Harry Shum Jr. puts the moves on America

Yellow Magazine   |   Written by V. Hoang

Harry Shum Jr., made his first inroad into America’s living rooms as the iconic silhouette dance in the original ubiquitous iPod commercials several years ago. Today, he is back in the living rooms of legions of devoted fans playing an increasingly important role on one of the nation’s most popular shows, Glee. Even though Harry’s character, Mike Chang, stole the girlfiend of wheelchair-bound Artie, this actor is inescapably polite and upstanding. In fact, his aura is so bright and uplifting, you just want to get up and, well, dance.

Can you tell us a little about your upbringing?
My parents are Chinese from Guang Zhou. They migrated to Costa Rica for a promising work enviroment. I was born there and raised with my two sisters for about 5-6 years before we moves to San Francisco. Spanish is my first language.

How did/do your parents consider your choice of careers?
They didn’t take it that well. They didn’t threaten me with, “If you do this, we’ll kick you out.” They were supportive, in a way, and said “okay, but why don’t you go try school first, then go to college, then maybe you can try it.” I wasn’t a rebel but I’ve always wanted to try things out first before I made decisions. I wanted to try out this business and I did. Over the years, my parents kept suggesting that I go to school to be a doctor or a dentist. Now, finally, they’re happy with it.

Your silhouette dancing for the iPod commercials several years back was truly memorable. You were famous but nobody knew who you were. I bet times have changed considerably.
I did 10 or 12 iPod ads. Ther first ones were just silhouettes but later they showed my face and shadow dancing. It was cool! When I tell people all the things I have done such as dancing for J.Lo and Beyonce, they just say, “Cool, cool.” But when I tell them I did those iPod commercials , they’re like “WHAT? OH MY GOD THAT’S CRAZY!” Lately, it’s been awesome to be part of Glee. This wonderful show has a lot of recognition and I’m really appreciative for the fact that people are recognizing my work. And I’m just so happy that people are really responding to it and loving it.

What is it like dancing with some of the biggest names in the business?
It was the time of my life dancing with Beyonce, J.Lo, Ashanti and Destiny’s Child. Beyonce is one of the most memorable performers. You go out to the stange and there are thousands of people screaming. It’s crazy because you think “Wow, I’m one of the few people who share this moment.” Beyonce is kind of a shy person off stage, but on stage there’s no radar! She goes nuts. You can see it and they go crazy at concerts!

You know, she is from Houston.
Yes I do, and I remember performing there at the Rodeo. The stage was turning the whole time and we were so dizzy towards the end. It was fun.

In Glee, you are a jock who joined the Glee club. Is this a strong case of are imitating life?
It is. I think it happens more often than you think and, for me, I was afraid to join a dance team. I thought I wasn’t going to be right for it because I didn’t have any rhythm. I just tried it out and I loved it! It was a joke that turned into a passion.

What sports did you play?
When I was in high school I did track and field and tennis. I didn’t play football or baseball because my mom didn’t let me. She said, “You will break in half if you play football.” I pole vaulted, sprinted, and ran relays.

How does the cheography process work for you?
It’s kind of weird, but I’ll be sitting somewhere and my head will begin to twitch! It’s happening in my head and it looks really weird. Aside from dancing physically, I dance a lot in my head, too. I would call my method “freestyle” as I don’t follow a set routine. It’s like snap, snap, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It definitely varies.

I have read that you enjoy being 28 years old and playing a high school student. When I was in my late twenties and saw high school students, they really seemed like little kids.
I think there’s a little kid in all of us. We’re trained to be mature at a young age and that kind of hurts our ability to be fully happy and have fun. I think everyone can channel being a kid, whether you’re thirty or forty or older. You can channel that childlike curiosity that I think we lack, today. Playing a high school student lets me go to a place where I have so much fun and it brings out the kid in me. I don’t think you inner kid will ever go away if you hold on to it. Of course, it’s true you have to be mature, but I think there’s a balance between the two.

In a previous interview, you made a reference to wanting your Glee character to deal with certain issues and insecurities that Asian high school students have in the US. Can you expand upon that?
When you watch the media, you see certain portrayals of various cultures and, in your mind, sterotypes are created. It’s important to show the different things that happen to people of diverse cultural backgrounds such as what happened when I came here. I had a double culture. I was from Costa Rica and I’m Chinese, and when I arrived in the US, I was like, “What the hell is going on? These people aren’t speaking Spanish and they don’t look like me.” You are trying to establish your sense of identity by trying to choose between the different cultures and you don’t know which way to go. But I don’t want it to become a place where it’s presented like, “Oh we’re in such tragic times,” because I don’t feel like that, now. I know there’s still a struggle and barriers to cross but I think it’d be good for people to know what others fo through, whether it’s racism or other issues.

