Is there anything Harry Shum Jr. can’t do?! Whether he’s dancing, singing, choreographing, or acting (and usually he’s doing some of those in tandem), it’s difficult not to be instantly drawn into his performative sphere. He’s a magnetic force with which to be reckoned, recently in one of the most memorable scenes in Crazy Rich Asians, and as the all-too-human (yet only half-human) Magnus Bane on Freeform’s Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments. We’ve been an admirer of his work for a long while, so it was a pleasure to chat with the multi-talented star on the phone recently ahead of Shadowhunters‘ return to TV tonight.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our chat with the delightful Harry Shum Jr.
Brief Take: What does playing Magnus Bane represent for you?
Harry Shum Jr: Magnus Bane, he’s such a special character, and when I signed on to do it I gravitated towards him, something about him spoke to me. I think the fact that this guy is unapologetically who he is, he’s a bisexual character and he’s of Asian descent and also he’s a warlock. I mean there’s so many things that you can’t pin him down and it makes him like a unicorn; it makes him unique and in such a positive manner. And obviously what comes of it, even with his confidence, there’s still mental health issues, there’s a past which he still hasn’t dealt with. And along with that, I think there’s a clip of saying that him without having eyeliner is like a zebra without stripes. [chuckles] It’s funny because he makes light of it, but at the same time, there’s still that other mask that he has that he is trying to unmask and trying to figure out, even after all these years. Which is why I think that the fans and the audience really hold on to him, because even with someone who has lived that long, still grappling with these issues, it’s nice to know that he’s still human. Even though he’s half-demon, half-human, he’s still human, and those are qualities that will never I guess fully fix, and it’s a process of life.
BT: To what do you attribute the Shadowhunters cast’s palpable chemistry (on and off screen)?
HSJ: I think that one of them is luck, lucky to have this cast be assembled. I think that sometimes when you start a show, the fear sometimes is “is the chemistry going to be there?” or “are the actors going to get along?” and we’ve been very fortunate to have those things—the chemistry’s there and also everyone’s so respectful and extremely talented. So I think that when you have the combination of that and just good people with good hearts, it’s nice to see the outside see that as well and get to take that in, along with what you would see on social media and also in interviews and also on screen. Like with Kat McNamara—she is one of the sweetest people that I have ever met and I’m so happy for her success and the growth of the show from season 1 until now.
BT: How does it feel to do the awards circuit for Shadowhunters and for Crazy Rich Asians?
HSJ: I’m a lucky son of a gun to be part of these two projects, even in previous projects, they all seem to resonate with a good core group in the masses and it’s really cool to see them cross, to see people who are fans of the show to become fans of the movie, or people who watch the movie go and watch the show. I think it’s really neat. It’s a huge group in the ensemble, all coming from different backgrounds, and it brings me joy to be part of these projects. Especially in Hollywood, where we are coming into a transition of what individuality means and how to express that through media, and having more opportunities to do that. I’m just happy to be at this moment now in which being embraced as opposed to being pushed aside. There’s still an upstream battle of getting there, but I think that this opening is a lot bigger than what it was before.
BT: With the immense success of Crazy Rich Asians and another movie in the series on the way, what does that mean to you?
HSJ: Some things you just have this gut feeling. I remember reading the books and thinking that this is something special and that this is also an opportunity that I might never get again, you know? You hope that more opportunities will arise, but sometimes in life it will take more than 25 years, or it might take 10 years, which it has obviously on film. But to see the combination of individuals come to one place and to make this thing in which everyone believes and puts their best foot forward and without any regrets or resentment. Sometimes you go on a project and you’re like “I don’t know…”, this one it felt everyone was aligned, everyone was on the same page and trying to make the best piece of art possible. Hopefully we will be able to continue making good art.
BT: What did it mean the night of the E! People’s Choice Awards and winning the Lead Actor award?
HSJ: I mean this process of seeing the growth, not just of these characters, but the growth of us as actors but also the growth of the fanbase, it’s really neat to see it overall. And at the E! People’s Choice Awards, how it happened was incredible – to have something for which only the fans could vote and to have their support, it made it so much more meaningful than receiving any kind of accolade. So it wasn’t really about me, it was more about this collective team that really stuck by the show and stuck by these characters.
BT: Who have been some people that have inspired you?
