Sunny Wang: An Impressionable Actor That Deserves Your Attention
Trust us, you'll want to get to know him.
The ocean is still. The turquoise waters make way for a darker hue of denim blue. The dive boat is anchored, the rattling of the motor gargles down to a stop and they are surrounded by nothing. He dives into the vast formidability of the clear waters. Equipped with a wetsuit and ﬂippers, he holds his breath and swims towards the ocean ﬂoor. It has been two minutes.
“One breath and you are free,” he later writes on his Instagram post under the handle, @sunnyboyy. “When I hold my breath and dive, I tell myself [that] nothing is impossible. There are no limits. I am free.” It’s a quality of realisation that one wishes to speak of, but while in the empty depths of the Palawan ocean in the Philippines, where the underwater realm fade into a vignette of darkness, Sunny Wang isn’t alone. He is still and with himself.
“Most of New York is less than 16feet above sea level,” Wang scoffs in a noticeable American accent. “Why would I ever want to live there? If the sea level continues to rise, and it ﬂoods, where are you gonna run to?” He laughs.
Decked in the latest Zegna cuts, Wang sits on a stool as the instruments from the stylists' dance around his head. He exudes the energy and fortitude as an everyday New Yorker. Having been born in the city and hitting the books at Stern School of Business and Tisch School of the Arts, Wang has been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt at Times Square. But we are not in New York, New York; we are in Taipei, Taiwan—his cultural home. This meeting of his liberal branches in the West and his traditional roots in the East is imbued in the man; if anything, perhaps even conﬂicted.
Throughout the next ﬁve hours in the studio, we meet a Wang who’s vastly different from the antagonistic roles that he plays on the small and big screen. He is beyond the public notion of a broody, distant and uncouth man. He is beyond his perceived gangster tattoos. He is beyond his wealthy family background. He is beyond the tabloids. More importantly, one stumbles upon a real desire to reveal the layers of the man. To do that, we needed to get a sense of what a true Taiwanese is.
If there’s anything we’ve learned in The City of Azaleas, it’s that the locals are a private and conservative bunch who are non-confrontational and non-committal. The Esquire team that ﬂew to Taiwan with me has been hit by a constant wave of “maybes” and “perhaps”. From asking the locals for directions to the taxi drivers for dining recommendations, and what time the studio opens, it’s like pulling up Google Maps without a Wi-Fi connection.
Unlike Singapore, where cultural quirks reside in shrouding responsibilities and passing them on to someone else all together, in Taiwan, it seems that accepting obligatory liability is better than the rudeness of purposeful ignorance. But as we drink the Taiwanese beer and brave Taipei’s bloody cold, we begin to see a breed of warm, open and caring people—they recycle their trash every morning! What have you been doing with your life? Wang embodies this Taiwanese spirit, but ﬁrst, he needed to return home.
“New York wasn’t for me,” Wang says, as he continues to wax lyrical about how the city would drown in a ﬂooding disaster. “I miss the food and my friends in New York, but I need to live in a place where I can drive to the mountains or the sea.” His road towards becoming one of the most exciting Chinese thespians wasn’t quite a scenic route. It was peppered with expectations of working for the family business—his grandfather is the shipping tycoon who owns Yang Ming Marine Transport Corporation—and a realisation that selling containers to ocean liners wasn’t where he’d like to be holed up.
“After graduation, I came back to Taiwan and worked with my uncle selling shipping containers,” he says. An almost-professional college basketball player, he bailed after aggravating injuries that he had sustained on his back. If it wasn’t for that, he’d be on the court with Jeremy Lin.
Wang was also an impressionable youth basking in New York and Taiwan’s street fashion and counter-culture rooted in hip-hop—both of which he is still very much a part of today. Tellingly, he isn’t exactly the kind of guy anyone would call for continental deliveries decked in whatever Hypebeast tells him to wear. He was meant for more than the metal.
“I realised [when he was struggling as an emerging industrialist] that I wasn’t passionate about work and life. So, I took some time off to ﬁgure out what I really wanted to do,” he recalls. “I was thinking of becoming a photographer, or getting into the ﬁlm industry, or working in the production side of things, or getting a job as an assistant somewhere.” Anywhere but here.
His younger sister, Yvonne, 28, currently resides in New York where she plies her trade as the founder and CEO of Sunsana Snacks. At her age, Wang could have also taken the business route. Or he could have done something entirely different that spoke to his brewing passion. That “something” wasn’t easily within his clear. Unbeknownst to him then, his future—or to speak in the ways of the street: the path towards his ultimate form—was right under his nose. Wang got schooled, he just needed to believe in himself.
While at Stern School of Business, Wang was dribbling through sports and other fun preoccupations like accounting. One of the things that he didn’t count on was gathering the courage to step into the Dean of Students ofﬁce one day, and hearing: “‘You can do a double major, but for credits, you’d have to take a lot more classes at Tisch [School of The Arts faculty].’”
