Harry Shum Jr. reveals how he prepared to play Valentine on ‘Shadowhunters’ and asks fans to take a deeper look at the mental health storyline in Season 2, Episode 12, “You Are Not Your Own.”
On this week’s episode of Freeform’s Shadowhunters, “You Are Not Your Own,” actor Harry Shum Jr., who (almost always) portrays the role of Magnus Bane, took on the unique challenge of playing Valentine Morganstern. The catch? Shum had to play a vulnerable, complex version of Valentine we’ve never seen before, and he also had to act against Alan Van Sprang as he played Shum’s character, Magnus Bane. So, Harry Shum Jr. was playing Valentine, who was pretending to be Magnus, talking to the real Magnus, who was now trapped in Valentine’s body. Are you still with us?
We caught up with Harry Shum Jr. to ask about taking on the role of Valentine and to learn more about what it was like to film scenes where he had to exchange dialogue with his own character in someone else’s body. Shum also spoke on the deeper meaning woven into the themes of the episode and what he hopes Shadowhunters fans will take away from the story in Season 2, Episode 12.
What first went through your mind when you found out Shadowhunters was going to do a body-switch with Magnus and Valentine?
Harry Shum Jr.: I would say that I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t pull it off because he’s such a complicated character, but at the same time, I was up for the challenge. How often do you get offered to play someone else on the show that you’re working on?
How did you prepare to play someone who is such a contrast to Magnus?
Shum: Over the seasons, we got to know what Valentine’s intentions were, or his goals, or his motivations, and kind of his way of manipulating people into doing what he wants. So that was kind of laid out already throughout the season. For me now, it’s the characteristics and little movements. His body posture, the way he smiles, the way he looks at you, and all of those little things that I had to study and watch on some of his tapes, and even the way he would approach talking to someone he’s trying to manipulate.
I didn’t really want to do an impersonation. I really wanted to draw those things that he’s been put in the situation he’s never been in before. Being in a warlock body, which is his worst nightmare, and being able to try and really pull it off, where he’s trying to get out of that body, but also trying to convince people that he is this warlock that he doesn’t really know too much about. So it’s that top layer of being Valentine, but also trying not to be Valentine.
Did you and Alan spend time together to teach each other any mannerisms or characteristics?
Shum: We didn’t. We kind of had one conversation about it with the director. We sat down over coffee and discussed mainly the things that we wanted to avoid, the typical things that you get when there’s body-switching happening. We really wanted to avoid those tropes of this trap of pretending to be each other, or being each other as an impersonation.
So that was really the biggest part, and I trusted him and he trusted me to really take care of these characters that we’ve nurtured over the years, and bring something of ours on top of it, which was really fun when we got to see it live at first and see each other do it. I would say the first couple times, I would laugh because he would do such a great job, and he would blow me away by his physicality and the way he would deliver a line. It would make me laugh because it was so good.
What was the most difficult part of portraying Valentine?
Shum: It’s keeping it up, because it’s not just maintaining a voice pattern of “This is the way Valentine talks.” You’re adding this layer of maybe, “This is the way Valentine talks when he’s talking to someone he knows like Azazel,” but to everyone else, he doesn’t. And what’s fun is that every time he’s in a scene, he doesn’t know how Magnus fully functions.
He’s gauging the other person’s reaction like “Oh, do they believe me? Are they believing me? Oh, I have to switch this up. Maybe my tone has to go a little softer. I’m being a little too harsh in the way I act.” So I think constantly, every second, he’s trying to figure out how to play this character, this guy that he hates, but also he has to convince people that he’s him.
We’ve seen the photo of you with Alan together in the Institute prison staring through the glass at one another. What was it like to act in scenes against someone else as Magnus?
Shum: It was great. Honestly? It just flowed, and I think that’s what I really enjoyed the most. Seeing him in such a vulnerable state, it hurt to watch. You’re seeing the emotions come up, but the image of yourself in this, and it really flips your head around, but with Alan, he’s just such an incredible actor. His range is so far and wide, and I can’t say enough nice things about what he’s able to do with the character. I was really impressed by his interpretation of Magnus.
How are we going to see the trauma from Magnus’ time in prison affect him, as well as affect his relationship with Alec in future episodes?
Shum: First, it really reiterates his feelings toward the Clave and how torture is even something that is still done. And second, that torture does have a lasting effect of resurfacing these memories and feelings that Magnus has been trying to put away for hundred of years, and is just recently, I would say, slowly getting over.
He just got over something else that was an effect of what he’s experiencing right now, so it will definitely affect him, his outlook on life, and also his relationships with everyone, including Alec. So he will definitely have to fight to get back to the state that he was in before that.
How do you think fans are going to react to the episode?
Shum: I don’t know, but I would hope that they are open to it because I think it does help the story move forward, and not just to move the story forward, but it brings up interesting things about someone’s mental health when someone’s body is being invaded. It’s so invasive, the swapping of the bodies. I think in some ways it can be interpreted differently, but I think the trauma that happens out of that… You have to have help, and you have to find help, and you also have to talk about it.
So I hope that fans look at this outside of — obviously it’s in a fantasy world, where things are possible in that world — but I think it also speaks upon people’s relationships with how they deal with this after it happens. I hope that the fans are really looking at it deeper than just kind of a “swapping bodies,” because that’s the fun part of watching the episode, but I think it goes a lot deeper than that.
Hopefully this never happens again, but if another Greater Demon comes along on Shadowhunters in the future and Magnus were to body switch with someone else, which other character would you want it to be with?
Shum: [Laughs] Ummm, wow. You know what would be really really fun? I think Luke. I think the fact that no one in the Downworld, or really in the Shadow World, gets to turn into something else, you know? And I think having that feeling of your bones cracking and turning into a werewolf… I don’t know if it’s enjoyable, but I think that would be kind of a cool experience. So I think for fun, it would be kind of fun to switch into a werewolf.