The film “Shanghai Calling” focuses on Sam Chao, a corporate ladder-climbing Chinese American lawyer who unwillingly heads to the country of his ancestral roots to further his career. Inevitably, with no previous ties to speak of, he stumbles into all sorts of awkward expatriate situations that eventually threaten his job.
It’s a geographical migration that Daniel Henney, the actor who plays Sam, can relate to, but with a couple of major differences. For one, the relocation was Henney’s choice, as the Michigan native – wanting to learn more about his mother’s country of birth – headed to South Korea with the goal of building off of his already immense popularity in Asia as a model. Also unlike Sam, Henney immediately saw his career grow exponentially after settling into his second home and shooting the Korean drama “My Lovely Sam-soon” in 2005. Seven years later, he has learned Korean and now juggles projects across the globe, ranging from “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” to Kim Jee-woon’s upcoming American debut “The Last Stand.”
Before the New York premiere of “Shanghai Calling” at the Asian American International Film Festival, Henney spoke with Meniscus Magazine about the movie, how his very first television shoot nearly ended in disaster, why Korea will play a permanent role in his career, the production that he is currently considering and much more.
Yuan-Kwan Chan: Congratulations on the movie “Shanghai Calling,” and your Best Actor awards in Shanghai and Newport Beach. Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think of your own personal story, heading to Korea as an American to start modeling and eventually acting. When you first read this script, did you see any similarities between the character of Sam and yourself?
Daniel Henney: Absolutely, they stick out – the similarities are very prevalent. Over the last seven years in Korea in particular, I’ve said many times to my friends, ‘God, I wish they could film a movie about this,’ because there’s been so many times that I’ve experienced things that are just indescribable. It’s just hard to describe the experiences that you have as an American in Asia. When you talk about a “fish out of water” story like “Doc Hollywood,” you can’t express what it’s like in Asia. I think with “Lost in Translation,” they did a great job with hitting the right points. I was also hoping to do a romantic comedy…in Asia. The first time I saw “Shanghai Calling,” that was the first script I’d seen like that. That’s why I jumped at it. But yeah, there are tons of similarities, it’s great.
You mentioned being there for about seven years now. Would you say it’s a bit easier now that you know the language? Do you have any funny incidents or anecdotes that you could share, maybe when you arrived, or whether it was in your career, or personally when you were in Korea?
It’s definitely easier now for me. I can actually do things. I can go out and, you know, actually be a human [laughs]. Really, what people don’t realize is that it took me a long time to learn the language because I was already a public figure as I was learning the language. Whereas most foreigners who come into the country are able to make mistakes, and go out with their friends, and drink and be crazy and have fun while they’re learning the language. I never had that luxury because I couldn’t go anywhere, because it was insane the first three years. So now that I can speak quite well, I get around quite well, it’s much easier. But I definitely had my fair share of struggles and interesting moments. When you speak Korean as a foreigner, it seems like every time you mess up, you’re swearing at someone. I think I’ve probably told, like, thousands of people off and just pissed so many people off that I didn’t mean to.
There are a lot of weird things, like Sam had that ah-yi, his personal assistant in his house, a maid. I had that same thing here in Korea. It was the strangest thing for me to have this woman living in my house for the first two years. I couldn’t get my head around it. Why is this woman in my house all the time, folding my underwear? She’s always there. The stuff that you would get really mad about as an American – you know, I’ve never had a live-in maid – but it’s so normal here in Asia. So we had a lot of moments where you just imagine things [such as] you don’t want people to find your house sometimes, and she’d always find it. A lot of embarrassing times, but it’s been a lot of fun.
I can relate to the language. I’m American-born Chinese.
Yeah, the vowel inflections sometimes just get you. So when I was told, ‘He wants to do this interview in English,’ I’m like, that’s NOT a problem – I’m not going to choose another language.
Your English is pretty good – I don’t think my Chinese is as good as that.
[Laughs] The concept of home is one that challenges Sam in the movie. Your own Twitter account lists home as “L.A., Seoul and a cabin in Michigan.” Which of these is probably most like home for you right now?
A cabin in Michigan. That’s essentially my home. That’s the only place I can go and, once I walk through the door, I feel like my high school self again. I guess that’s kind of what it is.
I have a house in L.A. and it’s a beautiful place. I’m lucky to have it but no matter how much you relax there, your engine’s still turning. There’s always stuff turning, in fact, when you’re in L.A., it’s a busy city. Seoul is exactly the same. When I’m here, my mind’s always turning, and I can’t really let go of work. So it’s only when I go to Michigan and I’m with my family that I can really just let go, throw on a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt, walk around the house with a cup of coffee, and not give a you-know-what about anything. That’s what I love.
