10 / Nov / 2018

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Nobody could have predicted how Harry Shum Jr. made it to Hollywood. He definitely didn’t take the typical path, and even when he tells it, his story sounds too kismet to be true. Born in Costa Rica to Chinese immigrant parents, the actor moved to San Francisco, then Grover Beach—“a town no one really knows”—when he was nine, and immediately began working at his parents’ Chinese restaurant. Growing up, he was learning English, struggling to make friends, and had trouble finding his footing—until he literally found it through dance. He moved to L.A. and scored a gig as a backup dancer for Beyoncé. Then came Glee and Shadowhunters. Then came Crazy Rich Asians. And here we are.

Fittingly for a dancer, a series of steps is the perfect way to describe his career. “My dad always taught me to take small steps. And I’m okay with that, because I want longevity with this. I don’t want to just be burnt out in the beginning,” Shum explains as we sit down following a full morning of shooting his best moves for ELLE.com.

When the now 36-year-old moved to L.A. on a whim fresh out of high school, he spent the first week dancing eight hours every single day, and immediately landed his first tour with pop singer Kasi. Choreographer Jamal Sims, who worked on the Step Up movies, saw him in class and asked him to go on the road. “I probably would have done it for free if they didn’t say they were going to pay me,” Shum shrugs.

Then came the call that would change anyone’s life. “I was eating dinner and they were like, ‘We’re interested in you going on tour with Beyoncé.’ I just ran as quick as possible and auditioned in front of Beyoncé to make sure she approved, which she did. It was crazy.” He still remembers the entire choreography to “Naughty Girl” and “Baby Boy.” “They just sit in my brain. The songs you love, they’re just in you forever.”

Between various tours, Harry leapt onto the screen, performing in Step Up 2 and Apple commercials. One day, his then girlfriend Shelby Rabara—she’s now his wife—shot a television pilot. “She came home saying, ‘This is a really good show. I had so much fun, there’s something about it that fulfills me as an artist.’ And I was like, ‘That sounds awesome, what is it?’” The name of the show was Glee.

The high-school musical drama needed actors who could dance, and Harry fit the bill. “I got booked for one day to learn the ‘Single Ladies’ dance and Robert Ulrich, the casting director, was really pushing for me because he saw something in me. One day turned into a week, and then a week into…we kind of know what happened.” Shum landed the part of Tina Cohen-Chang’s lovable boyfriend, Mike Chang, originally a quiet background character who developed into a confident, multidimensional core member.

Nearly ten years after the premiere of Glee, Shum is up for Male TV Star at the E! People’s Choice Awards on Sunday. He wasn’t a part of the initial group of nominees—The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln, The Good Doctor’s Freddie Highmore, Grey’s Anatomy’s Justin Chambers, and Riverdale’s Cole Sprouse. But enough fans of his recently canceled Freeform series Shadowhunters tweeted his name, at E! or accompanied by the hashtag #peopleschoice, making him a rare written-in candidate. (His co-star Kat McNamara received the same treatment.)

There’s just something about that show. Like Glee, which had its Gleeks, Shadowhunters amassed quite the fandom. Based on Cassandra Clare’s bestselling young adult fantasy book series, The Mortal Instruments, it follows a group of young, hot demon-fighting warriors as they fight many forces of evil, with the help of vampires, werewolves, and warlocks. One of those warlocks is Shum’s Magnus Bane, a centuries old bisexual icon in love with shadowhunter Alec Lightwood (Matthew Daddario).

To say fans have become attached to this pairing over the past three years would be a massive understatement. Search the hashtag #Malec on Twitter and Tumblr, and you’ll find hundreds of images, memes, and works of fan fiction devoted to the two. Hailed for positive representation by fans and critics, from its various LGBTQA characters to its diverse cast, Shadowhunters also won the 2017 GLAAD award for Outstanding Drama Series.

“YOU’RE USED TO BEING THE PERSON WHO HAS TO THINK, ‘I HAVE TO REPRESENT MY WHOLE COMMUNITY, AND IF I MESS THIS UP, I’M DONE.’”

