City College Alumni Hung Van Lam Gets His Big Break on Netflix’s “100 Humans”
By: Adina Pernell
Where do you interview someone who is a child of the 80’s, a member of Gen X, and grew up loving pop culture and watching martial arts action films someone who says their “soulmate is Wonder Woman”, and whose childhood idols were Bruce Lee and Michael Jackson? Why Capcom U.S.A. Headquarters of course.
It was impossible to miss the logo of the popular game software developer, that by some happy coincidence, was the interview spot where security guard Hung Van Lam had received a temporary assignment. The bold yellow lettering loomed ironically in the background of Lam’s Facebook Messenger screen frame.
When the sign was brought to his attention, Lam grinned toothily, made a ridiculous face, and formed his hands in the stance of the classic Capcom Street Fighter game character, Ryu. The iconic sound “Shoryuken” exploded from his lips.
The silliness of his expression belied the crisp, white shirt of his security guard uniform that blended with the otherwise stark, industrial background of the space he occupied, and it was pure comedy. Lam sat down and told me his story.
“It’s kind of funny. I’ve been around since 1996. So I have a lot of content,” said Lam in reference to the amount of social media spaces where his artistic abilities can be seen.
“It’s now 2020 I’m like 20 years in the making. And I’ve been having people say to me forever. ‘You really should be in Hollywood. You should be in a movie or you should have your own show.’ Because it took me so damn long.”
Lam is human # 54 from the Netflix Reality Series “100 Humans: Life’s Questions. Answered.” “100 Humans” concocts humorous scenarios to explore certain types of human behavior by observing the actions of 100 humans from varied walks of life and social demographics.
For Lam, “100 Humans” represents what may just be the big break he has been waiting for, and it’s been a long time coming.
“I’m the most famous guy that you’ve never met. Just Google my name,” Hung Van Lam, and then look at the web. It’ll show you everything I’ve done,” Lam said.
Lam has many names – archetypal aliases that encompass the different faces you’ll encounter when he is performing. Hung Van Lam the actor and producer, Sideburns Guy on “100 Humans”, hELLA HUNG the b-boy, Hella Man MAN, the Asian American He-Man, parody character he invented one Halloween in LA that turned into an indie series pilot on YouTube.
“Then I have a character called El Dynasty where I wear the Mexican Luchador mask that looks like [the wrestler] Rey Mysterio.” In this character, which was recently featured in a Facebook Group commercial, Lam would perform street shows with a boombox in Venice Beach, dancing to music of the 50’s to the early 2000’s.
Lam wears many hats both personally and professionally and it’s all in pursuit of a dream. Like many before him, he has chosen a path not easily tread and often full of detours to a career in Hollywood.
His long list of talents, including being a cartoonist, comedian, dancer and martial artist all served to augment his diversity as a performer. When asked if he considers himself to be an actor or an entertainer, Lam concedes that he’s more an “ambassador for the arts” because of the broadness of his skillset.
But it wasn’t always that way. At first Lam didn’t consider dance or performance arts seriously as a career path. “I never knew that dancing was even in me. Because I [was] poor, I was a refugee kid.” Lam’s parents immigrated to America from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
“I thought I was gonna be a martial artist , and none of my parents really supported the arts.” He mentioned his mother in particular saying that “even now with all the TV shows… she only understands success in translation of money”.
For Hung though who only made approximately $3000 for two and a half weeks of 15 hour shoots during the filming of “100 Humans”, it’s not about the money, fame or prestige. “I can tell people f*ck the fame! And at the end of the day screw the street cred. It’s about being passionate!” Lam said.
The College Years:
Lam’s long and winding road to his reality TV debut in Netflix’s “100 Humans” began with him exploring many avenues of creativity at City College of San Francisco. Before Lam, a self professed “comic book geek” graduated from City College with an arts degree, he started working at the college newspaper The Guardsman as a cartoonist and after taking a pagination class, as The Guardsman’s illustration editor.
Lam said his process of creating art is akin to watching a movie scene. “I think because I was raised on television. I’m used to images, you know,” he said.
While at The Guardsman, Lam went on to win an award at the Journalism Association of Community Colleges (JACC) for his artwork. Lam also won Best Editorial Cartoon 2001 at the San Francisco Chronicle for his comic “Bush on a Rope”, a sarcastic visual commentary about the former US President.
Lam was also the author of a feature story in a Spring 2003 issue of City College’s student run Etc. Magazine.
The Etc Magazine feature is “a story of how I became a dancer,” Lam said. Then with a reminiscent chuckle he insisted that it “all started with a girl…so it’s a nice little love story.” He continued his musing saying “you know the only reason why men do anything is because of a girl.”
But as Lam continued to hone his dancing and performing skills, a hobby that may have started with a romantic crush became his calling. During his college years, Lam created a breakdancing club at City College “originally named Freddy Hung, B -Boy Sessions, and then CCSF Breakin’ Fridays.”
“I came out during the era of YouTube. My entire breakdancing career is on YouTube,” Lam said. In 2007 a video of Lam dubbed “The Best B-Boy Battle Ever” posted by DJ Incognito on YouTube went viral.
Lam described the battle as “the ultimate underdog battle.” His nostalgia palpable he says “It’s literally me…untrained, going against a world-famous break dancer!”
As Lam’s skills grew, so did his reputation as a dancer. As part of the breakdancing crew called The Hung Dynasty, he fully embraced the persona B-Boy hELLA HUNG and also became something of a hype man known for getting the party started in the San Francisco Bay Area club scene.
Before he knew it, Lam was pursuing his career as a performer in earnest. Throughout the years he auditioned for a host of well known reality television talent shows, but none of them panned out.
