Milk’s Man: Kelvin Yu plays Milk’s campaign staffer Michael Wong in new biopic

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Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), Michael Wong (Kelvin Yu) and Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) in a scene from Gus Van Sant\'s Milk

Eyebrows were raised last March when a casting call was put out for the role of Michael Wong in the upcoming Focus Features’ biopic, Milk. The listing described Wong, a prominent member of the campaign staff of the titular Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, as “fiercely intelligent (a nerd, even) and asexual.” When that did not bear fruit, the studio put out a second call, this time calling Wong “the ultimate dork.”

While the listing drew livid reactions from Asian American bloggers, no one was more perturbed than Wong himself.

“I thought it was very insulting,” Wong said. “To me, what they wrote up was a description of stereotype — a castrated Asian American man.”

That the casting call did not bother the actor who was eventually cast for the part, Kelvin Yu, is “not a great commentary on the state of race in Hollywood,” said the veteran actor laughingly in an interview last week.
Nevertheless, Yu was wary of the role, and he was relieved when director Gus Van Sant told him to drop the sexless, ultimate dork facet in his portrayal.

“I can’t play that, that’s not who I am,” Yu recalled saying.

Instead, Yu, who appeared in the 2006 film Grandma’s Boy and the TV show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, found the role much more interesting than he anticipated.

“Michael was an archetype,” said Yu of Wong, who is no longer active in politics. “He was one of those very undercover, low profile guys who could just run the s— out of a campaign.”

Moreover, the part allowed Yu to channel Wong’s sense of humor.

“I thought this was going to be one of the run of the mill, nebbish Asian characters,” he said. “But meeting Michael, I was delighted to find that he was biting, caustic, acidically comedic and intelligent, and that his humor comes from the same place where his political anger comes from.”

This aspect of the character was displayed in the playfully antagonistic interaction between Milk (Sean Penn) and Wong in the film — lighthearted ribbing that mirrored the real-life relationship between the two men during Milk’s 1975 and ’76 campaigns.

Milk is gaining buzz not only for being Oscar-worthy, but also for its political timeliness; the film, which opens on November 26 amidst continuing protest and outrage over the passage of a California bill outlawing gay marriage, follows Milk’s campaign for gay rights.

Yu considers Milk to be the most important film he’s ever worked on.

“At the end of the day, movies are entertainment… but this is one of those movies that are important, that can ultimately change people’s perceptions.”

As for the original casting call and others like it, Yu is optimistic: “As more Asian males pursue acting, I think its gotta change, just by sheer volume. It can’t not change.”

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