Harry Shum Jr. is best known for his role of singing and dancing high school student Mike Chang on TV’s Glee. But the 30-year-old actor has also been quietly carving out a movie career for himself, with roles in such films as Stomp the Yard, You Got Served, Step Up 2 and Step Up 3D.
His latest film role, however, does not involve any singing or dancing. In the Quentin Lee-directed White Frog, Shum plays Chaz Young, a gay high school student dealing with enormous family pressures, but who is always trying to do the right thing. When he is killed in a biking accident, the lives of his loved ones are torn apart. It is Chaz’s legacy that helps to piece them back together in a more authentic way.
Shum chatted with Frontiers about the movie, which will screen at this year’s Outfest.
Tell us about your character, Chaz, and his relationship with his younger brother, Nick (Booboo Stewart), who has mild Asperger’s syndrome.
I think it’s a struggle between having a social life and what he feels he’s obligated to do. That’s always been the struggle with Chaz—he wants to be able to have a life and have fun; it’s almost like he lives two lives. His parents don’t know how to take care of Nick at all. He’s playing the roles of brother, friend and father.
In his parents’ eyes, Chaz is the perfect kid. But they had no idea that he was gay, and we see in a video that he left behind, that this perfect kid considered himself to be a fraud and a coward.
In calling himself a fraud and a coward, it’s in parallel to what his brother should not be. Be truthful and be proud of who he is and what he is. Chaz’s brother is able to become almost like a man in the sense of making decisions and speaking up. That revelation was helped with Chaz coming out [in that video].
Your scenes with Booboo Stewart felt so real. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that you two were actually brothers.
We just clicked. I actually worked on something with Booboo, but that was barely for a couple of hours on a music video a long time ago. We kind of knew of each other but not really. When we got on the set, it felt so natural, like he was my little brother. He’s such a cool kid. He did amazing work.
You are in the film’s early scenes then you’re only in a few flashbacks. And yet your character is focused on so much for the rest of the movie. Do you feel like you were in the movie more than you actually were?
I only shot three days. It was crazy. Watching the movie, it is centered around Chaz, and Nick’s trying to find out what Chaz is hiding. He’s constantly trying to figure out what his life was all about, what he was doing, who his friends were.
Will Glee fans like this movie?
I think so. It’s definitely a different tone, but there are some Glee episodes that have been a little more dramatic. This is about a kid who is a fish out of water, a kid who is not really accepted by his family and the world and trying to find truth in himself. Glee fans can relate to that.
Glee is one of the biggest hit shows on a major network, while White Frog is a small independent film. How do these two working experiences compare?
This is actually my first independent film. It was a great experience. They are two different beasts. You have Glee, and the pace is constantly moving and on to the next thing as quick as you can—it’s so hectic. Independent films you don’t have a big budget. But what’s fun is you can play around more and develop the character. That was an interesting experience for me. I loved playing a different character.
Has being on Glee, which has several prominent LGBT characters and storylines, shaped your views in any way?
I was always in support of the community, but when you are involved more, people show you a different side. You get to hear different stories—it does shape you. You start to realize we have more similarities than differences. In my eyes, life is simple; people make it complicated. I never looked at the differences too much. I grew up in Costa Rica where I was the only Chinese kid in a Latin country, then I moved to San Francisco where I only knew Spanish and lived with Chinese kids. I was in a different world.
The Outfest screening of White Frog is Saturday, July 21, 2 p.m. at DGA 1.