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UNSTOPPABLE: James Chen On His Career, Breakout Role On ‘Iron Fist’ And More!

James Chen is, without question, one of the most exciting actors on the scene today. While he is already becoming a familiar face to audiences, it’s important to remember that his success didn’t come overnight. His journey as an actor began at the prestigious Yale School of Drama where, upon graduation, he led the School of Acting in commencement ceremonies and was awarded the Dexter Wood Luke Memorial Prize. He began acting professionally in Philadelphia theater after attending the University of Pennsylvania. After completing Yale, he resumed his professional career in New York City, where he quickly began working in Off Broadway theater, TV, film, commercials, and audiobooks. Armed with an undeniable charisma and incredible work ethic, he has quickly established himself as one of the most captivating and versatile actors in the business. Thankfully, Hollywood was quick to take notice and made him part of several of the most exciting projects in town!

James is currently bringing an exciting array of possibilities to the second season of the Netflix/Marvel series “Iron Fist.” For the uninitiated, the series follows Danny Rand (Finn Jones), who returns to New York City, after being presumed dead for 15 years, to reclaim his family company from Harold Meachum and his children. When a threat emerges, Rand must choose between his family’s legacy and his duties as the Iron Fist. James plays Sam Chung, a volunteer for the Bayard Community Center where Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) also works. Chung is known in the comics as the vigilante superhero Blindspot. Up next, he can be found lending his considerable talents to the highly-anticipated CBS drama series, “FBI.” Created by Dick Wolf, the procedural drama follows the inner workings of the New York office of the FBI, bringing to bear all the bureau’s skills, intellect, and mind-blowing technology to keep New York and the country safe. The series is set to premiere on September 25th, 2018. Last, but certainly not least, James returns to his recurring role as Kal in the hit AMC series, “The Walking Dead,” which returns for its eighth season this October.

Even with his career gaining tremendous momentum, James has never lost sight of his roots. He continues to keep himself grounded, and is grateful for those who have helped to expand his world. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently had the opportunity to catch up with this star on the rise to discuss his unique career path, the challenges he has faced along the way, diversity in Hollywood, and what the future may hold for him!

How did you first gravitate toward the creative arts?

I didn’t grow up in the arts. Actually, I was a pretty nerdy kid growing up in the suburbs of New York. My parents are both professionals, a doctor and an engineer. If anything, art was almost discouraged. It was like, “We didn’t come to the other side of the planet just for you to become an artist!” [laughs] I was successfully nerdy, a good student and I loved film! I just loved watching movies and my dad would buy my friend and I tickets, and we would see three shows in a weekend. I didn’t really get a chance to pursue it until college. I always had this interest, fascination and curiosity, not even joking, just from watching Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien. It was a chance to see these actors that I loved watching on screen as characters talk about their process. Finally, when I got to college, I began to pursue it extracurricularly. I was only allowed to take a couple classes in non-majors, but I started auditioning for shows. That went super well and then I took classes at The Downtown theater and got an agent. Instead of studying for a midterm, I would be trying to map out a three-step, subway-to-bus-to taxi travel plan to get myself to an industrial or commercial that I had booked, or I would be skipping organic chemistry lab to write and direct a play. It got so much momentum that I got an Econ degree and then immediately got a job as a bus boy! [laughs] I told my dad that I was pursuing this acting thing and he was not happy. He said, “Your mother and I have been married for 30 years and this is the hardest time of our marriage.” I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, so I wanted to get the best training I could. With that said, Meryl Streep was and is one of my idols and heroes. I knew she went to Yale, so I did a lot of research on Yale drama, as well as some other schools, but Yale had always been my first choice. I prepped for that experience for a year. I got in and moved to New York after my three years up in New Haven and now here we are! [laughs] Honestly, the amazing thing is that graduating from Yale was just the beginning! So much has happened since then!

It’s inspiring to see someone with a dream pour their all into it and have it pay off. With that said, it’s a scary step to take. Did you have reservations about taking the plunge and pursuing acting as a career?

