If you've seen the movie Gran Torino, you've seen Bee Vang. He's the 17-year-old who co-starred with Clint Eastwood in the hit film about reform and redemption across cultures and generations.
A senior this fall at Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minnesota, Vang nevertheless attends the University full-time through Minnesota's Post Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) program, which allows high school juniors or seniors to earn college credit, tuition-free, while in high school.
Although Gran Torino is set in Michigan, it was inspired by the Hmong community in inner-ring Minneapolis suburbs. Vang, who is Hmong, lives in one of those suburbs—Robbinsdale. He won out over some 2,000 competitors for the role of Thao, whom the Eastwood character, Walt Kowalski, tries to reform, and who ultimately helps Kowalski along the path of his own redemption.
Vang says the acting experience is much harder than he thought it would be . . . and life-changing. It made him more self-aware, his voice and actions stronger and more confident. "Being an actor helped me be sensitive to every detail of my actions. We do so many things unconsciously. For example, you don't realize that if you breathe in when you wave your hand, it shows a different emotion than if you breathe out."
Bee Vang, fourth from left with Clint Eastwood behind him, and other actors on the set of Gran Torino. Photo courtesy of Bee Vang.
It also broadened his thinking about the future. "I was definitely heading into the science field, but [being in the movie] helped me rekindle my love for the arts."
He's already earned 30 college credits through PSEO, and will return to the University this fall as a high-school senior. Last spring he took a PSEO class in fundamentals of performance, and he plans to study film this fall, in addition to anthropology, karate, and journalism.
"PSEO is an amazing program," he says, that lets him "get education beyond high school during high school. It helped me find myself quicker. It is helping me find out what I am passionate about. I'm glad to be here, to live in Minnesota."
And what's the scoop on Clint Eastwood? "He was a sweetheart," says Vang. "He is charming, down-to-earth, humble. It makes me so happy that he chose Hmong to play Hmong instead of just any Asians. We got to portray ourselves."