On HBO’s Industry, actor Ken Leung plays Eric Tao, a ruthless investment banker with absolutely no tolerance level for incompetence. He takes a liking to new hire Harper, played by Myha’la Herrold, going to bat for her but also holding her to impossibly high standards and, when he’s not happy, making her life a living hell.
Awards Radar had the chance to talk to Leung about how he sees his character, what he’s taken from his past TV roles, and what’s up next for him in the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan film Old.
Q: What appealed to you about this character and this part?
A: Actually, it’s funny, because, when I read it, I thought it was ironic that it’s one of the most interesting Asian-American roles, and I have to fly across the ocean to play it. That’s because it’s based on an actual person that the writers knew. But I liked, on the surface of it, his confidence, I liked his sharpness, but between the lines, you could feel this machination happening. I was curious about that. What is going on with him? Because on one level, you have on the page, what they say, was written in such a way from lived experience that you could feel that there was more to it, you knew there was a bottom below the surface. You don’t often feel that. It’s a hard to articulate quality. That was very present in the writing, so I loved it.
Q: Did you meet this person that the character was based on?
A: No, I’ve only heard about him. I kind of don’t want to meet him.
Q: Did you base the way you were playing him off anyone you knew or any figures with reputations for confidence and aggressiveness?
A: No, I have to say, it came out of my insecurity. The finance world is just so foreign to me. It’s a little less foreign now, but it was completely foreign to me when I started this. I have some friends who are in that world, and a lot of people were like, you know, ask us any questions. I was coming from a place of, I don’t even know enough to know what to ask you. At some point, I was like, this guy cannot come from a place of lack. He cannot come from a place of oh, I gotta learn this, I don’t have this, where do I get it? He comes from a place of, I run this thing. If I don’t know it, that’s because I say I don’t know it! I’m not supposed to know it. I made that flip and just started to have a ball with it and threw caution to the wind. That’s not to say I ignored it. I read up on as much as I could, to get a feel for the texture of this world. Beyond that, I just let it fly. I was also able to do that because the two writers, who are from this world, were very present, and they were very accessible. Anytime I had the most elementary questions, which was often, they were very receptive to that.
Q: I remember working at a company that did a lot of hi-tech computer stuff, and everyone would talk about how they couldn’t watch movies or TV because nothing was believable.
A: Oh no. So wrong.
Q: Were your friends who work in finance pleased with the finished product?
A: They were. A lot of them were like, yeah, I guess it’s good you didn’t ask us anything. Just last night actually, a friend was telling me that the role gave her PTSD because it reminded her of a boss she had.
Q: I was about to ask – did you ever have a boss or supervisor who was quite as hard as you as Eric is on Harper?
A: No. That would have to be – ah, I take it back! I did. This was nothing to do with acting. This was for one of my early day jobs. I worked at Rockefeller University in New York City. Rockefeller University is a research university. It’s where David Hope, one of the pioneers of AIDS treatments, hails from and works at. Anyway, it’s a think tank, it’s the headquarters for high science. It’s not like a regular university with students who go there. I worked for Dr. Mary Jean Creek, who was one of the pioneers of methadone treatment. It was an interesting job, because I’d be working in a lab, but because it was methadone research, we needed volunteers who were heroin addicts. Here I am in a place where everyone is in lab coats and everything is clean and sterile, and I would field calls from addicts who wanted to be part of it. But anyway, the point is, Dr. Mary Jean Creek was really, really tough. My job obviously had nothing to do with science. My job was to do the Dictaphone machine. She had to apply for lots of grants to finance her work, so I had to listen to her give these kind of rambling, full of science jargon talks that I would then type up and then we would submit that to the grant. It got to a point, it didn’t take long, where I couldn’t make heads or tails of what she’s talking about. I’m just typing up what I think I’m hearing. Sometimes I would get it just wildly wrong, spelling things etc. She flipped out. She was like, this makes no sense, and yeah, that was a hard grant, that particular one.
