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Breakout Role

Jun. 10, 2009
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Milwaukee native Elvis Thao, an actor in Clint Eastwood’s recent film Gran Torino, also lists rapper, community activist and record-company owner among his credentials. We talked to him about his multiple careers.

How real to life wasGran Torino?

I think the critics would know that it’s not based on a true story. [But] you would probably think it was, once you’ve seen it. I actually get asked that question a lot. My character in the movie grew up, as I did, with all women. I’m the only son and I’m the baby, and so was he in the film. Clint Eastwood, playing the part of a Korean War veteran and my neighbor, puts my character to work and becomes kind of a father figure in his life. My character was very closed-in to the Hmong tradition, and Clint kind of gave him more of an American way. [Eastwood’s character] was an old, angry, disgruntled man who did not get along with his own family, and discovering the Hmong next door brings him to this reality that he is just this grumpy, old man and that he hasn’t really found that side of him that makes life really make sense. The family next door brings that side out in him.

How did you get involved in the film?

Clint needed Hmong characters. There are no professional actors in the Hmong community. None. This is our first break. It was like when we got this film…the feeling was like, “Wow, this is our first revolution for entertainment.” It was a shot of luck that anyone could’ve gotten… no experience necessary. I made the five-hour drive to Minnesota [for the audition]. I’m very active in the Hmong community, so [hearing about the audition] was hard to miss. People were just throwing it everywhere, word-of-mouth.

Can you tell me a bit about your career as a musician?

Music, man, that’s probably the biggest part of my life. When there’s nothing to turn back to, there’s the music… when the whole world has failed you. I was about 17 years old when I got started as a musician. I have an older cousin who I’d been hanging out with, while I was in my party stage. We went out to a nightclub and I watched him perform there. I thought to myself, “I could do this, let me try,” and so I did and he liked it. It just came naturally. I didn’t do anything beforehand to properly train for it, it just kind of happened. And the next week, I was already onstage with him.

Elvis Thao | Photo by Don Rask


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