I understand that your mother is a Korean adoptee. How much of the culture were you aware of before you moved over to Korea?
On a scale of 1 to 10, probably about a .5, I would say? To be completely honest with you, she was adopted after the [Korean] War. She was in an orphanage in Busan, on the southern tip of Korea. She was adopted when she was about a year old. In the States, she was raised on a farm in the Midwest. So she has never spoken a word of Korean and she has a Midwestern accent, and she speaks English like anyone else speaks English. She still can’t speak Korean – I’ve been trying to teach her, you know, which is very strange.
We have connections to Korea but it was definitely from a Westerner’s point of view. I knew a few things: she’d saved the outfit that she came over in when she was a baby, she’d hung onto a few little dolls and things. We had no connection to anything that was Korea…I tried to get into it a little bit but it was hard as a kid, so when I came over, that was when it all started happening for me.
I’d been in Asia for about four years on and off before I came to Korea, which was good, kind of eased me in. When I came to Korea, I was ready to experience what my culture was [like], and that’s when I started learning.
Where in Asia for the four years before settling in Seoul?
I was in Hong Kong for three years, and I was in and out of Taiwan for about six months.
In a way, from a film standpoint it’s also a second full circle looking back at your first lead role in “Seducing Mr. Perfect” in Korea. You’ve since crossed borders to act in TV and movies. Can you walk me through how you feel your acting career has developed since that first movie and some of the K-dramas you did, and what you hope to achieve in the future?
It’s been a really incredible ride for me, to be honest with you. I wanted to be an actor for a long time – that was always my goal. I modeled to become an actor; I modeled because I knew it was a stepping stone. I was working in New York. I was doing some off-Broadway and stuff. When I got the role in “Sam-soon,” which was my first TV drama in Korea, that was my first time being in front of a camera ever. So I didn’t know what the hell to do with myself. I even remember shooting the first scene in “Sam-soon” where it was just a simple scene where I had to say hello to a girl. Like, she walks by her apartment and I’m supposed to go, “Hello?” And I couldn’t do it. It took me 20 takes. I had to run out to the car and had to drink a beer because I was so nervous, and go back and finish the shoot. Because I was SO NERVOUS.
To go through that, and be here, is so surreal. If you look at it, it hasn’t really been that long. It’s been just over six years since I started actually working in the business. So it’s been a crazy, fast ride – it’s been a great ride – and I’ve learned so much. I look at those films now, like “Mr. Perfect,” and I just wish I could do it again. You gotta love and appreciate it for what it was [laughs]. People love those movies and I just kind of tuck my head down and say, “All right guys, you enjoy it. I’m not going to watch it again but you guys enjoy it.” The irony is that when I’m in Korea, [with] the syndication, I turn the TV on and there’s always a drama on or something I’m seeing myself in.
It’s funny at times, but it’s been incredible. And I always knew that once I got an opportunity to do an English script that was written well, that I could shine a little more, if I’d just had the opportunity I hoped [to get]. I think “Shanghai Calling” gave me that. A lot of the stuff we do in Korea, the English dialogue is not written well. I’d stay up all night long with my managers translating – it’s all lost in translating. So there’s a lot of it that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t realize. For a few years, I just kind of hoped that one day I could do an actual English romantic comedy with other English-speaking actors. How great would that be? And I was just thankful to have a chance.
You know, that’s indicative of a lot of Asian movies, where they have someone who’s speaking English or a Westerner – not just in Korea, but I grew up watching Hong Kong movies and sometimes I would just cringe at the dialogue.
Oh man, it’s terrible. I used to get scripts and I would just [ask], “Are you serious, you want me to say this?” This is…no. I would stay up all night changing the lines. But I don’t know, those characters, those experiences have helped me so much and I appreciate what I have so much more now because of that.
Going to [your] productions like “X-Men,” the TV show “Three Rivers” and so on: Would you ever go back to doing K-dramas or Korean movies, or would you like to stick more with the English-speaking roles and movies such as “Shanghai Calling?”
I’m actually in Korea doing a Korean movie right now – a big action movie. I love Korean films, I love Korean directors and I think it’s important for me. I consider myself a Korean actor. This is where I got my start. So I want to make sure that I honor those fans here and want them to know that I’m serious about doing films here. I think it’s very important.