Sure, I think so. To be completely honest, I think I was honestly consumed by joy, excitement, passion and curiosity when it came to taking another class, working with another teacher, seeing or reading another play or meeting another actor whose work I liked. It was really strange, it had a mind of its own and took over. I kept listening to that voice! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve also done my share at restaurants but over time the work has been able to provide me some security. I guess it really proves how much I wanted to do it and was in love with it. To me, it didn’t feel like taking a plunge. It was more like taking a breath of fresh air or freedom. Prior to this, I was in a four-year chemistry master’s program and it was just not what I wanted to do with my life, so it felt like a blessing more than anything else!

James Chen – Photo by David Zheng

Which artists inspired you early on?

There are so many great actors! Growing up watching movies I was a big fan of Johnny Depp. As I became more familiar with his work, Daniel Day Lewis, had a tremendous impact on me. I feel like almost every actor has to cite Daniel Day Lewis, it’s almost a given, right? [laughs] Strangely enough, Gregory Peck was also an influence. My mom loves black and white movies and would always be watching Turner Classic Movies, so I got to watch some of that with her. I feel like both Gregory Peck and Olivia de Havilland’s work was incredible and really ahead of its time as far as screen work. In an age where actors were just getting accustomed to acting on film, she had incredibly dropped in and nuanced experiences that were captured on film. That was riveting to me!

What about mentors? I imagine you encountered incredible people along the way.

Yeah! I feel like I’ve been really blessed to have worked with some great actors and teachers over the years. The head of my acting program at Yale was a man named Ron Van Lieu. He is legendary as an actor and acting teacher. He ran the program at NYU for 30 years and I was in his second class at Yale. A lot of my professors at Yale have had profound influences on me. My voice, speech and occasional acting teacher, Beth McGuire, was a big deal. You might recognize her and Faye Simpson, if you check out Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar acceptance speech where she mentions them. They taught Lupita as well and did a fantastic job. Like I said, I was very lucky to come out of college with very little acting experience but knowing I wanted to study with someone to train for grad school auditions. I was referred to a man named Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, who is a superb actor, acting teacher and human being. I really credit my getting into Yale to him and I tell him that every time I see him! [laughs]

What were the biggest challenges you faced as a young actor?

Good question! I’ve definitely spent my fair share of hours in a restaurant but that’s par for the course — a survival job thing. I feel that I have been fortunate because I was able to segue into doing audiobooks relatively quickly. It required very long hours, a lot of prep work and a lot of stamina but it’s rewarding because you are acting. You definitely have to clock in and out in that kind of way. To be completely honest, I feel the thing that has been the largest obstacle for me has been being an Asian male actor coming out of Yale drama in almost 2010. I say that because the industry hadn’t shifted to where it is right now. There wasn’t as much opportunity back then as there is right now. It was a combination of keeping your dreams alive, despite the reality of what you were seeing every day, not only on TV but in the auditions that were coming through your email because maybe those were the best things being written for someone. Going to Yale, learning how to transform and do all of these different kinds of roles, only ever asked to perhaps do one line as a convenience store owner or something like that, was challenging. I think that is different than working your way up. Working your way up the ladder of the business can definitely be grueling but I tried, as much as possible, to look at it as an exciting adventure and a game. It comes down to the mental aspect of keeping your spirits up through 10 years of ups and downs.

A quick glance at your resume shows your career is quickly gaining steam with amazing projects. What was your breakout moment as an actor?

That’s another interesting question. I had the opportunity to work with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. That was awesome and shocking just to be able to meet them. Right around the same time, I booked a recurring role on my favorite show growing up, which was “Law & Order SVU.” On a personal level, that was exciting because it was a recurring guest role which had more presence than the stuff I had previously played. For that to happen was kind of an awakening for me. It was like, “Wow! I did that! That was exciting. I actually feel like I’m living the dream now.” That was definitely a big moment. At the same time, I feel like every job I book is that moment from an energetic gratitude point of view. I did a film a few years ago that was incredibly rewarding called “Front Cover.” I played a character from China who comes to America to promote a film that he’s in. I felt like I finally had an opportunity to use all of those skills I had learned at school. It was extremely rewarding. I feel that it’s experiences like that are why I became an actor! I feel like every job has some element of that in it. As a kid, I loved watching action movies. Now, to be a part of “Iron Fist” and the Marvel Universe is amazing. It’s fresh, new and groundbreaking for me and my career.

