'Patriots Day's' Jimmy O. Yang on Playing Boston Marathon Carjacking Victim

Jimmy O. Yang and Dun Meng at 'Patriots Day' AFI Screening - H Getty 2016
Getty Images

The actor, who's well known for playing 'Silicon Valley's' Jian Yang takes a dramatic turn in the CBS/Lionsgate film as Dun "Danny" Meng, who was captured by the bombers but managed to escape and alert the police.

[Warning: The following story contains mild spoilers from Patriots Day and the real-life events around the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which are dramatized in the film.]

Just three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, 26-year-old Chinese entrepreneur Dun "Danny" Meng spent 90 harrowing minutes held captive by the brothers behind the attacks. As Meng would later recall to The Boston Globe and in court, his Mercedes was carjacked by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, with younger brother Dzhokhar joining him. As they drove, the Tsarnaevs posed various questions to Meng, who fretted that his captors would kill him. When they stopped at a gas station, though, and one of the brothers left the car, Meng quickly escaped and ran into a gas station across the street, where he was able to alert the authorities.

Meng is just one of the many real people whose experiences in the days around the Boston Marathon bombings are dramatized in the new CBS/Lionsgate film Patriots Day. In the Peter Berg-directed drama, starring Mark Wahlberg, Jimmy O. Yang (best known for his role as Jian Yang on Silicon Valley) plays Meng, in a performance that's been getting solid reviews, including from The Hollywood Reporter, which called Yang "superb" in the role.

Although, Yang wasn't too familiar with Meng's experience before he got involved with the film, as he learned more about it, through research and in-depth conversations with Meng, he was amazed by what he calls an "incredible" story of a "real hero."

Speaking with THR, Yang talks about the real-life inspirations behind key scenes and reveals what motivated Meng to make his daring escape.

How much did you work with the real Dun Meng and talk to him about his experience?

I started working on the film and doing my homework and research about a month before going to Boston to film and then maybe a week before going to Boston I got [Dun Meng's] number from production. We made sure we were very careful at first. I mean, it's a very traumatic event. I wanted to make sure we were respectful, like not conjuring up negative emotions and stuff. But we really hit it off. He's an immigrant, I was an immigrant. We've got a lot of similarities and the same interests so we got to talking. I think I started talking in Mandarin, but he actually, even though Mandarin was his first language, he was more comfortable telling me the story in English of what happened because he'd told it so many times in English. He was just so willing to share. Even in Boston, I was bugging him. He was willing to share even the really detailed emotional stuff like what he was thinking at the time and the emotions he was going through at the time. So that was all extremely helpful to help me add depth to that character.

His big moment, even though we see him throughout the movie, is when he escapes from the car. Was he able to conceptualize for you why he felt like he could make such a brave move at the time?

He told me everything. Even the moments leading up to it, all of the questions he answered from the brothers, like, "Does anybody care about you? Do you know about 9/11?" All of his answers had a backstory to them because each answer is very well thought out and each answer could mean life or death. So when they asked, "Is there anybody who cares about you?" Obviously there is. But he said "No, there's nobody who cares about me here" because he doesn't want the Tsarnaev brothers to think he has a family near who would call the cops or something like that. And that way they would just kill him, push him out of the car. Everything is leading up to him escaping. At some moments, he told me, he literally had an image of the brothers driving him out onto a cliff somewhere and shooting him in the back of the head. He thought he was going to die. He thought, "I have to leave." And he gave himself some circumstances, like he'd try to escape if there's only one brother present. He didn't think he could escape with [both brothers in the car]. So there's a lot of conditions in his mind. When the younger brother went into the gas station, he just went, "I've got to go, this is my only chance." And he thought about it and couldn't do it because he could've gotten shot right there. He just overthought it, couldn't do it. And it was once he stopped thinking and let his instinct kick in, that was when he was able to just jump out and run.

In terms of the carjacking scenes, how much of what went on in the car was what actually happened and how much was fictionalized?

It was 100 percent all real. Pete [Berg] had talked to Danny many times about his story. All the questions: "Have you heard of 9/11, that was an inside job?" He answered, "No, I don't know that." And one of the brothers says, "Are you just saying 'no' because you don't want us to kill you?" That's all real. In the beginning when one of the brothers asks, "Is there anybody who cares about you?" After I talked to Danny, I brought that idea to Pete. When he told me that story, that was one of the moments when I really felt something. "Is there anybody who cares about you?" That sounds like such a heavy emotional question, but Danny was smart enough to think, "He's just trying to get more information out of you to see if there's anybody who's going to call the police." [Berg] was like, "Let's put that in, let's try that." There were some scenes that I think didn't make the edit, but we made it really real and we were able to splice it with the real footage. It's crazy to reenact it. And I'm glad Danny approves of it after he saw it. I'm sure it was tough for him to watch.

We see Danny throughout the entire movie, even in snippets at the beginning. What do you think the audience can learn from those early scenes and why was it important to have that early insight into him before the carjacking?

Each of the characters, before the event happened, there's a human side of it. You want to humanize the story to show that these are everyday people. They have a business, like Danny; they have a job; and they have, maybe, a girl that they care about. And I think it makes it more human and it really shows how everyday people, when they're tested, can do amazing things of courage to really help the city out. It shows that everyday people can be heroes. The backstory about going out with the girl, that was actually interesting because it wasn't in the script. We wanted to add more depth to the character. It was Pete's idea to do some extra scenes. One of the things, even in the Boston Globe report when they talked to Danny, was that the whole time, in the car, he was thinking, "I'm never going to see my parents again, I'm never going to see friends again." And there was this girl he really liked that he'd just met that he thought he'd never see again and then after this traumatic experience, one of the first things he did was call this girl. I thought it was very sweet and really adds a lot more depth and humanizes him more to put that girl in the beginning and the backstory.

You're known for your role on Silicon Valley and you have a comedic background. What was it like doing this serious dramatic role?

It was tough. The set wasn't like fun. It wasn't like just me and T.J. Miller making jokes but I think coming from a comedic background helped because I'm very comfortable with improv. On Pete's set, you need to know more than just lines. You need to know your character, you need to know your backstory because he might just tell you, like the scene with the girl, that was all just improvised, so that stuff, you need to know what your guy's about. So coming from a comedy background I wasn't freaked out. I was very comfortable with all of the improv.… It's really rewarding at the end of the day. I'm not saying comedy is not, but this, we're all going in knowing that it's not just about our own individual performances, it's a picture and story that's much bigger than us and there's a great message of unity in there. So I think coming away from that, it was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done and I'd love to do more of it.