The Badassery of Ken Leung Is Another Reason to Watch HBO's Industry

The Hollywood fixture crafts a breakthrough role in the HBO finance series. 

Opinions have been mixed as Industry makes its way across the corona TV landscape, but one thing that can be unanimously be agreed upon is Ken Leung’s performance as Eric Tao, Pierpoint & Co.’s bat-wielding managing director of cross products sales.

Reactions range from praise of his “badassery” to calls of “daddy,” with fans and critics alike calling him for a supporting actor Emmy nomination, but at the end of the day, Leung is just happy to be here. “As an Asian American actor, there’s no reason to have any picture as to how your career will turn out,” he says. “What would that even be based on?”

Ken Leung is a veteran in the show but a novice when it comes to finance.

Photo by HBO.

Photo by HBO.

On the show, Leung serves as an established veteran presence among a young, ambitious group. “Lena [Dunham] was very aware that most of our cast were practically just graduated from drama school, and that this was a big deal for them,” the actor says. 

As Eric, he plays mentor to Myha'la Herrold’s Harper Stern. From the get-go, the chemistry between them is palpable. “Myha'la and I are practically the only Americans on the show, and we’re both New Yorkers. Meeting her was like meeting a long lost friend,” he says. And, indeed, as the show progresses, an almost unspoken bond emerges between them, one of implicit trust and understanding. 

Photo by HBO.

However, when it comes to his own understanding of financial jargon, he’s as much of an intern as the rest of his cast. “I can’t say that I have a greater conversation of finance now…we really pressed them (consultants, writers, directors) to please explain it like they would to a child…,” Leung shares. “I eventually got to a place of ‘I want you to buy this thing,’ something that I could wrap my head around and relate to my real-life experience. The idea was that, over time, the more of these interactions I have, I could develop a sense of this world.”

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Despite this, Leung doesn’t think he’s quite at a dinner-party level of financial kibitzing. “We did it on a per scene basis…I always thought money was just a thing you accumulate to buy more things…the show really kinda changed things [for me],” he adds. “We’re in a world where people use money as raw material to generate more money in a literally endless variety of ways using imagination and risk-taking, and their decisions influence the economic stability of the whole world. It’s fascinating.” 

The actor has been a Hollywood fixture for almost three decades.

While many are calling his role a “breakout,” Leung has been a Hollywood fixture for almost three decades, appearing in films by directors like Noah Baumbach, Todd Solondz, Steven Spielberg, and Spike Lee, to name a few. He’s also been praised for the intensity and generosity he brings to each role. According to Edward Norton, “You sense hidden levels within him and he conveys an intensity of mind. I don't think anybody's tapped his full range yet.”

Photo by HBO.

While he has been an auteur staple and considers theater his true love, Leung has also put in his time as an actor for hire. He appeared in bit roles throughout the 2000s on shows such as Law and OrderOz, and The Sopranos, playing whatever kinds of roles were offered to Asian Americans back then. “I still get scripts where I swear I’ve said these exact same lines in three or four other films…,” he says. “I’m not even angry anymore. I’m tired of it. I just say, ‘No thanks.’”

Leung feels lucky he landed the role of Eric in Industry.

He considers the issue is more nuanced than simply giving more roles to Asians. “It’s not really about the number of roles. Roles need to be written and given to Asian Americans that necessitate an actor,” Leung explains. “So many times you’ll have characters that don’t even need to be actors, they just need to be Asian. They do the show, then they do the interviews, then people ask them about the state of Asian American representation, because there’s no role to talk about. There was no acting done, they were just representing a race, something they never got into this to do.” 

Photo by HBO.

He considers himself extremely fortunate to have landed the role of Eric, who was written as an Asian American based on someone the creators knew personally. “[The role] has nothing to do with him even being Asian, which I love. But in this case, it’s just luck, and luck that they even considered me!”

That being said, no matter what’s going on with Asians, he loves it far too much to ever consider doing anything else. “I’m not gonna leave the game, I love it too much. I’m in it for other things, things that I can’t even really articulate,” he says. 

Ever gracious and humble, however, Leung then proceeded to articulate it perfectly: “I did it because I felt it was something I needed to do, there were lessons in it to be learned, as a person in a world full of other people. It gave me something I think I needed. Things that go way beyond the scope of this talk.” 

Industry is now streaming on HBO Go.

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