If you were already dazzled by Harry Shum Jr.'s graceful, athletic dance moves as Mike Chang on "Glee," just wait until you see him take them airborne in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny."
The 33-year-old actor plays the charismatic young warrior Wei-Fang in the gravity-defying sequel to Ang Lee's elegant wuxia epic, this time directed by the original's wireworks genius Yuen Woo-Ping.
But in an interview with SPINOFF, even the physical Shum, who also stars on Freeform's "Shadowhunters" TV series, admits he faced a major learning curve while earning his wuxia cred.
Spinoff Online: You’ve been at the center of some special experiences before, but this had to be exceptionally cool. Tell me what was, for you, the joy of getting to do this.
Harry Shum Jr.: There’s multiple things, and a combination of things. First of all, it’s living out your childhood dream. I remember being in my house after watching “Drunken Master 2” or Wong Fei-hung, these incredible martial-arts films growing up when my parents used to bring them home, and I would act it out in my living room. I didn’t really realize it until halfway through the shoot that I was kind of living out my childhood dream and working with this legendary director, Woo-Ping, and Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen.
The weird thing is, I’ve always wanted to see what I look like in long hair, and I got to achieve that. I got my rock-star Wushu look. But the other part was, my parents are so proud, the fact that I’m in this. I always talk about how on “Glee” they understood the success of that, and the global success. But this one is like, "Oh, Harry, you’ve made it. You’ve made it. You made it in the Chinese newspapers." So it’s been pretty fun seeing them excited about it.
Where did the original film come into your life? When did you discover it?
When it came out in theaters. My roommates, we went and watched it, and it blew my mind. But for them, they didn’t grow up like I did. Half of them had never seen a martial-arts film outside of Bruce Lee. So it was cool to share that experience with them, watching that and be proud of something that I grew up watching. And for them to be so excited about seeing this their first time. I thought it was really cool to watch a subtitled film with my friends who usually hate reading subtitle films. So it was pretty cool.
Obviously, as an accomplished dancer, you’ve got physical skills, You’ve demonstrated that on more than one occasion. How easily did you adapt that to the martial arts?
I wish I could say that I just jumped right in and was able to do it easily. But it took a lot of quick training, I guess, because I didn’t have much time. I had about three weeks to prep for this and to kind of get used to the wirework and the choreography. It’s changing the intention behind it.
You dance and you want to create straight lines with your arms and body and tell a story through your body, by yourself or with a partner. But this one you had to figure out how you can bring the beauty of attacking someone. It’s like, how can you make it look like a gazelle with achieving a wolverine aspect, to putting something like that on film? So I had to find the balance.
But really, I had great mentors like Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh, and also stunt guys [who] were some of the best in the whole world, to help me out. I had a joy. It was bringing the kid inside of me and try and look like these guys and keep up with them. Donnie Yen, that guy has the fastest hands in the world. It was so hard to keep up with him, but I tried.
What was the thing that you actually got really good at, and what was the thing that you struggled to perfect?
I don’t know. I felt like I got a lot better over time with the sword, and the sword choreography. I would have a sword in my hand when I was cooking at home. I would literally practice. I’d be in the shower and have the sword in my hand or pretend I’d have a sword in my hand. So I felt like I always practiced.
The struggle is really the wirework, man. It's hard. One little millimeter of a rotation from your center, then the whole thing gets thrown off. Then you have to be in tune with the pullers, which they’re pulling you. So they are just going off of feeling it and seeing when you’re going to land on timing. So at the end of the day, there’s a precision, but also everyone’s guessing and going with intuition of like "How hard to I pull? If I let go a little bit, this will give him a soft landing and make it look graceful without looking like someone’s actually pulling him." So that was a struggle.
There’s never a time where I think you could say this is easy. Because it’s always something, gravity is always messing with you constantly and the force of someone’s pulling. That I feel I’ll never be good at, but we try to make the best of it. I’m sure there’s experts out there that’ll say something different, but for me it was always trying to achieve perfection at something that is always going against you.