Q: So Eric is tough, but he also knows what he’s talking about. Do you think that overall he’s a good guy?
A: I don’t want to say that, because he’s a guy…I don’t want to put a word on him. Especially now, because he’s being challenged for the way he’s been at the end of season one and top of season two. It’s kind of fluid. But having said that, the short answer is yes. He’s a dad. We got a glimpse of him with his girls. He wasn’t throwing them off cliffs. He’s a good guy that I think had a challenging path to where he’s at that has made him be the way he is. And it’ll be interesting to see how he either maintains that or changes tracks because it’s starting to not work.
Q: I spoke to Myha’la yesterday and she said that you, not Eric, had this calm preparedness always, and described you as a mentor. Is that an accurate assessment of your relationship with her, the actress?
A: That’s very sweet of her to say. I guess so. I’m reluctant to say it only because to say I’m her mentor implies that she’s in need of that. I don’t know that she is. She’s very intuitive, especially for her years. She has a looseness about her that I certainly did not have when I was her age. Maybe by virtue of experience, I have more work-related stories to tell her that makes her feel like I’m a mentor, but I just see us as buddies.
Q: Who are some of your other favorite scene partners?
A: I really like Andrew Buchan, the guy who played Felim. He’s just very present, and he’s very fun to play with. We – never mind, I don’t want to give anything away. We may or may not see more of him.
Q: Is there anything that you can say about season two?
A: I don’t know so much, to be frank. I will say that there’s a new challenge, there’s a new danger. Oh, I can say this. COVID is a reality in the world of our show. It has happened. So that will be addressed.
Q: You were also a part of two very formative TV shows for me growing up, Lost and Person of Interest. Looking back, how do you feel about those shows being part of your long list of credits?
A: Lost changed my life, not only career-wise, but it gave me Hawaii. Hawaii is in me now. I’m honored that that is the case. It’s a very magical place. It sounds cliché but it is. Person of Interest, people ask what are some favorite people that you’ve worked with. I almost always say Jim Caviezel. He’s amazing. And part of it – if it’s okay for me to say – is because he’s dyslexic. Because he’s dyslexic, he cannot remember three lines ahead. He can only remember what he’s about to say, the moment right before he’s about to say it. What makes that extraordinary is that, as an actor, you’re always trying to not know it so well. I want to reach for it, I want to find it, so I can be here right now, say it for the first time, regardless of how many takes we have to do. He’s really doing that. In doing that, he forces you to be right here with him, and it’s just an amazing kind of energy to act off of. I’ll never forget working with him because of that. A very kind, gentle man on top of that.
Q: Do you have any other projects coming up? I believe you’re headed back to a mysterious island soon. Not the same island, presumably. But who knows?
A: Not the same island.
Q: That would be the ultimate twist though, right, if it was just more Lost?
A: That’s true. Maybe it is and I don’t know. Which would be very Lost. What can I say about that? I’ll get in trouble. I will say that the circumstances under which we shot it, obviously it was during lockdown, cannot be replicated, at least hopefully. It was unique in a way that fed the project because of the nature of it. Night said early on, my hope for this film is that it can only made at this time under these circumstances with this group of people, and I hope that comes across. Experientially, that was the case. It lives in a capsule in all of us that were part of it. Ordinarily, you go to a different city to shoot something, on your off time or on weekends, you look around, sightsee, explore the town. We couldn’t do that. Nothing was open, for one. We couldn’t leave our bubble. That meant that everyone had to eat, sleep, work together. that created a kind of one mind. Just to have an ensemble that is in that zone was really special. So I’m looking forward to it.
Q: Anything else coming up for you?
A: Some voice-over things. They haven’t really started yet. There’s a Mindy Kaling project based on the Scooby-Doo character Velma. Hilarious. Beyond hilarious, and dark. I’m a part of that.
Season one of Industry is now streaming on HBO Max.