In the drama Columbus, the actor, 45, plays the estranged son of an architect who has taken ill. It was filmed in Columbus, Ind., a mecca of modernist architecture.
Did the movie change how you look at architecture?
I thought about how architects can make us feel in the way they design spaces. I'm thinking about North Christian Church, by Eero Saarinen. My father was a preacher. They say the church is not the building, it's the people in it. In this church, the seating went upward. It was in the round, so the congregants looked at one another and down at the preacher. It was impossible not to conclude that the church was the people around you.
The film talks about seeing the place where you grew up with new eyes. Has that happened to you?
L.A.'s a great place to have that happen. You drive by these mini-malls. They look so ugly, but if you close your eyes and open them, it's remarkable that so much life is happening. There might be a Spanish-speaking church or a Korean karaoke room. These little mini-malls contain all this life.
You're in the upcoming season of The Exorcist. Did it give you nightmares?
Part of the reason I took [the role] is I have not been in this genre. I saw it as very white. Horror has been killing off the blond cheerleader. But typically, it is a struggle to remember something's scary. [Filming Star Trek on] the Enterprise, you have to work at pretending you're flying through space. I expect the same in horror.
What do you remember about the depictions of Asian Americans onscreen when you were a kid?
I remember seeing not much. And when it was there, it was usually insulting. I didn't want to contribute to that library of iconography. I always saw it from the vantage point of 12-year-old me. If I had an audition for the role of a Chinese delivery guy, would 12-year-old me appreciate it or be dismayed by it? Despite yourself, you believe what the screen tells you about yourself.