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Harry Shum Jr. Talks All My Life, Glee, And Shadowhunters - Exclusive Interview

Harry Shum Jr. is a triple threat if there ever was one, excelling at acting, dancing, and singing on TV, film, and onstage. Is there anything this guy can't do? The actor made his claim to fame in 2009, snagging the role of Mike Chang in Glee — a series that would alter the course of musical TV shows forever. In addition to appearing on all six seasons of the Fox hit, he joined the Glee cast for a slew of live tours where they performed for sold-out audiences around the world.

Just one year after his Glee debut, Shum Jr. took his dancing skills to the film Step Up 3D, later winning a leading role in the fan-favorite fantasy series Shadowhunters. His portrayal of the bisexual warlock Magnus Bane amassed a number of dedicated fans before Freeform canceled the series after three seasons.

If fans of the groundbreaking film Crazy Rich Asians stuck around for the post-credits scene, they may have noticed Shum Jr. take on the role of Charlie Wu. In 2020, the dynamic actor stepped into the shoes of Solomon "Sol" Chau in the film All My Life. The movie chronicles the inspiring real-life love story between Sol and Jennifer Carter while Sol grapples with a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Harry Shum Jr. spoke to Looper during an exclusive interview for All My Life during which the actor revealed the film's significance, teased a Glee storyline that fell through, and dished on the Shadowhunters ending between Magnus and his onscreen boyfriend, Alec.

A symbol of trust

Which scenes did you struggle with the most, and how did you work through them?

There were a few, but the one that stands out to me is the vows... even just thinking about it, it's just emotional thinking about someone giving their vows and knowing that when you say [you'll] spend the rest of your life with someone, then that's a short period of time — at least that was given at that moment. And to figure out what are the right words to say, they were written beautifully by Todd Rosenberg. But it's also like the way that's being said, right?.

And I think it was always a struggle of how you communicate that. And as an actor, trying to figure out how to get through it. And to just trust these words that this relationship that was built over time and to trust this couple that was going to go into this with a lot of strength, with a lot of determination, and being courageous.

But there's always a sense of something in the back of your mind or this fear that is always going to bleed through. So it's just fighting the two together, but looking at just even Jess [Rothe] in that scene. And she was so supportive to the point where she would give me so much confidence and to try and to just go with what I felt was right during that time. 

And also, there was Jenn, the real Jenn Carter, who landed that day from Video Village watching that scene happen. So there were a lot of layers happening, but I'm so grateful that she came and gave me a big hug and was just so easy to talk to. And I hope we did it justice.

Getting to know the real Jenn and Sol

Definitely. So you sort of touched on this in your last answer, but what was that meeting like when you met Jenn [Carter], and how did that process go along?

Yeah, that was my first time. Jess had spoken to Jenn kind of before I got onto the project. And even during, I was hearing a lot of stories from Jess and then seeing videos and pictures and getting the essence. But it was when I spoke to Jenn and went to dinner, and she shared a lot of stories.

She was very open about it, and I was taken aback by how open she was, and also just how generous she was about telling just intimate parts of their relationship. It's got to be hard whenever you're spilling it all out, but for her, it was the greater good for Sol. And for people to know who Sol was, what type of person he was, because in the face of tragedy, you get to know a person and what they do and how their reaction is. That's the real them. And to see who Sol really was during this time, especially knowing when his end was near, is really, really inspiring to know that he still had hope during that time.

A universal story

What do you think fans of your other projects like Glee and Shadowhunters will love the most with this film?

Yeah, that's an interesting question. First of all, I'm just so thankful that people have stayed with me from Glee and to Shadowhunters and found interest in the projects that I've been really lucky to be a part of. And I think those other ones have different elements that, I guess, brought people into them and then had such a liking to certain characters into their storylines. 

But this one, I think it's really universal in the sense of like, we're all mortals at the end of the day, and we don't know in what way we're all going to exit, but I think it's pretty universal on how you live your life today and how you decide to live your life tomorrow because yesterday can't be changed. 

And I think hopefully, the fans from Shadowhunters and Glee and other projects as well can just hop into this with an open mind. But at the end of the day, I think Jen and Sol's love is definitely contagious. And in that aspect, it's just, you're going to feel the love, and hopefully, that can be spread as well.

Even small moments are big moments

This film is really relevant in 2020, which you guys couldn't have known when you started working on it.

No, no.

But some of the best moments in the film are finding moments of joy in times of trauma. So what advice would you give to people on how to honor that sort of message in their daily lives?

I think it's the balance of don't sweat the small stuff but also make the small stuff big stuff. In the sense that, that's not an elaborate way to say it, but I think that's the simplicity of it, right?


It's how those little things of how you make someone feel just by a gesture, by the action that you take on, or the reaction that you have when someone says something. And I think what really spoke out and obviously, this is a movie. So these moments are truncated to like an hour and a half, two hours.

So it was impossible to get all the little moments, but I think there's a lot of them in there, even how they walk up to each other and use that time to just make it memorable and to have that feeling that they can carry on forever is I think really important. Especially now where we're spending a lot of time with certain people, or even by ourselves, is to figure out, right now, even if you are quarantining or whatever on your own, it's just use this time to self-reflect and to figure yourself out. Because as much as we to say that we know ourselves, I think it takes a lifetime to really get to know your true, true self.

