By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Jan 08, 2009 at 8:29 AM

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.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”