"Hey, if I can die 10 times, he can turn into a good guy from a bad guy," Sung Kang tells PEOPLE about Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw

By Karen Mizoguchi
May 18, 2021 09:00 AM
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(from left) Han (Sung Kang) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) in F9, directed by Justin Lin.
Credit: Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures

Fast & Furious 9 will mean a lot to fans — not just because they'll finally get to see it after the film's release was postponed due to the COVID pandemic, but also because a beloved character is back.

Sung Kang's reprisal of his character Han Seoul-Oh was the big reveal first seen in the January 2020 trailer for the franchise's highly-anticipated ninth installment directed by Justin Lin. Han was first introduced – and killed off – in the third film Tokyo Drift with his death being replayed in the subsequent movies including Fast & Furious 6, in which it's revealed that Jason Statham's character Deckard Shaw appeared to be behind Han's fiery car crash and presumed death.

How Fast "killed off" its only Asian American cast member led to fan outrage and the popularity of the hashtag #JusticeForHan, especially after Statham's Shaw was refashioned as a hero in Fate of the Furious. Statham's character even got his own spinoff, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.

In recognition and celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Kang tells PEOPLE about his career and the overwhelming fan following his Fast character has amassed since he first appeared in the franchise 15 years ago.

Sung Kang
Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty

PEOPLE: Growing up in Gainesville, Georgia, what made you want to be an actor?

SUNG KANG: Growing up in the South, it did put a spark under the seat, if you will, to have a voice. Because I felt like when I would go to the school, or I would go outside, I just didn't have a voice, literally and metaphorically, in pop culture and sports. I felt like many times I would be miserable and was always searching for something. Was it within sports? Yes. I reached into baseball continually. That was a way to have a voice. And then, at that time, there were just not Asian athletes out there that were, in a way, a light post of hope.

So you'd have to look at the movies and there was Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee, to me, represented something that was cool, that was inclusive to other races, that other races could identify with this hero's journey. I felt like, "Wow, it was the first time an Asian male was considered cool." When I saw an African-American guy wearing a Bruce Lee T-shirt, I said, "Okay, you have to be pretty cool to be on the T-shirt that Black dude's wearing and he's rocking with pride, right?" I always looked into the movies, going, "I hope there is room for me." I hope there is a place where I can make a contribution to that idea of representation to the young version of me that is now looking for his hero.

What was the first show or movie that made you feel like you saw yourself on screen?

I grew up in America, with American pop culture. A lot of my heroes are Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Tom Cruise, and Denzel Washington. A lot of my identity is still very American, but I realized, in media, there was a way to change, but you had to be born at the right time and have the right community. Fortunately, somehow, I was born at the right time and place to make a contribution, if you will.

An actor named Jason Scott Lee, who was in the biopic of Bruce Lee [1993's Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story]. I saw him in a film called Map of the Human Heart, he played an Eskimo. It's like a love story, in which he met a French woman, just a beautiful, independent artist's film. When I saw that, I said, "Wow, there's opportunities to make the opportunities to play three-dimensional characters that aren't there for an Asian." He's not Kung Fu. He's not a mad scientist or some crazy gangster. He's there because he's a romantic lead. He's a guy that a woman can fall in love with. That was the moment where I said I think there's opportunity.

Justin Lin is the filmmaker responsible for introducing Han to the world starting with Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002. Can you take me back to when you first got the call about Tokyo Drift? And back then, could you ever have imagined still playing Han to this day?

Oh, absolutely, who could imagine that, it's over a decade and I'm still playing that same character. The character's beloved, it's a fan favorite. The phone call from Justin for the Tokyo Drift opportunity was slow-played because he had told me he was going to direct this film, Tokyo Drift, and there were no parts for the guys in Better Luck Tomorrow. He knows how important it is to hire and cast the right actor for the part, and you don't cast people because they're your friends, right? But we had lunch, and he said, "Hey, there are no roles for you in the film that fit perfectly, so why don't you just audition for the lead, the Sean Boswell character? We already cast the character, we already cast [Lucas Black], but it's an opportunity for you to meet the casting directors, because they're pretty big casting directors, and it would be a great opportunity just to show them who you are, right?" And I was like, "Thanks, Justin," so I did that.

