Photographs by Miko Lim Styled by Juliet Vu Creative director Melvin Chan Words by Zech Pharamond
Harry Shum Jr. straddles a unique divide in his Chinese Parentage-Costa Rican heritage. Plus he’s a bonafide actor who has danced for some of the biggest names in music. Here’s a quick peek into his life these days.
Glee was a phenomenal pop-oddity. By accepting that we’re all square pegs of one sort or another, bumping into round holes until we find the perfect nook, the socially-inclusive TV show won fans of every colour and creed. In a sense, being true to yourself is one of the oldest marketing pitches you can run into.
But when presented with such musical magnificence, punctuated with familliar scenarios of awkward teenhood and self discovery -something most adults still experience- the world could instantly relate. In the middle of those whirlwind seasons, when even my sullen-stoic-father would share a couple of episodes with me, was the wonderful Harry Shum Jr. Standing head and shoulders over most of the cast as the other Asian opposite Jenna Ushkowitz, Shum’s Mike Chang went from cameo king to main cast celebrity by the third season, creating his own bit of history by performing the show’s first solo dance routine in the process.
And the rest, as they resign contentedly, is history.
Born to parents who emigrated from Hong Kong’s urban sprawl to sweaty-groovy-Costa Rica and finally San Francisco when Shum turned five, it’s a little wonder he used to speak Spanish ass a first language, then English and Cntonese. Genial, gracious and engaged, he explained how his uncommon upbringing taught him to see people as they were, minus the racial cataloging.
“Before I came to the United States, I had no idea that there were differences in skin colour and race. I just saw everyone as people. But as I got older, I would hear that I was supposed to be this particular way or follow this stereotype, and things got a little cloudy and confusing. But I think because of the way I started out, my foundation is so multi-cultural, it reminds me to stay open– that you don’t have to fit in or be a type.”
What a way to set the stage for his breakthrough TV show. But he hadn’t always been the typical struggling actor. What started as a teenage dare to join the high-school dance team, turned into a lifelong passion, that last saw him lead-dancing on world tours for J-Lo, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey and Jessica Simpson. He’s also an accomplished choreographer with appearances on Stomp The Yard, You Got Served and the Step Up Series. Serious credentials then, but not mutually exclusive from his acting chops.
“I’m an actor and a dancer. I was an actor before I started dancing but that doesn’t mean I’m one less than the other. I have always viewed dancing as a form of acting, because when a dancer is dancing he should be telling a story through movement. There should be an emotion behind each motion, whether it’s light and happy or heavy and sad. I love all forms of art, so I wouldn’t limit myself to only one title.”
A lucid perspective which has won him another central role on Shadowhunters, a series based on Cassandra Clare’s popular novel The Mortal Instruments plus, a big screen part in gangster epic Revenge Of The Green Dragons, and a lead role in kung fu masterpiece, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny. He describes his first martial arts picture as being emotionally, physically, and mentally demanding. While every role should justly push the envelope, Shum thought the highly-anticipated sequel was the most stringent streching he’s ever endured. But fans of the original balletic action film can rest assured he’s done his homework, and was geared towards honouring the original from day one.
“The first one was incredible. I remember showing my friends because I was so proud that there was this film that had strong characters, great story and the martial arts was out of this world. Yuen Woo-Ping’s a legend in this martial arts world. A lot of people think you’re just making a sequel to make a sequel, but the first film follows a five book series
Here, Shum answeres a couple of quick questions for August Man Malaysia.
What about your career do you love most?
That my parents are proud of me. Everyday, I’m fascinated with how I even got here. Daily, I slap myself three times. First time, is to make sure I’m awake and not dreaming. Second time, is to tell myself to never be a jerk no matter what. And third, is for my younger self that I ever even doubted myself.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in showbiz?
(Silent) I’m not really sure to tell you the truth. (Beat) Man, I hope this whole showbiz thing works out… [Now, I’m paranoid]
Tell us about you GLEE experience i.e share some of the most important things you learned about acting and yourself from working on the series.
I learned to be okay with being scared. The dancing was something I was used to but the spotlight, singing and acting was terrifying to me. I realised that I sometimes work better when I’m terrified because it makes me feel alive. Ryan Murphy does a great job of making you believe you can do anything and I had no room to fall. In a way, it was a boot camp with long hours, vocal-training, dance rehearsals, and going on tours. Everything seems a lot easier having gone through that.
What did you expect from Shadowhunters before signing up and how has that changed?
I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did. I was excited to play Magnus and work with a new cast but I didn’t have much time to soak it in after I was cast as I was on a plane the next day to start filming. I do have a lot more appreciation for people who wear make-up, paint their nails and the whole get up. I’ve gotten down to 12 minutes with my clean up, I’m pretty proud of that. Magnus, I love that guy.
What was the last movie to impact you?
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl.
What was the plus and minus about being Asian in Hollywood?
Ever since the beginning of my career, I would always use me being different to my advantage. I would focus on working on my craft and the fact that I was Asian would just be an added bonus if certain projects needed to fill their quota. I’ve always tried to push for any characters to not fall into the traps of being stereotypical. I have seen so much progress made in TV and film that I’m excited for what’s to come.
You’re well versed with Spanish and Latino culture. Are there any similarities with your Chinese heritage?
Food and family is very important to both cultures. I find the similarities in both. They are interconnected and have some much history in the way the food is prepared to the way it’s flavored. There’s just such a weight of importance to family and food. If one shows up, the other follows along.
What are some of the worst and best comments critics have paid you?
I try not to read them. You can have 99 great reviews and that one negative review can ruin your whole week or make you question your own existence. I once made the mistake of going on Tumblr… and that was the last.
Are there other creative fields you’d like to pursue, but haven’t yet?
Would love to direct someday.
What’s one thing you’re proud of, but no one knows about?
That my one true goal in finding success in the business was to be able to take care of my parents. It was an award itself, when they told me they were proud of me.
If you could be the face of any charity, what cause would you champion?
California Clubhouse. It’s a great charity where they offer a safe place and recovery for people who suffer from mental illness. I have a family member who is involved and it has dramatically changed her life in a positive way.
What should every man try at least once in his life?
Skydiving. Never been more zen in my life than floating in the air with the world beneath you.
If you could have lunch with any three people (real or fictitous), who would they be?
Kurt Vonnegut, Bruce Lee and Genie from Aladdin.
If you could direct any movie, play any character, what would that be?
I would be a fly on Martin Scorsese’s shoulder watching his whole process for his next film. Can you imagine how many things you’d learn? Then I’d get swatted into a pool of radioactive ooze that would transform me into a Super-Director-Human-Fly that fights to turn terrible movies into good ones. His first mission? To turn Super-Director-Human-Fly inyo a good movie.
Name a couple of the most influential people in your life.
My parents and my wife, Shelby.
Are action movies a lot harder than dance movies? Tell us about your prep work for Crouching Tiger.
That’s subjective but for me it was harder because I’ve never done it before, I only had three weeks to train before principal photography began. I would be in the dojo six days a week training in Shaolin Wushu, wire work, weightlifting, fight choreography, stunt work while prepping my scenes and dialect coaching. It was a lot of work but I had the best time. It was a dream to work with Master Yuen Woo-Ping and his legendery stunt team.
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