A Gleek for life

You have a pretty epic song and dance number in the film. How is it different or similar to your other performance-based projects like Glee?

Yeah. With Glee, we were singing for performance and making ourselves into a fantasy, like how you think you would sound. I think that's one of the interpretations, like if you were a pop star, what would you sound like? For this particular one, we wanted to... Sol is not a singer. Sol is not a dancer. He did this out of his comfort zone. He was extremely nervous. This is probably something that he wouldn't do for anyone else.

But for Jenn, it just showed that I'm going to embarrass myself in front of people. I'm going to be pitchy. I'm going to be all these things, but I don't care because it's the thought that matters. And bringing the friends along, I thought it was a grand gesture, but also extremely intimate in how they executed it. And I had a blast doing it.

And the cool part of it is that we recorded a lot of the song live, too, after just so we get different alternate takes of it to see what Mark Myers and the studio wanted. But I felt that it came out really, really special, and it just felt real.

So, what is pitch?

It was a really sweet moment. What was it like working with the cast of Glee, and what are some of your favorite moments from that set?

It was just one of those experiences where we got to film three, four songs, sometimes an episode — and then we'd go and record, and we'd go in dance rehearsal. And then we'd still want to hang out with each other after. And then, when the show was done for the season, we would go on this worldwide tour and travel the world and perform in front of thousands of thousands of people in the stadium.

So it was just this like "was I part of that?" when you think back on the things that we got to do. But my favorite moments, to be honest with you, were those offscreen moments when we got to just be the biggest goofballs. And the ADs would get mad at us for being too loud because we were just having so much fun being around each other.

And we were just young kids back in those days. And so I cherish a lot of those moments, and I'm glad that I get to use a lot of those experiences and learn about technical things when I'm singing. Oh, like pitch. I didn't know that my first time — I'm not a singer. I still don't know, but I know a little more than I did before. [Laughs]

You didn't get to sing a whole lot in the show. Is there a performance that you wish you could have been a part of more vocally?

There was this West Side Story arc. I think something happened with the rights. And I think I had a storyline that was going down a certain path of me being part of the musical a lot more when they had that. And I think it was one of those mashups that weren't approved, and it just threw everything through a loop, and so I wish that went down a different path. It would have been cool to be part of that musical.

Fact or fan fiction?

Switching to Shadowhunters, how do you feel about Magnus and Alec's ending on the show, and what do you think they're up to now?

Yeah, that's a good question. I think there's a lot of fanfic. I'm sure there's a lot of fanfic on what they're doing right now. I think that the show was hard. The writers, I think, did a wonderful job with the show ending so quickly and abruptly. The fact that they were able to create a story of an ending for television and to make it feel like the fans can have the show as a gift to them — so they can carry on, however, these characters, and decide what they do next.

And it all kind of started with fan fiction anyway. And to have it kind of continue on, I think, is really neat. I always love these projects when the audience participation is a big component of why certain shows or TV shows or even films are special. But I'm sure Alec and Magnus are right now — if we're talking about the real world — I think they're enjoying quarantine. But having a portal and not having to do air travel is definitely a perk. And I would suspect that they are taking advantage of that.

The changing tide in Hollywood

Definitely. So on Shadowhunters, your role of Magnus Bane provided some much-needed LGBTQ+ and Asian representation on genre TV. What do you think TV and film need to do going forward to depict a more accurate picture of what the world actually looks like?

Yeah. I think Hollywood just needs to listen more. There's a lot of damage control and talking and thinking they know what... And I'm just speaking in Hollywood, and there are thousands of people involved in these decisions, but I think listening is the most important part. And I think once that starts to happen, things can really change.

And I think on the other side too, just even people on the other side... not to say that they know what's right, but I think the conversation needs to go both ways. So we can work together, to be honest with you. Because I've been having more conversations, just knowing, because I've been part of certain projects or places where I felt like a lonely voice. And no one was listening to me or at least just simply saying that there's something not right about this and not being able to voice that in a proper setting. I think [that's] what makes it really frustrating for a lot of people — specifically actors and even directors and writers.

So I think moving forward to be able to have more conversations, in-depth conversations, nuanced conversations, and knowing that it's a lot of times case by case, it's not an overgeneralization of representation all across the board on one community, is not the best way to move forward. So I think having these important small conversations is the way to go, in my opinion.

Eyes to the future

Is there a role that you'd love to take on in the future in a specific franchise or a specific genre?

Not one in particular. Every time I want something, like a certain role, and then they cast the person, I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's the right way to go." And then some come to me and some I chase, but I've never looked at... I have my sights on certain places, but if I say it, then I don't know if it'll come true. And I hate to say this. I think it's a sad state when you're saying, like, I just want to play whole human beings that are able to not just be... People don't hone in on just one facet of their life. 

And I think that to me is... I'm optimistic about the future, but it's also kind of sad that I even have to say that, that I want to play a whole human being because for a long time, people who look like me haven't been able to. So I hope to continue that, and it's going to be in all different genres, and I'm excited for the future.

All My Life is available to rent on VOD, with DVD and Blu-ray release slated for March 2. Make sure the kitchen is stocked with at least three cartons of ice cream and a multiple tissue boxes.