Former Glee star Harry Shum Jr. effortlessly plays infamous Green Dragons gang leader Paul Wong in the true-life crime drama Revenge of the Green Dragons, but that didn't come easy for him. A Bay Area, Calif. native, Shum admittedly had a preppy upbringing that kept him from gang-life exposure. When asked about his influences, he admits:
I didn’t really get into dark movies until around high school, and I also didn’t watch Goodfellas until after high school, so that was a new world to me. I lived in a pretty conservative town on the central coast of California when I was growing up... What was interesting about the [Revenge of the Green Dragons] was seeing how dark this world I've grown accustomed to can be at the same time.
Produced by Martin Scorsese and co-directed by Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, Revenge of the Green Dragons is being touted as the Asian-American Goodfellas. It's based on Frederic Dennen's eponymous New Yorker story, which dives into the grimy, and relatively unspoken of, world of Chinese American street gangs in 1980s New York. Specifically, the film chronicles the punishing upbringing of two best friends (Justin Chon and Kevin Woo) in Flushing, Queens, and what leads them to climb up the ranks of the area's most notorious clan, the Green Dragons.
In the following interview, Shum details his involvement with the film, his thoughts on contemporary Asian-American films hitting the mainstream, and his next project, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend.
Why do you think it's so rare to see contemporary Asian-American movies in the mainstream?
I think it’s rare in the sense that there’s never enough stories written in contemporary time, even though this is somewhat of a period piece, back to the '80s, and it's a true story. But I do think it’s coming in right now more so than before, because I think the Asian-American experience is still developing. It’s still very new and it’s beginning to come out now.
What drew you to Revenge of the Green Dragons initially?
I read the New Yorker article by Fredric Dannen and the number of details that he had on the gangs during that time period in Flushing was a little disturbing. What was actually happening during that time was important, especially to New Yorkers. There’s something so special about that moment, and also very scary. Paul Wong is this soft-spoken, very basic gang leader who gives off the sense that you don’t know what he’s going to do to you. He’s almost two-faced. I was drawn to the character, not for the fact that I’m two-faced or anything, but more for the fact that he’s complex and because there’s not that many complex Asian characters, which was really exciting to me. I got to really play.
Growing up, what were the kinds of films that influenced you?
I had a pretty preppy childhood. I didn’t watch gangster films when I was younger, it was more like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers. I love cartoons. I lived in a pretty conservative town on the central coast of California when I was growing up. I didn’t really get into dark movies until around high school, and I also didn’t watch Goodfellas until after high school, so that was a new world to me. So what was interesting about [Revenge of the Green Dragons] was seeing how dark this world I've grown accustomed to can be at the same time.
Film-wise you can see evil. You see Paul Wong and think, “Oh, this is the truest form of evil a person is capable of." But the very reason for this movie is about the American Dream, coming here and having everything you want at the grasp of your hands, in the land of opportunities. And the end of the day, that's what this film is heading towards, but sometimes it gets pretty tragic, and the things that need to be done get pretty vicious.
Are you usually offered a variety of roles that aren’t confined to any stereotypes?
Yeah, and I think it’s a growing process. Obviously, Glee was a big part of my career. I tried to take that character outside the element of what was being cast, that "Asian dancer." It just happened to be that I’m Asian and that I was also a dancer. I did an online series that was called Caper and it was very well-written and I was basically playing a superboy, a superhero that had no racial lines.
I am very proud of my heritage, and I want to be able play that as well, but I think it’s all about finding that perfect balance and telling a specific story, like in Revenge of the Green Dragons. It’s important to follow what was true to that time period and to the character. It was about what it meant to be an immigrant to come into America at that time. Also what was crazy about the story is the kind of free-for-all that was happening in Chinatown, where all the gangs were basically killing each other and no one was caring as far as police goes. It's really interesting to finally see that time period in New York.
You had a peppy, conservative childhood, but were you aware of a lot of the Bay Area gangs?
Well, yeah, my mom made it very clear that if I joined a gang then I would definitely be getting the beatdown. But I had the experience of getting bullied, and in this film that’s pretty much what happens. How do these kids join gangs? First of all, they’re pretty much not accepted, and the only place they can go is a gang and sometimes they get bullied into that. I was very lucky to not be around that, and I was more passing by to avoid the neighborhoods, because with these gangs it’s almost ruthless. People talk about turf, and you can just be walking down their area and get shot down for no apparent reason. Gangs were on a whole other level.
What do you have coming out next?
I am in New Zealand shooting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Destiny [ed. note: now called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend] which is the sequel to the first one. It's really groundbreaking because they’re releasing it on IMAX and on Netflix and Prime, which is pretty awesome because it gives the viewers the choice on how they want to watch the film. I’m getting my martial arts on, but putting my own spin onto it, but it’s really incredible to be working with some of the greats.
I also have this other show called Fake Off, which I’m a judge on. It’s on truTV. It's a performance show and 10 teams are given the chance to be creative in many different ways like body masking, shadow puppeteering, dancing to acrobats. It’s awesome because I get to use my dancing side and share some of my expertise and experience to help these teams hopefully win the competition.
Tara Aquino is the Complex Pop Culture editor. She tweets here.