‘Skyscraper’ Actor Chin Han Looks Back on His First Hollywood Film Role

Chin Han remembers the days when he had to hang up his costumes backstage at the end of a play, before his transition to Hollywood introduced him to costume designers and dressers. The thespian spent much of his early acting career in Singapore, performing in theatrical shows like Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” It wasn’t until a friend recommended him for a film role in the 1990s that he moved out to Los Angeles, launching a TV and film career that has spanned projects ranging from superhero blockbuster “The Dark Knight” to disaster pic “2012” and biomedical drama “Contagion.” In his latest role, he stars alongside Dwayne Johnson as architect Zhao Long Zhi in the CGI spectacle “Skyscraper,” which hit theaters July 13.

Chin Han received his first mention in Variety on Aug. 15, 1997, when production began on his first Hollywood film, “Blindness,” in which he played Daniel Hong.

What was the transition to Hollywood like?

It was gentle. It took a couple of years, only because I started out in theater, and all those things were incredibly gratifying, so I was in no rush to do movies. But that first movie, “Blindness,” was eye-opening. They had just done “The Joy Luck Club” with Lisa Lu and Vivian Wu, and that was such a seminal piece of cinema for Asians. So it was very thrilling for me to have Vivian play my wife and Lisa play my mother and do this movie that was actually based on an old Chinese classic tale. I went from shooting 10 scenes a day in television to one or two scenes a day, but I loved it. I loved that leisurely pace. I loved how long it takes to light a scene for the movies. I loved the sound of film clacking away. I find that very romantic.

Did you always know you wanted to transition from stage to film?

Yes. Television was a very strange interim medium for me. To this day, I enjoy the completeness of a play. There’s a beginning; there’s an end — there’s a world within that. And with film, that’s the same.

There’s been a push lately for more on-screen representation of Asian-Americans and more women in the director’s chair, and your first Hollywood film was about an Asian-American family, directed by a woman [Anna Chi]. Did you feel that significance at the time?

You can only know the significance of it in hindsight, but I did feel that it was special. To be directed by a woman has its joys that are very nuanced, because they’re groomed to their point of view. It’s sometimes different from a male director who’s used to different kinds of narratives. Working with these feisty, strong women like Vivian and Lisa was just like we were of one team, and they were anyone’s equal on the film.

Who else did you look up to?

I am quite the cinephile, so back in the ’80s — the ’70s, even — I enjoyed the movies of Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Tommy Lee Jones. And then when we went further into the ’80s, there were different kinds of actors, like William Hurt, whose performances I enjoyed as well. Obviously Meryl Streep and Glenn Close — these were all heroes of mine.

What’s an early lesson that still applies today?

The first lesson would be from the theater. Showing up on time is very important in the theater because when a show starts at 8, no one’s going to wait for you. Learning lines — you don’t really get to stop a play, look at your script and then deliver your line if you forget something. And being respectful of other actors, too, because you never feel more naked than when you’re onstage in front of a big audience and you only have your co-stars to rely on.

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