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In Movies & TV

MIlwaukee's Elvis Thao plays a Hmong gang member in "Gran Torino."

In Movies & TV

Thao's roughneck character is much different than his real personality.

In Movies & TV

"All our lives we've just been dying for someone to give us a chance, and suddenly, there it was."

Milwaukee actor debuts in Eastwood's "Gran Torino"


Clint Eastwood's epic new film "Gran Torino" opens in Milwaukee this Friday, Jan. 9. If you're going, keep an eye out for Elvis Thao, a Milwaukee actor playing a Hmong gangbanger in the movie about a disgruntled Korean War vet and his struggles to save a Hmong teenager (Bee Vang) from the pressures of gang life.

"Gran Torino" is not only Thao's first major film, it's also his first acting gig ever. But the 26-year-old is no stranger to the stage. As a member of Rare, a Milwaukee-based hip-hop group, and through managing Shaolin Entertainment, his recording company, Thao says his ease in the limelight helped him land a speaking role in one of the year's biggest films without any prior acting experience.

In the film, Thao's roughneck character is much different than his real-life persona, but he says the gangbanger role wasn't a difficult one to evoke.

"With hip-hop, you play different sides," he says. "You're a storyteller and you're writing about life experiences; some are more hardcore and some are more heartfelt. In music I'm able to write many characters, so it's just about bringing forth a certain emotion and reflecting upon it."

He cites director and lead actor Eastwood as a major reason for his, and the film's, success.

"He's a complete sweetheart. He's really easy to work with and, being new to the set, we were definitely a little nervous and tense, but Clint just brings it right out of you. It was comfortable and he let us be our characters the way we wanted them to be. He was like a mentor and a trainer (to us) while acting and directing. He just does a great job."

Eastwood was looking to fill nine Hmong main character roles in his film and when the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) fell short, he began running auditions across the country to find talent. Thao says there was real excitement in Milwaukee Hmong community and, with prompting from friends and family, he knew the Midwest auditions in Minnesota were an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

Securing the part, he then relocated to Michigan for a month of filming in and around Detroit. He says the experience was great for the Hmong community.

"Being Hmong, we're little in any market. People ask me all the time what Hmong is, and it gets a little frustrating at times, so this (opportunity) was huge. All our lives we've just been dying for someone to give us a chance, and suddenly, there it was. This was the push and I'm not sleeping a day of my life from now on."

Thao says he'd consider future acting roles if it helped garner attention for the Hmong community. But for now, he is happy staying in Milwaukee where he is active with several non-profits. He is a member of the Social Development Commission, a human service program for low-income individuals and families in Milwaukee County, and Public Allies, an organization of community leaders.

He'll says he'll never forget working with Eastwood, and may have made history, as the iconic actor announced "Gran Torino" would be his last film.

"Just being in his presence proves that he is a legend for sure," says Thao.



Theaters and showtimes for Gran Torino

Talkbacks

globaljuju | Jan. 27, 2009 at 5:09 p.m. (report)

It would be nice if I could be sure which actor he actually is, as there is a group photo on the first page of the article.

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swami says | Jan. 8, 2009 at 11:55 a.m. (report)

This movie is great! I actually thought that the conversations were pretty real. Depending on who you are and where you grew up, the inflections and accents of the words are often very different. I'm not taking it as far as the movie NELL, but you get what I'm saying.

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alba | Jan. 8, 2009 at 9:09 a.m. (report)

Eastwood is great in this movie but the Hmong actors are not. Their performances vary from over-acting in some scenes to emphasizing the wrong words when speaking (which often makes the conversations seem fake). I was surprised some scenes made the cut you'd think even novice actors could get it right with enough takes. The Hmong gang-bangers were better actors than the good guys, but not by much.

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High_Life_Man | Jan. 8, 2009 at 8:48 a.m. (report)

Good to see. The movie is great. Although, some of the acting outside of Clint is a bit suspect.

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