How has you Asian heritage influenced who you are today?
I’m still very involved with my cultural background in the sense that I speak Chinese and still learn from my mom about how to cook ethnic foods, my heritage, and how things are done. Of course, I live in America; my main culture’s here, so I want to keep balance. I don’t want to lose one or the other; I want them to merge. It’s very important to me that when I have kids, they learn about Chinese culture and speak Chinese. To pass this on to my kids and their kids’ kids as my parents did with me is really important to me.

Dance seems to have made a comeback in recent years. Not since the films of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have there been so many dance film.
Many of the recent films are more battle-driven as far as street dance goes. This is something new in comparison to ballet. Street dance has been around for about thirty years and it’s great that these films are being pushed out and that people like them. Personally, I’d love to bring back those Gene Kelly and Fred Astaires, where we can have a mixture of that and modern dance. I am involved with LXD, an online dance studio, because we’re trying to bring that back story telling through dance, making dance the focal point of the story. LXD opened for the Glee tour and everyone loved it and got really involved in the performances.

You produce and are one of the two choreographers for The LXD (Legion of Extraordinary Dancers) which is billed as the world’s first online dance adventure and can be seen on Hulu. What are your aspirations for this venue? What is its primary purpose and where do you think it will lead?
I think that the first thing is to bring dance into the spotlight. You have all these dance shows on TV. America’s Best Dance Crew is held on a stage and you can only go so far with that compared to creating a fantasy world where you can create dance elements. You can put them in a place where people can really use their imaginations and expand their creativity. You can showcase dancers who normally wouldn’t go on a TV show but who are incredible dancers in the underground scene. The fact that John Chu can make this world in which we can really play and do almost whatever we want is great. We can out in on the Web and not have a studio telling us what we can and cannot do. LXD follows us to showcase things people might never see. We look at it as a brand that we can hopefully expand and do our rendition of the Nutcracker or our own version of street dance. You never know, we might put together a film. We’re hoping that it can become a place where people know they can see the best dancing around.

What do you think about shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew? Do you have a theory as to why Asian Americans are so well represented in these shows and have won many of the competitions?
Those shows are different from Dancing With The Stars which is more ballroom. I remember before I started dancing, I went to these little in-the-loop, underground dance shows and was amazed. Half of the dancers were Asian. I think it’s partly because street dancing is a style that is open to all cultures. It is in the streets and it is something that you can learn without having to pay. You have a friend who has a friend and you learn from him and it all trickles down from there.

You have been blesses with a fairly quick success path in your career. In fact, your first professional performance was only in 2002 on BET’s Comicview. Since then, you have appeared in a number of episodes on various TV series and films and are known to the likes of President Obama, Oprah and Bill Gates (in addition to throngs of Glee fans everywhere). How do you process this and keep a level head?
I’ve seen people get a successful place, get a big head, and fall. I saw this happen so many times and it allowed me to process it and promise myself, “I can’t be like that, I can’t be like that.” It’s all about building a sound foundation which I have been working on since I began in 2002. Of course, things will happen to me, but I’m pretty level-headed and am grateful for the things that have happened. I look up to Obama and Oprah. As for the show itself, I don’t let it get to me. I’m still a regular person and I believe in things like everyone else.

Do your friends treat you any differently than they did before you got so famour?
It’s so weird! I still don’t think I’m famous. Well, now my friends see me on TV and say “Ohhh, you’re on TV, blah blah blah” and then they still treat me the same. They don’t sit there and wait for me to do something. They know I’m the same person. If I start acting different, they’d say, “Okay, this guy’s all Hollywood.” No, I think everyone feels the same. I still have the friends I have had for many years and from elementary school. They do ask, “Hey, can you get us into this club?” and I’m like, “I donnu, I’m not that cool.”

How is your love life? That is another area about which little is known and inquiring minds want to know!
It’s good, good, good. I like to keep a separation between my career and my personal life. It’s good to keep it that way, otherwise the line starts to get blurry between who I am and the character I play. I’m a pretty private person when it comes to my personal life and I like to keep it (clicks mouth) on lockdown.