Lam tried out for America’s Got Talent in 2007 but didn’t make it past the LA rounds.
Lam , also a comedian at heart who describes his method as “physical comedy” where the movement of his body becomes a key form of expression, didn’t make the cut again when he auditioned for “Last Comic Standing” in 2008.
“Like So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD), I didn’t make it in Vegas,” Lam said of his 2010 audition for the dance reality TV show. At this point, he had relocated to Los Angeles. “I went to Hollywood after Michael Jackson passed away in 2009,” Lam said.
At first Lam was an audition favorite on SYTYCD. He was featured in a short dance-themed superhero parody, shown flirting outrageously with the show’s host Cat Deely, and filmed doing various antics.
After a few mini-auditions Lam was called to dance in a final audition. At the time, Lam explained, he wasn’t aware this was actually the final audition and to top it off, a remix of the song he chose was played.
After the final audition was over Lam said “the judges didn’t know what to say, you know. And [when] I went backstage they were like ‘Hung, what the hell? What was that?’ I said, ‘well, it was a remix. I don’t know that song so I just went out to have some fun.’They were like this was the audition that counted.”
In the end this was another close call with fame. Looking back on his audition process with SYTYCD, Lam felt that the whole affair was “pretty racist”. Lam mused that “even when you watch the clip, everything they said to me was really endearing word-wise, but if you look at the delivery it’s sarcasm.”
Though disappointed, Lam never gave up on his dream. He signed up for casting agencies and continued to scour Los Angeles for acting roles while working on the side.
Lam has worked in all kinds of occupations to keep his dream of making it in Hollywood alive. He co-ran an 80’s pop culture themed Hamburger joint in Compton. I was “a bus boy and a cook. I worked at Trader Joe’s and Safeway, the airport. I’ve done everything.” And of course true to superhero form, as a security guard, Lam is one of the essential workers helping to keep the economy going.
Lam has sometimes been forced to choose making ends meet over job opportunities in Hollywood. Lam, who has been training as a martial artist since 1991, was once scouted by a stunt coordinator for Lionsgate Entertainment at a 24 Hour Fitness known for its celebrity clientele. He was invited to a test shoot to become one of their stunt persons and “nailed it” but missed out on the second interview because he couldn’t get time off work.
Lam made the choice to try and postpone the second test shoot because “they didn’t offer me a contract” and he didn’t want to be lured by any “fake promises… cause you need to pay rent”. Lam tried to explain the situation to the scout saying “‘I hope we can resched-’ and he just hangs up on me. That’s Hollywood.”
A Silver Lining:
Things started to look up in 2018 when Lam was cast in a small speaking role, in a 10 part, brief, episodic science fiction series about artificial intelligence called “Cyborg Universe”. Lam ended up getting a major voice acting role in the series. “Cyborg Universe”, originally a Kickstarter project, debuted in January this year on Amazon Prime. Lam was also at the time anxiously anticipating the debut of “100 Humans” on Netflix. “So both of these shows have been two years of me waiting,” Lam said.
“Every time I’m about to be on TV. Something happens,” Lam said. This time, that “something” was COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic which derailed many events in the entertainment industry including the premiere party Lam was supposed to attend celebrating the release of “Cyborg Universe.” to Amazon Prime.
Meanwhile, Lam was featured in a remake of the music video for the Ray Parker Jr. hit “Ghostbusters” slated to be shown in movie theaters, but that was never seen due to quarantine lockdown theater closures.
In a strange twist of fate though, “100 Humans” aired on Netflix on the same day that President Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency and shortly before many states issued shelter-in-place orders.
The fact that much of the world is on lock down has thrown a wrench in the entire entertainment industry, stalling productions and pushing back movie releases. But shows that have already been filmed and have been recently released are in a unique position to benefit from potentially increased viewership during the stay-at-home mandate.
In light of this, Lam could get a larger amount of publicity and exposure. Lam is hopeful this is the moment of his career he’s been waiting for. At 40, Lam is still in fighting form. The only difference he said is “my body gets tired quicker and it doesn’t heal as fast but I could still do everything that I did back in the day.”
He outlined his perfect scenario for success with laughing optimism. “You know how you make something and you’re like, man, when this sh*t drops. I’m gonna be so famous! Hollywood’s gonna be calling me and saying, ‘you’ve been in LA the whole time and we’ve never used you? So now we want you!’”
Lam’s story is rather like that of a comic book hero, the one with a humble origin story who defies fate despite all odds and strikes out on his own adventure. He seems to have succeeded through sheer will and a refusal to settle for less than everything he wants out of life, and it’s taken a considerable amount of determination for him to get to where he is now.
“People are like ‘Hung, you’re cocky’. I’m like I’m not cocky. I’m just extremely confident. I don’t need to prove myself because I am the standard like Picasso or Mozart…one of those brilliant people that you’re never gonna understand till like 10 or 20 years later.”
Even though the b-boy scene has faded significantly in popularity, many of his peers have moved on and Lam felt that “the hELLA HUNG momentum kind of stopped,” he has left an indelible mark on the Bay Area breakdancing community.
Will “100 Humans” be the defining moment in Lam’s acting career? Only time will tell. “So everything that I’ve ever said I was gonna do, I do. It’s just time is the missing variable,” Lam said.
Whatever is on the horizon, Lam will approach it with his own signature style and flair, much like he did when he shared a poem he composed while a senior in high school his hands and body flowing with movement to the punctuation of every line, literally poetry in motion.
He completed his final verse with a reverential bow and a glimpse of a smile.“I Hung Van Lam am an 80’s, freestyle kind of guy I speak for myself and nobody else.”