Katie Leung will always be grateful for the Harry Potter films, but since then the Scottish star has built a career on gritty screen and stage performances, including new ITV thriller Strangers. Interview by Janet Christie. Portraits by Debra Hurford Brown
Katie Leung has come a long way since she was cast as a teenager as Harry Potter’s first girlfriend Cho Chang in the Warner Brothers feature film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This week the Bafta Breakthrough Brit stars alongside The Catch’s John Simm and Emilia Fox (Silent Witness and Delicious) in Strangers, a gripping Hong Kong set conspiracy thriller from ITV and streamed on Amazon.
In the eight-part series written by two newcomers, Mark Denton and Johnny Stockwood, Simm plays an academic who has to fly to the former British colony to retrieve his wife’s body after she’s killed in a car crash. He is drawn into a web of secrecy, further complicated by Leung as Lau Chen, a young local woman.
“She’s a crucial part of the narrative as the episodes go on, but she’s a bit of a plot twist so I can’t really say much more,” says Leung. “But she’s a complex, interesting person: rebellious, is trying to find her own identity and sexuality and she’s an activist who has been protesting against corruption within the Hong Kong government and rising property prices. She’s reminiscent of the activism that was happening during the umbrella movement,” says Leung, referring to the Hong Kong democracy protests of 2014, that saw tens of thousands occupy locations in the city demanding freer elections. The name came from the use of umbrellas as a tool of passive resistance against police in the sit-ins organised by the movement, the leaders of which have been nominated for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
Travelling to Hong Kong to film the series, from the producers of Liar and The Missing, Harry and Jack Williams, was a bit of a home from home for 31-year-old Leung, whose parents originated there, before settling in Scotland. Her father Peter was a businessman, while her mother Kar Wai Li worked as a banker in Hong Kong and she has many relatives in the city. “Yes, it was really nice to catch up with my cousins again,” she says.
“We spent two months filming there from October last year for all the exterior shots, then shot the interior in the UK. I love Hong Kong so much, I hadn’t been back since I filmed One Child for the BBC.”
In the 2014 series, shown on the BBC in 2016, Leung played a young woman, adopted from China as a baby, who discovers she has a brother due to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. Filming in Hong Kong, avoided scripts having to be approved by the Chinese government.
“That was quite a harrowing experience to film and it felt like I needed quite a break from it before I went back, and this seemed like the perfect time,” she says.
“It was such a joy to return and see how much of it has changed and show the cast and crew around Hong Kong. To see them experience the culture shock was exciting. It was one of my best work experiences and as with every project, I learnt a lot.
“When you’re in Hong Kong, the weather can make you lose your mind a little bit, being under the sun for too long, because it’s so overpopulated and there are crowds everywhere. So you need to have a good bunch of people around you when you’re filming and I had that, because off-screen John [Simm] loves a laugh. He’s also an incredible actor and I learnt a lot from him.”
Used to speaking Cantonese with her family, the Dundee-born actor was delighted to have the opportunity to use her Cantonese every day.
“I don’t really speak it that often, only with my parents when I go to visit them in Scotland, but to actually use it in a role was fabulous. I really enjoyed doing that.”
Leung is also excited about the 12-part animation series Moominvalley, based on Finnish-Swedish artist Tove Jannson’s popular Moomin stories, and Foreign Skies, a Channel 4 thriller, both to be aired next year.
Moominvalley sees Leung joining a cast of Kate Winslet, Rosamund Pike, Jennifer Saunders, Matt Lucas and Alison Steadman. She plays Too Ticky, a character based on Jansson’s life partner Tuulikki Pietilä. A wise woman, who lives in Moominpapa’s bath house and doesn’t hibernate during the winter like the Moomins, she loves fishing and giving advice, albeit unknowingly.
Did she don Too Ticky’s stripy top and blue hat with the red pompom while she was reading the part?
She laughs. “No, but I did do a bit of research because I had seen Moomins on merchandise but hadn’t seen it on telly. I found it on YouTube, and was surprised by how dark it was – it really shocked me, it’s terrifying! But I love a bit of horror. I saw the draft sketches and it looks bloody brilliant, so I can’t wait. Especially because of the line-up of other cast members doing it.”
Again, Leung was able to use her natural speaking voice and Too Ticky has a Scottish accent. “That was a treat too because it’s been quite rare in the jobs that I’ve done,” says Leung. Now based in London, she has lived all over Scotland, including Dundee, Ayr, Campbeltown, Motherwell, Edinburgh and Glasgow. “And now my mum lives in Glasgow and my dad in Motherwell so I’m back all the time.”
