‘The Tender Bar’ actor Ivan Leung on working with George Clooney and Ben Affleck

Ivan Leung

Out gay actor Ivan Leung has a small part as Jimmy, a Yale student, in the poignant drama, “The Tender Bar,” available on Amazon Prime on January 7. The film, directed by George Clooney, is a sensitive coming-of-age story about JR (Tye Sheridan), a wannabe writer who ends up rooming with Jimmy and Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz) his freshman year.

The up-and-coming Leung has only a handful of lines and scenes in the film, but his role provides him with some nice visibility. He will next be seen in an episode of “The Goldbergs” and in various TV commercials — one directed by Jared Hess, of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame. 

Leung recently chatted with PGN about his career, as well as working with Clooney and Ben Affleck. 

What prompted you to go into acting? What are the benefits and drawbacks of waiting for your big break?

My parents are still asking me, “Are you going to go back to college?” So, it’s still a work in progress. I’m like, “I was literally just in an Oscar contender. What, I can’t impress you?” I started as a dancer, actually. I was in San Diego and danced for a few years. I went to LA to get better. One day, I got a job for a Vanity Fair shoot and some actors there said I should try acting. That opened me up. I started working a year later, doing commercials. I have been pursuing it ever since. This is extremely hard and difficult, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Can you describe your experiences working on “The Tender Bar?” What was that like for you?

I got to work with Ben Affleck who was Batman, and the Sexiest Man alive, and my boss was George Clooney, another Batman, and two-time Sexiest Man alive. Now that I’ve worked with Clooney and Affleck, I’m like, “Do I have to be nervous?” It was a great confidence booster. The set was welcoming. I’ve been on a lot of sets and George knew how to talk with actors. He wasn’t longwinded to get to a point. He just carried himself with so much confidence that everyone trusted him immediately. Even though it was a small part I’m very proud of it. 

You have a few scenes where you are in the background; Jimmy is observing the action. Do you find it harder to act in these scenes you have no dialogue? You still have to be “on” and in character even if you aren’t saying anything.
Acting isn’t about the words. When you are on set, you are acting already. If you watch the best performances, you’re not just listening to the words, you are seeing the actions, seeing the movements of faces and body postures. Words are secondary for acting. They are beautiful and important, but at the same time, anyone can say words out loud. I’d like to think I kept things alive [non-verbally] and gave the other actors a reaction to have something to play off of.  

How did you work on developing your camaraderie with your costars, Tye Sheridan and Rhenzy Feliz? 

We had game nights and went to the grocery store together. We play Bananagrams. George is amazing at Scrabble and Bananagrams. 

You are an openly gay actor, and also of Asian descent. Do you find you get cast because you are queer and/or because you are Asian? It seems the casting directors often cast two boxes for diversity.

Most of what I get cast in I don’t get to lean into my orientation or my ethnicity, actually. I did have a couple of reservations about playing an intellectual character. They want a jawline, Asian model looks, and six pack abs. I’m not that character. I’m a regular person. I love nerdy things. I had to get over myself and be like, this is me, and that’s all I can do. There is a concern with the Asian American actor community that we are more than nerdy roles. If they sway away from that, how will I work?

Would you like to make a gay film?
I would love to make a gay film. I hope that they would like to cast someone who is a more relatable character, because that’s what I think I am, rather than the beautiful Jake Choi, James Chen, or Leo Nam type. It’s my dream to work in independent films. But I don’t necessarily think I’m the type of gay that Hollywood is writing for. I’m not the gay assistant type. If I leaned into that, I’d feel like a caricature. 

I’d love to be able to play more parts, but I don’t feel that Hollywood is writing the gay assistant Alec Mapa parts. That makes me feel down because I want to represent, but unless I make my own opportunities — which I would love to start doing — I am auditioning and seeing what I do. I’m going to stop trying to lean into what Hollywood wants, and hopefully people will see that I am gay, but I don’t have to show America that this is how a gay person is. I want to show you can be whoever you are. I went out for gay assistant parts so many times, so many! And I want to play those parts my way. I want to show what I can do. I often get cast the most in deadpan stoner roles. I fit that brand probably because of my messy hair and my chill voice. [Laughs]

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