What are the things you look for in a possible date?
I look for someone how (who?) is open-minded because that’s a big part of what a relationship is. And, you know, the regular things. I don’t think you’ll be impressed or find it funny if I say [sarcastically] I want to be with a person who’s sad and unhappy. No, I want someone who’s happy and funny, who can be my best friend. And, obviously, being sexy is a big thing. I want someone who is sexy. It’s the simple things, I’m not too picky. I would not specify anything like, “She has to have beautiful feet.” No fetishes. Beautiful person, you’re good.

What do you think are your best features/attributes?
I’m so bad at this, talking about myself. My best features. I dunno, my … you’ve got me stumped. Now, I guess after the show, I’d say my abs because people keep talking about them. Haha.

Have you gotten much flack for stealing Artie’s girlfriend in Glee? I mean, the guy is disabled.
I hear there’s a huge forum on the internet with people who are against it. You know, Artie is a great person; everyone loves him. I didn’t personally do it. I didn’t make my character do that. Regardless of your disabilities, it doesn’t mean you get a free pass to be a bad boyfriend. You have to be a good boyfriend regardless of what disabilities you have. It’s a free game at the end of the day. Seriously, it is only a TV show and the situation makes for good drama.

What is the one thing about you that would surprise your fans?
Umm, let’s see. Haha. I think the Twitter world knows that I’m a huge gadget nerd. Here’s how nerdy I am. I have a HUGE piece of Velcro on the back of my iPad so I can put it on the wall in different parts of my house and watch it. I am a huge nerd and I love to eat food, too. I’ll eat anything. The only thing I won’t try is blowfish because I just watched a documentary on it. It could kill you, so, that’s the only thing I won’t try.

What is your most memorable fan moment?
After a tour, a fan came up to us with her daughter and told us that the meant so much to her and her daughter. She said, “We had a terrible relationship and never talked to each other. We started watching Glee together every Tuesday night and it brought us closer together. Now, we’re the best of friends.” It made me realize that this show is bigger than we think. We like the show, we like the music, but it’s also bringing people together. It’s got Neil Diamond songs from when these kids weren’t even born, and they’re singing with their parents. It’s something they can share. It was so awesome because that mother sat there and just cried. It was so nice to hear and I’m so happy that the show can do that.

What is your favorite tech toy that you cannot live without?
It’s a toss between iPhone and iPad. It’s bad … an addiction. Everyone in the cast panics whenever they feel around their pockets and can’t find their phones. When we’re shooting, we’re in a bubble. It’s just the cast and the crew and we have no outside connections. If we don’t have our phones, we go crazy because it’s like we are disconnected from everyone else. It’s definitely the tech toy that I can’t live without.

How many friends do you have on Facebook? Do you tweet and what do you think of this social media?
I used to use Facebook, and it came to a point where I had a bunch of friends during the big Facebook craze. But when the show got big, people started making fakes of me. The crazy thing isn’t that they made these pagesbut that they were friending the crew and talking to them because they thought I really was their friend. Now, I don’t have Facebook, just Twitter. So, if you’re communicating with someone who’s claiming to be Harry Shum on Facebook, they’re fake.
I love social media, but I think there’s the good and the bad. The bad is, obviously, those people who impersonate you and talk to fans, in my case. It’s crazy because sometimes they’re rude or dirty and you hear about it and it sucks! The great thing about social media and Twitter is that you can actually connect to fans without being evasive. You can answer their questions and they can answer yours and connect. I think that the best aspect of social media is that it really is multipurpose. Some people don’t post but they read and it’s their news. You put something out there and boom! Everyone knows. It’s not like news where you have to turn on a TV. And your friends know some things that you’ll never know about and the whole world. It’s great.

You stated that when you are not in front of the camera, you are just as happy behind it. You dance, act und choreograph. Is directing or producing far behind?Where would you like to see your career take you?
I love the entertainment world and my goal when I moved here was to learn everything I could. I don’t think directing is too far off. With LXD, I’m a producer and choreographer. I’ll be directing one of the new episodes of LXD, as well. I don’t know if I’ll be good at it yet because I haven’t directed yet, but I’ll try. I think I have an eye for it, just like dancing and hopefully everything will work out. I also love acting. It’s what I started with and I hope my career continues in that realm along with new tasks, too.

Source: Yellow Magazine [Scans]

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