Of course, I want to do more American projects, or English-speaking projects, because I do feel a closer connection to the dialogue. But when it comes to the actual films in general, especially action movies, I really feel that Korea makes some amazing action films. So I always want to be a part of that if I can. If they’ll have me, I’ll still do it, you know?
Absolutely. I mean, when you see films like “The Chaser”…
…and “The Man from Nowhere,” it just blows me away, really.
Exactly. We have $20 million budgets at the most. And then we have films – I’m not going to name any films in particular – with $200 million budgets that are just bombing in the States. Some of the formulas are getting mixed up. There’s some huge talent over here and I’d like to be a part of that.
I even remember watching IRIS and thinking, ‘Is this really a television series?’
IRIS is amazing. I actually just got the script for IRIS 2 and they want me to be a part of that. It’s tempting. It’s very tempting. It’s a good show.
Can you talk a bit about the movie that you just mentioned that you’re working on now, and maybe some of the other projects that are coming up?
The film I’m doing now was formerly called “Mr. K.” It’s called “The Negotiator” now. [Ed. note: The title for the film eventually became "The Spy: Undercover Operation," which was released in South Korea in the fall of 2013.] It’s a film in the vein of a “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” It’s an action/comedy/thriller which is indicative of Korea because you can never put one film in a specific genre because they’re all so weird [laughs]. It’s a film about a husband and wife who are having their issues. The husband is like a spy on the side. It’s kind of their story – they get thrown in different situations here in Korea and also in Thailand. I play this crazy assassin who’s out to get this guy and hijinks ensue.
Interesting. You’re the bad guy.
Yeah, I’m a horrible person in this movie which is kind of fun to play.
I have a couple other movies coming up. I have a Chinese movie I’m doing, which is my first Chinese romantic comedy, which I’m excited to try. And then I think my next project in the States will start in January. I’m going to take a little break, I think, in-between.
And these are all English roles, or a combination?
Well, the Chinese role, I think it’s either going to be English or it’s going to be me speaking English and they’re going to dub me because that’s what they do in China [laughs]. Because my Chinese is not up-to-par by any means – I’m not going to try to [speak it]. They want me in the film, and I’m going to give it a shot and see how it goes. The one in the States is English-speaking. Not confirmed yet, but it’s in the process.
This is my last question. I spoke with [“Shanghai Calling” director] Daniel Hsia, and asked him about working with you and so on. I ask this because you had mentioned wanting to take this role because it was a rom-com and it was an atypical comedic role compared to what you had seen. He said that you were “definitely at the top of [his] list” as far as casting was concerned. Here’s a couple of quotes: “The thing I was most impressed by was how funny he is. He’s so comfortable doing comedy – he really nails the jokes in the movie. He’s the straight man in this whole movie. The straight man is usually the hardest guy to play. He plays it so well.”
[pauses] Well, that’s very sweet of him to say. I paid him, actually, to say that. I knew you were interviewing him as well [so I gave him] some cash. The guy is getting rich off of me!
How comfortable was it stepping into a comedic role such as this one since you’d said you’d wanted to do it for awhile?
I’d wanted to do it for awhile…you know, I grew up watching “Saturday Night Live.” I grew up doing impressions of Dana Carvey doing The Church Lady. I grew up watching Mike Myers as Wayne. That’s my upbringing.
When I came to Korea, I kind of fell into the “whatever” image that I have in Korea… Let’s be honest, when you speak English and you’re learning Korean, and you’re creating a career, there’s not a lot of places for comedy. It’s kind of hard to be funny. I was lucky enough to have what I had, so I just kind of accepted it. I do enjoy playing the roles that I’ve played, but when it comes to speaking English – even back when I was doing theater in New York – I was always doing the improv, funny stuff. It was always much more satisfying for me, kind of a cathartic thing for me to do comedy onstage and things. Whether I was good or not, I didn’t really care, it was just fun for me. Friends of mine have always said, ‘You’ve got to try comedy, you’ve got to do comedy,’ and my best friends have always been like, ‘Man, you’re just going to hate yourself if you don’t, and you’ll regret it.’ I just thought, “All right, let’s give it a shot,” and see if it works out. I just really lucked out with this movie because Daniel [Hsia] was so open to trying anything. He didn’t care if I made mistakes with the dialogue or he didn’t care if I went overboard with certain things. We’d find a really great working place that way.
“Shanghai Calling” was the opening night presentation at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York, and will be released in theaters across China on Aug. 10.
Audio: Interview with Daniel Henney
interview by Yuan-Kwan Chan; audio slideshow by Inga Vascenkova