Harry Shum Jr. has stories to tell. From his long-running character Mike Chang on Glee to his starring appearances in countless films and television shows, Shum Jr. has developed an incredible knack for keeping audiences engaged while making them smile and, occasionally, bringing them to tears. His latest film, All My Life, shows all these skills in beautiful form, telling the true story of Solomon Chau and Jennifer Carter and how their lives are changed by a surprise cancer diagnosis. Schön! spoke to Shum Jr. about the film, his reflections on Glee and his hopes for the future.
As I understand it, you worked quite closely with Jennifer Carter to tell her and her husband Solomon Chau’s true story. What were the meetings with her like?
She was wonderful. You know, it’s always nerve wracking walking into any situation where you’re having to play someone who’s existed. And with Jennifer, she was just really wonderful and really open and really brave about sharing her experience and intimate moments…She didn’t come into it saying, ‘You need to play this. This is how I am, this is how you should play it.’ She just came like, ‘Look, I’m sharing everything that I feel you need to make this story really moving.’ All she really wanted was to share the message of the movie, which really was one of hope…It’s about strength and living every day to the fullest and not living with any regrets. That was really, really powerful, and that really helped us be able to just be a vessel for this story.
It’s quite a heavy subject. What was the process like for you personally? Did the role take a toll on you at all?
Yeah. I look at life very differently now — I just have never filled the shoes or played a character in this manner, where I got to watch videos and see how they live, even just a smidgen of a slice of their life. There were moments where, on set, before and after a shooting, we would get super emotional: sometimes you don’t know why, and obviously there are moments when you know exactly why…You start thinking about your family, you start thinking about your loved ones, how much of a hero [Chau] was, and in this particular story, just the fact that he was able to be so selfless knowing what he was going through.
But at the end of the day, where we had to hone in was on the love that [Chau and Carter] shared with each other, and then the friends and support of strangers donating just to help someone make memories…Memories are kind of the only thing that you can kind of leave behind for someone, and that to me was a really powerful idea that I took on. It helped me overcome certain moments where it was really difficult to get out of a certain headspace.
What do you hope that people take away from the film?
This film is really special to me. You know, we were filming it before 2020 happened. I think it’s even more special now, just for the message that we, as humans, are resilient, and we have the ability to overcome the most difficult obstacles…Everyone has gone through some sort of loss, whether it be minor or major, and I think [this film] is really about knowing that you can always find hope in — in a hopeless place, not to quote Rihanna. We have to continue to help each other realise that fact, in whatever manner that is. This [realisation] came in movie form, but also came from a real couple going through this. I think that makes it even more powerful. It gets to someone’s emotions and psyche and helps them overcome whatever they’re going through in their own lives.
You’re right that it’s a pretty tough time for a lot of people right now. What’s been giving you hope and keeping you grounded this year?
There’s been this sense of unity, I feel — I can’t speak for everyone, but I think, for a lot of people, self-reflection has been a huge part of this year. Self-growth, identifying things that weren’t quite healthy mentally, physically or emotionally. Personally, that means just constantly checking on myself so I have the ability to check on other people. There’s the analogy of, when you’re on a plane, put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on anybody you’re trying to help. I think more of that is being done, and in that unity aspect, we can really — factually — feel united.
That, to me, has been hopeful, seeing how people are really checking their mental health. I think that the reason that we’re divided in a lot of ways is because we’re not taking care of ourselves. We’re not able to actually make better decisions and differentiate what is bad for us — as a society, and for ourselves.
So, I’m just thankful that my loved ones are safe, and I think the work needs to continue on how we can spread that message as much as possible.
I wanted to bring up the fact that the industry has changed a lot since your Glee days…The show was obviously groundbreaking in a lot of ways, but also we saw some heavily laid-in racial stereotypes that we probably wouldn’t see on television today. I’ve also read other interviews where you’ve talked about how in the past you had to demand the roles that you felt you deserved because they weren’t necessarily the roles that were being given to you. Now that you’re a fully-fledged Hollywood leading man, how do you feel about the progress that has been made?
Yeah, I think when you look back at a hundred years ago leading up to even ten years ago, you can say progress has been made. But it’s just so slow. It’s like a slug moving. And then, sometimes, you get a breakthrough and you think, ‘Oh, everything’s going to move at rapid speed!’ But it’s just so slow.
I’m very fortunate to have — I look at it as fortunate, having been part of such a groundbreaking show. But at the same time, knowing the racial undertones and the stereotypes that lived in that, and knowing what other actors had felt before, and having to say lines where you felt so powerless — and you have to say them because the man on top says ‘do exactly what is written on that script’ — that never feels good. That just feels terrible. Whether it be racial or not, it’s that stuff that makes you feel smaller than, and less than.
Unfortunately, that still exists to this day, but I see the progress and hear the voices of people who have that ability to actually make a change. Those voices are being heard, and at this point I feel fortunate to be able to say, ‘That has been done before. Let’s not do it again.’
I will say that this progress is a welcome progress, because I feel there are more actors who are able to portray this and actually speak out and find projects that won’t lean back into that stereotype. There are also more and more people behind the scenes and the camera who know there’s still more work to be done. So, it’s a work in progress, but I am optimistic about the direction we’re moving. And to me, it takes a village for this to happen properly, not just one or two people.
I know that a lot of fans, myself included, were disappointed to only catch a few glimpses of your character in Crazy Rich Asians, but I know that we have a lot more of you to look forward to in the sequel. Is there anything that you can share with us about the story or about your character at this moment?
I probably know as much as you do — or you might even know more than me. I think it’s really under wraps. I think they’re working hard on trying to just adapt the books, because Kevin Kwan wrote a beautiful trilogy that has a lot happening in it. It’s always a tricky situation when you’re trying to adapt for a movie, and in the first one, they changed quite a few things, so following that has to alter the upcoming sequels. I’m excited to learn more about Charlie as well, and I hope that once we overcome this year, things will start moving at a quicker pace. But look, I’m a fan of the other characters in the movie as well. I’m looking forward to it just as much as you and other people are.
Of course, this year has been slow work-wise, but have you enjoyed taking a step back from working and spending some quality time with yourself and your family? And are you looking forward to getting back into the thick of it?
This year it’s definitely been a test of being — if you’re a workaholic, it definitely tests you in a lot of ways, if you’re talking strictly about our industry.
But you know what made me happy? I, luckily, got to work recently, and just seeing the actors and crew actually being able to do their jobs — you know, all the spotlight always goes on to whoever’s in front of the camera, but behind the camera, there are just so many hard-working people who need this work. They need to work consistently to be able to put food on the table and put a roof over their heads. It was wonderful to see everyone adapt and try to keep the industry going as best as possible given the circumstances — and doing really, really well at it. That’s what makes me happy — working with a big crew of extremely talented folks who are just trying to make a good story and entertain people, especially during this time.
On the front of being able to hang out with family, I have a young daughter who I’m getting to bond with so much every single day — I couldn’t say the same if I was off somewhere in another country shooting a film, you know? It’s a blessing in some ways, knowing that I get to just be around my family a lot more. I think that just makes you stronger moving forward.
All My Life is currently in select cinemas and on Premium Video On Demand.
photography. Emily Sandifer
fashion. David Gangel @ The Only Agency
talent. Harry Shum Jr
grooming. Andrea Pezzillo @ Exclusive Artists using Tatcha Skincare + Kevin Murphy
photography assistant. Marci Manklow
location. LOFT 1923, Downtown Los Angeles
interview. Henry Lifshits