At the age of seventeen (as of this writing, originally on 23 September 2009), Bee Vang has already put behind him the kind of break that many actors spend the majority of their careers trying to land - a co-starring role in a prestigious Hollywood film, directed by and starring an icon of American cinema.
Such was Gran Torino, a 2008 release starring and directed by Clint Eastwood that proved to be one of the most critically-praised films of Eastwood's career. And Bee Vang, who played Thao Vang Lor in the film - the next-door-neighbor who would turn out to be the biggest pain in Clint Eastwood's character's behind ... and, ultimately, his best friend. Vang's performance was praised by critics and fans alike, as well, and has already earned the teen from Minnesota a core group of fans.
Not bad for a guy who had no previous acting experience (or, for that matter, ambitions) going into it all.
Born in Fresno, California, Bee Vang grew up in a big, quite extended family; his Hmong (an ethnic group originating in the mountainous regions of southeast Asia forced, years ago, to flee their homeland in search of political asylum) parents had emigrated to the United States just a few years before his birth, and Bee remembers his childhood as being constantly surrounded by family - literally, with sometimes as many as fifteen people sharing the same home. "It was always cramped, and sometimes tough," Bee says, "but I was so young, it was okay."
When Vang and his immediate family - which includes four brothers and one sister - relocated to Minnesota, it was there that Bee met "Miss D," a teacher who would nurture his artistic side. "I fell in love with the piano and viola," he remembers, "and Miss D always encouraged me; she found me a piano to play on, and bought me a viola." When Miss D passed a few years ago, Vang even played one of her favorite songs at the funeral - and in fact, in an otherwise completely professional yet personable demeanor, it's in talking about Miss D that Bee Vang's voice hints at the emotional bond he still has with his inspirational teacher: "Remember the part in Gran Torino, when I go to help that lady across the street with her groceries?" he asks. "Well, if you listen close, you can hear me call her 'Miss D' in the movie."
It's this kind of honor and respect that led Bee to originally pursue classical music; he was playing by 7th grade, and listening to classical music to sleep. "I found out, though, that I wasn't disciplined enough to be that good," he adds. "That, and I was never really encouraged much by my parents, who wanted me to pursue a more stable career. So after Miss D died (from brain cancer), I was inspired to go into neuroscience and medicine. I volunteered at local hospitals, and even got my CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant certification) through an internship."
But Bee's love for the arts - and, in particular, for film - was rekindled via an apprenticeship with a local Hmong filmmaker. Soon Bee learned, however, that his own ideas and work were a bit too controversial for that market, and by 9th grade he'd left the apprenticeship when there were too many compromises and changes requested of him. Even by this time, Bee had never had any desire or interest in acting ... but then received an email that changed his life.
An ad in the Hmong Times newspaper stated that a film company was seeking local Hmong actors for a feature film. Not expecting anything, Bee sent in his information and a photo - and, to his surprise, was called about an audition. "They called me, and sent me a side (a portion of a film script containing only the lines the actor is to read for his/her audition) to read," Bee recalls. "I prepared and went to the audition, while still juggling school and everything, and six weeks later got the callback. Several more weeks, and they told me I had the role."
And when asked his reaction to landing a major role in a film co-starring and directed by the one and only Clint Eastwood? Bee stifles a chuckle before replying. "I know girls are supposedly more emotional, but I realize maybe guys can be; looking back, I felt like this would give my artistic side a chance again; the opportunity for me to really push myself. I jumped up, screamed - even cried a bit. It was a real life-changing moment. Being Hmong, my parents have always pushed me into a stable career - professor, teacher, doctor - so this was an emotional experience for me." Vang mentions a lack of Eastwood star power at the auditions, "but for me that was good; less intimidating. I was less nervous because of it, and didn't meet Mr. Eastwood until my first day of shooting, three months later."
And for sure, meeting Clint Eastwood that day was something Bee Vang will never forget. "I was scared, but kept looking for him that day. I really wanted to make a good impression, didn't want to go overboard, but just shake his hand - and when I did, I think I said something like 'Nice to meet you, Mr. Callahan'. So much for a good impression!
"Until then I'd seen him as the intimidating, scary guy from the Dirty Harry movies. But he's just a regular person; another human being. He's not a 'star,' he's just ... Clint Eastwood - and I realized he's a very down-to-earth, serious guy."
Vang expands on his impressions of Eastwood further, when asked what working with him was like. "We never really talked on-set, other than our scenes together. He has his own style, and when you're on set he lets you know you're fine and will be taken care of. He's very quiet; I tried to ask him about his career and the industry, ask his advice, but only usually got, like, five minutes with him on set at a time, so it was hard to talk with him - but he told me that he kept that distance on purpose, to keep the same feel of the relationship that Thao and Walt had going on on-screen . So I learned all I could, for as long as I was with him, and also applaud Mr. Eastwood for giving Hmong people a chance to be seen and heard. He (Mr. Eastwood) works way too much, though - acting, directing, post-production; I heard that Gran Torino was going to be his last job as an actor, and I'm proud to have been a part of that."
Because of his outstanding, very realistic performance as Thao, it was natural to ask Bee about similarities he and his character have (warning: a few Gran Torino spoilers here!). "I think I'm smarter than Thao. Smarter, and maybe more aggressive. Thao is passive-aggressive, not as professional in his conversation. But there are similarities. Thao got the car - I got the piano from Miss D. My sister is a wonderful influence in my life, like Thao's. I've been greatly influenced by the women in my life, supported by women - there are many similarities to me and Thao, only if you gave Thao more of a chance to come out of his shell." Bee even remembers a time, like Thao helping his neighbors with the groceries in the film, when Bee himself spotted a blind man once, during the winter, whose path was blocked where he was about to walk. Like Thao, Bee jumped out of the car to help the man.
And that same guy still seems to reside in Bee Vang, even with all the attention the film has brought him. "I'm still very self-conscious. I'd never even given speeches in school. And when the premiere was coming, suddenly I had to give school speeches, interviews, speak in front of forums; I hadn't even prepared what to wear to the premiere! It still seems like a dream, that someone like me could even step up to such heights to work with Clint Eastwood in a film like this - and I remember I even screamed in the car on the way to the premiere. I'm trying, though, to be a better public speaker, and am proud to be a representative of the Hmong people. I like to feel like I helped pave the way in Hollywood a like - like maybe what happened to me was a stepping stone for other Asian and minority actors."
And while he's currently back in school in Minnesota, don't think for a moment that Bee Vang is a one-shot wonder - or going back to medicine. "I'm learning - reading - trying to become better with theater and acting in film. I've starred in a local Hmong filmmaker's film, Fallen City, that's due out in December, and had a small role in another independent film, Anatomically Incorrect. Right now, I'm just trying to study and learn, before eventually leaving for California or New York City." And Vang has good influences for his career goals, as well - favorite actors include Peter O'Toole, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tony Leung, and Leslie Cheung, and Bee cites directors like Chan-wook Park, Wong Kar-wai, Korean arthouse director Kim Ki-duk, Sean Penn, and of course Eastwood himself as his inspirations.
"I'd like to get a degree in acting and filmmaking - to become more known internationally, and work everywhere with directors all over the world. I need to finish college first, then get into film - more movie and acting opportunities. Maybe even directing," he adds with a small sigh.
And with a film Gran Torino as his debut, it seems like Bee Vang may already be well on his way.