One foot in the money game and another in the visceral landscape of the arts. What could possibly come out of it all? “I decided to take ﬁlm production [at Tisch],” he says. “That was the closest thing to business.”
Seven years ago, at the age of 26, Wang made his TV debut in a 13-episode Taiwanese romantic drama, In Time with You. How that and this whole acting business came to be was a strange affair. With no experience in front of the camera, as opposed to some academic experience behind it, he credits a tabloid appearance for landing a script on the lap of his aspirations.
When Wang careened off from his shipping duties into a stormy question of self, he asked for advice from his godbrother, Oscar Chang, whose mother happens to be Sylvia Chang Ai-chia, the revered Taiwanese actor.
For someone whose exhaustive ﬁlmography roll includes the 1995 Oscar nominated Eat Drink Man Woman, Chang knows a thing or two about the industry. She had an inkling that the young Sunny Wang was putting himself in a position that required guidance. Boy, did Wang get it. She hooked him up for an audition for a short ﬁlm, and just like anyone’s ﬁrst… “I didn’t get the part,” Wang recalls, in a tone that shrugs off the decision.
“She sat in the audition and videotaped the whole thing,” he says as he reminisces over Chang’s impact on his ﬁrst taste of an acting career. “She was like, ‘Hey, I think you have something here, but you obviously have to work more at it; hone your skill.’”
The stars were aligned in a different way that day. Wang didn’t get what he wanted, and he surely didn’t expect how he’d be offered his ﬁrst role.
“You know,” Wang pauses. “I believe in fate. I don’t know if the stars were aligned or something, but I got a script out of nowhere. No one knew that I wanted to be an actor. Someone, somehow, found me and was like, ‘We have a script, the screenwriter wrote a role and she thought of you.’”
“Huh?” Wang is perplexed. His mouth is agape. He takes this moment to lean back in his chair and cross his legs, chuckling as he goes.
According to Wang, the screenwriter ﬁrst noticed him in a tabloid around 2005. That was arguably the period when his on-again, off-again relationship with Taiwanese singer Elva Hsiao burned in the media spotlight. “At that time, I was thinking that this can’t be good. If I’m in the tabloids, something must be bad. I was like, how in the world did they know that I wanted to be an actor?”
Wang asked to read the script and met the director and the producer. Everyone thought that he’d be perfect for a nine-episode appearance in In Time with You as a man who ends up cheating on his ﬁancée before their wedding. With gentle kneading from director Winnie Chu, the TV series placed Wang in every household from Taiwan to the US and bagged seven local awards along the way.
“There was a ﬁve-minute scene in In Time with You that was a deﬁning moment for me—I felt like a real actor,” he says. “Ariel Lin [who was one of the two lead actresses along with Bolin Chen in the TV series] pulled me aside and congratulated me; the director came up and gave me a hug; I felt it too, my heart was racing and I was like, ‘Hell yeah! I’m a real actor!’”
It’s moments like these that he hankers for—the small victories that acknowledge his purpose and worth as a performer. “In every project, I will try to ﬁnd a scene that makes me feel that way,” he divulges. If his television debut in In Time with You gave him a launching pad, the gangster ﬁlm Gatao gave him his breakthrough. “It made me feel that I’m ﬁt for the big screen.”
If anyone considers acting for the small and big screen to be mutually inclusive, one is obviously not an actor. It’s like comparing a family GP to a surgeon. Their generic purpose is somewhat similar—to keep the living alive—but their craft and the tools in their shed can’t be any more different. Wang passionately expounds on his approach towards acting for television and the movies. Make no mistake, Wang doesn’t have the experience lugged around by celebrated thespians such as Tony Leung or Donnie Yen, but the burning desire to work on his craft recalls the younger versions of these greats.
“TV production is fast-paced: you get the angles done, you get the shots done, you get the scene done,” Wang says as he makes the sound of a hot Gatling gun. “For movies, everyone is waiting to get something done right, the lights gotta be just right, the tempo, just right.” In Gatao, he took the chance to have his ﬁrst major movie debut done just right.
“Actually,” he pauses for a second, “it was really funny because they offered me the main role, but it’s not that I didn’t like it, it was just that I don’t speak really good Taiwanese [a variation of the Hokkien dialect].” Wang realised that a supporting character was more up his alley. As Michael, Wang played the son of a Taiwanese mobster who returns from his studies in America to develop properties on a rival’s turf.
Ah Stern and Tisch, you have taught him well.
