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Arts & Culture

Annapolis/Interview with Roger Fan

Actor Roger Fan used to perform in San Diego as part of the Asian American Repertory Theater. Now he returns to San Diego to promote his role in the Hollywood film, Annapolis (opening January 27 throughout San Diego). The film is directed by Justin Lin who briefly attended UCSD before graduating from UCLA. Beth Accomando spoke with the young star about the film

A few years ago, Justin Lins low budget independent film Better Luck Tomorrow created a stir at Sundance when Roger Ebert stood on a chair and yelled out his defense of the film, which dared to depict Asian Americans in a less than ideal light. Lins film, which starred Roger Fan as a straight A student who also gets involved in crime, suggested that there is more than one way to look at Asian Americans. They dont all have to be good or perfect, they just have to be real and reflect something real about the Asian American experience.

Now Lin and Fan are both working within the Hollywood system on the film Annapolis. The main character is Jake Huard (played by James Franco), a Maryland local who defies the odds to become one of the few accepted to Annapolis elite naval academy. Jake decides to train for the legendary Navy boxing competition known as the Brigade Championships. Roger Fan plays Loo, a fellow plebe and boxer.

Annapolis has the trappings of standard Hollywood fare but by bringing in Lin, Touchstone Pictures gave the film something of a fresh spin. Lin was able to make changes to the project and invest it with more diversity than is usually found in this type of film. Roger Fan s character of Loo came out of those changes. Heres what Roger Fan had to say about his experiences working with Lin on Annapolis.

BETH ACCOMANDO: You worked with Justin Lin on Better Luck Tomorrow, so Im curious how did the experience on Annapolis compare to BLT, going from low budget, indie to big budget studio film. How was that transition?

ROGER FAN: I remember four years ago when I first auditioned for Better Luck Tomorrow. It was at UCLA, Justins alma mater. It was the most unglamorous, most ghetto type of audition you could ever come across. But the thing about it I remember was the second I met him, there was a certain energy that you come across once in a blue moon and he was just someone that you could feel could make this film happen. You could argue that we made a studio level quality film for zero money, like how is that possible? I think it all stemmed from his desire to want to succeed. The thing is its the way he treated people, he wasnt one of those typical Hollywood egomaniacs. You really got the sense that he would lay down his life for you just to make sure that you were taken care of. When we started that journey on paper it seemed kind of ridiculous but he made it seem very possible. Then a few years later I remember shooting day one of Annapolis, the naval induction scene, and hes standing in front of a thousand cadets with a crew of 500 and the interesting thing was it was great to see a friend succeed. I got really emotional at that point. But he was the same guy. He was really looking at the people and seeing what was their strongest talent and how does it fit in this particular world. And thats what hes really great at. So there might have been a lot more money and a lot more people but the way he directed traffic and the way he directed people was the same. He really cared and he created a family atmosphere and environment, which in my experience is an extreme rarity in a Hollywood film.

BA: What do you think someone like him brought to this film thats different than if they had gone with Michael Bay or Renny Harlin? What do you think that having come up the way he did and so recently, may have given this a different spin?

RF: I think Justin sees the world very progressively. He came from a very modest background and a very multiethnic community, which is quite reflective of what America is becoming more and more like today. So I think what Justin brings to the table is that he actually sees the beauty of people of all different ethnic backgrounds, different religious affiliations, and all kind of co-existing in the same world. If its the naval academy or UCLA, you look at how Hollywood interprets the situation versus how it is in reality, they are very separate. What Justin was bringing to the table was that he knew what the traditional cookie cutter mold was, but he suggested why dont we try it from this perspective, with these changes. The interesting thing is that once Disney and Touchstone sat down and listened to what he had to say they actually fully embraced it too. I just think that they were never exposed to a director who saw the world as global as he did. The great thing about it is that I think it makes for a much more interesting cinema that way.

BA: Now did he actually make changes in terms of the casting the roles with a more diverse group of actors?

RF: I would say that if Justin wasnt at the helm this film would be dramatically different especially the ethnic make up, I think this might be the most ethnically diverse film anyones going to see this year. The cool thing about this film is that it doesnt draw attention to it and it doesnt make a point about it. The original name of my character was Forrester and Justin actually fought to have me play that role, which is a fantastic role. But with the last name of Forrester it was more than likely not going to be an Asian American, it would have probably have been an African American. It was very cool and after the studio thought about it they said oh my god that totally makes sense. So they changed the name from Forester to Loo. When you see this film there are dimensions from an ethnic perspective that were not originally on the page, but the great thing about it is that once it was put in it worked very well.

