Teen lands first film role with Eastwood

January 20, 2009

One of Bee Vang’s friends said to him, “You started all the way at the top. Where do you go from here?”

If only all actors had such problems.

Without a lick of acting experience — he was plucked from a crowd of hundreds of boys screen testing for the part — the 17-year-old Bee landed a plum role in Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.” Eastwood, who starred in and directed the film, was determined to use authentic actors for this multicultural tale of a cranky old man living in a Detroit suburb that has shifted to a predominantly Hmong-American demographic. The famed Oscar winner picked a slate of fresh faces for the film.

The 17-year-old Bee, who was born in Fresno but moved to Minnesota when he was a toddler, met Eastwood on the first day they had a scene together.

“Never once had I imagined I would be working next to Mr. Eastwood,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Robbinsdale, Minn.

Pretty heady stuff, especially for a kid who’d grown up watching Eastwood’s Westerns.

Bee plays Thao, a gentle-souled young man who lives next door to Eastwood’s character, the cantankerous Walt Kowalski. Thao is coerced by local gang members into trying to steal Walt’s prized Gran Torino car from his garage. When Walt thwarts the robbery, it sets in motion a chain of events that includes a grudgingly developing friendship between the two.

Films often are shot out of order, and “Gran Torino” was no exception. For his first scene with Eastwood, which takes place in the second half of the film, Bee had to shoot at a construction site. He remembers it was really hot that day. And he was really nervous.

He tried to think of something he could do to make a good first impression, but he sort of faltered. It didn’t matter.

“When I first met him, he was really down to earth, really humble, a really nice guy,” Bee says. “I started to tell myself every day that maybe we forget that these movie stars are human beings. I told myself that to get relaxed and not be so intimidated.”

Up until his first moment on camera, Bee’s only dramatic experience was backstage with a local theater group. He painted sets and worked on the sound.

He asked Eastwood early on if the director wanted him to rehearse by running lines together. The response: no.

“He told me that acting is not an intelligent art form, it is an instinctive art form,” Bee says.

As I talk with Bee, I’m struck by how refreshingly “un-Hollywood” he seems. Actors spend lots of time promoting their films in interviews, and they’re almost always effusive about how well the cast got along — how everyone was so friendly and got so close, etc., etc. (At least, that’s what they’re likely to say about their current film. Sometimes you can get them to open up about a past film experience.)

But Bee hasn’t developed that tendency toward spin. He doesn’t try to build his relationship with Eastwood into something it wasn’t. Even though the two of them forge a tender chemistry together on film — it’s one of the emotional high points — off-camera their contact was limited.

“I invited him to dinner once, but he was too busy,” Bee says.

It just goes to show what acting and editing can do to create the magic of movies — to create a relationship that is most poignant in the minds and hearts of the audience.

“Gran Torino” is the first mainstream film with a prominent Hmong-American story line. Eastwood takes great pains to have the film serve as sort of a primer for an American public that might not be familiar with Hmong culture — from the cuisine and local customs to an explanation of the historical Hmong involvement in the Vietnam War.

Bee isn’t sure what the overall reaction to the film will be, especially from members of the Hmong- American community. Some people likely will take issue with some of the small details of the film, such as the way a soul-calling ceremony with a shaman is depicted.

And he suspects that some will object to the emphasis on gangs. That’s just a device used in the film, he says. “It was never just about the Hmong community. It uses the backdrop of the gangsters to show the struggles that Walt and Thao are going through.”

Still, he hopes that people walk away from the film with a better awareness.

“I’m hoping that it does introduce people,” he says. “There are still some parts of the U.S. that haven’t heard of the Hmong people. We played a big role in the Vietnam War, and we deserve to be known.”

In many ways, Bee seems so unlike an “average” teenage movie star: cooing over the excitement of going to the world premiere of the film in Burbank; joking with his friends that he’ll be too shy to go with them when it opens in his hometown; hypercritical of his facial blemishes on-screen.

He wants to be a doctor, and the high school junior — who takes college classes already — is pretty sure that he’ll continue his honors- student path toward a pre-med degree.

Still, he likes this acting thing. “All I know is that I enjoyed this experience so much,” he says, almost shyly. “I think I want to pursue this some more.”

So, yes, he started at the top. Where does Bee Bee go from here?

Anywhere he wants.

The columnist can be reached at dmunro@fresnobee. com or (559) 441-6373. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com/ donald.

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