This passion made it all the more heart-wrenching for fans when Shadowhunters was not renewed for a fourth season. The final 12 episodes and finale event will air in February.

“It came out of left field,” Shum tells me over the phone after filming the final episode. “But we were able to wrap the show up in a beautiful, exciting way. Filming that last few episodes was truly bittersweet.” Since the announcement, fans have gone to great lengths to bring back their favorite series, including purchasing a billboard in Times Square, flying a plane over Netflix’s headquarters, donating to charity, and raining memes upon Jimmy Fallon.

Despite the cancellation, Shadowhunters still won this year’s Teen Choice Award for Fantasy/Sci-Fi, which is voted on by fans. “The award was for the people that felt unheard, or invisible, or ashamed for being different and themselves,” says Shum. While the actor was careful not to spoil anything about the final season, he admits that he loves a good wedding. “Any way to showcase the love between these characters, I’m all for.”

Perhaps it’s his sweet nature that makes him so popular (he can be found on his Instagram Stories cooing at his little dog, dancing with costars, and opening fan-made gifts). But it’s not just fans who’ve latched on to Harry—it’s his coworkers as well. “Working with Harry on set is a masterclass. He is a fountain of creativity—constantly playing and coming up with new ideas and colors within the scene or small details that really bring the character to life,” McNamara tells ELLE.com. “He is always on point and focused, yet still treats everyone on set with kindness and respect.”

If Shadowhunters is a beacon of hope for LGBTQA fans, Shum gets the same feeling from 2018 summer blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians: “I’ve been in this industry for a while and a part of some really great shows and projects, but this was a completely different feeling. It was a celebration.” Although he was top billed, you might not remember seeing Shum in the film, based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel. You would have had to wait until the end credits scene for his cameo with post-split Astrid (Gemma Chan)—Shum was cast as her love interest Charlie Wu, who may play a major role in the recently greenlit sequel.

When director Jon M. Chu, who worked with Shum on Glee, approached him about the role, Shum was ecstatic. “I remember crying while reading the book, because I loved Charlie’s love story.” He explains that it’s not the type of role he thought Hollywood would ever let him play: “Representation is important, so that people feel like they can just be human, not a stereotype.”

Though he’s an avid advocate for representation in Hollywood, Shum is uninterested in playing the token Asian character, or taking on a role that fills any sort of diversity quota. “When I’m thinking of a role, it’s all about asking, ‘Does this make sense’? And whoever’s doing the storytelling—can they actually see me in that way or are they just doing it for diversity’s sake?” he says. “I think some people just don’t fully understand. They think, ‘If you have a writer of color, that’s enough.’ But what are the experiences that they’ve gone through? Where do they come from? Because that is what’s going to be important when they start writing and directing.”

For example, there was a time on set when he had to push back on a joke being made at the expense of a character’s heritage. (If he described the joke, he says, you’d know instantly which show, so he declines to relay it.) “It’s a hard conversation to have, but I think it takes constant conversation. I won’t say, ‘I’m not going to do this,’ but instead, ‘This is why I think this would be a problem. I’m just bringing it up—it’s up to you, because you’re the boss.’”

“REPRESENTATION IS IMPORTANT, SO THAT PEOPLE FEEL LIKE THEY CAN JUST BE HUMAN, NOT A STEREOTYPE.”

Which explains the relief Shum felt working on Crazy Rich Asians, which has an all-Asian cast. Nobody had to speak for anyone or explain their backgrounds: “We just knew where each other were coming from. You’re used to being the person who has to think, ‘I have to represent my whole community, and if I mess this up, I’m done.’”

This, like many other things he says, resonates with Shum’s characteristic kindness. Whether he’s talking about the pride he has for his parents, the respect he has for his fans, or the work being done by colleagues like Chu, it’s almost hard to imagine the actor coming so far in one of the most cut-throat industries there is. But perhaps that’s his magic, or rather Hollywood’s luck—because it’s better with Harry Shum Jr. in it.


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