BA: Now the character name that you changed it to, wasnt that the name of your character in Better Luck Tomorrow?

RF: [laughs] That was sort of an inside joke. I cant believe you picked up on that. I was sworn to secrecy that I wouldnt say it but you know what, it was funny because we were sitting around going how funny would it be if Daric Loo got away with murder from Better Luck Tomorrow and where did he go to college? He went to the naval academy. Inside joke. Different characters though. My character Loo in Annapolis doesnt have psychopathic homicidal tendencies.

BA: Will it take directors like Justin to get Hollywood to start thinking differently about how they cast a film, about making supporting players Asian without having to make their being Asian an issue?

RF: I think about that question a lot. I think its a multi-prong approach. If you watch TV right now two of the top TV shows are Lost and Grays Anatomy, very multi-ethnic and incredibly interesting to watch. I think with a movie like Annapolis, if it does well at the box office, and other movies that Justin makes do well, then I think it sort of sets a precedent. Its like Wow, we can actually do movies this way and it makes a lot of money. So from a pragmatic business standpoint if the audience shows up, if the African American audience shows up to support Tyrese, and the Asian American audiences show up to support Justin, and me and the Latino and Caucasian audiences come out as well, then I think it sends a message. I think the challenge is that youre fighting expectations. I think a lot of the time I get the sense when I walk into a room they dont see a Tom Hanks or a Guy Pierce, just Asian flavor walking into the room because thats not what the media has carved out for Asian Americans. Thats not what an Asian American actors purpose is on screen, right? But thats the thing that I feel really challenged by is imagination. Is it even within the realm of possibility that this person could be the hero swinging from a vine, saving the day that sort of thing? And I think it takes guys like Justin and I think it takes people at the studios like Touchstone to be more progressive in their thinking and you do enough of these type of movies like Annapolis and all of a sudden it becomes more common place that the hero doesnt look only like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck but also like Lucy Liu and Roger Fan.

BA: What was most challenging about doing the film?

RF: The physical part of it. The acting part is the acting part, its always difficult to pick apart a character but there was a high degree of physical expertise because my character had to be an exceptional boxer and I had never boxed before. So I had to lose 16 pounds and I had to learn how to box. It was painful. Theres no other way to explain it. I had to sit in a bathtub full of ice everyday. It was an amazing experience. Like day three in a sparring session, we both hit each other and knocked each out. I had two black eyes and hairline fracture in my elbow. But the great thing about it was that we also had four weeks of boot camp. The great thing about going through that was my character, the why of my character, actually came out of it because in reality youre not supposed to excel and survive the naval academy experience, its supposed to just destroy you. And out of that will come something greater than yourself, which is to rely on your team in order to survive and I didnt get that until I went through all that experience. So all of a sudden I go Oh I get the naval academy now. As opposed to being an actor and being all cerebral and academic about it.

BA: Whats it like making a film like this at a time when we have troops dying overseas? Do people expect the film to make a political statement? Are you trying to avoid current politics?

RF: Its interesting. When people see Annapolis and see the poster, theyre going to make certain assumptions. How can you not? We have a lot of troops out in the Middle East, which is not a great thing. I think whats interesting about the film is that it actually doesnt make a political statement in any direction. What it does is it actually follows the lives of a bunch of freshman 18, 19 year olds who should have gone to UCLA or UCSD but they made the choice to go to the U.S. Naval Academy, and what it does is it humanizes them and the military in a way that we are beginning to forget. Everyday you see the headlines someone is dying but its just another headline. But when you watch a movie like Annapolis you realize these are kids coming in with families and they have hopes and dreams and they are ultimately making the sacrifice to defend their country. Were all human, were not machines going out there and pulling triggers while the death toll rolls up we have to remember these people come from somewhere and I think its tragic when we read a headline and people forget that. So no matter what your political bent is you cant forget that these are kids with moms and dads and dreams and its so sad with these statistics and I think it makes you think.

BA: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

RF: What I loved about the film when I read the script wasand I dont want to give anything away so spoiler alertits really talking about the fact that everyone has dreams but what happens if you dont reach the dreams. Are you a failure? What the movie really teaches is you can lose on the way to whatever your path is but you can still emerge a winner. But maybe not the way you originally intended. Thats the most interesting thing. Hollywood endings are usually about the guy getting the girl and riding off into the sunset, and while thats very inspirational its not really about what life is. I think this film is about life because sometimes youre going to fail but out of that failure you may actually gain something far greater than you ever anticipated or ever knew.