For a young actor in 2017, the good news is it’s never been easier to get a job. There are now a million options—as long as you’re cool with getting “famous” on go90. Or Crackle. Or Freeform. The list of platforms keeps growing, while the screens keep shrinking. Zach Baron reports on a generation of would-be stars navigating an era of glorious upheaval—when that next phone call might be from Netflix. (But it’s probably from Seeso.)
7. When Hollywood Won’t Cast You, Find Someone Else Who Will
Harry Shum Jr. can still remember what it felt like to be on Glee in that uncanny moment when 26 million people tuned in after the Super Bowl. That surreal sense of being at the center of a phenomenon: “Literally all eyes were on us constantly.” He’s perched on a stool in a coffee shop in Hollywood wearing a Henley, a mildly whimsical hat, and a pervasively radiant sense of health.
The height of Glee mania was 2011. That same year, he shot a few short films for some guys who were making clips for YouTube. Wong Fu Productions—three Asian-American guys just playing around with the format. “We shot like three random shorts,” Harry says, “and those did really well, and then we shot another one that got like 10 million hits, and then it was like, “Oh, there’s something here.” And then they sold a show to YouTube Red.” Single by 30, which became an eight-episode romantic comedy set in L.A., came out last year and the first episode has more than 2 million views on YouTube. You might not have heard of the show. But that’s kind of the point of streamers like YouTube Red: They go deep for relatively narrow but passionate audiences, rather than broad, for everyone.
One thing working on the Wong Fu stuff taught Harry, he says, is that the new generation of viewers Hollywood is trying to reach often doesn’t care about Hollywood at all: “These people, they don’t watch TV or movies. They literally just watch whatever is in front of their computers or on their phones.” Even at the height of Glee, he says, “I would walk down the street, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re in Wong Fu shorts!’ That’s all they know me from. And they go nuts over that. Sometimes walking around with a lot of YouTube personalities that I hang out with, fans are going nuts over them and have no clue who Leonardo DiCaprio is.”
Harry sips his Vietnamese iced coffee. These days he’s got a regular role on a show on Freeform called Shadowhunters. He plays a warlock. Last year he did a Crouching Tiger sequel for Netflix. But what he’s most excited about right now is his role in a studio film just now going into production, Crazy Rich Asians. Warner Bros., one of the oldest studios in Hollywood, is making it with an all-Asian cast, which has more or less no precedent. “It’s one of those that wouldn’t have been able to get made a couple years ago,” Harry says.
All these alternative channels and platforms, he’s noticed, have uncovered audiences that producers and studios used to ignore or were never even aware of. Which in turn has been great for actors who might actually look like those audiences. “There’s so many projects now,” Harry says. “Being a minority—all my friends used to struggle so much for the longest time and only get certain roles, and I’m starting to see them get all these different roles and main-character roles on platforms that you might have not heard of—but they’re, like, working with huge names, right? Producers, huge-name directors. I think that’s incredible.”
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