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10 Quick Questions for Chin Han

Busy actor stars in Disney+’s ‘American Born Chinese’

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Reto Sterchi

Chin Han, 53, has appeared in blockbusters including The Dark Knight, Contagion and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and is the first Singaporean actor invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He currently stars alongside Michelle Yeoh in Disney+’s American Born Chinese, based on the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. Han talked to AARP about the audition that changed his life, pet sitting for friends and whom he’d love to do the splits with in a movie. 

Was it a difficult decision to leave Singapore for Hollywood?

I don't think it was so much a decision —  you throw the dice and you see what happens. I had a call from my then-friend and manager that he set up a meeting for this secret project, which turned out to be the sequel to Batman Begins [The Dark Knight]. Then it was a question of whether I could make it to Los Angeles in time for the audition, because I was in Singapore. That decision took all of 20 minutes, and then I got a plane ticket. I rushed to the airport within a few hours. Then I was in Los Angeles, jet-lagged, worse for wear, and stepped into the office of [casting director] John Papsidera — where there were dozens of people — and did the audition that pretty much changed the course of my life.

Were you a fan of comic books growing up?

Yes I was, but I loved novels, which is why, more than comic books, I like graphic novels. Kind of appropriate that I'm now on American Born Chinese, which is a much-loved graphic novel here in the U.S. I had actually not heard of it, not having grown up in the U.S., but when I was doing my research on the book, I realized that a lot of my American friends had read it in school and loved it. Graphic novels were what I grew up with, and in particular Frank Miller’s and Alan Moore’s stuff. So when I got a chance to do The Dark Knight — which actually is based on The Dark Knight, the graphic novel — that was just thrilling.

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If you could have a superpower, which would you want to have?

I would love to be invisible, because as an actor, you are really a student of the human condition. When you start out as a young thespian, a luxury that you have and you can enjoy [is] going to places to observe people. I remember acting exercises that we used to do where we would go to places and then make a note of behavior and accents. Now, obviously, it’s a little trickier to do when you’re a bit more recognizable. Being invisible might be a good thing.

Growing up in Singapore, did you have access to any American TV shows?

Singapore was very interesting because it was a British colony before, so when I was growing up in the ’70s [and ’80s] they still had a lot of British television. I remember watching Crown Court or the comedies like 'Allo 'Allo! or Brideshead Revisited. I watched a lot of British shows. I even watched Australian shows. [In] the late ’70s, we started getting more American shows there, and so my exposure to television is quite eclectic. And then the game changer — which was Happy Days. Everyone wanted to be the Fonz. It was so fun to get American television, and I remember loving all of it. The sitcoms were so incredible in that particular decade. Then we had Taxi and we had Cheers and we had Moonlighting. The shows that were so wonderful, wonderfully written. That’s my experience with American television.

spinner image yeo yann yann, chin han and ben wang in a still from american born chinese
Chin Han plays Simon Wang in the new Disney+ series “American Born Chinese.”
Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

Now that you’ve worked in multiple U.S. cities, do you have any favorites?

For purely sentimental reasons, Chicago, because that was my first Hollywood movie, so to speak, The Dark Knight. So Chicago holds a very special place in my heart, including the deep-dish pizza and the amazing jazz bars that we have in that city. I’ve lived mostly in L.A. I’ve done some work in New York. I love all of the big cities.

You’ve posted photos with quite a few dogs on your social media. How many pets do you have?

I travel a lot, so it’s a little tricky to have a dog. Especially over the last few years, the quarantine situations with bringing pets to different countries has become even trickier. The last movie I did, for example, Mortal Kombat, was in Australia, and they have very strict quarantine laws. So I don’t have pets, but I borrow them from friends all the time. I’m very willing to babysit their pets and dogs when they’re away. If you do the deep dive and you see more of my photos, you see that they’re all different breeds of dogs.

You had to learn kung fu for your role in the Netflix series Marco Polo. What other skills have you had to take on for your characters?

I learned the cooking of various cuisines — from Asian street cooking to Western food to molecular gastronomy — on the movie Final Recipe, which was the first time I actually worked with Michelle Yeoh, back in 2012. I cooked up a storm in that movie.

You’re shooting a Mortal Kombat sequel this summer. Who’s your dream action movie costar?

Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger — those are the action stars for me growing up. Obviously, they're all at different stages in their career now, but to be able to do a split like Jean-Claude Van Damme with him in a movie would be amazing.

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Who were your acting inspirations?

I loved the dynamism, the vibrancy of American actors growing up — watching Al Pacino bring the roof down is amazing to behold, but at the same time, because I had such an eclectic education in film and television, I did enjoy the kind of measured and classical performances of Anthony Hopkins, for example, in The Remains of the Day, which was so precise. I enjoyed William Hurt. l still love Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep. Jessica Lange was amazing in the ’80s and ’90s with Frances and Tootsie and of course, Dustin Hoffman.

What would your perfect day off look like?

I’m a big museum wanderer. I can wander from one museum to another. I can do that for hours. I would like to — these are all museums in different places — I would like to first wander the Saatchi Gallery in London, take a plane over to New York and wander the Met [The Metropolitan Museum of Art], and then come back to L.A., sit at LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], have a cup of tea and maybe finish up the day with a movie at the theater at the Academy Museum [of Motion Pictures]. 

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