A child of Chinese immigrants, Harry Shum Jr. has made a name for himself as an actor, dancer, and singer. During his early career, he performed as a backup dancer alongside superstars like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, and Jennifer Lopez. And in 2009, he was cast in his breakout role, playing Mike Chang on Glee. Since then, he has starred in major projects, including Crazy Rich Asians, Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, and Grey's Anatomy. Yet despite his star power, Shum is as casual and down-to-earth as anyone can be.
When Shum and I first meet over Zoom on a gloomy Friday, his energy is initially calm and well-tempered, but the more we talk, the more his personality shines through. In conversation, it quickly becomes apparent that Shum is someone who likes to experience both sides of extremes. He works to find comfort in boredom and work in equal measure. Ahead, Shum opens up about his approach to acting, his self-care routine, and what he's excited about in the future.
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once has won so many awards. Congratulations!
Thank you! It's always exciting to be recognized, and this film is special. It was a movie that needed to come out after the pandemic, especially for the people who needed something to feel good about and to laugh about.
Tell me about some of your other projects.
Right now, I'm filming Grey's Anatomy. The mid-season premiere aired, and we got to say farewell to Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) as she left Seattle. So it's cool to be back on people's screens, and we've been steadily filming. I'm also trying to do a lot of writing and producing.
I also understand you've been doing voiceover work as well.
Yeah, I did Legion of Superheroes, which is a DC animation. I got to play Brainiac 5, which was neat. I grew up watching DC Animation, so I loved being a part of it. I recorded the lines in my basement during the pandemic in this little box—it was like 100 degrees in there. It was rough, and I was surprised they made it sound as good as it did. So seeing it finally come out two and a half years later was fun.
What draws you to characters?
You know, we get so in our “actor brains” sometimes when we ask about a character's backstory. But for me, the character still has to be entertaining. All that prep work is necessary to produce something good, but the character still needs to be interesting, so you can bring people on a journey and develop an emotional attachment to them.
It took me a while to understand this, but how you feel about a character or story says more about you than the work itself. I got to do this cool podcast, Echo Park, where I played five or six characters. I only found that out once I got into the booth to record. I had to craft the characters on the spot, and I think that no matter what role you're playing—hero, villain, or protagonist—it all lives inside of you, and you just have to bring it out. At the end of the day, we're here to entertain and bring light to things we're all dealing with.
You've played characters that come across as confident heartthrobs, like in Grey's Anatomy or Shadowhunters. Did you always feel confident when you looked in the mirror growing up?
Absolutely not. You always question what you wear, your hair, and what people think about you. When you come to this country, you learn to assimilate. You just lay low and get by, almost with a survivalist mentality. It took a couple of teachers telling me that I shouldn't doubt myself [for things to change]. I was in a class called Speech and Debate, where you did 10-minute monologues, and I would work hard, but I would second guess myself. My teachers told me that, at a certain point, I couldn't second guess myself. You can do it in rehearsals, but you can't do that when you enter the real world. People feel that energy, and you'll give a poor performance. That thinking bled into other parts of my life. It's not about being overconfident but being confident in who you are. If you don't know who you are, you're toeing the line of living a bit of a lie.
Let's pivot and talk about your skincare routine. Give the people what they want!
It's pretty simple. For me, it's become about how I treat my skin and what I'm eating. I grew up drinking a lot of milk and eating a lot of cheese, and I wondered why I had so much acne. I was told it was just because of my hormones changing, but my skin completely cleared up when I cut out dairy. I've also been doing a lot of red light therapy. I'm not a doctor, but all the research I've been doing says that it stimulates your mitochondria and helps tighten up your skin. After that, I focus on moisturizing.
What moisturizer do you use now?
It's from La Mer. My frugal side only wants to use a tiny amount, so I use the smallest drop. Someone said that if you're going to treat yourself, treat yourself to some luxury. But I sometimes travel without it and use whatever my wife has. I'm that dude who will just use my wife's face wash and moisturizer.
What other wellness practices have you implemented for your mental health?
People often say running helps clear their minds. I love weightlifting for the same reason. I like to lift weights without music, which sounds weird because you just hear weights clinking, but there's just something so meditative about being able to just focus on your thoughts while lifting. On top of that, I've been lying on these acupressure mats. It feels horrible, honestly, for the first five minutes. But sooner or later, I start to fall asleep. I also do contrast showers, which means I take a hot shower and then a cold shower for the same amount of time. It allows you to feel a spectrum of extremes. My wife could hear me screaming from the bathroom the first time I did it. But over time, I've found it invigorating. It has also helped me mentally because it's made me realize, "Okay, I can get in an uncomfortable space, but I'll find a way to get through whatever I need to."
How do you feel your mental health and creativity are linked?
I think most people who have mental health issues are also very creative. When you're constantly creating and thinking a mile a minute, it does something to your brain. I've learned the "go, go, go" mentality isn't the best avenue to go down. Balance is important, so I love spending time with my friends and family. We have to be able to enjoy things that we don't think will progress our careers because creativity lies in the most mundane things. An enjoyable conversation like this can even help inform our next move.
Okay, so imagine this: You've booked out one day to yourself. What does your perfect mental health day consist of?
I would wake up, make a nice cup of coffee, and sit in my backyard watching the hummingbirds come through. Then, I would go to a movie theater. It's been so long since I've done that by myself. After that, I would hang out with my daughter and wife. We like to see where the day takes us—sometimes, we go to the gardens or just go out to eat. I'm a very simple guy. There's nothing extraordinary about me. But because I'm privileged to do these cool things, doing the most uninteresting things helps balance me.