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Leon Le: “Being a starving artist is a choice”

…The importance of knowing the business side of things — I used to think that being a film director means that I only need to know how to write a script, direct actors, crew on set, and how to edit a movie. But then I soon realized before I get to do any of that, I must […]

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…The importance of knowing the business side of things — I used to think that being a film director means that I only need to know how to write a script, direct actors, crew on set, and how to edit a movie. But then I soon realized before I get to do any of that, I must be able to convince the investors to invest in my films. And to do that, I must understand production budgets, sales, how the studio’s system works vs. the indie, marketing, etc.…Things that I used to refuse to learn because I thought just being a “talented” filmmaker would be enough. It’s not.


As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Leon Le.

Leon Le was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and moved to the States with his family at 13. For almost 20 years, he enjoyed a career as a dancer/singer/actor with credits including national/international tours, regional theaters, Broadway, and starring in TV and Films in Vietnam.

As a self-taught filmmaker, his multiple award-winning short films Dawn (2012) and Talking to My Mother (2015), which he wrote, directed, and edited, screened at over 80 film festivals worldwide, garnering numerous awards including Excellence in Fiction Short Filmmaking Award, Best Short Film, Best LGBT Short Film, Best International Short Film, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Ensemble Cast.

In 2017, Leon returned to Vietnam to make his feature film directing debut with Song Lang (www.courageouschameleon.com/songlang/) It is a nostalgic tribute to his beloved Saigon in the 80s and cải lương, Vietnamese Traditional Folk Opera. After the nationwide theatrical release in Vietnam (2018) to critical acclaim, Song Lang has screened in more than 80 film festivals and has won 50 awards worldwide, including Best Director, Gemstone Award, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Production/Costume Designs, Best Screenplay, Best Feature Film, Best Sound Editing.

Leon is currently splitting his time between New York City and Saigon, Vietnam.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Saigon, Vietnam. My family lived close to a cải lương (Vietnamese Traditional Opera) theater where troupes were coming to perform regularly. That’s when I fell in love with theater and dream that when I grow up, I’ll become a cải lương performer. Then we moved to the States when I was 13. That’s when I discovered the American Musical Theater. And I thought, “Hey, this is the American version of cải lương! Perfect! I’ll do this instead!”. I moved to New York in 2000 to pursue a career in musical theater, and I’ve been living here ever since.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

It was becoming less fulfilling for me after almost 20 years being a chorus boy in musical theater. I was never a big fan of doing the same show for an extended period. The urge to do my own projects and tell my own stories was getting stronger as I got older. I decided to try my hand at filmmaking. I turned to films because I like the idea that it’ll be there forever once a movie is finished. I started out making short clips, music videos, commercials. Then I started making short films. Luckily they were quite well received at film festivals, winning numerous awards, which gave me the confidence to finally make my first feature film.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There were many hilarious and embarrassing auditions stories when I first started in musical theater. When I was 17, I auditioned for Miss Saigon. After a few dance callbacks, we were asked to sing. I was thrilled and chose to sing “Stars” from Les Miz, which already a ridiculous choice considering my age. After I finished the song, the casting people wanted to hear something else and asked if I had an up-tempo song. I didn’t. So, I said, “I can sing this song much faster!” They laughed and thought I was trying to funny. But I was dead serious. I didn’t get the job.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Years ago, I was helping a friend shooting a student film in Los Angeles. It was around midnight. We were rehearsing a fight scene with prop guns in this building’s parking garage. We didn’t realize that there was a security camera there. All of a sudden, we heard helicopters with searchlights and police sirens. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by 20 police cars with their guns pointing at us. It turned out someone saw us on the security camera; they thought it was a real gang fight and called the police. That was the first time I sat in the back of the police car, handcuffed. Now, in 2020, it’s even scarier looking back. Things could have turned out much worse.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Song Lang just had its US theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles. You can watch it online at www.laemmle.com. The film’s DVD is also being released in November, together with the limited English edition, hardcover photobook Song Lang: Behind the Curtain. Fans can go to www.songlangbook.com for more information. I’m working on two new screenplays as well. But all I can reveal right now is that both stories are taking place in Vietnam in the 70s and 80s.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

With recent commercial and critical success of films such as Black Panthers, Crazy Rich Asians, Roma, The Farewell, and Parasites, I think the film industry are slowly recorgnizing the demographics of audiences they can reach by having diverse casts and creators. Beside appeals to a larger audience, diversity promotes inclusions and gives people a chance to learn about different cultures. And having diverse writers, actors, directors, and producers will help to avoid on screen stereotypical representations. Just imagine how different Disney’s Mulan 2020 would be if they had at least one Chinese writer.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

* You don’t need to share your dreams with everyone — Most people will shoot it down, tell you it’s unrealistic and unachievable. And if you’re not strong-minded, you’re done. Only share them with people who support your vision, believe in you, and encourage you to make it come true.

*Being a starving artist is a choice — think it, believe it and it will be your reality. However, if you truly believe in yourself, opportunities will arise.

* The importance of knowing the business side of things — I used to think that being a film director means that I only need to know how to write a script, direct actors, crew on set, and how to edit a movie. But then I soon realized before I get to do any of that, I must be able to convince the investors to invest in my films. And to do that, I must understand production budgets, sales, how the studio’s system works vs. the indie, marketing, etc.…Things that I used to refuse to learn because I thought just being a “talented” filmmaker would be enough. It’s not.

*Stop comparing yourself with others — Everyone is on their own journey. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. And when you stop comparing yourself with others, you will also stop seeing them as your competition.

*Stop making excuses — When you stop making excuses, you can start owning the direction that you are going in and have the willpower to change that direction.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I think for creative people, being creative is a 24/7 kind of deal. But it’s important not to become obsessive. I’ve learned that sometime by just walking away from my work for a bit, taking a nap, going to the gym, to the museum or a walk to the park to clear your mind, give your body a rest then come back to your work is much more productive. Also perfectionism is great, but we need to know where to draw the line between high standards and nit-picky dissatisfaction and frustration.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Being an adopted child myself, I’ve always a big advocate for adoptions. There are too many children in the world in need of love. I understand that adoption and giving birth are two very different ways of creating your family. Wouldn’t it be nice if each family would consider adoptions if they want more children after having their second biological child?

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been extremely fortunate to meet many people that helped me to be where I am today. But my mother has always been my best supporter. She always presented me with the options but then allowed me to make my own decision. As a kid, I was given the opportunity to study all kinds of cool stuff: piano, guitar, mandolin, drums, martial art, swimming. She would let me tried one thing. When I hated it (mostly because I sucked at it), she introduced me to the next. No pressure. Now looking back, I realized that a lot of my taste in music, movies, literature…are influenced by her. And now, all of that would go into my creative work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s actually not a “life lesson quote”, but it’s the lyrics to a song in the movie Yentil: “What’s wrong with wanting more? If you can fly, then soar. With all, there is, why settle for just a piece of sky?” I love it. I think of it every time I need a little inspiration.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Amy Sedaris. She is smart, hilarious, unique and just so freaking cool. One of my best friend introduced me to Strangers with Candy years ago, and I became obsessed with Amy Sedaris ever since. I’m also a big fan of her brother, David Sedaris. Let’s invite them both!

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on Instagram @leonquangle. But my content is quite boring. Mostly just me either doing some silly dance poses or using my cute dog to attract more likes. It doesn’t really work.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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