James Chen – The Survivor
Words + Interview By: Lucky Smith
If you’ve seen Netflix’s “Seven Seconds” or are a fan of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, you’ve seen actor James Chen in action. He also appeared in season 2 of Marvel’s “Iron Fist”, which was released recently and has quite a few other titles in his resume, including “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “FBI”. We caught up with him and talked about life, self-love, and his upcoming appearance in “The Last O.G.”.
You have built up quite a resume. How did you get your start and what motivated you to become an actor?
Thanks! It really has been a slow and steady journey just putting one step in front of the other. Looking back, I always had a vivid imagination and was creative. I loved to draw, play piano and write short stories for school and whatnot. But, it wasn’t until I was in college that I had a chance to explore acting, taking basic introductory courses and performing with extracurricular theater troupes. After that, I got the bug pretty quickly and by my junior year I was taking classes at the local theater downtown, had an agent and was skipping organic chemistry lab to write and direct plays. After graduating I stayed in Philadelphia for a couple years to work and act and then went to grad school at Yale Drama. After that I went straight to New York City and that was really just the beginning. I often feel like I’ve just started and have so much to learn and do but I think that’s a healthy place to be.
Where did you attend college and how was the experience?
I went to undergrad at UPENN in west Philadelphia, initially studying biochem (shudder). Over the course of 4 years, I slowly morphed that into an Econ major with a Chem minor all while pursuing my true interests in extracurricular acting projects. By senior year I was developing travel plans to get paid commercial gigs instead of studying for Econ midterms. So, the signs were very clear back then where my passion was.
“Seven Seconds” is a show that was cancelled even though a lot of people liked it. What did you think about it overall? Also, what it was like working on set?
I think it was an amazing show. It was extremely dark, but also extremely honest and real in a way that needed to be told. It didn’t shy away from the truth of the pain of these kinds of events we see in the news every day. Working on set was great. Everyone was super nice and professional but you could feel the tone had an undercurrent of the tragic subject matter at hand.
On any project, every single person involved is important, whether their role/responsibility is big or small. Do actors see it that way? Personally, do you celebrate a small role the same way you’d celebrate a major one?
In the sense that “there are no small parts”, yeah I think I do. I think if a character is written well and set up in compelling ways then it’s the actor’s responsibility and joy to investigate what’s interesting and who that person is. That really is our work and I think a big part of the pleasure of being an actor is the exploration and whether it’s applied to a character in one scene or to another character across many scenes. The work is the same. That character who has one scene or even one line is the star of his or her life. We (the audience) just happened to catch them in this one particular moment so to us it is merely seemingly small.
I’ve read that Samuel L. Jackson never turns down a role and we’ve seen him deliver both 2 lines and 1,000 lines in various films. Have you ever turned a role down and if not, what would be a reason you would?
I have turned some things down over the years. They were more of opportunities to read for certain roles than offers to play roles but there may have been a couple of those over the years as well. Making a piece of theater or film is a mammoth endeavor that involves a lot of risk. As my one friend puts it, “every time a film gets made it’s nothing short of a miracle.” There are just so many logistical hurdles in everything from writing to timing to financing to cast/crew. I’ve learned over the years that it’s better to really vet a project before committing yourself to it because once you commit to something, you’re in and you have to give it everything and see it to the end, regardless of whether there are very serious problems with the script or production, etc. We as actors give so much of our lives to what we do that choosing a project that for whatever reason will make you miserable is just not worth it in my opinion.
How do you approach a role in a comedy like “The Last O.G.”? It seems very different from some of your other roles. Which genre do you like best?
Great question. As you’ll see when it comes out later next spring, much of the comedy in that The Last O.G. scene has already been set up in the situation by the writers. So, I consider myself lucky to get the chance to work with great writers. I think with comedy it’s useful to play with a variety of choices and options to explore all the kinds of options and directions you can take a character or his moments.
Funny enough, I had always considered myself a dramatic actor and had gravitated to that kind of material when I was initially studying acting and working professionally. But recently, especially in my writing as well, I’ve found a lot of great and rewarding opportunities working on great comedy series with wonderful talented comedians. I try not to think of it as I’m either doing one or the other. Every character, just as every person in real life and every moment (scripted or real) has the potential and depth of both comedy as well as drama.
Being that you are versatile in your abilities, do you ever have issues with being typecast?
Check! I think many actors run into some version of this. But certainly being an ethnic actor, an Asian male no less, I’ve encountered a very particular kind of stereotyping. But, things are slowly changing and this year for me has been a great example of how much more inclusion there is in the industry and I’ve had the opportunity to play a variety of roles across a pretty broad range of shows. That has been wonderful but for myself and anyone else who feels typecast, I really feel like we live in a wonderful time where it’s never been easier to create for yourself those quality, three-dimensional roles that you feel are an honest portrayal of someone with your background. So, be the change you want to see!
