HEAT VISION

Harry Shum Jr. on 'All My Life' and Its "Big Step Forward" for Asian Americans On-Screen

Harry Shum Jr
Michael Tran/FilmMagic
The actor reflects on forming a close bond with co-star Jessica Rothe, and what the movie means to him 15 years into his career: "Before this, how many Asian Americans could you name in a leading romantic role?"

Harry Shum Jr. knows how rare it is to see an Asian American as a romantic lead, and while he still thinks Hollywood has a long way to go before ending more than a century of exclusion, he believes voices like his are finally being heard. In Marc Meyers’ romantic drama All My Life, Shum plays Solomon “Sol” Chau, whose engagement to Jenn Carter (Jessica Rothe) is turned upside-down by his liver cancer diagnosis. Shum, who also appeared in 2018’s smash hit Crazy Rich Asians, is optimistic about the future of Asian-American storytelling after years of feeling like an outsider.

“I think it’s getting to the point where you almost can’t exclude any longer. It’s still an uphill battle in a lot of ways, but I think the more conversations we’re having — and the deeper those conservations go — the more Hollywood listens,” Shum tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s why All My Life is important as well because it shows this guy that never had an opportunity. Before this, how many Asian Americans could you name in a leading romantic role? I’ve been in this for 15-plus years and I’ve been watching it from the sidelines. And in a lot of ways, I still feel like I’m on the sidelines. But getting this opportunity has been really, really fruitful, and I think it’s a big step forward.”

In a twist of fate, Shum had read with Rothe for another project just a week before their All My Life chemistry read.

“I read for a pilot that Jess was starring in and producing. I went in for just a random role, and I read with her,” Shum recalls. “I didn’t get to know her too well because it was a quick-and-easy in and out. So when I saw her again, I mentioned it and what followed was literally two minutes of us just saying, ‘Hi, oh my God, yeah, good to meet you again.’ And then, right away, we had to tap into the most emotional scene in the movie. To know that we got to continue that and make a movie out of it, it’s said a lot about how important that whole meeting was, and it’s a testament to what Jessica brings.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Shum explains the importance of making Carter and Chau’s true story their own, thanks to the endorsement of the real Jenn Carter. He also reflects on the success of Crazy Rich Asians and why it was important for his role to be cut down.

Well, it sure was nice to hear Oasis again. Bringing an older song back to the fore has to feel pretty cool, right?

Oh my God. It was funny because [“Don’t Look Back in Anger”] was my go-to for karaoke, and not only for karaoke, but also in my car. So the fact that I got to sing that song was just a joy. It’s meaningful, and there’s a reason behind it. I was ecstatic when I heard that I got to sing it.

Did your chemistry read with Jessica Rothe feel pretty automatic?

Honestly, it really, really did. Funnily enough, a week before, I read for a pilot that Jess was starring in and producing. I went in for just a random role, and I read with her. I didn’t get to know her too well because it was a quick-and-easy in and out. So when I saw her again, I mentioned it and what followed was literally two minutes of us just saying, “Hi, oh my God, yeah, good to meet you again.” And then, right away, we had to tap into the most emotional scene in the movie. Turning that on and off, and being able to go into that so quickly, I just felt so comfortable. We got to do it a couple different ways, and then I was like, “Well, if I don’t get that, at least I got to share a cool experience with another actor on a chem read.” So that’s kind of how I left it. But to know that we got to continue that and make a movie out of it, it’s said a lot about how important that whole meeting was, and it’s a testament to what Jessica brings. We had each other’s backs as actors, and it was just as important to have each other’s back as the characters. That was also important for the real Jenn [Carter] and Sol [Chau].

Did you consciously build chemistry during production, too?

Yeah, we would do small gestures throughout the day. I would always get her coffee or tea, and she would get me shakes in the mornings, knowing that one of us had to stumble out of bed. There were even little moments like watching Notting Hill in the trailers. (Laughs.) We love that movie, and we hadn’t seen it in a long time. We didn’t really watch it to get inspiration; there’s just something cool about sharing a great film with someone. We would also have random dance parties with the rest of the cast in between setups. The coolest part was after we finished shooting, we’d go back to the apartment with Marc Meyers and just work on the scenes. We’d talk it through on a level that was not just about the scene, but also the human level involved. So we got to know each other really well during that time. Someone would order food, and the next thing you know, it’s 3 am and you realize, “Oh my God, we’re going to get 5 hours of sleep before we have to shoot.” But I wouldn’t take any of that back because it was really important as we kept finding things from the real Jenn and discovering things when we got into the heavier stuff. We also learned about Marc, and he would have us try things. So it was just a really open playground and a safe space. You don’t always get that due to the quickness of production or just not having that same safe space that we had on this set.