James Chen – Photo by David Zheng

How did you get involved with “Iron Fist” and get the role of Samuel Chung?

It came to be as an audition. I had auditioned for a role on that show a few weeks or a month before and on this particular day, I didn’t get a chance to go into the room for the audition. It was really late at night and I was helping my friend work on her material. Last minute, I said, “Oh wait. Could you help me put this thing on tape?” We just put it up and I felt I really clicked with the role. I think I just got booked off of tape which was awesome.

This role has amazing potential for you as an actor and for the buildout of the “Iron Fist” universe. What has the role meant to you?

The role has meant a lot. It’s an honor really to be able to work with all of these wonderful actors like Finn [Jones], Jessica, our showrunner Raven [Metzner] and my other Asian New York theater actor friends like Christine Toy Johnson, James Liao, Marcus Ho or David Shih, who are all in this season as well. That has been deeply uplifting to see us all working on it together and representing Chinese people in this world. On another level it’s really exciting, and I have to give it up to Raven, because Sam Chung, who is obviously Blindspot in the comics, is a relatively new character. However, I think there is a reason for that. I don’t think you could have written the role earlier than that. He is so timely! He’s an illegal Chinese immigrant who taught himself how to design a super suit from reading books on his own. I feel like the ideas of illegal immigration, Asian-American leading men and superheroes are such current things right now and something we need to see. Believe me, I’m completely ready for this! I have been doing MMA for almost a year now and I’m keeping it up! I’m out there and I’m ready for anything should the Marvel forces at play decide there will be a Season 3 and go that way! I’m really excited that we are having this conversation. I’ve been reading a lot of articles online and getting some messages — people are just dying to know if Blindspot is coming out! I think one of the healthiest ways for us to go about that is to have and magnify the conversation, in addition to letting them know what you’re thinking.

While Blindspot is a newer character in the Marvel Universe, I imagine it’s still fun to dig into. Did you find parallels between your two worlds?

It is! As you can see from this season, we don’t go terribly deep into Samuel Chung’s backstory. What I knew at the time was that he was working a Chinatown community center. I’m fortunate enough that I live in New York City where I can literally walk to Chinatown. While I didn’t quite find a community center, there was certainly a lot of community parks. While this wasn’t particularly for the show, I’ve volunteered to teach for after-school SAT enrichment classes where I teach high school kids in Chinatown. In the spirit of that, I’ve had this connection to the New York Chinese community in a volunteer capacity. This is coming from the standpoint of wanting our youth to have a fair shot and taking care of our people and making sure they have what they need to succeed. In that sense, I feel there has been a lot of overlap with Sam, in a great way!

Tell us a little about your process for bringing a new character to life.

I believe it all comes from the text. I guess you could say, “Well, that is a classical theater training background … ” I just think it’s true and the best place to start because that’s what you’re given. It all starts with the text and the clues that you can infer from that. Another big shift for me, in terms of breathing life into a character like Sam, is the wardrobe fitting and the haircut. It powerfully sets the look and feel from the inside. There is a saying in acting — “Acting from the inside out or acting from the outside in.” This is a huge blanket statement, but they used to say that back in the day, that British actors act from the outside in and Americans act from the inside out. I think that any good actor does both. The awesome thing about putting on a costume is that these are the clothes that are in your character’s closet. When you look at yourself in the mirror you are seeing the birth of the character in your reflection. These clothes have been selected through a conversation between yourself and wardrobe and that incites a feeling inside of you of what it feels like to be that person. You start to build a mental and visual image of this person. I guess that is a long way of saying that it’s a truly collaborative effort. You have conversations with hair and wardrobe to help you impose the look. When those come together, it solidifies another milestone for where you are in realizing the character. Anything that isn’t on the page, I feel like actors have creative license to daydream and invent backstory. It’s not like we are changing lines but adding depth. That is where the process begins for me.

James Chen – Photo by David Zheng

You also have a recurring role on “The Walking Dead,” From what I heard, they create an immersive world on set. How does this series compare to others you’ve been a part of?

