Harry Shum, Jr.
You got a taste of Glee‘s Harry Shum, Jr., in our Fall 2010 issue. The Costa Rica-born Chinese American is a mega-talent, dancing in the summer’s Step Up 3D, dancing and choreographing the Legion of Extraordinary Dancer (catch his Elliot Hoo episode here), and now back as Mike Chang in the season premiere of Glee, Tuesday, September 21. If you wanna see him in the flesh, you just might catch him (and a bunch of other stars) at Audrey’s Night Out 2010, our fashion event extravaganza on September 23, 2010. Buy tickets now, because we always sell out early.
Here, writer Han Cho gives us more from her interview with Harry Shum, Jr.
Q: Do you think your multicultural background has helped you relate to the multicultural cast of Glee?
Harry Shum, Jr.: Yes, I am very fortunate. I am very thankful for my parents for making me be open to things. My best analogy, I like to look at it like food. I love all different kinds of food, I love eating. I’m open to try anything. Sometimes I won’t like it, and sometimes I’ll find something good. And that’s what I do when I meet people in general. I am open to meeting anybody, everybody and learning about what they’re about. And sometimes it might be their culture or their different personalities. And yeah, with the Glee cast, everyone has a different background for the most part, and I think that’s what makes the show so great. What makes the show so popular is that someone can relate to it in some way, whether it be a character or an issue.
Q: How is Glee different from High School Musical?
HSJ: I think my friend said it the best: “Glee is as if High School Musical got punched in the stomach and got their lunch money taken away.” I think the only similarity is that there is singing and dancing. But beyond that, it’s in the scope of the choir room. That’s the setting. That’s what we do every day after you finish your class, it’s our extracurricular activity. That’s our second life outside of school.
I think definitely it’s a show that tackles all sorts of issues, especially like what it means to be gay in high school or race issues, and I think [creator and writer] Ryan Murphy hinted that he wants to dive into what it means to have faith and the questions surrounding it. I think it’s really tackling the issues that people go through everyday, and I think not many shows do that anymore. The writers are so brilliant that they like to take that extra leap and question things. They might get themselves in trouble, but at least they spark some conversation.
Q: On Glee, you play the role of the football player who deviates from the norm and joins the choir. You don’t see many Asian men in that role where they are playing the tough guy or jock. Could you share your thoughts on that?
HSJ: I have to commend the writers for doing that. You have the stereotype of Asians that they’re nerds and all that, and I think it’s really cool that they made Mike Chang a football player. From there, it goes from you’re on the football team and you’re popula, and then you go into into the glee club, and you’re non-existent after that. You’re on the bottom of the levels of popularity. As far as Mike Chang goes, he’s a guy who has this ability, and one of his lines is, “I was afraid outside my room.” He found this thing, this art that he is able to express publicly. And I think it says a lot for this character and a lot of people. A lot of people are scared to showcase what they have.
Q: Do you draw upon your personal experiences when you play this role?
HSJ: Definitely. As myself too, I was very quiet, and I didn’t talk much. I was afraid to talk to people. I didn’t know what they would think of me. And with this character, it’s still developing. I still don’t know much about the character because the character wasn’t as developed as it will hopefully be in the second season. I’m open to see what, who Mike Chang really, really is, but I know he’s going to open a lot more. He’s taken Artie’s girlfriend. He’s got some balls.
Q: So we can expect to see you with more of a speaking role next season?
HSJ: Yeah. We’re going to be shooting soon for that.
Q: Will you be dancing more too?
HSJ: Oh yeah.
Q: I know you’re heavily involved with LXD [Legion of Extraordinary Dancers], and LXD is pretty frickin’ awesome. What is your role as part of LXD?
HSJ: I’m an actor in it, a dancer, and a choreographer for it. I recently got bumped up to producer. It’s really cool to be in all aspects of it. In a sense, it’s like a dream project because you get to be a part of every single thing. With LXD, what I’m so proud of, besides being a part of it, is that it’s the first of its kind. There’s been webseries, but we like to call these “dance adventures.” When you watch them, they’re like Origin stories with different characters. These episodes aren’t 30 minutes or an hour. They range from 7 to 15 minutes. What’s cool is that you watch it, and you’re gonna see some awesome dancing and see a story unfold. It’s like little pieces to a puzzle. And people are really getting into it and trying to figure out what LXD really is.
It’s a passion project. I mean, we shoot an episode in a day. And when you watch the episode, we have some awesome, awesome crew and awesome talent in front of it. What comes out of it, we don’t expect sometimes. We’re like, “OK, we have a vision for it.” Then we come together and choreograph. We get a lot of input from the dancers as well because they’re so unique in their style. But when it comes together, it’s a whole different feeling.
Q: How do you juggle the acting, the dancing and the choreographing?