And there was a character, Twinkie, that eventually Bow Wow played, but that was originally written for Jason Tobin, and that's why his name was Twinkie. The studio felt like, well, they needed to hire a hip-hop artist to represent that demographic, and it fit. Bow Wow did a great job at it. ... Justin brought up the conversation of the idea of a cool Asian guy in that scene where the guy basically just throws the keys to Sean and gives him a car. That eventually became Han and while we were shooting, Justin was revamping the script. Somehow, Han became this beloved character after the movie was made. I had no expectation, I didn't have the movie in my head. I was just there doing my work, just trying to build the character. Fortunately, I had played a version of him in Better Luck Tomorrow so it was kind of trying to carry on that cool cadence that Han had. It was a slow evolution. It wasn't like it just happened overnight. It was all serendipity if you will.

F9 Han Character Poster
Credit: Universal Studios

With Justin directing F9, when were you aware of the plan to bring Han back into the Fast fold?

We were at the 15th anniversary of Better Luck Tomorrow, and somebody had brought up this #JusticeForHan. And Justin wasn't aware of it, because I don't think he had seen 7 or 8, so he didn't understand what all that was about. We were always talking about it, going where could Han continue in that universe? We were also okay with just letting Han sleep. It's been a wonderful exit. He died multiple times, come on. Enough, right? But I think just the way the stars were aligned, the fans felt like there was some type of closure that was not given to them and there was this injustice. It's all fun and games, but it's also part of the Hollywood romance to be in love with a movie, a franchise or characters in a film. When Justin got the opportunity to start directing [F9], he was like, "Hey, just somehow we've got to bring Han back."

Then he figured it out and he called me. It was wasn't like this surprise, it was more like, "Hey, we get an opportunity to go play again and we get to see our old friends." Now there's purpose behind it, because you're not doing it just for yourself, there's a whole fan base that legitimized your work over the years. So how wonderful is that to have purpose, to say that you're fighting for justice and a belief for this Asian character. It's awesome.

Do you see Han as the bridge for all these Fast films?

Yeah, I think Han represents a window into what the fans appreciate and what they want. The fact that all these connective tissues with the timeline can be attached to Han. It's great because there's an audience that supports that and wants that. There's a whole subculture that is questioning the timelines and all that, so as an actor, you take 30 steps back and you look at it, and you go, "How cool is it to be a part of this romantic Hollywood story that you're playing a character that people want to bring back and have justice for?" Then you keep getting resurrected, how many times can this guy die? But there are no complaints, they just want you back. Come on, as an actor, we're all in the search for validation, to a degree. That's why we're actors, that's why we're on stage. To have fans all over the world want you back in that film? That's a blessing. That's pretty cool if you think about it.

Sung Kang and Tyrese Gibson attend Universal Pictures Presents The Road To F9 Concert
Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

Han's character poster for F9 has the phrase, "Justice is coming." We know how poignant his return is, but I'm curious to know, did you find his resurrection to be a course-correct in response to #JusticeForHan?

It's a course correction of always respecting the fan base and the audience. You can't just dismiss that inner tension, right? And fortunately, you have creative people that respect the fans enough to course-correct, create a story to give that explanation, do justice and pay respect. I think that's the challenge that Fast has had since its birth, that it's a popcorn movie about fast cars and a bunch of stunts. But I think it's the last movie to get any credit. It's been a movie that represented inclusiveness and diversity, and then it's proven that it's financially viable in Hollywood. That diversity, it works.

Statham responded to Han's return, saying "They better bring me back, because I need to put out that fire. If he's got any score to settle, it's with me." Any response?

We'll have explanations in Fast 9. ... Everybody loves Jason, so why not, right? I've got to include him, right? Hey, if I can die 10 times, he can turn into a good guy from a bad guy. [laughs] It's not that big of a deal, but it's a course correction for the audience. Never dismiss and disrespect the audience. They are the reason why the movies exist, so you can't just ignore them. It's cool and great that a studio like Universal listens, they listen. That's a course correction. That's the justice.

Outside of the Fast universe, Kang can be seen in Netflix's We Can Be Heroes and the Apple TV+ series Lisey's Story, opposite Julianne Moore, which is airing June 4. The actor is also currently in production for Disney+'s Obi-Wan Kenobi special event series.

Fast & Furious 9 hits theaters June 25.