Gran Torino: Behind the Scenes of Eastwood’s New Film

Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Gran Torino,” marks the first major motion picture to portray characters from the Hmong community–an ethnic tribe of 18 clans spread among the hills of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and other parts of Asia–who made a difficult transition to the United States following their involvement in the Vietnam War. “I didn’t know too much about them,” admits Eastwood. “Because they had helped the Americans during the conflict, they were brought here as refugees after the end of the Vietnam War.”

“Part of the tragedy is that a lot of people don’t understand the role the Hmong people played in the Vietnam War,” says Paula Yang, a Hmong adviser the filmmakers consulted early on. “How we came to the United States, and how many of our soldiers and civilians were lost during the war, remains a secret. The elders don’t talk about it. They’re so humble and there are so many sad stories.”

Eastwood points out that the Hmong identify themselves as a culture with its own unique heritage, as opposed to a nationality. “They have their own religions, their own language, and they consider themselves their own people,” he explains. “A lot of them have been through many hardships following the Vietnam War. Things weren’t very pleasant for them over there, and so the Lutheran church and a lot of individual organizations worked hard to get them over here. But they withstood a lot of sadness, so they’re tough, very determined people.”

Eastwood wanted to portray the Hmong in “Gran Torino” as authentically as possible, starting with casting an exclusively Hmong cast for those roles in the film. But casting director Ellen Chenoweth soon discovered there weren’t many professional Hmong actors listed at SAG.

Chenoweth and her casting associates Geoffrey Miclat and Amelia Rasche cast a wide net and researched on the internet to find hubs of the Hmong community. They made contacts and distributed flyers in Fresno, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; Warren, Michigan; and throughout other areas of the U.S. “This involved a lot of digging,” notes Chenoweth, “a lot of getting to know the Hmong communities, making inroads, gaining their trust, and finding out who wanted to be in a movie. It wasn’t done through the normal channels. This was really going to them and opening ourselves up to them.”

Hmong cultural advisor Cedric Lee helped the casting team with outreach throughout the community. “We’d go to places where Hmong people hung out,” he remembers. “We went to Father’s Day parties. We went to church events. There’s a language barrier, especially for the elders, so we would speak Hmong and then translate to the casting directors. With the youth it’s a lot easier, because a lot of them are English-speaking.”

Chenoweth and her team started with community leaders in St. Paul and Fresno, and then conducted a series of open casting calls everywhere that Hmong had settled, culminating in a huge, day-long open audition in St. Paul.

Word spread of Eastwood’s film through Hmong communities online, through newspapers, youth groups and word of mouth. “People were so excited,” says Paula Yang. “It was Clint Eastwood, so people were going to do whatever they could. We had old kids, young kids, old grandmas and grandpas. People were excited because Clint was making this opportunity for our Hmong people.”

Soon they had hundreds of auditions on tape. “After we visited each city, we would come back to Los Angeles to go over all the tapes with Clint,” Chenoweth explains. “We’d put them up on the screen in his editor’s room and started narrowing down our choices until we had several candidates for each role, and then he made his decisions.”

From hundreds of prospects, Eastwood cast 16-year-old Bee Vang from St. Paul in the central role of Thao. Chenoweth remembers, “Amelia found him through his school, and on his picture I wrote, ‘I heart Bee Vang.’ I just loved his face. He had very little acting experience, but had this quality that was so open and sweet. You just wanted him to be okay. When I called Bee Vang and told him we wanted him for Thao, he couldn’t even talk for a while. I think it was something that he hadn’t ever really dreamed of.”

At 5’5″, Bee Vang’s Thao stands in stark contrast to Eastwood’s 6’2″ Walt. “Thao is literally always looking up to Walt,” says Vang. The Fresno-born teen attended a private audition for the film in the Twin Cities. When he found out he’d won the key role of Thao, “I got down on my knees and started crying,” he relates. “The whole thing was really life-changing. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”

Though initially intimidated, Vang soon grew comfortable with Eastwood’s low-key style. “Growing up, I’d seen him in Westerns and other films, like ‘Dirty Harry,’ but I never imagined that I’d ever even meet this guy, and then there he was,” he says. “Mr. Eastwood likes things to be as natural as they can be. It has to be real. I like that style. He’s a really nice guy, too, a really humble guy. I loved every minute working with him and the rest of the crew. I will never forget this.”

Sixteen-year-old Ahney Her beat out hundreds who auditioned for the role of Sue. Amelia Rasche had set up a booth at a Hmong fair in the Detroit area, with a big sign on it saying, “Hmong Movie Casting.” “Ahney and her family walked by and Amelia literally ran over and grabbed her and said, ‘Do you want to try out for a movie'” Chenoweth recounts.

Her’s confidence and humor made her a natural for the role of the Thao’s older sister. “We wanted the sister to have a slightly tougher edge. She’s protective of Thao, who is more vulnerable,” says Chenoweth. “Ahney definitely had that along with a great kind of youthfulness about her that we all loved.”

Her’s rapport with Eastwood was not much different from Sue’s and Walt’s, giving the acting novice added confidence in her first big role. “He’s very humble and easygoing,” she says. “He likes to make you comfortable and is not the type to tell you exactly what to do. He wants you to do whatever you feel is right, and if it’s not right in his eyes, then he’ll tell you. He’s a great man, and it was amazing to work with him.”

“Bee and Ahney both seemed to take to acting very naturally because they had great natural qualities anyway,” says Eastwood. “I’d like to take a lot of credit for it, but it really wouldn’t be justified.”

