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Interview: James Chen

In today's Hollywood landscape, we are definitely seeing more diversity when it comes to roles in film and television. Although there is still more work to be done, the industry is definitely heading in the right direction.

By the time he reached high school, actor James Chen realized that he wanted to pursue acting as a profession and we are glad that he did. He is already carving his own path in the world of entertainment with interesting and diverse roles in film and television.

Many of you may know him from his role as Kal in the long-time running AMC series The Walking Dead or as Sam in the Netflix series Iron Fist. He's also made appearances in series such as Elementary, Law & Order: SVU, Blue Bloods and The Blacklist, to name a few. He can currently be seen on the recently renewed CBS drama F.B.I.

We had the chance to sit down with James to talk about the beginning of his career, what he thinks about the diversity issue and Hollywood and what advice he would give to young actors.

Pop Culture Principle - Did you always know that you wanted to be an actor?

James Chen - Not as a kid, no. I always loved the arts, had a great imagination, drew and sketched a lot, played the piano. But it wasn’t until maybe late high school that I think my love of movies grew into a curiosity for a profession. Then in college, I started to do extracurricular theater, ditching chemistry labs to write and direct plays, and looking up directions to jobs I’d booked instead of studying for midterms. So by the time I was out of college, it had already begun a life of its own and I was off on the journey.

Pop Culture Principle - You trained and graduated from the prestigious Yale School of Drama. What was it like training there and do you still use that training in your work today?

James Chen - It was an incredible experience, to work with some of the most talented actor classmates and gifted teachers in the country. The program was really rigorous… obviously, scene study classes but also training in the actor’s body and voice as an instrument. It was a beautiful time… to be completely immersed in the craft and have that much constant self-assessment and constructive criticism. I grew leaps and bounds, but it was just the beginning really. I do still use the training. Each part or production is different, and each one has different demands on the actor, but that YSD training has been my foundation of my craft and my confidence for sure.

Pop Culture Principle - What was your first professional paying job and do you remember what it was like being on set for the first time?

James Chen - Wow, memory lane! I think it was a non-union commercial for AOL shot outside of Philadelphia while I was still in undergrad. I believe my audition for that involved me telling the creatives a little about myself, and luckily I had just hosted a rather epic BBQ at my place, so there were stories to tell! That was a fun shoot… we were in the suburbs, wearing sunglasses and looking into the sunset saying stuff like, “Wow,” and “cool.” You have to start somewhere am I right!?

Pop Culture Principle - One of your first major recurring roles was playing CSU Adrian Sung on Law & Order: SVU. Can you talk about your experience working on that long-running series?

James Chen - Okay so first of all, growing up L&O: SVU was my absolute favorite show. I looked forward to it every week and all the reruns I could find. So Mariska and Chris and the rest of the SVU team were already favorites of mine. I absolutely loved every minute working on that show. I think I spent most of my time there telling myself to calm down and be more chill because it was surreal being on those iconic sets. But equally cool was getting to film all over the various neighborhoods of NYC… brownstones in Harlem, highly-walked streets of the West Village, beaches in Staten Island. And Mariska and Chris, the entire cast, crew, creatives are fantastic people and superb at what they do. I’m grateful for that experience and to have learned a lot from some of the best.

Pop Culture Principle - Some consider your breakout role to be Samuel Chung on the series Iron Fist. Can you talk about how you landed that role?

James Chen - Ah okay… I’m not mad about that moniker! I had auditioned for a few roles on the show over the previous season, in the room in NYC, but it never went my way. This one time, I had a conflict the following day, so my friend helped me put up a tape the evening before. It felt very easy, a good fit, felt like I was able to make it my own. It was the scene from when Colleen meets up with Sam at the community center while he’s setting up for casino night. A couple weeks later we got confirmation, and a couple weeks after that, the awesome Jess Henwick and I were Colleen and Sam -ing it up!

Pop Culture Principle - Blindspot is a new character to the Marvel Universe and that gives you the opportunity as an actor to build him from scratch so to speak. Would you agree with that?

James Chen - In the sense that there have not been any previous portrayals of him, yes. I think Charles Soule and Ron Garney created a fantastic, exciting, extremely topical character in Sam Chung-Blindspot. I’d always loved Spiderman growing up, and in particular how Peter Parker used his ingenuity to synergies with his superhuman abilities.

I always loved how both the civilian aspect of a superhero can likewise gift the hero aspect. It drives home this idea of how we all have extremely valuable gifts that are worth of being honed, developed, and put to heroic use. I definitely relished the opportunity to bring to life a character that I’d admired so much. I’m looking forward for an opportunity to shed light on Blindspot himself.

Pop Culture Principle - You are also playing the role of Kal on the AMC hit series The Walking Dead. What does it feel like being part of such a huge series?

James Chen - In short, it feels really great! It’s humbling to be part of such a critically acclaimed and internationally beloved story, with such loyal and enthusiastic fans. Working on the show, especially as Kal at the Hilltop, you really feel the size of the production you’re in. It’s the best in the biz in every department from set dec to props to wardrobe to actors, writers, directors. They’re able to achieve a level of immersion and “what would it really be like if this happened” quality to these apocalyptic scenarios. Those gargantuan Hilltop gates are functional and I’m the one opening and closing them. The blacksmith is real and functional.