You hit the nail right on the head! When you walk on to the set of “The Walking Dead,” it’s like you are on a major motion picture film set. I can’t even begin to tell you the level of detail involved. The first time I got to The Hilltop, it was astounding! They made that from scratch and I think it cost them like $2 million or something like that over the course of eight months. It started a weedy hill, but they found this telephone company and they drove these 30-foot-tall telephone poles 10 feet into the ground. There had to be hundreds and hundreds of them to create that fort around The Hilltop. They made everything inside of there and it’s real too! Like the blacksmith forge — it’s real and it works! There are real tomatoes growing out of the gardens. Sometimes, depending on the day, they will have live horses or cattle in the barns eating hay! It’s incredibly immersive and real. There is so much attention to detail, coupled with hundreds of people on the crew. That’s astounding! In a way, it’s super easy because you are drawing so much inspiration just from what you’re looking at and what the set design has done for you and the carpentry has made. I think the other thing that sets “The Walking Dead” apart is that they hire these incredible actors like Lauren Cohen and Zander Berkeley, who’ve I’ve been able to do some great scenes with. I’ve also been very fortunate to work with some great directors like Michael Slovis, who has also done great stints on “Game of Thrones.” It’s been great to work with the top talent and it makes things feel effortless because people are so on top of their game. It’s the same situation with the Marvel Universe because everyone knows their stuff and are also at the top of their craft! On “Iron Fist,” I got to work on a lot of my scenes with Jessica Henwick. She is awesome to work with and loves to improv and find stuff in the moment that may not be in the script. She was pushing me to go off and do what I want to do. It was great to have that sort of permission, so to speak. With projects like these, you would think there would be more pressure or expectation, and I’m sure that’s there somewhere, but I think it comes done to the excitement making it more fun. When things are so well-realized, it almost becomes easier to do. There is so much to take in as an actor and behind-the-scenes as well. It’s incredible to see how much of a collaboration it is. What’s the expression? “It takes a village … ” [laughs] It certainly does!

James Chen – Photo by David Zheng

You will soon be headed to CBS’s new series, “FBI,” from the mind of the legendary Dick Wolf.

Yeah! I was brought in for an audition by Jonathan Strauss, who’s the casting director for “FBI” and some other Dick Wolf titles like the “Chicago” series and “Law & Order” series. I did the audition, eventually was pinned and got an offer. I play a character named Ian Lentz, who works for the FBI in the C.A.R.T. (Computer Analysis Response Team). In this series, a lot of the emergencies are extremely time-sensitive and have to be solved in extremely urgent conditions. The stakes and pressure are both very high, so I have to glean as much information as I can from what’s available and pass it along to our point people, Courtney Gonzalez and Missy Peregrym. They are both fantastic actors, along with Ebony Noelle. What I love about it is that we are working as a team to piece it all together. I feel like getting this part was an extension of my relationship with those creatives. I’ve worked with Jonathan Strauss and Dick Wolf before on “SUV.” It’s like what I was telling you before, booking the job of “Adrian Sung” on “SUV” was a big milestone for me at that stage in my career. It was the biggest thing I had booked up until that date and it was also my favorite show. Dick is an amazing guy, and everyone involved is like a family. I’ve used this expression before but it’s like you’re working with the same family but you’re in a different house. There is a level of comfort that comes in through knowing what to expect as far as the feel and quality of people you are working with. Of course, you’re always bringing your A-game, as well.

As you move forward in your career, your resume continues to grow more eclectic. What are you looking for in the roles you take on?

