St. Paul teen stars alongside Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino"

What’s even more shocking about Vang’s experience, besides working with Eastwood, is that it’s the first time he’s ever acted.

The barrel of a gun points at your face; Clint Eastwood’s icy glare bores into your eyes. For most Minnesota teenagers, this could only happen while watching a movie, but for one Twin Cities teen, it happened in real life.

Bee Vang, second from the left, played Thao Vang Lor
in Clint Eastwood’s lastest film, “Gran Torino.”
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Bee Vang, 17, a junior at Armstrong High School, starred in Eastwood’s latest film, “Gran Torino,” which was named as one of 2008’s top 10 films by the American Film Institute.

Vang played Thao Vang Lor, who lives next door to Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, an elderly, but gritty, Korean War veteran whose attitudes toward Asian immigrants are rooted in his racist feelings toward the those he fought in the Korean War.

“Gran Torino” explores the conflict between this veteran, who spouts a lot of racial slurs and racist jokes, with his new, Hmong neighbors. Kowalski’s tendency of grabbing a shotgun to encourage people to stay off his lawn gets him involved in the middle of saving Bee Vang’s character from a Hmong gang.

That scene was Vang’s favorite, he said at a recent panel at the University of Minnesota where some of the cast members reunited to discuss what it was like to be in the film.

At the panel, the cast members recalled meeting Clint Eastwood, acting for the first time, and mistakes made while filming.

“There was this scene where I was getting off the bus and walking home from my job and the gangsters were pulling up in their Honda and I was telling them to get away from me and (one of the gangsters) threw my tape measure right at my toe and it hurt like crap,” Vang said.

What’s even more shocking about Vang’s experience, besides working with Eastwood, is that it’s the first time he’s ever acted.

Bee Vang at the
premiere of “Gran Torino”

“I just decided to go audition out of the blue because I said to myself ‘You never know what happens.’ So I went in thinking I would never get the role,” Vang said.

After two auditions, Vang got the call “that would change my life,” he said.

“They actually told me they were going to call a certain day, so I held my cell phone in my hand all day waiting for someone to call me,” Vang said. “Once I heard the words ‘You’re casted,’ I jumped and screamed as loud as I could.”

Clint Eastwood actually chose Vang for the role. The idea of working with Eastwood – a national legend and movie icon – made Vang nervous.

“I grew up watching [Eastwood’s] Westerns and everything and it was kind of scary at first to be in a film he is going to direct and star in so it was crazy to meet him,” Vang said.

Originally, Vang thought Eastwood would’ve put him and his other cast members who hadn’t acted before through training, but this wasn’t the case.

“I was waiting to talk to Mr. Eastwood but he never said anything to me and I thought: ‘Oh God, did I do something wrong?’ Then everyone else on set was like ‘if Clint didn’t talk to you that’s a good thing’,” Vang said.

Vang’s character, Thao, is a quiet kid, the kind of kid who walks along the cracked sidewalks of his grungy neighborhood while reading a book. He’s growing up without a father, to the dismay of his traditional family. When a gangbanging cousin tries to drag the meek Thao into a violent life, Eastwood steps in and “becomes a hero to the neighborhood,” Thao’s sister, Sue, says in the film.

Vang is Hmong like his character – he auditioned for the role of Thao at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul – and said that he and Thao have the same culture in common, but not the violent experiences.

“(Thao and I) were quite alike. We are both loners but I think I am more outgoing,” Vang said. “Some parts (of the Hmong culture in the film) are like my life and some parts are not because culture changes from family to family. I haven’t gone through experiences as harsh as ‘Gran Torino,’ ” Vang said.

Since being cast in the movie, Vang has been on a whirlwind ride — from working with Eastwood to meeting Angelina Jolie at the premiere of “Gran Torino” in California.

“I am doing some some very, very small projects right now so that it doesn’t affect my school life, but I am going to continue acting,” said Vang, who is currently taking post-secondary classes at the University of Minnesota.

Vang plans to pursue acting at the college level, but his future is still uncertain.