To Sam Song Li, nabbing the part of Bruce meant the world. And he’s still pinching himself. It’s the role of a lifetime and the beginning of something great. However, Sam is no stranger to being in front of the camera, with parts in mini-series like The Offer and television shows such as Better Call Saul and Never Have I Ever. But in The Brothers Sun, he has his moment to shine and lead. As Bruce, he is the kind-hearted and oblivious student until his estranged brother (and cold-blooded assassin) Charles (played by Justin Chien) shows up out of the blue. Enlisting the help of Mama Sun (Michelle Yeoh), the family must take down a murderous crime syndicate that is bent on taking them down. What follows is a heart-warming, emotional, action-packed (seriously, there’s so much action) eight-episode adventure, that leaves the viewer wanting just that little bit more.
Having pursued a career in acting since college, Sam found parallels between himself and Bruce. The line blurs: fact and fiction intertwine to turn out an incredible performance, both emotional and comedic. Sam puts everything he has into Bruce, feeding off his real-life experience growing up Asian-American to give us something special, and it shows. The action-packed plot gives way to a unique family dynamic and showcases The Brothers Sun beating heart.
In conversation with Schön! Magazine, Sam discusses the line between reality and fiction, his favourite thing about filming The Brothers Sun, working alongside Michelle Yeoh and Justin Chien, what advice he’d give to Bruce and what keeps him motivated to keep acting.
You said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that you drew on personal experience to play Bruce, were there times when you felt like the line between reality and fiction was blurring? When you read the script, how much was relatable to you and the Asian-American experience?
I think that as an actor, you’re constantly blurring the lines between yourself and the character. I feel like that is what helps you portray your character realistically. It needs to come from an honest, real place. But to be raised by a single mother in Southern California, and to have a sibling of my own, I think these circumstances in real life really helped me understand the family dynamics of the show and allowed me to make confident choices in the show material.
What was the audition process like? And what were your first thoughts when you got the part?
The audition process felt really long! I think we spent a little over two months getting called in to read for the part. When I first met Justin Chien in our producer session, I got nervous because physically, I wasn’t sure if our pairing was what the producers were looking for! But the moment I started reading with Justin, I just knew there was a lot of chemistry here. I think I was in a state of shock. I was just so happy. This was a moment I had been working towards for my whole life. It truly meant the world.
When did you discover that you wanted to be an actor? What were the shows and movies that influenced and shaped you growing up? What about them stuck with you?
I realized that I wanted to be an actor when I was in college. I started making my own home movies and skits in high school and transitioned into acting around that time. What I loved about acting was the ability to learn more about the human condition and experience and be able to portray different walks of life. This way of thinking motivated my ambitions and made me risk everything to pursue becoming an actor. I didn’t mind sacrificing a huge part of my life to try and make a career doing this!
Some of my favourite movies have always been ones I felt connected to on a personal level. The first movie that comes to mind is “Boyhood,” along with many others. It’s just so raw and relatable to my own experience and upbringing. It made me tear up and I think that’s the power of a good piece of work. You take it with you after watching it. It can feel life-changing and that’s the beauty of good cinema.
Now that The Brothers Sun is out in the world, what has it been like for you to see the reception of the show?
Overwhelming to say the least. I could not be more excited to see the reception and it seems like a lot of people are enjoying it! It’s such a unique show that explores different tones and characters. It’s so incredible.
What was your favourite thing about filming the series? Why?
By far, my favourite has been the family I’ve come to know while filming. Not only my on-screen family but everyone who worked on this project. We all grew very close, and I think for a lot of us, this was perhaps the most important piece of work we had ever been a part of at this point in our careers. We were determined and passionate to make something special and those are memories I will cherish for a lifetime.
Is there a particular scene across your filmography that you’re particularly proud of?
I’m particularly proud of the scene where Charles comes to kill Bruce in the motel bathroom, and I guess episode 8 as a whole. I went to a dark place to portray what was happening to Bruce. I think he was feeling a lot of things, and there were personal events that were happening in my own life that mirrored the feelings that Bruce was experiencing. Some of those emotions bled into the show and it just felt so authentic watching it on screen.
What was it like working with Michelle Yeoh and Justin Chein? The chemistry between the three of you is incredibly natural. Was there time to bond between takes once the camera stopped rolling?
Yes! Many people may not know this, but there is a ridiculous amount of downtime on a film/TV set. Most of the time, you’re just waiting in cast holding until the cameras and lights are all set up to start filming. Those moments with Justin and Michelle were key. Michelle treated us like her real children. She is so sweet and has such strong maternal instincts. Justin is amazing and always supportive.
Looking through Instagram, can we expect any more ‘How to approach your crush’ or ‘Villian era’ videos in the future? Can we expect a series?
For sure! I love making content! As an actor, it seems like there are so many things
that are outside of your control. The one place I feel a sense of control is with my skits, and the messages or social commentary I want to put out with them online. I think dating has been a large part of my life these days, and I have a lot to say about it. Dating in 2024 is so unhinged and so cursed. I’m making more videos this year about it.
What is a piece of advice you would give to Bruce?
Stay true to yourself. Love the people around you and care for them deeply, but this is your life, so live it for yourself and no one else. Also, grow a pair and man up! [Laughs]
As you’re making the press rounds for The Brother Sun what has been your highlight from the tour?
The overwhelming love from the fans and our Asian community around the globe. Netflix is such a huge global platform, and this show is a huge hit in Asia. It’s growing exponentially in popularity in the United States as well. I’m just so happy that so many people love our show and love what we did. I only hope more people learn about it and the rest of the world can talk about it. I think we explore some very interesting themes that all of us can relate to, regardless of whether you are a triad boss or a pastry chef.
Looking to the future, what is one personal goal you have for yourself and one professional one?
Personally, I think fitness and my physical and mental health have been a big revelation for me. 2023 was all about starting that and moving forward, 2024 is all about growing and expanding on this. A professional one is to challenge myself and explore roles that differ from what people expect of me. I think my career has always been defined by how I defy people’s expectations of me as an actor, an artist, and a person. I like to keep people on their toes like that. I want to explore more characters that are vastly different from myself, from Bruce Sun, from all the characters you might have seen me portray on past TV shows or movies. I got into acting because of my love for exploring the vast depths of the human condition. I hope to do so much more of this for the rest of my career and life.
And lastly, what is something that keeps you motivated to continue on your acting journey?
The haters. Just kidding. I promised a 17-year-old past version of Sam Song Li that all of his delusional dreams could come true. That we would achieve it together. I literally wrote letters to my future self to hold me accountable at that time. I owe it to the past version of me to make it happen. I don’t like breaking promises, and I’m certainly not going to break a promise to myself.
The Brothers Sun is streaming now on Netflix.
photography. Andrew Thompson
fashion. Suthee Ritthaworn
talent. Sam Song Li
grooming. Rheanne White @ Tracey Mattingly
location. Meadow Studio
production. Clara La Rosa
fashion assistant. Siwawatch Chaipipat
interview. Dana Reboe