Written by: Matt Patti | March 29th, 2021
I recently had the pleasure of speaking via phone with actor Leonardo Nam about his work in Phobias (which I previously reviewed). In the film, five people with specific, extreme fears are gathered at a government testing facility where a lunatic doctor attempts to weaponize their fright. Nam plays Johnny, one of the patients at the facility, who is diagnosed with “robophobia”: the fear of robots, drones, robotic materials and, most prevalent in the story, artificial intelligence (AI). This fear comes as the direct result of an AI that Johnny encountered in the past, at first helping him get revenge on some of the townspeople who made fun of him because he is Asian, but then grew all too powerful. The movie explores each character’s fears in detail and is an intriguing look into some very specific fears and how they come to be. Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Matt Patti: Do you have any phobias?
Leonardo Nam: My big phobia is bad food. I’m a big fan of eating food that is nourishing, that is good for you, and that tastes good. One thing I’m definitely not a fan of is bad-tasting food, but I also have this thing: I’m really kind of freaked out by Cornish hens, like little baby things and things that are smaller. I can’t wrap my head around that, around eating the smaller or little cute-size version of something. It kind of freaks me out. That, and vermin. I had this one house I lived in and I’ll never forget, it reminds me of a poem that I read a while ago, where it spoke to the power that such a small little thing could have over a grown person. I’ll never forget, I tried to do it humanely, I got this little net kind of thing I was going to put over the mice. I planned everything out and then the moment it ran over my foot, I just yelled so loudly. So those are probably my two big phobias, none as big as in the movie Phobias.
MP: Do you relate to your character, Johnny, and his experiences? Have you experienced anything similar, in terms of harassment based on your race, or anything like that?
LN: Yes, and thank you for asking that question and using your platform to give me space to talk about this in our community. When I speak of our community, I speak about not only the Asian American community or the people of color community, I really speak of the American community because I feel like in my journey to being where I am and who I am, being American is intrinsic to me being an actor, to having this platform, and the privilege to work in this industry and be as artful as we are in telling stories across the whole spectra of being a human being. To know now that this film is coming out and all of this is coming to light in the news, to us that have been inside of the community, that have always been marginalized or otherized, it isn’t something new. It is absolutely tragic, and my heart is so saddened, but I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the people that are doing good, to highlight the unity that has been happening across different communities and across the tapestry of America and the world.
You have so many different communities now that are reaching out and that are helping each other, where before we have been polarized. I’m hoping that this moment in history will provide an accurate account of the true bravery of individuals and communities that reach out beyond the boxes that people have previously defined people to live by. I hope that it continues to happen because I do believe that unity and strength is in diversity and in embracing inclusiveness. The more that we have a polarized community, the less that we are able to find harmony and move through these experiences. At the moment, it is in the news, these hate crimes that are targeting the Asian American community, but just previous to that was the hatred and vitriol that was pointed toward the African American and Black community, and previous to that it had been the Latinx community, previous to that it was women. It has been an ongoing onslaught of different communities that have been pinpointed and really the one unifying factor is that they are all Americans, that they are all just people that have families and have lives, and so I’m hoping that this moment will be able to galvanize our communities together as a whole America and really come forward with love and definitely one thing we need is healing.
I’m really grateful that director Joe Sill cast me in this, as well as director Jess Varley and the producers. To have a role, a lead role, where I’m Asian, I don’t wake up and say I’m going to be Asian today, I just am. These things just are. To have the opportunity and the platform to tell the story that really touches on things that are happening in our community and to highlight them in an entertaining way, I hope it is entertaining because we are in the entertainment industry. I hope that we do give people a sense of entertainment, but that they take away even a moment to give compassion and to see what other people’s shoes would feel like. So, I am hoping that that is something that people take away from this movie.
MP: Definitely, thank you for that enlightening response. So, your character Johnny goes through major changes throughout the film and develops from a weaker, perennially frightened person in the beginning to a stronger, braver one in the government facility. Can you speak to that choice and Johnny’s development overall?
LN: Originally, Joe Sill, who wrote and directed the segment Robophobia, he and I sat down together. I will never forget, it was about a year and a half ago and we knew we were going to do this, and he is part Asian, as well, and we spoke about this experience that he and I connected over, especially in the beginning where Johnny is being tormented by people because of his race. He and I spoke very deeply about that, and that this kind of hate speech or this kind of experience is rarely talked about, not only in the news but also in storytelling, and the story that was always told, if it was highlighted, was this idea of a victim and solely a victim. What I really enjoyed about what he wrote and the opportunity in Robophobia and the movie Phobias as a whole is that my character was able to move from the place of being a passive observer into being a leader and doing something about it. So, in this day and age of so many hate crimes and bullying and aggression towards different types of communities across all of America, it was very poignant that Joe and I were talking about it and saying “Oh, this is something that really isn’t spoken about” and we wanted to highlight it.
MP: I think it was highlighted very well. Thank you so much for your time!
LN: Thank you so much.