You might know him as Mike Chang, or as Magnus Bane, but what we discovered in our interview, recorded as part of this year’s Esquire Neighbourhood event, is that Harry Shum Jr. is a thoughtful, intelligent and pretty damn inspiring guy. As one of the most prominent actors of Asian heritage on American screens, Shum Jr. has carefully portrayed the complexities and struggles of his characters (whether that’s a teenager dealing with the high expectations of his Asian parents when all he wants to do his sing and dance, such was his character’s arc in Glee; or the bisexuality of Bane, in Shadowhunters, which was applauded for its LGBT representation).
His latest project, All My Life, is based on a true story about a couple that brings forward their wedding plans after Shum Jr.’s character is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s a wrenchingly emotional film (As Shum Jr tells it: “It broke my heart. It made me laugh. And it broke my heart again.”), but also filled with moments of joy and intimacy, and it marks an important transition in Shum Jr.’s career that’ll have us seeing more of him on the big screen. Herewith, our favourite moments from the interview, which you can watch below.
The first English word he learned was confusion
Shum Jr. was born to Chinese parents but was born and grew up in Costa Rica until he was six, when his family then relocated to San Francisco. As a result of the mix of cultures and languages, he found himself retreating inward. “I think the first English word I learned was confusion, or confusing, because it was so confusing at home,” Shum Jr. explains. “I think the first language was Spanish, and then it was Chinese, because at home my parents made sure I spoke Chinese, Cantonese specifically, and English I learned from English songs, at school in Costa Rica, so there was a lot of mismatching, not knowing which language was which. When I moved to the States, Spanish became something I didn’t speak as much. I was made to go to Chinese school along with American school, and I did so bad, I used to get terrible grades, because I was just confused, I didn’t know what the teachers were saying, I didn’t know what the students were saying to me. Recess was quiet because I was super shy. Not being able to communicate forced me to be shy in America for a long time because I wasn’t fully comfortable.”
He believes balance is key
“You used the perfect word: balance,” said Shum Jr. in our interview. “What can we do to balance what people are going through right now and watching what’s happening in the world… for me and my friends and family it’s about making sure we’re connecting. There are things that are out of our control but the things we can control are obviously to keep everybody safe, wear a mask, stay in as much as possible. What that does is forces us to find creative ways or make more of an effort to connect with people because at the end of the day all we have is each other, right?”
Being a parent is no easier for celebrities than for the rest of us
“It’s nerve-wracking and challenging and sometimes absolutely scary because you have this human that you have to take care of and hopefully you can keep it safe from… not falling down the stairs or something. And staying safe during this time. But the silver lining is that there’s so much bonding that’s happening between our family, and getting to know each other a lot more, a lot better. In regular life, before 2020, it was go go go, and I don’t know if I would have had this opportunity.”
But you’ve got to make time for yourself, too
While he’s relished spending time with his one-year-old daughter, Xia, during the lockdown of 2020, he believes that it’s important to find time to nurture your own creativity as well. “And also to make sure you don’t spend all the time together, making sure you’ve got your corners and your spaces where you can have your own time, which I think is just as important,” he says.
On-screen diversity is about more than just showcasing race – it’s about telling stories
“One thing I do know is that I care, I care about these characters, and I care as a whole of the importance of whatever the message is that you’re trying to put out. Those franchises [Glee, Shadowhunters] I think they were very meaningful to a lot of people because they never saw part of themselves being reflected on the screen. A lot of people talk about diversity and representation as [being able to see yourself] but sometimes it’s not even just about the face, it’s about these important things that you go through and knowing that someone else is going through it as well.”
And lastly, when words fail: dance
“It is a universal language,” Shum Jr. says of his great passion. “You don’t have to communicate with words. And in saying the wrong thing through dance is always the right thing because you’re expressing yourself.”