HSJ: Live shows are different. One thing that doesn’t change is that you have some of the best talent in the world. You have these guys who are amazing at what they do, so we showcase them in that way, but also we tweak the music in the sense that we can make it beautiful. Usually when you look at street dance, it’s hard, and everything hits. While still keeping that integrity, we want to place something on top of it that allows you to see something different. A great example is my mom and dad. They’ve seen this style for a while, but on tour when we did it and then coupled it with classical musical, they were like, “Oh my god, the music is so beautiful, and the dancing is so beautiful.” And I was, “Mom you’ve seen this before!”
One day, I get to dance with Beyonce. The next day, I’m doing a scene with Jane Lynch or dancing on an iPod. It’s so surreal. I look, and I’m so lucky to be doing these things.
Q: Is there a particular kind of dance you specialize in?
HSJ: I definitely can’t do everything. That’s funny. People have been asking me that a lot. I’m not a popper. I’m not a breakdancer. I’m not a locker. I’m not specific to that. I feel like I’m just fusion. I dance because I love to dance. For me, it came from freestyling. I love taking things from different styles. You might see a hint of jazz. You might see a hint of popping. I’m just unclassified, I guess. What I like to see is a dancer who likes to dance. Whatever I see and I like, I like to try it. For one of the episodes, I’m tap dancing on Glee. I’ve never tapped in my life, and I learned it three days before. And I fell in love with it. I was like, “Oh man, this is so hard, but I love this.” There are certain things I can’t do. Like ballroom, I tried that, and I was like, “Wow this is difficult.”
Q: You don’t have any professional training in dance. How did you get to where you are now?
HSJ: I think it’s really the art of mimicking. I turn my brain off and just say, “I’m just going to mirror this person.” And this is where the technique stuff falls into place.
Q: How are your parents dealing with your decision to take this unorthodox and very creative career path now?
HSJ: They’re super Asian. They were like, “Go to school, be a doctor, be a lawyer, I don’t care just make sure it has something to do with school and something to do with being adoctor.” It took a while. I had to slowly tell them. So I told them, “I’ll try school.” And I did. I went to college for a little bit, but it didn’t work out. I didn’t really like it. I had this whole opportunity to go down to L.A. And I did. I got lucky in the sense that I started getting jobs, and some tours here and there. And then came a time, where I said, “OK, I’m going to take this seriously and not get distracted from my art.” Parents are only worried that you can have a good life and make money. So I just came up with a plan, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to dive into the business side of entertainment as far as understand it and get myself through, and utilize it too.”
And I think it was after I started making a living out of it. But really, I think it was after they started seeing me on TV. Then they were like, “Oh!” and started telling all their friends, “He’s on TV!” That definitely helped. And especially for my dad, he still lives in Costa Rica. So he doesn’t really get it. So his friends in Costa Rica, American TV isn’t that big there, but they show Glee there. And people are going up to his work and saying, “We saw your son on the show!” And he’s really proud. And that’s also cool. His English is okay. It’s not the greatest. And ever since he found Google Translate. I can’t even translate “choreography” in Chinese, and now he can read the articles on me.
Q: Any yummy foods you’ve tried since our last interview?
HSJ: Oh man. I’ve finally tried uni [sea urchin sushi]. I think I tasted a bad one before. Now I’m just like, if I try these things, it has to be high quality because I don’t want them to ruin it for me. Because it ruined it one time. And I love it now. And I went to the Philippines, and I tried jumping shrimp where it’s like a live shrimp and you pour a lime over it, and it’s like jumping, it’s still moving, and you squeeze the head and the tail and you eat the body of it. That was really good. And you could still taste the ocean on it.
Q: Do you have any advice or thoughts you’d like to share with Asian Americans who are pursuing an artistic, more unorthodox career like yourself?
HSJ: There’s no right way to do it. I think that there are many ways. Learning the business side of it. You know making sure you are practicing your art as much as you are understanding that business. Once you get into it, you’ll have lawyers and stuff to take care of it, but you still have to understand what you’re signing. And don’t be limited by what the media tells you of stereotypes. Because you can go against the grain. They’ll be like, “You’re not nerdy enough,” and I’ll be like, “WTF does that mean?” “You’re not Asian enough” — I’m like, “what?” I’ve been in rooms where they’re like, “No, you’re not Asian enough. You don’t fit that type. And I’ll be like, “Um, OK.” Don’t be limited by that. If you really believe where you’re going, I believe you’ll find some success. And hopefully you’ll get going and going.
Q: Any final words?
HSJ: I can’t just thank people who love what I do enough. It means a lot. You do something, and you just hope that people respond to it in some way or another. I’m just so thankful that people are supporting me in that way. And I wouldn’t be here without them.