That’s a great question. Well, I am really into character development having cited Meryl Streep, Daniel Day Lewis and Cate Blanchett, who I’m also a massive fan of. I love being able to explore through character and playing people who have unusual or interesting professions. I also love when they have an interesting conflict within them or that they face and wrestle with internally. I guess you could say that is general for most actors, but I truly like to explore stuff that is different. I think that is why a lot of actors became actors; to be able to touch upon the entire breadth of the human experience. That is what I love about theater and acting class. You get the convenience of being able to play all of those different kinds of characters and explore them, even with action. Something like Blindspot is a great example. Yeah, it’s action. Yeah, it’s Marvel but he’s not just another action vigilante. He has an amazing backstory with so much depth. Personally, it’s a role I feel I could bring so much life and personal experience to. Honestly, it’s also an exciting prospect to have the potential to show something helpful and useful to society. With “Front Cover,” I felt what we were doing was shedding light on Asian men not only as sexy leading men but also telling the stories of people who audiences don’t normally get to see. The story centers around a very successful, famous, masculine man but he is also struggling with being in the closet. His counterpart in the show is also a very confident Asian man, who is having trouble and struggling with his Chinese identity as an American. Things like that are obviously pretty close to home for me and things that I find myself exploring when I write. It just mirrors my experience of being an American guy who happens to be Chinese. Those are some of the things I find interesting these days.

Is writing an aspect of your career you may explore more as you move forward?

Yeah, definitely! I’ve taken some writing classes here and there. I’m trying to get more into a rhythm of writing because it is such a discipline. I have nothing but respect for veteran professional writers. I think actors might take for granted that we get the pages, and everything is already fully formed. We don’t see the countless hours that goes into it, where the writers are by themselves hashing out how to lineup all the moving parts between characters in a script. I would absolutely love to create my own stuff. I’m a huge fan of Donald Glover and Issa Rae. I love that they are multi-hyphenated actor/writer/producers who are creating content that is not only for themselves but what, I think, America needs to see. Their work is telling stories that are not being told and that people haven’t seen yet. Just by virtue of that, it makes it incredibly original. Obviously, both of them are super unique, creative and outstanding in their own right. I would like to make something very personal and meaningful to the Asian-American community.

James Chen – Photo by David Zheng

It goes without saying diversity has been a hot topic in Hollywood for the past several years. You are on the front lines. I feel like we are starting to see true change. Would you agree?

Yeah, absolutely! My buddies and I were just talking about it. I don’t know if it’s an actual thing, but we just saw Asian August. We had “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Searching” and Lana Condor got “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Awkwafina is getting her show greenlit, Ken Jeong is working with Jon M. Chu on his next project and the sequel to “Crazy Rich Asians” is already greenlit. It is time! It’s coming! There is also an amazing show by a Hapa Hawaiian writer who is going to write the Hapa Hawaiian female character story. There are so many exciting and fresh stories in the development pipeline and people are hungry for it! As an actor, I’m seeing the most quality and quantity of auditions for an Asian guy that I’ve ever seen during my time auditioning in the biz.

Looking back on your career so far, I’m sure you see a lot of growth. How have you most evolved as an actor?

That’s a big question! One thing that stands out to me is taking things in stride a little more. It remains the hardest thing to do, I think. Once you know that you’ve settled in for the long game, every individual match, so to speak, doesn’t have to make it or break it for you. It’s knowing how to be wise with your energy and thoughts. It’s also important to know how to recover and self-care. Honestly, maintaining a positive and hopeful attitude through all the ups and downs is very important. I could go into detail about learning new things about acting but I think those have been the most important things, especially for the long run. I guess you could say I have a hyper-focused obsessive personality! [laughs] It’s a double-edged sword. It’s so important and essential to drive down on what you are working on or if you are on-set in the moment. Conversely, it’s so healthy to live a well-rounded life and to have new experiences, do things you haven’t done before, travel and explore. I think that is a gift I’m slowly giving myself more often. It’s a lesson that I happened to learn in my own time. Acting is awesome! I love it and I feel so lucky to have a chance to do this, but I feel like I have also learned that as much as I love it and as much as I’ve always dreamed of having this life, it’s also just a part of life. It is a job that I love but it can’t be everything!

That is a great way of looking at things! I’m excited to see where your journey takes you both in front of and behind the camera! Thanks for your time today, James! I wish you continued success!

Thank you, Jason! I really loved it, truly! I look forward to our next one!

Catch James Chen in Season 2 of Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’ streaming now on Netflix and on CBS’s ‘FBI’ when it premieres on Tuesday, Sept. 25th at 9/8c. Visit James’ official site at www.jameschen.com and connect with him on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.