“¡Buena vida!” Harry Shum Jr. chimes at the end of our cheery phone chat. The 38-year-old actor is as kind as he is talented, happily opening up about his new film All My Life and everything in between.
Harry was born far away from La La Land, living in Costa Rica until the age of six when his family relocated to America. Since then, the creative has made stellar use of his triple-threat skillset. He’s appeared in multiple projects that went on to be woven into the fabric of pop culture. You may know him as Mike Chang on Glee. Unless his stint on Shadowhunters was more your jam. Or perhaps you’re eagerly hoping for him to have a front and center role in the Crazy Rich Asians sequel?
From the latter to working with powerhouse talents like Jennifer Lopez, read on for our delightful chat with Harry.
HOLA! USA: So March 2019 versus March 2020 are lightyears from each other. If you don’t mind sharing, how has it been raising your first child in this time?
Harry Shum Jr: Everything that I think most people go through. Excitement; complete fear; what did I get myself into? And then this beautiful calming moment... before the crying starts happening [laughs].
It’s such a great lesson of being human again. I think that’s the whole thing. Seeing this new life forming and you have complete responsibility over its wellbeing. It’s been beautiful for the most part, even during the crying/trying moments.
I give you many kudos. It must be even harder during a pandemic.
You start to feel this multi-tasking, heroic sense. I’m washing the dishes, I’m cooking, I’m making a playground… you’re making use of everything you’ve ever learned in life or are trying to learn new things in a matter of hours.
Your career is rooted in the theatre and live performance. Is performing live something you’ve missed in 2020?
Yeah, I do. The closest thing, outside of theatre, is sitcoms. I remember the couple that I got to do early in my career. You have this sense of killing two birds with one stone. You’re putting something on tape that will live forever and you’re also kind of living in the moment and responding to an audience.
Being a dancer, I always considered myself really lucky to be able to go on tour. When I was touring with artists, I felt this energy that only the artist and the band and the dancers got to really share, specifically, when you’re onstage. That energy is something that’s unmatched and you can’t replicate anywhere else.
Speaking of, early in your career you danced with our queen: Jennifer Lopez. What was it like working with her?
There’s artists where you admire them for their talents or tenacity and beauty and all that. She is someone that has the whole package... the work ethic. What I loved about her is that she didn’t look at things just as a music artist, she looked at it in choreography, staging - all the elements within the entire performance. Which is much appreciated. Sometimes artists are limited with time restraints. They go in, they get taught the choreography. Something that Jennifer does is put her whole heart into it. She has so much input.
When I worked with her, I worked with choreographers Rich + Tone. I grew up being a huge fan. They were in Missy Elliot videos, they danced for Michael Jackson... When I got to work with them when I did Dancing with the Stars and all that, it was such a pleasure.
Full circle, I did this show called Fake Off and she came and watched. To be able to talk to her about how I used to dance for her - cause, you know, you get limited time with artists, all you’re thinking about is the performance ahead. I respect her so much. I got to see her live Vegas show. It’s really cool to see her still kicking ass.
Even in TV/Film you always have that wonderful rhythm/ musicality. Would you be interested in Broadway when things come back?
Definitely! I think it’s a matter of the right project and the right timing. Anywhere you get to perform - I feel so fortunate to be able to do that.
Your new film All My Life is based on a true story. Were you able to speak to any of the real-life people involved during preparation?
Yes, I did. It’s inspired by the beautiful story of Jennifer Carter and Solomon Chau. Jen was on set a few times. I got to talk to her and it was really cool over dinner just hearing more stories about their relationship. Jess [Rothe], my co-star, who is just an incredible actress and kind heart. She was able to have a lot more interaction since she was portraying her.
What was really nice and, I think, really brave of Jen is that she doesn’t know Hollywood. This is all new to her and she just really gave us the freedom as long as the message was clear to what Sol represented. That was most important to her. Everything else - as far as portraying her a certain way, mannerisms etc. that was nothing that was on the table. It was more just getting this beautiful love story across. That was really nice for us as actors to be able to just focus on each other and the story and to be very present on set.
Cancer unfortunately is something that infests most people’s lives in some way. How did you tap into representing that journey?
It’s always such a difficult struggle not just for the person dealing with the disease, but also the people surrounding them as well - in different ways, obviously. That was important for me: to not let that overtake the story even though we know this is a terminal illness and something people are challenged with every single day.
Our hope was to express the other perspectives. A lot of times, we don’t see the caretaker get a lot of focus on what they’re dealing with as well. I think there are elements in the movie where you do see Sol really struggle with this. Anyone knowing that their end is near is gonna deal with it in different ways. What was really inspiring about Sol is that he never made anyone else feel like they should go down with him. I think what he spread with that message of hope, resiliency and positivity, and looking at the smaller things and appreciating the time that you have here was really something that I took away and tried to make sure to channel throughout the story.
