Stage and screen star Ken Leung previews ‘Evanston Salt Costs Climbing’ at Off-Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center

NYC-born actor Ken Leung has had an acclaimed career on screen, from his 1998 professional debut as Sang in Rush Hour, to such other popular roles Miles Straume in Lost, Admiral Statura in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and currently as Eric Tao in HBO’s Industry. He’s also been a notable presence on the live stage. After first discovering acting in his junior year at New York University, Leung began performing in downtown spaces and black box theaters with groups like Ma-Yi Theater Company and New Perspectives. He then appeared in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Terrence McNally’s controversial Corpus Christi at New York City Center in 1998, and made his Broadway debut in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002.

Ken Leung in Industry. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Leung has now returned to the NYC stage in The New Group’s Off-Broadway production of Evanston Salt Costs Climbing by Obie-winning Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Will Arbery, opening this month at the Pershing Square Signature Center. During this week of preview performances, Ken made time to answer some questions about the show, his experience with it, and what audiences can take away from it.

Can you give our readers your perspective on the plot and significance of the play?

Ken: It’s a hard show to boil down. It speaks to our current moment, after living two to three years in isolation, trying to get through the day. It calls on us to look at the present moment and how we feel about it. I know that sounds very vague but it’s a very individual thing that speaks to right now.

Ken Leung in rehearsal for Evanston Salt Costs Climbing. Photo by Natalie Powers.

What do you find most interesting or relatable about your character?

I like that he’s a fighter. At first, he fights not to look at certain things and then he fights his way to face them.

Which qualities in Will Arbery’s signature style of writing do you appreciate?

On the page it doesn’t look like anything. It’s confusing, it’s not obvious what it’s about. It needs excavation, it needs people for it to make sense. With people living it, it makes very profound sense. And he writes the way people talk, with broken thoughts. Every “um” is written – it’s not that the actors are hesitating with their lines. Every laugh that’s a “ha ha” is intentionally not a “ha ha ha” – it’s very specific and particular.

The cast and team of Evanston Salt Costs Climbing: Jeb Kreager, Rachel Sachnoff, Will Arbery, Danya Taymor, Ken Leung, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Photo by Natalie Powers.

You’ve said you were excited to be working with Danya Taymor. What is her directorial vision bringing to the show?

It’s a completely unique style. For the first hour of every rehearsal, we don’t even touch the script! It’s spent playing games, talking with each other, sharing memories, bonding, and cultivating a sense of play with the cast. She’s like a good parent who accepts her children for who they are. She doesn’t impose on us or criticize our interpretations, she creates an environment where we are free to explore, to find out, to work it out. She lets us discover for ourselves, just like a loving parent does.

What do you love most and what do you find challenging about stage versus screen acting?

The biggest challenge is that every audience is different, and to honor that and be present. Let’s say last night went great, but tonight, it’s another audience. They’re different and I’m different every day. It’s a changing room. That’s also what I love most about it – that sense of, “Okay, who are you right now and who am I right now?” As a New Yorker, life is so busy and fast-paced, and it’s too easy to get caught up in being on auto-pilot, to be detached, to check off the to-do list, so it’s a profound opportunity to be totally involved in the present and respond to it.

Many thanks, Ken, for sharing your insights with our readers. It was a pleasure to talk to you; I look forward to seeing the show.

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.

Evanston Salt Costs Climbing plays through Sunday, December 18, 2022, at The New Group, performing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $65, plus fees), call (917) 935-4242, or go online. Everyone must wear a mask inside.

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Deb Miller (PhD, Art History) is the Senior Correspondent and Editor for New York City, where she grew up seeing every show on Broadway. She is an active member of the Outer Critics Circle and served for more than a decade as a Voter, Nominator, and Judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre. Outside of her home base in NYC, she has written and lectured extensively on the arts and theater throughout the world (including her many years in Amsterdam, London, and Venice, and her extensive work and personal connections with Andy Warhol and his circle) and previously served as a lead writer for Stage Magazine, Phindie, and Central Voice.

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