie Chen.”

Thirteen years later, they’re still wearing this bracelet for him. I felt like a depth of emotion that I haven’t felt in a really long time.

M&C:  So it was that point where you really realized the poignancy of your character in this whole dramatization?

KL: Yes, because the whole month before I was reading books. I was reading everything I could find on it, and I knew it all in my head, but then it was at that moment where all of that got shoved straight to my heart, how meaningful it was for them. I was just going to say, the brotherhood between these guys, there is nothing like it.

M&C: Where did you film this?

KL: We shot this in Fort Hood, about an hour north of Austin, Texas. The Army was very supportive in providing us with space as well as providing us with vehicles — Humvees and Abrams tanks, and weapons and all kinds of stuff for us to use to tell the story.

M&C: With the Harvey Weinstein dam that’s flooding Hollywood, do you feel that the result for anyone of color, anyone Asian, for women…it’s going to make things better in the world of casting and projects, and sensitivity to stories being told?

KL: Yeah, I think so. I think all the stuff that is happening lately, I think it’s finally all bubbling up to the surface, where we just want our world to be more accurately reflected. I think we still have a lot of work to do, but at least people are aware now and are able to talk about the fact that so many of us have been so unfairly portrayed. Even these military guys, they’ve felt so exploited.

Analogously, I think a lot of minorities have felt very misrepresented for who they are, and I think ultimately, the optimistic way of looking at everything is that we’re ultimately all working towards a similar goal, which is better storytelling, and realizing there is such a responsibility when we storytell.

It shouldn’t just be “make some kind of ROI [return on investment] on your money”. There’s a responsibility there. Storytelling wields great power over people, and people’s perceptions and all of this is making us realize that it’s a lot more important than we’ve been giving it credit for, and we should treat it with the respect that it deserves.

M&C: Can you tell me about the other projects you’re working on as an actor, producer, or writer — or all three?

KL: Yeah, there’s a couple of really big projects that I’m working on. I just wrapped up an untitled feature film that’s shot in New York; an independent feature. I’m the lead of this one. It’s based on a true story, or inspired by a true story I should say.

In 2015, there was a New York City police officer, a Chinese American guy, who accidentally kills a black kid. In this case, his name is Peter Liang, and in this case, he was a rookie cop. Rookie cops were all sent on a walking patrol, a foot patrol, of the worst projects in New York.

He goes into this stairwell where, for some reason, the lights have all shot out. He gets freaked out by some kind of noise, and he accidentally discharges his firearm into a wall, then the bullet ricochets off of the wall and goes down a flight of stairs, and hits a black man in the chest a flight of stairs down. He didn’t even know he was there.

So it was clearly an accident. At the same time, there were some things he could’ve done that could have been a lot more responsible, but he ends up getting indicted by a grand jury for the first time in 12 years.

So this is the biggest case for a lot of Asian Americans who were like, “You guys just threw the Chinese guy under the bus, because you’ve had all these white police officers shooting black men in the back while they’re face down on the ground handcuffed. And you decide to throw this Chinese guy under the bus?” The city is like, “What the hell is going on?”

Obviously, a lot of black Americans are like, “Stop killing us”, and the police bureau is saying, “Hey, we’re supposed to be the good guys here.” And so it’s like tectonic plates crashing into each other. So this is another story that I, luckily, very fortunately, have been able to be a part of and facilitate in bringing it to life.

Something else on the much lighter side, there’s a live-action adaption of an anime show called DragonBall Z that we put on YouTube, and the first episode has like 28 million views now, and the second episode, that I’m the lead of, is going to be released on November 14, so that’s coming out within a week of The Long Road Home. So I’m sitting very pretty right now.

M&C: What would be your advice for any Asian or Hispanic actor who’s coming up, or who is not of the typical mold? 

KL: I would say create your own identity. I would say you have to carve your own path. You’re not going to be accepted easily anywhere you go. Ultimately what that means is your path is going to be uphill for most of the time, but when you do reach it, you’re stronger, faster, and you’re a better person, ultimately, than you would be if you didn’t have those challenges.

You’re going to have to figure out your own way, but stay strong, and that strength will carry you through to becoming a better person.

The Long Road Home | National Geographic

The Long Road Home premieres Tuesday, November 7, at 9pm ET/PT on Nat Geo.

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