There are real tomatoes and peppers growing in the Hilltop garden. I think as an actor you always want to work with the best — fellow actors, material, directors, crew. And it’s been a blessing to work with the likes of Lauren Cohen, Scott Gimple, Angela Kang. It’s been extra exciting bringing a graphic novel character like Kal to life in AMC’s live action world. As a warrior-protector of Hilltop, it’s always exciting to flex those muscles, familiarize oneself with spears and firearms. As we progress forward in time in the series it’s also been really fun to track the character evolution via Kal’s weapons and clothing over the years.

Pop Culture Principle - The set of The Walking Dead has been described as immersive and almost like an actual movie set. What are your thoughts?

James Chen - Ha yes, you read my mind from my previous answer. 100% yes. The level of detail is extraordinary and as we’ve seen over the years, the size of these sets are full on village-level. Attention to every detail. The show has a dedicated blacksmith who has custom made all those iconic Hilltop spears. Mules drawing jerry-rigged carriages made out of repurposed pickup chassis… it’s a gift to the actor when the reality of the apocalypse is created so well by our crew. The walkers and the detail in their clothes, prosthetics, hair, make up… it’s all very immersive and realistic. I for one and so looking forward to the actual Walking Dead movies, because just think what they could do with that!?

Pop Culture Principle - You’ve recently returned to the Dick Wolf universe with the series FBI. Can you talk to us about your character and being part of that series?

James Chen - It’s the greatest! Dick knows so well how to create these exciting ensembles of compelling experts. I play Ian Lim, who is part of the FBI’s Computer Analysis and Response Team (CART), which as you might guess handles anything and everything to aid the Bureau’s investigations… evidence recovery, offensive / defensive surveillance, using the latest tech to stay ahead of the world’s most daring threats. Ian himself is an absolute brain wave, and he’ll be the first to let you know how lucky you are to witness his powers at work. I think in addition to keeping the world safe, one of the aspects that Ian really enjoys about what he does is the excitement of challenge— bringing a hacker to his knees, outsmarting a criminal with speed and strategy.

Pop Culture Principle - You’ve also made guest star appearances on series such as Elementary, Sleepy Hollow and The Blacklist to name a few. As an actor, is it easy for you to come in as a guest star on an established series?

James Chen - I’d say it’s familiar, and becomes more and more comfortable the more I do it. As a guest star you’re literally also a guest in the home of the cast/crew, who are there day-in-day-out, day after day, year after year. So part of the job is to land running and merge into the rhythm of the show. It’s always fun and exciting working with new creatives and every set and show has its own energy, so it’s fun and adventurous in those ways. Invariably you’re working with great people, doing what you love, and sometimes you get a bonus and have Lucy Liu as your director!

Pop Culture Principle - As your career continues to grow and scripts keep coming in, do you have a process for choosing which roles are the right ones for you?

James Chen - I think it comes down to whether there’s something interesting to do with the character, or if the writing introduces the character into interesting circumstances. I’m always looking for something new, exciting, perhaps the chance to work on a new skill… but at the same time, I try to be honest with whether or not it’s the right time for me to play certain roles, given where I am in my life and career… if it’s something I feel I’m right for at this time.

Pop Culture Principle - What are your thoughts on the diversity issue in Hollywood? Is the industry moving in the right direction or is there still more work to be done?

James Chen - There is always more work to be done! I am very encouraged by the recent diversity across Hollywood, especially in the last 6 months alone and within representation of Asian-Americans. Speaking for myself as an Asian-American, it is SO SO crucial and important to portray Asians as main characters who accurately represent three-dimensional humans with dignity.

Real talk…There is research-based evidence for Symbolic Annihilation — the under- or absent representation of minority groups in media, which perpetuate demeaning false 1-dimensional stereotypes. This absent-, under-, or false- representation also causes real damage in the hearts and minds of Asians (or any affected group) — a lower sense of self-esteem or self-worth resulting from how poorly they are represented in the stories they grow up with.

I am thrilled with the success of Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Searching, as well as many other upcoming exciting series and castings in TV — I see you Sandra Oh! And I’m looking forward to so so much more of it.

Pop Culture Principle - As an Asian actor in this business, do you see yourself as a role model?

James Chen - I’d never used to, but in recent years with more higher profile recurring roles in Walking Dead, Iron Fist, etc… can’t help being part of the growing community that represents Asians in the media. As far as a role model… I think the jury is still out on that one.

Pop Culture Principle - Do you see yourself branching out into writing, producing or directing may be in your future?

James Chen - I do actually. I’ve made a few short films with my friends in the past, which have been really creatively satisfying. I do write, and have ideas for great stories… some featuring characters that happen to be Asian and others that directly examine the Asian-American experience. I hope we can all be talking about these in the near future!

Pop Culture Principle - What advice would you give to someone who is interested in being an actor or an up and coming actor?

James Chen - I’d say to be very crystal clear on why you’re doing this kind of work and choosing this kind of career. To keep working hard, be consistent, and keep learning, stay sharp. Fame isn’t guaranteed, but fulfillment in good work done well is under your control.

Pop Culture Principle - Any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

James Chen - I’ll be making a turn in the final season of "Broad City", episode 2, which airs January 31st. Had the immense pleasure of working with the incomparable Queen's Ilana Glazer and directed by Abbi Jacobson. So inspired by those two. Later this spring, I’ll be appearing opposite Tracy Morgan in his show, "The Last O.G.", which was a ton of fun. I’m also in the midst of shooting an episode of "9-1-1" for FOX, so that should be coming out next month in mid- to late February!! Look out for it!

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We would like to send a big thank you to James for his very forthcoming and in-depth answers during our interview! If you would like to keep up with his latest projects, news and his social media platforms, you can visit his official website here.

**All photos courtesy of Ryan West & David Zheng**

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