What did you enjoy most about recurring as Kal on AMC’s, “The Walking Dead”?
Especially in seasons 6 through 8, Kal has a pretty awesome and characteristic haircut that when combined with the detailed wardrobe, props, set, makeup as well as that hellacious Georgia heat, all synergies to create a really textured, layered portrayal. The hair, makeup and wardrobe teams, as all the teams on the production, are world class and collaborating with them has been really rewarding to create your favorite spear-carrying Hillsider.
What is your most memorable moment meeting a fan?
A common phrase and moniker in The Walking Dead world is to be called a survivor and our main core group had been called “The Survivors” for quite a long while. So once when I autographed, “You are a true survivor” at a signing event, I was moved to learn that she was in fact a survivor of domestic violence and how my note as well as the show as a whole meant so much to her on a whole new level. Moments like that are really incredible and make me love and appreciate our fans all the more.
Season 2 of “Iron Fist” was released recently. For those who haven’t seen it yet (like myself), what can we expect from your character?
Just all the Oscars popping out of my ears the entire time! But seriously, Sam Chung is a dedicated and loyal leader at the Chinatown Bayard Community Center. I work with Colleen Wing to organize events for the people of Chinatown via clothing drives, spring festival celebrations, food drives, etc. and when danger descends upon our world, Sam steps up to provide whatever support he can to Danny and Colleen while making the protection and safety of his community members a priority.
Being that Marvel won’t be releasing their next 2 major films for awhile, Netflix series like “Iron Fist” are great to tide fans over in the meantime. Like I said before, I haven’t seen the show yet (but plan to). Is there any particular order that we should watch these shows in, which include The Defenders, Jessica Jones, etc.?
Hmm…Good question. If you track the chronology of when the series were released, I believe Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders and the subsequent 2nd (and 3rd) seasons of those shows, you’ll find that they build nicely upon one another, occasionally referring to plot and characters in other shows and even having some cool crossovers.
Dope. We also understand you will be recurring on the TV show, “FBI”. What is your character like on that one?
Oh, I play the super fun, super smart and super dry-witted Ian Lim (occasionally referred to as Ian Lentz). I’m a member of the FBI’s Computer Analysis and Response Team (CART) and I think the only reason I’m not making millions in Silicon Valley is because of the adrenaline rush of solving such high-pressure cases and outsmarting unethical people. It’s a worthy challenge for his abilities and I get to collaborate with equally brilliant minds of other field agents and experts in the command center. The knowledge that you’re responsible for protecting national security is I think Ian’s version of being a superhero.
How did you feel about,“Crazy Rich Asians”? Have you seen it yet and if so, what did you think?
I did see it and I thought it was great on so many levels. I think optically, it’s crucial to have such a big studio film made to send the message that, “Yes we (Asians and Asian-Americans) are here, we matter, we have stories and in many ways these stories are just like ones you’ve had yourself or heard of too. I still think we need to full court press this kind of Asian representation because there is a lot of racist unsavory history we still need to overcome in order to normalize Asian faces and experiences. So, for all those reasons it was a relief to finally see it and I was very proud that it did and continues to do so well! I thought the movie was really fun and glamorous and I’m so proud of the talented leads. The first project I did out of school was in an indie film that Constance (Wu)was also in and I am beyond proud and beaming to see how far she’s come.
What does “self-love” mean to you?
I think self-love is accepting yourself for who you are and loving who and what that is. We all can and should continue to improve and develop personally but at this particular current moment we can only be who and what we are and that in itself is perfect.
Name something you like to do that people think is weird.
Hmmm…so I freckle easily and often am in full shade troll mode. When I’m walking down the street and have to stop at an intersection to wait for a light, I’ll find that one 8 inch sliver of shadow cast by a street lamp, stand in that shadow, and wait there until it’s clear to cross and find the next bit of shade. Haha oh my god, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that to anyone before…I’m such a weirdo.
Who are your “Top 5” MMA fighters of all time?
Not a definitive list but…DUH, Khabib and McGregor (what a fight!), George St. Pierre, Anderson Silva and DUH again, the godfather himself, Bruce Lee.
What is next for James Chen?
I’ve got an amazing guest coming up on Madam Secretary next month. I also have Broad City and The Last O.G. guest spots airing next spring and an indie film I worked on last summer called Fluidity is coming out later this fall. I’ve also been writing more and can’t wait to show everyone what I’ve been making.
Follow James Chen on Instagram @jameschennyc, on Twitter @jamesCchen and at facebook.com/jameschenactor. His website is www.jamesCchen.com.
Photo By: Ryan West