As far as your portrayal of Sol, did you reach out to the real Jenn Carter for any insight?

I came into this project a little later, but Jess reached out and had a really great conversation with Jenn at the beginning. And as I came into it, I felt like I had enough information from Jessica. What was important was how they interacted with each other, and the message that Jenn wanted to get out about Sol and what he represented. But I got to meet her during the wedding vows, which was early into the production, and I got to really sit down with her and hear her stories. I also got to know her as a person. We weren’t trying to do a direct portrayal. It was inspired by their story and we really tried to show the little nuances of what made their relationship so great. And why they stood up against this horrible, horrible thing that was in front of them. So it definitely helped to have Jenn in our corner. She really championed us and gave us a confidence to be that vessel for her.

When it came to the illness side of things, how deep did you go as far as capturing the symptoms and treatment side effects?

We had initial conversations about how it hits everyone differently. So we could either go down this route of showing that it’s a cancer movie about cancer, and what it does to our bodies and what it does to people. But that conversation quickly changed to, “The focus should be life. What are the beautiful moments?” If someone walks into this, they should expect something romantic and about love. And you learn why it was so important for their friends, and even complete strangers, to support and help these two. It was a courageous and brave thing for them to do. Also, when you’re shooting out of sequence, to show someone that goes down this path, it involves a lot of physicality and makeup, and hair and makeup did a wonderful job with that. Clothing size helped too. So we showed that in ways that weren’t extreme because Marc Meyers didn’t want that to be the focus. The message is to live your life to the fullest with the time that you have. So the focus is not just on mortality and what happens in the end, but what happens in between. So that was really important for us, and I think that’s what came out in the end.

Was it helpful to have Jay Pharoah around during some of the heavier group moments? I imagine that he can lighten the mood at a moment’s notice.

(Laughs.) Absolutely. The casting of Jay, Kyle Allen, Chrissie Fit and Marielle Scott, along with Ever Carradine and Jon Rudnitsky, was just pure joy. They were actual joy. We just got off of Zoom with some of them, and we were so loud. We were laughing and just talking about certain memories that we shared. Jay and Kyle, their banter alone was really nice. We needed to have some levity because of all the heavy moments. As an actor, it was very helpful because it allowed me to laugh and reset, and to not sit there and wallow in certain emotion. So, yeah, they did such an incredible job of showing what friendship really is and what it can be if given the opportunity.

Did you cook some of Sol’s dishes? If so, was there a favorite of the bunch?

Yes, I cooked some of them. The easiest, as well as my favorite, was the miso bok choy. That’s a simple one, but it’s really, really tasty because you feel like you’re getting the best of both worlds. It’s super healthy, but at the same time, it’s like umami, so you just get this wonderful flavor of all these elements. I wish they put a little bit more of the cutting scenes in because I did try to flex my knife-cutting skills that I learned from when I used to work at a restaurant. I used to work in my parents’ restaurant when I was a kid, and I’d be like, “Whoa, okay, I’m never going to become a cook. What is the point of any of this?” And to think back on it now, it’s like, “Thank you, Mom and Dad, because I got to use those skills in a studio movie.” (Laughs.) So I’m very appreciative of that.

Sol dances at a certain point when they get back to their apartment. I hear this a lot from actors who become skilled in action choreo and then take a role where they have to look completely unskilled, but was it difficult for a talented dancer like yourself to look incompetent?

(Laughs.) You’ve been trained over the years to look a certain way, to be cool when you move, to be light on your feet, and it does take a different frame of mind to look pedestrian. It’s a joy because I think we associate dance with professional dancers and hitting the beat and doing these intricate movements. But I think we’ve strayed away from what the idea of dance really is: it’s a celebration. When you find out you have good news, you don’t have to just show it in your face. You can move, you can have a shudder and you can pop, even when you don’t know what the hell popping is because your body is just reacting to this joyful news that you got. So I think that’s the route I took, instead of thinking of the technical aspects and movements. I was just like, “What does pure joy look like?” So I tried to translate that into movement, as opposed to the moves themselves. Overall, I had to really change the way I thought about dance.

Whether it was the introduction of the dog or the big breakdown scene in the apartment, did those scenes involve even more preparation so you didn’t have to live in those headspaces for too long on the day?