“My mentality was to play a character within my perimeters. I wanted to play it just right because I knew the movie was targeting audiences in Taiwan and Hong Kong who love a good gangster movie. Michael is an antagonist, ambitious, a very cool character, something that I felt that viewers would remember. It was very ﬁtting, that’s why I knew that I could relate to him. Not only did I grow up in the States, but I’m also playing someone who came back to prove himself.”
Like life imitating art.
“I worked for my uncle. We were selling container spaces for shipping companies. In some ways, life did imitate art. I was lucky enough to play some roles that are very similar to my own background and it does make things easier.”
Isn’t he afraid of being typecast?
“No, not at all! I’m cool with it. Everyone wants to play the good guy, but everyone remembers the bad guy. I’ve realised my market, I’ve realised what I’m good at and what I can give. If I wanna step outside of that, I will try different types of roles, which I have already been doing in China. I’m also building my brand, my image, myself. I wanna be known as an actor. I wanna make a statement.”
Given a chance, disregarding his humble opinion that both television and ﬁlm work are equally important and he is all about elevating his art a reel at a time, we’ll put our money on Wang taking up a big screen gig without missing a heartbeat. Or maybe not. For a Chinese actor who is ﬂuent in English and has kicked asses in movies, Wang is primed for some Hollywood blockbuster. Maybe one that would see him play a supporting role alongside Gerard Butler. Maybe one that is titled Den of Thieves. That may be his big international break—a storied progression from Asian television to the movies and Hollywood in quick succession.
“I turned that project down because I chose another television project in China,” he reveals but remains tight-lipped about the title.
“The offer in Hollywood was a small supporting role. For the project in China, I play a General in an important historical time that means something to the Chinese people. I think long term. If I do get better as an actor [in Asia] and, in turn, that gets me better roles in Hollywood, I wouldn’t turn it down. It’s not about the money and working on a project for the sake of it. I know where I stand.
“The brass tacks come down to if you have the China market or not. You can speak English anywhere, but do you have the Chinese market? When you walk out in Beijing, do people recognise you as a celebrity? Like Godfrey [Gao], he can speak English but he can’t act… so he got no more roles. It’s very evident, because if you can’t act and you don’t get better at it, there’s no point doing this. Like I’ve worked with Godfrey and another guy in My Other Home [a 2016 ﬁlm about NBA player Stephon Marbury’s basketball career in China], Vivian Dawson. He can’t act. He’s really bad. I’m his friend and I tell him that he’s really bad.
“All I’m saying is that good looks can only take you so far. Obviously, in Hollywood, you don’t want to mess with that chance. In Hollywood, you might get that chance, but it won’t be there tomorrow if you don’t show up. That’s something I’ve been contemplating. I’ve been offered a couple of Hollywood roles before, but I always think that I should develop myself more in the China market. I have to go with my gut feeling, I have to go with that China project.”
Where Wang stands, he has made a conscious effort to ensure that the demands of the entertainment industry do not cast a shadow over his various creative ambitions. Acting is just one of them, and he’s not stopping there. He co-founded a multi-disciplinary label, Imperial Taels (imperialtaels.com), releasing street-style jewellery and clothing. He has produced a documentary on the late Taiwanese hip-hop icon, Shawn Sung, and is about to craft another on the generational perception of tattoos.
What does his agent make of it all? Doesn’t it take his focus away from the acting game?
“Actually, I don’t have an agent and I don’t like having a manager. I tore that contract up last year. [Laughs] The management company was one of the biggest in Taiwan and they managed some really popular artists. I was like, thank you so much for helping me, but screw you guys. I’m way better off without you,” he says.
One of the reasons he left the company was because he felt that the artists were being packaged to the point of stupidity. “It’s like the artists don’t have a mind of their own; they aren’t even sure if they can have a glass of water or post a picture on social media without asking management. I couldn’t take it.”
Wang has long preferred to work with youth and forward-thinking people. He has set up a company in China and Taiwan, hired staff, and they evaluate projects in an “open forum” as he refers to it. Wang is affecting change in his own way.
“Together, with my wife, we have a voice that can make an impact on a lot of younger people,” he asserts. “So we might as well try to direct them to something that we love as well. It’s a responsibility. I’m in the process of everything now because things started to click for me over the last year. Before that, I was just selﬁsh and very into myself. I also think marriage matured me a lot and I see things very differently now.” Wang married Dominique Choy, a singer-songwriter who goes by the moniker Dizzy Dizzo, in early 2015, and their work in marine conservation is gaining traction thanks to their social media outreach.
In the upcoming television series, The Starry Night, The Starry Sea, Wang plays a wizard of the dark arts. We ask the stupidest question that we can about acquiring any power that he wishes. “I think I’d like to breathe underwater. It’s a personal thing. I want to be able to live underwater and on land, and to have the choice to do both. To breathe underwater, I’ve always wondered what that would be like.”
“Or I would ﬂy, that’s more of a freedom thing.”
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, May 2017.