Kelly Hu – 20 years ago everyone knew that name

                                                June 2003 By Philip Berk 

The moment I first laid eyes on Kelly Hu, I was dazzled.

Her performance in The Scorpion King had impressed me, but meeting her in person, I was knocked out by her beauty.

Knowing she was born and raised in Hawaii, I facetiously asked her if she had ever been Miss Hawaii.

Much to my surprise her answer was yes.

“But it wasn’t something I pursued,” she adds. “What happened was, when I was sixteen I was interested in modeling in Japan. I was doing a lot of work with the Japanese at the time and they wanted me to spend a summer modeling in Japan. ‘If you had a title, even a local pageant title, like Miss Pickle it is considered a great thing there.’ That’s what they had told me. I had heard of the Miss Teen USA pageant and I thought if I could just win the Hawaii title when I went to Japan I could make a lot of money. So I entered the pageant and won the Hawaii title, which was a fantastic experience. Having my family there supporting me, being on stage was such a rush. And then I remember going for the national title because after winning the state title you are obligated to run in the national pageant. At the time my mother told me,’Now don’t expect to win the national title because America is not ready for an Asian Miss Teen USA,’ which was one of the first times I thought, Oh my God, I’m Asian, I’m different. It didn’t occur to me at the time”

So what happened?

“I went there with one thought in my mind. ‘Gosh, if I can just make it to the top ten, I’ll be on TV. My first time on national television and everybody will see me! What a great opportunity!’ And I ended up winning he whole thing. I won a car, a speedboat, a mink coat, and a ton of money. I thought, This pageant thing is good.”

But not good enough to make career of it?

“Actually two years later I went back to Hawaii to compete for Miss USA. As Miss Teen USA, you have the opportunity to compete as Miss USA, as the 52nd contestant, but my thought was, as a sixteen year old what chance would I have competing against grown women. So I decided to hold off on that. But I had a little seed in my head, and even after coming to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, I felt I had to see it through. So I went back to Hawaii when I was eighteen, ran for Miss Hawaii USA, won that title and went on to the national competition and placed 4th.”

Add to her beauty and talent, her surprising intelligence. 

Did her mother’s fear (that she would be discriminated against) prove a reality when she arrived in Hollywood?

“I really haven’t had any difficulty being Asian in Hollywood. But that has a lot to do with the fact that I tend to forget that I’m Asian. I’ve never grown up feeling different or feeling singled out. When I came to Hollywood I never felt I was treated that way. That’s because I’ve always had great representation who sent me out on auditions that didn’t always call for an Asian character, I’ve played roles that were not meant only for Asians. I’ve played typical American girl roles, My role in Scorpion King was not meant for an Asian. They were just looking for an exotic type to play the sorceress . At the audition there were girls who were blonde blue eyed, blacks, Asians, Hispanics everything in the world. So I’ve never had a problem with that.” 

What is her background?

“I’m Chinese, Hawaiian, and English. Mostly Chinese. My mother is Chinese, Hawaiian and English, my father Chinese. But I’m a fourth generation Hawaiian, born and raised there.”

Since The Scorpion King, she’s starred in Cradle 2 Grave, and now in the world wide box-office smash,  X2 — X-Men United, she’s an impressive Deathstrike.

What did she like about playing that character?

“She doesn’t say a whole lot in the film because she’s controlled by (the villain) Stryker, but I don’t think she’s necessarily a bad character. She is made to do bad things under his control.”

Did she get the role because of her martial arts skills?

“The funny thing is, when I auditioned I went in for a character named Ann Reynolds, who was completely different. When I looked her up in the X-Men comic books I saw this Caucasian woman with red hair, and I thought ‘Oh, they’re just being creative in their casting.’ I had no idea I’d be fighting or anything. It was so secretive. They had made up sides and everything for the character. Then when I got cast for this role and started costume fittings, I was told I was going to do all this fighting and action. So it was a complete surprise to me.”

Would she prefer non-physical roles? 

“I enjoy the physical roles. They’re very strong, assertive women, and who doesn’t like playing those kinds of characters.”

Does she still train?

“I haven’t done a whole lot recently. There was a lot of fighting in X-Men but it wasn’t martial arts. It’s really  a sort of fantasy fight. It’s vicious, but not based on martial arts. I had to train for this film  because it requires so much wire work, and it’s not like you have wires in your backyard and you hook yourself up and start swinging around. It’s really a team effort. There are guys pulling, balancing it out for you. It’s really like joining Circe du Soleil, involving a whole different type of skill. This fight in particular was so difficult. Just to get your balance and be able to throw one kick when you’re in the air takes probably ten times more muscle control than it would on the ground because you have to keep yourself from spinning or toppling over. Exercising the muscle to raise your leg up that high, because you don’t have any floor to push against, can be very very challenging. But in the end it was worth it because I think the flight looks amazing. The choreography is like a tango or a ballet in the air. I think it’s gorgeous.”

Despite her success as a beauty queen, what was it that drew her to acting?

“I always knew I was going to be an actress. I’ve always loved performing. When I was a kid, I used to hold my parents captive in the basement. I can remember reading comic books and acting them out with my brother. I guess those were my first plays.”

What was her first professional break?

“I was still in high school, and I got cast in an episode of Growing Pains that was filming in Hawaii, I played Kirk Cameron’s love interest. As a result I got my SAG card and decided to move to Los Angeles right away to pursue an acting career. Believe it or not I even took out a full page ad in Variety announcing my arrival.”

That of course was after winning Miss Teen USA?

“Of course.”

Since then she’s spent ten years doing episodic tv including six episodes of Nash Bridges.

So it hasn’t exactly been an overnight success story?

“But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

She’s made a number of commercials in Hong Kong.

What was it like working there?

“It’s a whole different ethic. They work at a breakneck speed. The Chinese are about getting the film done as efficiently as possible. It’s not about ego. I’ve been on a set with Jackie Chan. He doesn’t even have a trailer; in America everybody fights for how big a trailer you can get. I remember when I did Martial Law, the director Stanley Tong was testing out the stunts. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute. He’s the director, and he’s testing to see if the stunts were safe for the actors.’ Working in Kong Kong or Taiwan is not about the individual, it’s about getting the work done, it’s about loving making films, and not being a star or a prima donna.”

Last year when I asked her if she had a boyfriend, her ready answer was, “I am involved with a nice Italian gentleman. We have a restaurant in Beverly Hills called Basic Bites. It’s on Beverly Drive. It’s sort of a healthy ‘soup, salad, and sandwich’ place. Hopefully the first of many.”

This time when I ask her about the Italian gentleman and the restaurant, it’s all over she says.

No one in her life?

“Not at the moment.”

As the only cast member new to the series, was she welcomed on the set of X-Men?

“I was really nervous knowing that everyone else had worked together and had a rapport, not to mention that they were just amazing actors. So I was afraid I had much to live up to. But they were so generous and welcoming. I was immediately invited to dinners and parties.”

Her X-2 costar James Marsden butts in, “But we gave her the wrong directions.”

Ironically it was Kirk Cameron who gave both of them their first break!  She as his costar and he as someone he met in Hawaii. 

But not at the same time!

Is she still loyal to Hawaii?

“I try to go home a lot these days, spending time with my family, especially now that my friends are having babies. I’m like the aunty. I can’t get enough of that. But Hawaii will always be my home. You can get caught up in the Hollywood stuff. So it’s good to go home and get grounded again.”

And her secret for staying in shape? (she looks twenty.)

“I’m really into eating healthy. I think that’s the most important thing. And getting a lot of sleep and being happy.”

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