It’s no secret that we’re huge fans of Glee alum Harry Shum Jr. here at the NOC. Ever since Mike Chang graduated from McKinley High, he has built quite the career — even though we might be sad that he wasn’t cast as Iron Fist. From starring in Netflix’s Crouching Tiger sequel to headlining YouTube Red’s Single by 30, Shum has gone on to become one of the busiest young Asian American actors in Hollywood. His highest profile role yet has been as Magnus Bane on Shadowhunters, the hit adaptation of The Mortal Instruments book series. The show’s second season winter finale airs tonight at 8pm on FreeForm.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with Harry and talk about what it’s like to represent so many communities — Asian American, LGBTQ, Warlock — on genre television.
KEITH: Thanks for taking some time to talk with us! I’ve been a huge fan of yours for some time. I’ve fancast you in everything, including Iron Fist.
HARRY: Wow. I appreciate that!
I mean, you’re one of the few legit Asian American stars on TV. What’s it like to be such a high-profile representative of the community?
I never look at it as, like, I’m representing a whole community, but at the same time I think it’s great that a community can look at a character like [Magnus Bane] on a TV show and be able to find ways to be proud of it. For me that’s really important.
We focus a lot on genre stuff here at The Nerds of Color. So for a show like Shadowhunters to be so diverse and inclusive is really important. Was that intentional?
It’s more about how do I make this reflect real life? Not just situations and events, but just the human side of what people go through. What I love about the show is that it never mentions “oh, he’s Asian,” not that they don’t want to, but it doesn’t matter. And the fact is the stories behind him can be so rich and different from what we’ve seen before because someone of that background has never been on television. I think it’s a cool part about it, you know?
For sure. I always thought advocating for diversity is as much about creating interesting characters as it is about opportunity for actors.
The fact that the writers can go “oh my god, look at this character we can write about!” We have these stories now. To me that is really exciting. It’s also been exciting to see on the other side of the spectrum of Asian America and the community and the warlock community. It’s really cool for people to find things they can be proud of. Just like, even on your website, you just want good stories and representation. I remember when I was five or six and watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. As much as we want to see people who look like us, it’s important for us to have a diverse slate of films and television shows so that we can have cool stories.
Unfortunately, the call for diversity seems to fall on deaf ears. It feels like it’s been an especially tough year for Asian Americans since whitewashing is still happening.
Just with anything, it’s important for us to look at everything as a unique situation. Because then we’re able to really put it into the proper category. Yes, Asian Americans are underrepresented, but now figuring out why there are situations where people say “oh well, let’s just get an actor that has a certain status, to play this, and that’s that.” I think, yes, let’s look at what the character means. Look, we’re not saying people deserve this, we’re saying if the story and background make sense, why wouldn’t you do that? Instead of a battle of opposing sides, [we should have] an intellectual conversation about it. It’s incredible to hear the voices, especially with your platform, to talk about this and at least start that conversation because I think it’s helping. Even the execs that I meet now are really trying to figure out what they can do. It’s easier said than done, but I think it’s totally worth it.
The character you play on Shadowhunters has allowed you to also representat the LGBTQ community. Magnus’ relationship with Matthew Daddario’s character Alec even spawned the hashtag #ThankYouMattAndHarry where fans expressed their gratitude for the depiction. What has that been like?
It’s been incredible to hear how it’s affected a lot of people, whether they’re in the community or not, and I think that says a lot. Obviously, it’s important for the [LGBTQ] community itself, but I think what is more important at the same time is the community outside looking at it like “oh, this is so cool!” I think it’s the whole Ellen effect, right? Most of America loves Ellen, and she’s openly gay and it doesn’t matter. And I think that is so cool and powerful.
So to have people championing our relationship, to see that they just love these two characters together. They love each other. That’s it! I think it’s really great what the show is doing. The writers just making sure the characters are strong on their own and then hoping that relationship will blossom into something on its own.
Which it did!
It already has! They even have a name, Malec. It’s incredible to see that.
Speaking of the effect on fandom, how would you describe the evolution of fandom from when you were on Glee to now? Both shows have tremendous followings, but it feels like Glee was part of a different era when it comes to twitter.
When I first got on to twitter, being able to talk to other celebrities — and at that time, I didn’t consider myself [a celebrity]. I was just an actor trying to make it — but to be able to talk to them or get a reply was very meaningful. I remember getting responses from someone like Warren Buffet, someone like that who’d you would never be able to reach otherwise was so cool. I think there’s an upside to be able to have direct communication with someone you watch every single day or week.
Is there a downside to engaging with fans on twitter?
A lot of times, people watching [your show] are welcoming you into their homes. That’s why TV and social media has become something like a package. You want to be able to look at what is being said on social media as you watch something. They go hand in hand together now. It’s been cool to see that evolve. At the end of the day, it’s to show appreciation. It’s part of the deal. Just because you’re an actor doesn’t mean you have to do social media. But for me, it’s to show appreciation and to say thank you for watching. That’s what’s cool about it.
Going back to the topic of representation and telling stories, do you have any intentions to work with prominent filmmakers of color or get behind the camera yourself?
My list of people I want to work with is so large, I hope to see a fraction of it in my lifetime! [Being] behind the camera is something I’m interested in as well. A big portion of my career was choreography and even writing and directing a few smaller projects.
You seem to make a point of working with Asian American creators from Jon Chu with LXD to Wong Fu Productions on Single by 30. Diversity is just as important behind the camera as in front, isn’t it?
I’ve learned how to be okay with telling a story that I want to tell as opposed to formulating it in a way where I think [other] people will like it. That’s been the biggest learning experience in the past 10 years for me. Especially now, you see movies like Moonlight and Hidden Figures and all the way to Justin Chon who did Gook that won an Audience Award at Sundance. To see it’s okay to just tell your story and if you do it properly, there’s an audience now for it and that’s great.
I’d add Jon Chu’s upcoming Crazy Rich Asians to that list!
Those Crazy Rich Asians gotta tell their story too!