To the uninitiated, Harry Shum Jr. is jokingly known as the “Other Asian” on “Glee.” He’s been part of the hit show since the first season, joining the glee club as Mike Chang, the football player who can bust a move but can’t sing. After a season of being relegated to group numbers, dancing and no lines, Shum’s character made decent progress in Season 2, dating the club’s “Asian,” Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), getting dance solos and his first duet (where he spoke and danced) and a line or two. Still, in a show with an ever-bulging cast vying for screen-time, he wasn’t in the forefront.
But now that Shum has been promoted to series regular and fans are clamoring for more about the club’s lesser featured members, it’s Mike Chang’s turn to shine. And in turn, Shum — who outside of “Glee” has worked as a dancer for Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Jessica Simpson, choreographs and stars in “The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD)” web series, and starred in dance films like “Step Up 3-D” and “You Got Served” — is poised to shine as well.
We caught up with Shum on a rare off-day from filming “Glee” to talk about Mike’s upcoming academic drama, his own upbringing, the busy life of “Glee” and more.
“Asian F” this week looks like a big storyline for you, will we see more of your character?
There’s a storyline that’s a lot more about Mike Chang. I think a lot of storylines keep moving on from the past storylines, but it’s the introduction of mine.
The show is known to play into stereotypes and then challenge them. With Mike and Tina’s storyline there’s been a lot of stereotypes, will we see them explored in upcoming episodes?
I think the show does play into stereotypes, but I think in this episode it’s a comment on an issue that’s big in high schools. The running joke is Mike gets an A minus, and in Asian American culture that’s bad, that’s called the Asian F. That joke is there, but the underlining of that is more than a joke. He’s always gotten good grades and that A minus is why his parents come into play because it’s unacceptable to them. It bring up issues of, “Why are you getting this A minus, are you doing all these other things that distract you.” It puts Mike in a place between the things he loves and his parents expectations.
Did you have similar experiences growing up?
I think my parents were in the middle. I was born in Costa Rica and we moved to America where it was a whole new world for me. They wanted me to have the American culture and hold on to my old culture as well, be it Latin-based or Chinese-based. I wasn’t the guy who got straight A. I got As and Bs and a couple Cs. They wouldn’t scold me though. I was working in a restaurant when I was 14, so they were realistic. They’d love for me to get all straight As, but they knew I had a lot going on and was trying my best.
Are you still able to work on outside choreography with the “Glee” schedule?
The first two seasons it was hard. I was able to do LXD and shorts here and there, but I think this season it’s helped a lot more that a lot of the characters in the first episodes get a lot of screen time, and that allows for the days to be set up for the rest of us. For example, today’s a lot of Finn and Rachel, and for the other cast members that allows us to be off.
We know the running gag is that Mike isn’t a great singer, but you can actually sing. Do you want to sing on the show?
I’d love to. You will hear Mike Chang sing in this next episode. It’s exciting! It wasn’t in my background, I was never really a singer. The show made me realize I would have to learn how to sing. I’ve always sang but I never sang properly. I’m lucky in that way, when I try to learn something I can pick it up. The same way dance worked for me, it was sprung upon me and I got better over time.
Are there any songs or performers you’d want to choreograph numbers for on Glee?
I would love to do a dream sequence with Kevin McHale. He’s an incredible dancer, it sucks that he’s stuck in the wheelchair not being able to showcase that. He did a dream sequence one time (Safety Dance, Season 1), and I got to do P.Y.T. with him (Season 2). It does allow a lot more creativity in what you can do when you have two different personalities and different skill sets. Maybe do a boyband number, bring that back. Kevin comes from a boyband background so I think he has a couple things to teach me.
Personally, what’s your go-to shower song or favorite genre of music?
It’s different every single day, the shower song ranges from classic rock to Frank Sinatra. My favorite artist of all time is Bobby Darin. You would never think of me as a big Bobby Darin fan, but I remember the first time I heard Frank Sinatra I loved that genre of music and I started researching. I found Bobby Darin and he’s so underrated. He’s sang all these classic songs and made them his own, his voice is so different and powerful. I love that genre, I love big bands and crooners.
Are there any storylines you hope for on the show?
I’m just really happy and excited we’re getting Mike’s storyline. I think from the first season to the second season, it’s been a challenge of “I don’t know what’s happening, I don’t know if I’m going to be on the show anymore!” So I’m really excited about the next episode where we see a new side of Mike Chang. He’s going to have a big struggle over what to do, and I think a lot of kids battle that now in high school. I think it’s the most fun part of high school is when you’re seniors and juniors, and how the relationships are and where they will go.
You’re one of the older cast members and pretty far past high school. Is it challenging to get in that mind-set for work?
I think it keeps you youthful. High schoolers, everything is dramatized for them, but it’s also not so serious. That’s why it’s so funny. You think everything is so serious but you look back and you think, “Really, you cried over that? You’re beating yourself up for that?” It’s fun, I think it’s always fun to be kid-like.
What other projects are you working on other than Glee?
I’m doing a lot of web based stuff. Right now scheduling doesn’t allow us to do films or other shows outside of “Glee,” so web based shows we’re able to work around our schedules. I also just finished post-production for a film I worked on called “White Frog,” that I shot right after we got off tour. It’s about a kid who has Asperger’s and I play the brother who dies tragically. It’s a drama, very different from what I do on Glee. I’m trying to expand myself as an actor.
It seems like a lot of the cast did movies during the short break, are you guys able to stay in touch and support each other when you’re outside the Glee bubble?
Chris Colfer did a movie, Lea Michele did a movie, Darren Criss did a movie. It’s nice they let us do that and we’re all very ambitious. We’re all very supportive of each other. Like with Darren it was cool, actually, when I met him, Chris told him that I was part of LXD and choreographed and produced it, and Darren flipped out and told me he loved it. It’s really cool to have common interests outside of Glee.
Mike and Tina seem to have the most solid relationship in Glee club, but if they ever broke up can you see Mike dating any other McKinley girls?
(Laughs.) I think it would feel a little incestuous at this stage. It’s their senior year, you have to hold your ground. It would have to be a new character. It would case the drama of television if Mike ventures off to other girls. I think everyone has solid relationships. That question is always difficult! I think there’s a lot to explore with the particular relationships, finding out what happens in the relationships is more exciting than the drama of breaking up.
A couple fan questions — How was it to be out on tour and meet fans?
I think what I got out of it was how dedicated this fan-base is and how grateful we are for their dedication. They make cool collages, and I know there was one girl who came and slept on the street and followed us for four days. Someone went to the airport and saw her there — that’s dedication! It’s awesome and crazy at the same time! That’s what we found out on this tour that we don’t see when we’re shooting and filming at Paramount. It was great to meet fans and hear their stories about how the show has affected them, or how it’s helped them one day in their week. We’re here to entertain and that makes us feel like we’re doing our jobs.
Fans have asked, will you and Heather Morris (Brittney) ever have a dance-off?
It’s all in good fun. Heather and I are not much of battle dancers. I know people see me as a break-dancer, but I’m not really a break-dancer either. Heather grew up doing competition dance, but she’s not much of a “I’m going to dance better than you,” type. We can get into that character mode, we’ve done that playfully, but it’s not serious. I know fans really want to see that. Maybe Ryan (Murphy, the show creator) will write it! I think it would be fun if there was a competition for who was the better dancer and they go back and forth.
This past Tuesday there was a lot of slow-mo Mike dancing scenes!
Well, slow-mo and music always makes things a lot more epic. And so you know, when I do dance like that, those sounds do come out!