Oh, that is a great question. The dog scene with Jess was just brutal. Sol was basically saying, “Well, if I’m not here, I want you to at least have something that both of us had.” I think that’s one of the interpretations. But to see Jess’ face over and over again, and realizing what the dog represented, was brutal to see done over and over again. The variety and range that Jess had in each take was so brilliant that it affected you in different ways. It wasn’t just heartbreaking. Other ones were just gut-wrenching, and then other ones were like, “Okay, maybe the news after that is even worse than what’s to come.” So there’s just so many things that were happening, and that allowed us to not sit in one particular emotion. It allowed us to really spread things out because we were given the opportunity to really experiment with those particular emotions.

Does a role like this affect your real life and relationship? Does it linger more than most jobs?

Yeah, this role has changed me as a person. I already had this outlook in some ways, and I understood this outlook on how to appreciate the small things and whatever time you’re given. But even after we shot it, I was literally able to appreciate just looking up at the trees and breathing. I was able to appreciate looking at my wife and daughter even more, and just giving them my undivided attention. I’ve always been someone who wore their heart on their sleeve, but to really communicate that in a meaningful way to the people that you care about and the people that care about you, whether it’s family or friends, definitely helped me in that aspect. I haven’t always looked at acting this way, and it was only recently that acting became a form of therapy for me. I get to really learn from these extremely inspiring characters that I’m very fortunate to play. So it’s definitely helped on how I’ll choose roles in the future, but it’s also helped me in my personal life as well.

I know it’s a tired question at this point in your press tour, but is there anything new to report in the land of Crazy Rich Asians?

(Laughs.) Yeah, that question comes up often. Unfortunately, there isn’t. I hope this puts a little more pressure on them because I would love to see some news as well. But I know all good things take time, and I wouldn’t want them to rush anything just to take advantage of the popularity of the movie. I think they are working hard on trying to make it all work within the story and within the adaptation of the book, and honoring why people found it so special in the first place. After this call, I’m definitely going to give Jon Chu a tug or a poke so I can give some actual answers out. (Laughs.)

Considering Charlie’s expanded role in the subsequent books, was there anyone happier than you when the first movie made all the money?

(Laughs.) Yeah, I showed up at the end of the movie, but I wasn’t really in the movie. Honestly, I was just so happy that a movie like Crazy Rich Asians existed. I did film some scenes, but they eventually got cut just to make sense with the story. And that is absolutely the way they should’ve gone. But spending time with that cast was really special. I just shot another movie [Love Hard] with Jimmy O. Yang, too. But all these people are really special. And to know that they had an opportunity like that to showcase what they can really do says a lot about the talent of these actors and the talent behind the camera as well. At the same time, why did it have to take just one movie for all of these actors to get recognition? So I’m really, really looking forward to just being together again because they are a joy. I was glad to support them in any way I could during that time, especially as a fan of everyone’s work. I did whatever I could to get the word out to people. That was really important for me.

Are you feeling optimistic that Hollywood is genuinely ending its century-plus-long agenda of exclusion?

I am, and you’re absolutely right. As a historian of film or even a fan of film, you can see that trend happen over time. For me, it’s also about doing a deep dive on why this existed, and it becomes a bigger issue of policy and politics. That’s where a lot of exclusion happens. But I think it’s getting to the point where you almost can’t exclude any longer. Before, you could hide it, but now, you can’t hide it as much anymore. It’s still an uphill battle in a lot of ways, but I think the more conversations we’re having — and the deeper those conservations go — the more Hollywood listens. And when I speak about Hollywood, it’s thousands and thousands of people, and some want to do the right thing. But it’s reaching the very, very top and getting everyone to understand why it’s important. That’s why All My Life is important as well because it shows this guy that never had an opportunity. Before this, how many Asian Americans could you name in a leading romantic role? Most people won’t be able to name very many across 100 years. But I just want to contribute and have a voice at the table, so a new generation, or even the existing generation of actors, can have those opportunities. I’ve been in that position. I’ve been in this for 15-plus years and I’ve been watching it from the sidelines. And in a lot of ways, I still feel like I’m on the sidelines. But getting this opportunity has been really, really fruitful, and I think it’s a big step forward. And with Minari, and all these different, beautiful, wonderful movies coming out, not just in the Asian community, but in other marginalized communities, I think we’re hitting our stride. Hopefully, it doesn’t stop anytime soon.

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All My Life is now available on VOD and Digital. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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