Harry Shum Jr. on the Perks of Glee, Oprah and On-Set Dance Battles
Even for the cast members of Glee, who are coasting through an Golden Globe-winning freshman year, last week’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show was special. But for Harry Shum, Jr., who plays Mike Chang, the episode was his introduction to America via Matthew Morrison, who when summoned to show off his dancing abilities, turned the attention onto 25-year-old co-star: “This guy is incredible, and I’m so happy there is a show called Glee that can showcase the talents of someone who just breathes dance.” For those who were unfamiliar until last week, Shum, Jr. starred in the iconic iPod “silhouette” campaign, appeared in two Step Up movies and co-choreographed a number during this year’s Academy Awards.
In anticipation of the show’s mid-season premiere tonight, Harry Shum Jr. phoned Movieline to discuss his whirlwind week performing for the Obamas and Oprah, his days dancing for Beyoncé and the unlikely companion he found on the set of Glee
Congratulations on the success of the show. You guys have had a huge week.
Thank you, I know.
What’s been the highlight so far?
I think this week so far, everything. We got to all be together and be with two of the most influential people in the world and not only meet them but be part of their events — with Oprah’s Glee Spectacular show, and then meeting Obama of course.
Let’s talk about the White House first. Did you get to meet the entire First Family?
Yeah and we got to meet the dog, Bo, who was really cool. He’s a beautiful dog. We got to meet the President, the First Lady and the kids. We got a tour of the White House.
We got to check out what goes on inside, which is really cool.
And you taped Oprah just a few days earlier. Let’s talk about the dance battle between you and Matthew Morrison (video below). Was that planned?
There was a little hint of that happening but I didn’t expect that. I really appreciated what Matt said about me — that was so nice — and that he included me in the segment. It was unexpected.
So you didn’t know that he was going to call you out from the audience?
I knew he was going to do something. Beforehand, he said, “You should be ready to dance just in case.” I said, “OK” but I didn’t know what was happening so it was semi-spur of the moment.
I don’t know if you had a chance to watch the episode but the best part of the dance battle was seeing the reaction shots of Oprah. She could not believe that someone was spinning around on the floor right in front of her.
[Laughs] I don’t think she expected all that. I think she probably expected a couple of step-touches, but Matt really showed off his skills which was awesome to see.
Are there ever any spontaneous dance-offs on the set of Glee?
Definitely! Especially between Matt and I. We go back and forth. He used to do break dancing when he was younger, and he has a lot of skill that he never really gets to use on the show. So we get to do that every once in a while, but I’m glad we got to do it on the best show ever, Oprah.
You’re an accomplished dancer but some of the other cast members did not have as much dance experience when they started on Glee. Which of your co-stars has come the farthest in terms of their dancing abilities?
I think Cory [Monteith]. I don’t think he had ever danced in his life and then he was cast in this show and he had to learn all of this choreography. But he has learned a lot and is moving a lot faster and is able to pick up moves. I’m really proud of how much he has grown as a dancer.
You’re also a choreographer. Have you choreographed anything for the show yet?
No , I haven’t. I have the most respect for [Glee choreographer] Zach Woodlee. He is one of my favorite — and one of the most capable — choreographers out there right now. He has to come up with six or seven numbers a week and I don’t understand how he does it. I’ll give him a little input sometimes if there is something that I want to do and he’s always open to that which is really cool. Otherwise, I leave it to Zach. He is the mastermind behind Glee choreography.
Do you consider yourself an actor or a dancer first?
I don’t know. They go hand in hand really. When it comes to acting, you really have to create movement which in some ways is dancing. And dancing, I feel is very important to act as well. I wouldn’t put one over the other.
Had you sung a lot before Glee?
I did musicals in high school, but I am definitely not on the same level as Amber [Riley] and Lea Michele. I did a lot of musicals when I was younger, but I also did a lot of singing in the bathroom. [Laughs]
Do you remember what you sang during your audition?
I did “Love” by Nat King Cole.
Nice choice. Now tell me the truth: Are you sick of singing “Somebody to Love” yet?
Not yet, but ask me in a month. [Laughs] I always did love that song. It’s still one of our favorite songs, but we are going to have to do it a lot in the next month.
There are a lot of fans out there excited for the tour. Will you have to learn new choreography for the tour, or will it be pretty much the same choreography from the show?
There are going to be some similarities, but we still haven’t seen the set list and they haven’t shown us what the concept is for the tour. You are going to see a lot of familiar moves and stuff from the TV show. We haven’t even started preparing though. We are just trying to finish up these last nine episodes. We are so excited for the tour though, especially after Oprah told us that she had never heard her audience cheer louder than when we were on the show. We’re looking forward to walking onstage and feeling that kind of excitement from the crowd again.
You have a lot of tour experience already as a dancer for Beyoncé, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez. Was one of those tours more technically difficult as a dancer?
I think they vary. The longest tour I actually went on was Beyoncé’s, and technically it was more heavy for the girls because they had to do a lot more dancing than we did. The tour life definitely puts strains on your body, not just because of the dancing but because of the fact that you are traveling into the wee hours of the day, getting up early, going to sound check — just the grueling process of it all. When you are a dancer on tour though, being onstage is your profession. It is your job to go in there with the right frame of mind and give it all you’ve got.
Have you had to help out any of your co-stars with their dance moves?
They may have had a few questions, and Heather Morris (who plays Brittany) was on tour with Beyoncé, too. So we have a couple of people who have been through it but I think for the most part, they are prepared and professional in their own right. I think they are going to be awesome once they are on tour and hit the stage.
Let’s switch gears. Can you tell me about this film Arcana that Brett Ratner is producing?
Sure. I went to Kevin Tancharoen and I said that I had this idea of doing a mix of hustle dance elements and martial arts and bringing all those elements together. We put a story together, started writing a treatment and then we went to Brett Ratner’s company. They took it to Universal, Universal optioned it and now it’s in the developing stages. We are really excited for it to move forward and hopefully go into production. When I am not in front of the camera, I love being behind it as well.
I read that you adopted a dog that you found on the set of Glee. Is that true?
Yes, it is. We were in Long Beach filming a scene inside a high school auditorium and Lea Michele and one of the security guards found this dog and it was all matted down with ingrown toenails. I saw him and thought that he was just really cute and that he was the most chill dog I had ever seen. I was not a huge dog lover, but I felt like I had to take him. Now that I have him, I love him. He is awesome. I have a backyard for him now.
What is his name?
His name is Charlie. I named him after the dog in All Dogs Go to Heaven.
Does he come to set with you now? Is Charlie the Glee mascot?
[Laughs] Once in a while he’ll take a field trip down to Long Beach with me, but he is not really allowed on the Paramount lot.
Just one more question — what would you like to see happen to your Glee character in the next few seasons?
I would love to see Mike Chang grow and develop and maybe see him deal with some of the issues and insecurities that Asians living in America deal with during high school.