Your director is literally the master —
We call him master! We call him Master Yuen Woo-Ping.
Was there any little bit of sage advice that came from him that helped you get where you needed to be?
For him, he’s a very quiet man. He has this presence where you can tell that he’s seen everything, he’s done everything, and he knows what he’s talking about. So any advice that he gives you, you take. From the positioning of your hands, even preparing to fight. You want to find perfection in that.
But the biggest advice from him that he gave me was, "Always show the strength." Whether it be a position that you’re in within a fight, never, ever show weakness within the fight sequences, even though you’re scared out of your mind. Whether it be me personally, or the character personally, you always show the strength, and I think that really shows on screen because he knows what’s going to look good on screen, especially with Wushu and even martial-arts choreography.
What was it about the character that was especially fun outside of the physical requirements?
The snark. I think it’s the snarkiness. He is snarky. He’s flirtatious, even though he’s completely scared. He’s just following orders. He’s a warrior that’s following orders that his life gets turned upside down when he gets a hold of the Green Destiny.
To me, that was really the fun part because usually you have a warrior that’s a soldier, but you’ve got to think these are people at the end of the day that have gone through some terrible things in their life to even get to the place that they’re following someone like this, like Hades Dai, evil warlord. So it was really fun to play this character and to have the snarky lines throughout the film.
Are you interested in doing more genre-type projects now that you’ve gotten that physical regimen down? Do you want to do superhero projects or things in the sci-fi realm or more things like this?
I’ve never planted myself and said, I only want to do like this for the next ten years. I came off “Glee,” I still love dance. I think I forever will. I also love martial-arts films. I also love action films. Being part of “Shadowhunters” is the whole supernatural world. I actually never grew up watching that. I’ve taken an interest in that.
So I always say this, but it’s like me eating different types of food. I don’t want to eat burritos my whole life. I want to try everything out because I think that there’s something good in every single thing, whether it be drama, comedy. Hopefully I’ll be good at it. That’s what I want to make sure. I don’t want to do it just because I want to try it out. I want to make sure to master it as much as possible.
“Glee” was such a phenomenon, such a unique kind of experience, I’m sure. What was the immediate after-"Glee" experience for you? What was interesting about that as part of your journey?
I think the fact that I was able to explore a lot more. “Glee” took a lot of our time where we got to enjoy these world tours of being on the show. You got to dress like a zombie, you got to do “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” everything that you’ve kind of wanted to do. Dress up for Halloween? You got to do it in song and dance.
So coming out of that, I never looked at it as a pressure to, what are you going to do after “Glee”? To me, it’s like, oh, I get a little more opportunities than I would have if I wasn’t on “Glee” to try to get in the room and be able to take on different roles. Whether it be for film or TV or even in digital aspect. I got to do a lot of fun short films that I got to explore a lot of different characters that helped me play these other characters.
So to me, I’m having fun, man. I’ve having fun and I’m having fun playing these different characters. This one, I never thought in a million years that I would be part of a Wushu martial-arts film. I just never thought that that would be in the cards for me. I think that’s what's exciting and I look forward to more variety in the future.
In your latest TV gig, "Shadowhunters," what’s been the most rewarding, most fun or most challenging aspect?
The challenging part really is the makeup and the hair, and crazy costumes that I have. But that’s been fun. I love the influences that he has: very David Bowie, and also there’s some K-Pop influence and some Prince. These are rock stars. I get to play like a rock star on TV.
But also the relationships. I think it’s been great to see this character that I think means a lot to a lot of people, and to really portray that. When I got on social media and look and the responses I get, it’s like how much it means to them. Not just on a fictional character, but also what it represents as far as someone being so strong and being so different and being so comfortable in their own skin. That’s been really rewarding to see that. Yeah, I’ve been having a great time on the show and I’m glad that people are tuning in.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” is streaming now on Netflix.