The stereotype of strict parents warding off any creative inclinations of their children is fairly common in celebrity profiles of those of Asian heritage. For Desmond Chiam, the pressure to do well as a student growing up between Melbourne and Singapore was certainly ever-present, with after-school math tuition, Chinese language classes, violin lessons and 4am swim training. But rebelling against his ultimate path of studying and, later, practising law wasn’t an option not because of what his parents wanted for him, but rather he simply had no idea that being creative could be career, so he never entertained it as a hobby, either.
“Here’s the thing,” he says, over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “As a kid you sort of adjust to your context, so you’re not really super aware that what you’re doing might be considered extreme, and actually I’m thankful for the discipline [as an adult]. My parents did a good job of ‘inception-ining’ [my sister and I] with their values rather than it being something we fought back against.”
Though Chiam was born and, with his family, grew up in Australia, where he was educated, his father continued to work for a Singaporean company, so until he was around 16, about a third of each calendar year was spent here, where his extended—and, now, nuclear—family lives. “The two countries are a pretty comfortable hybrid of one another, being in that Asia Pacific region. There’s so much crossover of cultures, so it wasn’t jarring to me as a kid going back and forth between the two.”
“I met a bunch of kids at Scape who’d say things like ‘I want to be a photographer’ and ‘I want to be a director’, and no one laughed at them, which was strange to me but eventually helped me understand that choosing a creative career was possible."
After he completed high school, with his good grades Chiam studied law at the University of Melbourne, practising only for a few months after graduation. “This sounds like an exaggeration but it’s honestly the truth: I did not know that you could have a creative career,” he says. “That’s where that statement ends. Growing up, I genuinely didn’t realise you could make a career doing these sorts of things unless you were born into some sort of creative dynasty.”
For Chiam, the “gateway drug”, as he describes it, was dance. Having embarked on an exchange year in the United States (where, incidentally, he met his wife, in the local dance scene) and soon after moved to Singapore where Scape had just opened, this entry into the world of b-boying and breakdance had him hooked. “I met a bunch of kids at Scape who’d say things like ‘I want to be a photographer’ and ‘I want to be a director’, and no one laughed at them, which was strange to me but eventually helped me understood that choosing a creative career was possible.”
Esquire’s August cover star, Chris Pang, was the first Asian-Australian actor that Chiam saw on screen, and meeting him shortly after the film Tomorrow, When the War Began was released, it helped further affirm to Chiam that his nascent artistic interest was something to be explored rather than ignored. “He was a big proponent of it, super encouraging,” says Chiam, who was left so dispirited after speaking with some of the more senior lawyers at his firm about their own life and aspirations that he quit after only a few months.
What’s followed has been a fairly steady stream of roles, primarily in television shows or shorts, first in Australia (Neighbours, Offspring) and, over the past five years, the US (Bones, NCIS, Hawaii Five-0). Breakout roles have occurred in the form of the Gregg Araki-directed comedy Now Apocalypse, and fantasy book adaptation, The Shannara Chronicles. Talent aside, Chiam’s move from law into acting, and from Asia to the US, has timed with a palpable shift in the level of diversity and representation that exists in Hollywood, providing more opportunities for him and his peers, such as Pang.
“There’s something strange happening in Hollywood right now in terms of representation, but he and I have both noticed that we are getting more stuff where we’re using our natural accent,” says Chiam, noting that three out of the last four jobs he’s booked have been with an Australian twang. “Look, there are undertones of exoticisation to that, but it’s also the first step towards representation too. The danger now is trying not to get typecast in that, because all cultural zeitgeists come to an end, so you want to push yourself and challenge yourself further, and if you keep subscribing to what they want you to do, then you’re in real danger of allowing yourself to be limited.”
"Crazy Rich forced people to come at that from a different direction, because it acknowledges that Asians can be just people on screen, too, so these newer films carry those cultural indices that we’ve established, which makes them way more significant and opens the door even further.”
That major Asian-led productions are on our screens lately—from Mortal Kombat (read Lewis Tan's Esquire cover story here) to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Raya and the Last Dragon—is evidence of this shift in representation, Chiam believes it’s important that these films have come to fruition post-Crazy Rich Asians. “Because otherwise,” he says, “the cultural significance of these latter films is somehow reduced, and you’re leaning into the problem of ‘oh, Asians are cool if they’re on screen doing martial artists or it’s a historic universe’, but Crazy Rich forced people to come at that from a different direction, because it acknowledges that Asians can be just people on screen, too, so these newer films carry those cultural indices that we’ve established, which makes them way more significant and opens the door even further.”
When Desmond Chiam was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne, he saved up his pocket money to buy a Captain America comic video tape from Melbourne Fair, which he professes to wearing out from watching it so many times. Says Chiam: “It’s strange to be in Australia and for your favourite character to be Captain America, but with my schedule and all the training he became almost totemic for me, because it’s not like he’s superhuman, he’s just the peak best human he can be, so I looked up to [the character] in that way thinking that if he can do it, then even I can. To go from that childhood fantasy, which informed a lot of my trajectory in terms of how I deal with tough situations, to being on set in this world of Steve Rogers is so cool man. The 11-year-old in me is so excited.”
At first glance, Marvel’s television offshoot with Disney+ might appear as though a platform for the smaller stories, the lesser-known characters. And yet on the contrary, these television series offer the exact thing that stunted many of the major motion pictures: narrative depth. WandaVision, released in January, set the bar for the level of storytelling we can expect to see in these programmes, with its web of alternate (and often-manipulated) realities.
Part of the success of Marvel’s spin-offs, so far, has been the complete lack of publicly-available details, even in the wake of production delays caused by the Covid pandemic. So, while plot details on this particular series—as well as others, including Loki—remain scant, we know that, in the wake of the events of Avengers: Endgame, we’ll be following Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan); that the shadow of Captain America will be felt, but we won’t see the return of Chris Evans; and that Emily VanCamp is set to reprise her role as Agent 13, last seen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
As for Chiam? Marvel’s approach of clamping down as many details so as to build anticipation—and not give away any plot points, given the interconnected nature of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe—is working, for the actor is tight-lipped about the project, except to illuminate us on just how spectacular the production is. “When we signed on, we knew it was streaming, that it was TV, and traditionally we know the difference between film and TV, though those lines have been blurred recently, but I was still super surprised that the whole thing really was shot like a film, down to the schedule and the experience,” he says. “And the thing that impressed me the most was probably the post-production and the editing, which is not a particularly glamorous side of filmmaking, but to shoot these scenes, often simple dialogue scenes, and then see them so big, with everything looking so deep and rich, was incredible.”
"The superhero thing is so cool, but you’re super, and I think this desire loops back to representation, to wanting to do something that’s quiet and more real, where I can really flesh out the character. That’s what I want to do next.”
But if we can assume that Chiam’s character in Falcon is in line with some of those he’s played recently—and there’s a mention of lifting a truck and of special effects—then it stands to good reason that he’s keen to explore a more intimate, vulnerable side of his creativity. That said, he’s also interested in exploring life on the other side of the camera, too. He’s put a pause on it while he pursues various acting roles, but recently completed a masters in screenwriting at the University of Southern California. “I don’t want to take it as it comes,” he admits. “I’m pretty specifically looking to do something quiet. The superhero thing is so cool, but you’re super, and I think this desire loops back to representation, to wanting to do something that’s quiet and more real, where I can really flesh out the character. That’s what I want to do next.”