Thank you for that. The movie’s release seems perfectly timed, as this couple has their sights on diving into a life together, but fate deals different cards. Everyone’s sort of felt a variation of that in 2020. Do you have any advice for dealing with unexpected bumps in the road?
For me, personally, what has really helped me and the people around me is the idea that you’re always gonna be struck with some obstacle, some roadblock. It’s just a matter of your perspective. There’s a 360 view, sometimes we only have a certain angle. It’s just your willingness to really go full circle around whatever the situation is so you can best tackle it. I think with the situation we’re in right now, it’s really difficult on a lot of people whether it be financially, emotionally, mentally, physically...
I think it’s all about perspective. I always learn something from my roles, and this one was finding ways to appreciate the little things. Also, looking at numbers. There’s a few times Sol mentions numbers and looking at statistics and flipping them. When you do look at them that way, it’s like the glass half full, half empty thought process. That really helped me out with this year and my mindset.
Do you have a favorite love story in entertainment that inspired you?
It’s funny because I love romantic comedies. I grew up watching them with my sister. So many of them, from Pretty Woman to Knotting Hill. Funny enough, Jessica and I sat there and watched it [Knotting Hill]. The chemistry is so beautiful. The story is completely fictional, but when you see two people and sparks fly, it’s something that I think we all like to see.
When you see love happen and you get this feeling inside you - it’s when two things work. You can be an engineer, you can be an architect, when two things just fit it makes you feel a certain way. I think it’s the same way with love.
And you two have that!
I think it’s two like-minded people that are on the same page. I credit a lot of it to Jessica. She was on the project before I was. I came and did a chemistry read with her and just from the moment we met… For people who don’t know, a chemistry read is like an audition where you do these deep reads within seconds of meeting someone. Jessica had gone through like ten different reads already. Her stamina and ability to tap into whatever she needs to, every single time, was just incredible and it gave me the support system to be comfortable and loosen up and do what is needed to lift it off the page.
I really credit her. She blew my mind. I walked out thinking: ‘I would be so lucky to act with her in this movie.’ I’m so fortunate that I got to. It was more about trust and building that trust to know that we could just try things. I think that’s where it all came together.
On another support system note, I loved seeing you and your Glee co-stars create the GoFundMe in honor of Naya and Alexandria House in L.A. How did that come about?
You know we still have these group texts and we talk constantly - silly jokes, something we’re happy about or stuff gets really emotional… Telly [Leung], Kevin McHale and Jenna Ushkowitz they had this idea, cause usually we have Snixxmas. Naya has these incredible, elaborate Christmas parties. She does a toy drive for Alexandria House in L.A., which gets toys to underserved kids that don’t have the opportunity to get toys and essential needs. She used to do it every single year. It was this amazing beautiful time for a beautiful cause.
So, this year they had this wonderful idea to gather everyone up and put our powers together to keep the spirit alive that Naya always brought. We’re also in this weird pandemic where we can’t even get together, so we thought that would be the best thing to do.
The support just blew us away. Alexandria House has been having a hard time, so this is very, very helpful and I’m so glad that we can keep her spirit alive.
It’s amazing. I also heard you recently filmed Netflix’s Love Hard. How has it been working as an actor in COVID times?
It was scary. I didn’t work until that movie. This whole year, like a lot of people, has just been figuring out how to get back to work. I’m really proud to say more so our producers, crew and cast went without any hiccups or stoppage. There were no cases that hampered and stopped production. Honestly, besides that element, I feel like we made a really special movie.
A big shout-out to Hernan Jimenez, who’s a Costa Rican-born director. It was just cool to have another Costa Rican on that set! It was a really, really great beautiful Christmas love story. It was really cool to support Nina Dobrev and Jimmy O. Yang, who’s a good friend of mine.
It’s nice to know there are protocols that allow us to get back and start making tv shows and movies.
Agreed. Hopefully you’ll all be able to make the Crazy Rich Asians sequel soon. Any update on that?
I don’t have any answers, but I love being asked because it shows the enthusiasm people have for the movie.
What I will say is that last time I spoke to John [M. Chu], they’re writing away. They’re trying to get it right. It’s a much harder story to adapt. The book has so much depth and a wealth of story. The first one kind of shifted some things, so it’s gonna alter what’s gonna happen in the sequel, so that’s gonna take a little bit of time - along with the pandemic not helping things. I’m optimistic and I’m excited to hopefully see something soon. That’s all I know. I wish I could give more information.
Do they ever ask your feedback for where you’d like to see the character go?
They’re better at that than I am. I think we don’t know where characters will go. I’m looking at it as a fan also. On set it just felt like camp. I’m just excited to go to camp and hang out with these people that I admire. When the script comes, I think we’ll go from there. It’s really exciting that so many people are asking about it. I’m thankful for that.
And we’re thankful for this chat! Catch Harry in All My Life, now playing in theaters and on demand December 23.