Both of us cheering the morning with a cappuccino in hand, and a serious case of jet lag, actor Byron Mann, spoke to me recently from his home in Canada. A diverse career in acting, along a path most from his homeland (Hong Kong) would have never dreamed of taking, Bryon spoke fondly of his parents, his childhood, the two main places he calls home, and his chosen journey into the realm of acting.
(Issue of Vents Magazine)
Song River: Thank you Bryon for taking some time with me today, I know you're a bit tired, but with all you have coming up and are in currently (Hell On Wheels, ABSOLUTION, Jasmine, and The Big Short w/ Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gossling and Christian Bale) we knew it was today or nothing on catching up with you.
Byron Mann: (Laughed) Yes, suffering a bit from jet lag, flew in from Hong Kong this morning, but it won't really hit until 4 or 5 this afternoon... nothing a couple of cappuccinos won't fix.
SR: You were born and raised in Hong Kong, would you say that you grew up in a traditional household?
BM: Traditional in the sense that my parents are fairly traditional. No one in our household was in showbiz. My father was a dentist, my brothers: one is a banker and one is a doctor. I come from a family where you go to a university, and you go to graduate school and you enter into the 'white' collar work force, so for me to be making a living as an actor is really strange.
SR: You aren't considered the 'black sheep' of the family are you?
BM: Well, um, it's a black, black sheep (laughed) a very black sheep, let's put it that way.
SR: During your growing up years in Hong Kong, what was it like socially, culturally and politically?
BM: It was wonderful, you know many people, especially people in the West, don’t really understand the imagery of what Hong Kong is. When they think of Hong Kong, they may think; Oh, its like Russia or its massage girls, or boats in a river. However, Hong Kong is very international, like Manhattan. I went to an all boys English school in Hong Kong, I grew up with everyone from everywhere. I grew up with Americans, I grew up with Indians, Australians, it was a very diverse crowd, I was very exposed to all cultures, all languages.
Then the very first university I went to after early schooling was in Illinois. Now, going from Hong Kong to Illinois was a huge shock for me, it really was. Through the years though, I always go back to Hong Kong for summer or winter, Id say for the past few years I have been working out of there. It is a wonderful place to be, Id rather live there than any place else in the world. You have to like the place where you're from. It's very diverse. I’ve heard from many people from all over the world who live and work out of Hong Kong and they’ve all said that it feels like home to them.
SR: Why did your parents choose to send you to an all boys school? Diocesan Boys' School?
BM: Well Hong Kong was originally a British Colony so all the schools were established by them, so most of the schools, at least half, are either all boys or all girls. The better schools are all single set schools.
SR: Did you find that overall being in a single sex school helped you focus more on your education?
BM: Absolutely, but it is funny you ask me that, because I didn't know at that time, anything else other than that (laughed). I never went to a co-ed school until university. I just thought the co-ed system was weird (laughed) I thought the all boys or all girls school was the 'norm,' but it was wonderful you could concentrate on athletics, sports, on music, there's certainly no distractions of the other sex, and you wear uniforms. You know, I wore a coat and tie, it was nice because you didn’t have to worry about what you wore during the day, I felt it was wonderful. I have life-long friends from that school.
SR: Would you send your own children to that type of traditional school then as well?
BM: Absolutely, without a doubt. In fact, my best friend is the headmaster of my alma mater, and that school is rumored to be the best school in Hong Kong, for that type of school.
SR: Would you say then that this type of educational atmosphere is conducive to the individual and 'freethinkers' or was it more collective in its approach?
BM: I would say collective, because in the East the spirit of collective is much stronger, you are really a part of it. That kind of thinking is much stronger in Asia, where as in the West it is more of, “I am the individual and I will do things my way.” and I will create my own path. Whereas in China, Japan, Asia the spirit of collective of the whole is much stronger. For instance, in school growing up you had your own house to belong to. There were six houses and each house would debate or play against each other, that kind of gives you a little glimpse of how it worked.
SR: Was it the norm then, due to the structure, that everyone from a young age just knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, I mean I read that some of your peers as early as your all boys school era were already playing the stock market. Did this 'knowing' just not fit your character growing up?
BM: All I remember during high school was that a lot of my peers and friends already had ideas of what they wanted to do. Hong Kong is a huge investment area, so stockbrokers,and finances thrives there. Many of my friends had family that worked making Ralph Lauren clothing too, so many went into the family's profession. For me, finances and such just never interested me.
Then of course, if a family had the means to, many of us were sent overseas to go onto university. Many of my friends went to Oxford and Cambridge, Stanford and Yale they all went to good schools, so it was common, it was not a big deal.
At first I was pre-med, at the first university and I didn't like that, and then I studied philosophy and that was my major, then after that I went into law, so for all intents and purposes my father thought I was going to be a lawyer. But then... it was my first summer working at a law firm and I hadn’t realized how dry the work was and I didn’t really want to do it anymore, but I needed to do something and I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I was in Hollywood and LA was right there and I tried acting, as I had done it in high school, and I found I really liked it.