HSJ: I think that someone with whom I got to work recently was Jon M. Chu, someone who has inspired me not just as a director, but as a creator, as a collaborator, as a champion. I remember when I was dancing professionally and Step Up 2: The Streets was one of the first bigger gigs that I got, that was kind of part of a bigger ensemble, but also had a character name and some sort of a background. But just meeting him I learned a lot about collaborating, you know, the idea of collaborating, because we did a lot of online series and we put together the tour that opened up for Glee. And the Oscars, one of the numbers was produced by Adam Shankman, so it’s that kind of camp which I look to and I learned a lot about what it means to collaborate as an artist, and also how to take a step back and support someone’s vision and trust it. Because it’s not about me always thinking “how can I put in my ideas?”, it’s also “how do I lift this idea up?” and this person’s trying to bring his vision to life. Along with that and along with people like Ryan Murphy, I remember that Ryan Murphy believed in me—I was a dancer that had some credits, and I remember him coming up to me and just asking “hey, are you able to sing this song?”. And I was like “well, I have never sung professionally” [laughs], and he said “well I think you can do it”. And I was like “Okay, well, okay”. [laughs] “I guess that I’m going to push myself to do it”. It’s having people like that that give you the opportunity even though you may not truly believe in yourself, and I think that is really special that some people just have, like Jon M. Chu, Adam Shankman & Ryan Murphy. Obviously they’ve done that for the rest of their career—now they’re still discovering people and giving them opportunities and they rise to the occasion.
BT: What are some of your upcoming goals as a multi-talented performer?
HSJ: Some of my goals right now are fatherhood. [laughs] I think that’s the big one, because I feel like I’ve survived in this business for as long as this is what I have been able to do, and all of the different avenues through which I have gone. So I have definite goals where I wanna go on, to be where I want as far as the type of characters for which I want to play. But what I love about looking ahead in my career, I started off I moved out to Los Angeles with like five hundred bucks and was able to pay the first month’s rent, and really needed to figure out what I was going to next do. I put in the work and was at the right place at the right time, but I hope that I can keep doing it, for that one, I was doing a bunch of dance classes and these choreographers found me and asked me to go on tour, because with whatever they liked that I did in class, and from there on I was able to pay for a couple of more months rent. [laughs] It kind of has a domino effect, and even at times I have to respect that I’m not working because I’m getting to enjoy the fruits of labor of life, or getting to enjoy the people with whom I’m surrounded, and the relationships with which I have come in contact. I’m a firm believer in putting in my work and the things that I do not expect happen will happen and will actually be the better thing for me.
BT: Food and cooking are a big part of your life. What sort of dishes would reflect your current state?
HSJ: I think that for me, especially, it has been simplicity. It is getting good quality, high-quality produce whether, for instance, I’m big on branzino right now. Just a whole fish branzino with olive oil, salt, cilantro and ginger, and that’s it. The fragrance of the combination of that and the simple ingredients doesn’t overpower what the fish has to offer. And then dry-aged steak, simple seasoning, salt and pepper, which you don’t need olive oil and butter. So for me, it’s that I don’t know if I’m prepping for another human [laughs] but that I’m trying to make simple dishes, as opposed to complicating my life with a whole bunch of seasoning, which I think is great and I will definitely eat, but for cooking, for myself and for my wife, that definitely is the key now.
BT: Would you serve the branzino with everything including the eyes?
HSJ: Everything, baby, everything. I don’t eat the eyes, but we want to know where the fish came from, as opposed to the filets, which we don’t know where it came from.
BT: What can you tease about this upcoming season 3B of Shadowhunters?
HSJ: So much happens that I only remember a few things. [laughs] I have a very short-term memory. [laughs] Sometimes when I shoot something, I’m like “I forgot that that even happened!”, because you’re so in the moment, and it could sound cliché coming from an actor, but I really experience it, and then I move on. Sometimes when I watch it back on-screen, it’s like “Oh my God, I forgot that even happened!” and there’s something of an out-of-body experience when that happens. [laughs]
But particularly in the final episodes, Magnus obviously doesn’t have powers. I think that is the first time that has ever happened to him, not just putting a strain on his mental health, but putting a strain on his relationships with Alec and with his friends, the people around him, and then also the idea of his existence. He’s lived for so many years, hundreds and hundreds of years, that without this thing that he thought defined him, he doesn’t know what the purpose is any more, right? So I think that you see an exploration of that, while the rest of the team is still grappling with the possibility of having Clary gone. I think that the bigger threat with Jonathan coming back, is figuring out how to stop him without the possibility of Clary helping out.
Shadowhunters season 3B returns tonight on Freeform!