The role of Vu, the single mother of Thao and Sue, is played by Brooke Chia Thao, who was born in Laos and settled in Visalia, California. Chia Thao had no acting training, and was actually bringing her own kids to the audition when she was cast. “She just happened to be there, so we asked her to audition and she landed the role,” recalls Cedric Lee. “The funny thing is she’s pretty Americanized, but when you see her as the mother, it’s like two completely different people.”

For Chia Thao, the film represents a chance to shine a light on her people. “The movie doesn’t really represent the whole Hmong culture, but it gives a little taste of it,” she says. “I hope that people start to see us in a more unique way, who we are and how we helped in the war. My own father was recruited to fight for the U.S. when he was only 14.”

Chee Thao, the 61-year-old who plays the family grandmother, was born in Laos and now lives in St. Paul. “Casting the grandmother was an interesting challenge because the character spoke entirely in Hmong,” says casting associate Geoffrey Miclat. “A lot of it was just personality. Grandma is a very funny character, and there was this quality about Chee that made her perfect for the role.”

Thao felt a special bond with Eastwood, and spent time talking with the actor/director, with her granddaughter serving as translator. Having lived through a tragic past, she poured her heart and soul into her performance.
“Chee Thao said that it was no trouble for her to get into this character because it was her,” says Lorenz. “She has had all these struggles that are portrayed in the film. So when she was out there, basically ad-libbing her way through a lot of the scenes–because a lot of the Hmong dialogue wasn’t spelled out–it was no trouble. She just said all the right things; she brought her own story to it.”

Five Hmong actors from several states and different clans of Hmong were cast as the boys who make up the gangbangers that menace Thao and his family in the film. “There was just a realness about these guys and they had such great faces,” says Miclat. “Once we saw Doua Moua in New York, and Sonny Vue in St. Paul, we had a pretty good feeling that they would be our Spider and Smokie. And Doua Moua was actually one of our few Hmong cast members with acting training, so we knew he was going to fit somewhere.”

Moua, who moved to New York City when he was 18 to pursue an acting career, was cast as Thao and Sue’s cousin, Fong, who now calls himself Spider. Born in Thailand, Moua grew up in Minnesota and was one of the only Hmong cast members with acting experience. “‘Gran Torino’ is a dream come true for me,” he says. “I appreciated every moment that I was on set. Clint was amazing to work with, really laid back.”

Sonny Vue, born in Fresno and now from St. Paul, plays the leader of their group, Smokie. At 19 years old, Vue had never been in front of a camera before but was such a natural the casting directors grabbed him from the front desk. “I was talking to the lady at the front counter, and Amelia [Rasche] came up out of nowhere,” he recalls. “She was like, ‘Do you want to audition for the role’ So, I tried, and I got the part.”

The other members of the Hmong gang are played by: Lee Mong Vang, from Toledo, Ohio; Jerry Lee, from St. Paul; and Elvis Thao, who lives in Milwaukee and is a member of the hip hop group RARE. Elvis Thao was also thrilled that Eastwood used one of RARE’s songs on the “Gran Torino” soundtrack.

Outside of the Hmong cast members, one of the key roles was that of Father Janovich, the earnest Catholic priest who tries to break through to Walt to fulfill Walt’s late wife’s dying wish.

Cast in the role, Christopher Carley seemed to embody the qualities Eastwood sought for the priest. “When we saw Christopher Carley, he just looked like a priest,” Chenoweth explains. “He had this open Irish face, red hair. I thought he was really good, and when I showed his tape to Clint, he said, ‘He looks like a young Spencer Tracy.’ I knew he was going to cast him at that point. Clint didn’t care about having an established star in that role; he’s just really open to giving a chance to people who are perhaps less well-known in the industry.”

“I do like to give people a break,” says Eastwood. “I like to see new people come along, and have opportunities. But, by the same token, it’s important to do whatever suits the film. If somebody who’s well known fits the role, then I go for it. If I can use somebody lesser-known who happens to suit the role, then that’s fine, too. There’s no real rule to it. Every picture has its own structure, and its own personality.”

Carley’s impression of Eastwood’s working style mirrors that of his fellow cast members. “He’s very calm and focused, and there’s a large element of trust on the set between Clint and the actors,” Carley describes. “You feel like it’s a safe place to show up, being prepared and knowing that whatever choice you make, you’re not going to have to fit into some tiny little box that has been pre-designed.”

Rounding out the cast are John Carroll Lynch as Martin, Walt’s barber, who trades good-natured racial epithets with Walt and helps coach Thao in the fine art of “manning up”; Brian Haley as Walt’s elder son, Mitch; Geraldine Hughes as Mitch’s wife, Karen; Brian Howe as Walt’s second son, Steve; and William Hill as construction foreman Tim Kennedy, an old friend Walt enlists to help him give Thao better options in his life.

The prized Gran Torino was played by the real thing, out of Vernal, Utah. “We got lucky right off the bat because it was one that worked,” says transportation coordinator Larry Stelling. “It was completely maintained and Clint really liked it. We did a couple of things to it, like replacing bumpers and things like that, but other than that just sparkled it up a little bit. The color was fine, great interior, and it ran great.”

The production purchased the car and brought it to Michigan for principal photography, but its story may not end there. “We were talking about selling it locally when we were finished, but as the movie progressed, we all became rather fond of the car,” recalls Lorenz. “I asked Clint about it and he said, ‘Well, let’s hold on to this car. It has done right by us, so let’s see what happens.'”