SR: What is the relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China, and how does it affect global economics?
BM: Hong Kong is physically and geographically a part of Mainland China, about a hundred years ago China had lost a war to England over opium. England was actually selling and distributing opium to Mainland China (East Indian Company worked as suppliers) and China claimed their people were being killed, and that they were going to fight them on this. China lost. So, as a part of the treaty they conceded this fishing village called, Hong Kong, to England. England ruled Hong Kong for almost ninety some years. Literally a hundred years ago it was nothing more than a fishing village, but what happened was when the communist took over China in 1949, many of the Shanghai industrialist fled to Hong Kong and these were the people who created Hong Kong into what it is today. A major financial center, kind of like the Manhattan/New York of the East.
Then in 1997 that lease came up and Hong Kong reverted back to Mainland China, so Hong Kong is Mainland China... make no mistake about that. However, it is deemed as a special economic zone whereby Mainland China recognizes the history and basically allowed the Hong Kong government to govern itself, there is a bit more autonomy to Hong Kong. So, currently many big firms are headquartered in Hong Kong as a stepping stone/gateway to doing business in Mainland China. Many of my friends who live in Hong Kong from Monday to Thursday travel to Mainland China for work and then they come back on Friday to be with their family. That is fairly common.
SR: As an actor now, it would seem you've taken advantage of a variety of role options not only in China, Hong Kong and the United States, but also in Canada. What was the attraction to Canadian productions?
BM: I am also a Canadian citizen. The long story short is this; I started working up in Vancouver in the late '90's on different American productions and my parents immigrated to Vancouver when Hong Kong reverted back to Mainland China, and I just really liked the place. I was coming up here to work almost every year and I met an agent here and he encouraged me to become a Canadian resident of British Columbia, which I did. I now have a home here and in Los Angeles, and I have done many productions in America and up here, I am totally in love with the country and so grateful to be able to work here.
SR: Looking back over your acting history, I am curious, have you ever felt type-cast?
BM: A manager once told me a long time ago, learn to do one thing and learn to do it very well. Say for example, lets say you do a bad guy very well, you keep doing that type of character very well and Hollywood will find you. Then you do that next one lets say, a hundred times, and then you start doing something else. So, I have never seen type-casting as a bad thing, because first of all it allows you to work, it makes it easier for people to hire you and see you and once you do something long enough and well enough it opens more doors. For instance I have done many action pictures, movies, TV, so when they need a main actor to do action stuff my name comes up I am sure and I have no problem with that.
However, having done that many times I am now doing other things, like the series, “Hell On Wheels,” and I get to play this beautifully complex character who knows Shakespeare and can quote King Lear and the character has nothing to do with action. I am sure having had the opportunities over the last 15 years to do action films has given me this chance, so that's not bad and that is one way of looking at it.
SR: Is there a role you would like a chance to play?
BM: The short answer is not really, because I have stopped thinking about that. One really never knows what role will bring what. The current role I am playing in “Hell On Wheels” is pretty much the dream role in all its complexities. The character writes, and reads Shakespeare, he goes head to head with all the lead characters in the show, he is really a fantastic character to play, I couldn't even dream of a character like that. In a way I am playing the dream character, without even knowing it.
(Laughed) It's really kind of like dating, you can't really hold it with a very firm grip. You know if you do that list of 10 things that have to happen in any given moment for a date- well, you'll never date anyone. But, if you open up and just go along with it and see what happens, you will be totally surprised.
SR: You've touched on the premiering of the next season of “Hell On Wheels.” Can you talk about some of the other things you also have going on? The movies, “The Big Short,” “Absolution,” “Jasmine?”
BM: “Hell On Wheels” is about the building of the railroad in America, and in this fifth and final season, the Chinese workers, who were a big part of the building of at least this railroad out east, brings about a no holds bar story of the struggles and challenges of the Chinese vs the White people on the railroad.
SR: How close historically is the series?
BM: The writers have researched the history of what happened considerably. I was really impressed. My great grandfathers were actually from the same village where the workers were from.
As well, I shot this movie called, “The Big Short,” it's a movie with Bale, Gossling, Carell and it's based on the NY Times Bestseller book, The Big Short. It takes place during that time in the 2000's mortgage crisis in America, you may remember that time, when a lot of people had to default on their homes. This movie is about what happened. The movie is supposed to come out this next year, it is told in a comedic way. The director is Adam McKay and it is very satirical. It breaks down these financial products in a layman sort of way, it's a funny cautionary tale.
Then the movie “Absolution” is an action movie I did with Steven Seagal and it premiered in April I believe, and it's now available on iTunes and VOD. Then “Jasmine” is an independent film that was shot in Hong Kong and premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, its like a “Taxi Driver” in truth a Scorsese style film set in Hong Kong.
SR: Outside of acting I understand tennis and golf sometimes play through... Currently what is your handicap and what is your favorite court to play tennis on?