The forthcoming Foreign Skies, a Channel 4 series directed by Michael Keillor, takes her back east in subject, focusing on an American photojournalist looking for the truth behind the iconic image he took of Tank Man, a lone figure who faced off a line of tanks, in Tiananmen Square in 1989. To be released next year the cast includes Alessandro Nivola and is based on the theatre production of Chamerica, a play by the British dramatist Lucy Kirkwood staged in London in 2013.
“It’s based on the student massacre that happened in Tiananmen Square and around the photograph of the Tank Man. Those are the real elements then the writer created a fictional story, where the journalist is trying to track him down. To be able to adapt it for TV is incredible and I’m looking forward to that.
“I play a spirit, I won’t say ghost because she’s not like your typical scary ghost, but she’s kind of a metaphor for her husband’s conscience.
“She’s constantly there to drive them in the right direction.
“It’s a lovely fantastical element to a very naturalistic show, which is why it’s such a great part.”
One child policies, the Umbrella Revolution, pro-democracy protests, Leung has been dealing with weighty subjects and much as she enjoys the contemporary political nature of these roles, she has a hankering to reflect the domestic side of Hong Kong life. “Of course we focus on the serious political issues that are happening over there because it’s written from a westerner’s perspective, but that’s only one aspect of what Hong Kong or China is and like any country in the world, there are domestic issues happening that we just don’t delve into. Hopefully over time we can get into those subjects more, that would be good.
“Those global issues are important, but I look forward to the day when I can just play someone who’s having a domestic in the house.”
If it comes to it, Leung might write herself a part, as writing is something she’d like to try her hand at.
“I feel like there are not enough stories out there that I can play, so I’d like to give that a go, whether it’s TV, stage or film. Other than that, I’ll just keep slogging away. With screenwork you get to travel and also meet a great bunch of people. It was just out of this world getting to film in Hong Kong.”
Famously Leung was cast ahead of 3,000 other hopefuls as Cho Chang after her dad saw an advert for a Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire casting call. With no acting training, Leung went along, got the part and has played Cho Chang in all of the Harry Potter franchise films.
However, after Potter, Leung was unsure about pursuing acting and when she enrolled for a photography course at art college it looked like her life would take a different direction. However, she was cast in an adaptation of Jung Chang’s hit novel Wild Swans at the Young Vic in 2011. The epic story follows the lives of three generations of women in one family at the same time as it charts 20th century change in China.
Leung played the part of Chang herself, and being on stage saw her bitten by the acting bug. She decided to go to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and while there landed a role in Channel 4’s mini-series Run, playing an illegal immigrant, which brought her a Breakthrough Brit award at the 2014 Baftas.
“The thing that changed my mind was being cast in Wild Swans, my first theatre gig. It was when I was on stage and acting alongside trained actors and being in front of an audience that I realised how much I wanted to do it and how much I needed to work on my craft,” she says. “That’s why I went back to drama school, but until then, I think maybe in the back of my mind I had always wanted to act, but it was my own insecurities of whether I would get a job or I’d be employed after Harry Potter because it seemed like such a lucky gig to have got.”
Further TV roles followed with BBC1’s Father Brown and the BBC2 thriller One Child, while on the big screen she was in The Foreigner with Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan. She’s continued to tread the boards with plays in London and took the lead in Snow in Midsummer at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford last year.
“In theatre, you get a direct interaction with the audience and it’s such a palatable feeling that you get instant feedback and also, it’s the sense of collaboration of everyone working hard together to make a piece that is going to affect an audience member. The same happens with screenwork I guess, but the sense of gratification isn’t instant. In theatre I’ve met people who I have so much in common with and I’ve made friends for life. A lot of those gigs have been based around stories that have happened or are happening in China, so I’m working with a bunch of British East Asians and there’s such a sense of community. There’s a lot that resonates when we talk about our individual stories of being born and bred here as a minority.”
Growing up as British East Asian, Leung has said she has experience of racism but asked if she thinks it’s on the increase she’s not sure.
“Oh God, I don’t know. It’s hard, because I feel in London I’m living in a bit of a bubble because everyone’s so open and creative and lovely. I like to think it’s changing but with the current political climate, I don’t know. I think the only thing I can do is remain hopeful, otherwise… otherwise there’s nowhere else to go.”
Leung will always be associated with Harry Potter and has been asked so many times what it’s like to kiss Daniel Radcliffe that she directs any enquirers to Google to find her answer.
“I don’t mind being asked about Harry Potter though, because if it wasn’t for that then I wouldn’t be here. And the fans are so supportive of everything I do, and will watch Strangers. I’m just really grateful for that part of my life. At the same time, when someone comes up to me and says I watched you in something other than Harry Potter, like maybe Strangers, well, it makes me smile.”
Strangers begins on STV on Monday, 9pm