We’re all familiar with Harry Shum Jr. as the bisexual warlock we know and love in the hit TV show, Shadowhunters. Since being cast as Magnus, his resumé includes several big franchises including the upcoming film adaptation of the best-selling book, Crazy Rich Asians and Escape Plan 3 with Sylvester Stallone. We delve into Harry’s extensive filmography to see his journey from cameo dancer to household name and lead actor.

The Dancing Years

Harry first got critical acclaim as the dancer in Glee back in 2009 – initially a nameless character in the series – but even before that, Harry was establishing himself as a dancer. In his early days at college, Harry used to dance at night and work during the day. Although there was no doubt that he was good at what he did, he wasn’t sure how to market himself. After landing one gig for a European band, he was unemployed for a year and knew he needed to be creative in order to get jobs. He started recording audition tapes of him dancing. “I didn’t have a specific style, but I just wanted to let go and be myself,” Harry said when he was at Northeastern’s event hosted by Pacific and Asian Affairs Council. His effort paid off in the form of an iPod commercial three months later and he started getting more jobs. “They told me that they liked my style. They weren’t looking for a specific look, just for a good dancer.”  

He managed to land several gigs, guest-starring in shows like Committed, Viva Laughlin, Rita Rocks and Greek, and landed minor parts in movies such as You Got Served, Stomp the Yard, The Onion Movie, and Center Stage: Turn it up. His first major movie role was the character of Cable in Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D. In Step Up 2, he met director Jon M. Chu who he later collaborated with by joining his dance crew, The LXD (short for The League of Extraordinary Dancers). “Chinese people aren’t known for dancing, especially hip-hop wise,” Shum said. “I’m not saying they can’t do it, but they haven’t been portrayed [doing so]. It’s something that resonates as cool and hip, not the geeky Asian that people usually see,” he said to Mochi Mag.

From Dancer to Actor

Several years into his career, however, Harry made the decision to focus solely on acting. Speaking about his career during the Empowerment event back in November last year, he mentioned his struggles in making a mark and the difficulties of transitioning from being a dancer to an actor.I would go into rooms and they’d see my resume and they’d go ‘Oh you’ve done TV, but you’re dancer number 2, dancer number 3’ and it’s all these things where it’s just like ‘But where’s your acting stuff?’”. After a conversation with his mother, she suggested that maybe going back to college and getting a degree in International Business would be the best option for him. The thought of going back to college, only to possibly drop out was not something that he wanted to repeat once more, even if he was losing roles out to other actors with no credit at the time.

As fate would have it, he got a call about an audition for a TV format that we now know as Glee and with the encouragement of his partner, Shelby, he decided to audition anyway. Despite being determined to establish himself solely as an actor, he took the plunge either way and boy, are we glad that he did.

His story, of course, doesn’t end there. Landing a gig on Glee was, of course, monumental but he was primarily cast as an actor without any lines. “[It was] a big win,” he said about getting the role. “I didn’t know what the show was, I didn’t know how big it was going to be. No one knew. And at that point before it aired, it started gaining a lot of traction. But that was one step into it, because the reality is that’s a big step, you’re on a big show, but the behind the scenes is like ‘I am on a big show and I’m very grateful for it, but now I also want to be able to be featured and be part of it, contribute and be a character.’

He was determined to shake off his image as just a dancer and constantly looked for opportunities where he could stand out. He mentioned in several interviews that he gave Mike Chang his own stories and created a character that was merely described as “Asian dancer”.  Although he was given lines, it was not enough to cement himself as an actor in Hollywood. The leap from obscure character to main cast member came when the cast went on a nationwide tour. In the opening show for the tour, the audience recognised him and responded really well to the character of Mike Chang. It was this enthusiastic response that made Ryan Murphy and the other producers notice the impact of his character, leading to Harry being promoted to a series regular who had his own storylines and arc on the show.

Despite progressing further as an actor, Harry still emphasized his authenticity and showcased his abilities. “You might get that big opportunity, right, but you’ve got to be prepared for it and also be creative in how you push forward. I think there’s no one avenue or different avenues of ‘Do this, do this and you’ll be successful’. That’s bullshit in my mind. I think you have to find out what works for you, what special talent that you could put forth and contribute to the story. We’re all trying to create stories and you are your own authentic being. People say ‘Oh that’s not authentic Chinese food’, ‘That’s not authentic bla bla bla food’ but I think for some people they like to put different things in it and that’s authentic in their household. That’s the same thing with you as a person. Be authentic and don’t be afraid to show that to people.

Rising Hollywood Star

One of the most memorable projects that he was involved in, by his own admission, was the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. The film allowed him to explore martial arts; something that he’d never done but had always wanted to do. Growing up, he watched Hong Kong films with his family – this was not only a movie that meant a lot for his career but also one that was important to him personally. Speaking about the film, he mentioned how impactful working on it was and he felt like he’d made his parents proud.

Talking about a moment he shared with his parents, he said, “the moment that actually brought tears to my eyes is when I did a movie– I grew up watching Hong Kong films with my family. We sat there and watched and we just loved it. That was like bonding where we didn’t say anything together but we watched it. And I worked on this movie with Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen and they got to come out and meet them, and I’ve never seen my parents fangirl ever in my life. They just looked at me and the way they looked at me like… And I’m like ‘I didn’t make it yet, but I’m trying, I’m still doing my thing’ but the way they looked at me, they understood at that moment when I made eye contact with them and they looked back.”  

Harry continued to be cast in a slew of projects including playing Kuai Liang (the younger Sub-Zero) in the second season of Mortal Kombat: Legacy. In 2014, he had a major role in the crime drama film Revenge of the Green Dragons, which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. However, he did not limit his projects to those that were aired on television or on the silver screen. Mortal Kombat: Legacy and Revenge of the Green Dragons were both web series. He also got increasingly involved in projects with Wong Fu Productions, a YouTube channel with over 3 million subscribers, which included comedy skits and other genres. His biggest project with them is the YouTube Red series, Single By 30, a romantic comedy where he played Peter Ma.

His career only progressed further when he was cast in the role of Magnus Bane in the Freeform TV show of Shadowhunters. The show is an adaptation of the popular young adult book series The Mortal Instruments, written by Cassandra Clare. There was definitely pressure mounting on the show since coming into a project that already had an existing fanbase meant having to meet expectations – especially when playing a character as important as Magnus, who is bisexual, a character of color, and in a relationship with a recently out gay shadowhunter. It’s a mouthful for sure and definitely has you squinting to make sure that you got all of that right. The very reason that Magnus is so unique is what makes Magnus and Malec so important to fans of both the books and the show. He understood the impact that his character has on so many people, in particular the LGBTQ+ community, and worked together with the writers and Matthew Daddario – who plays Alec Lightwood, the above mentioned recently out gay Shadowhunter – to make sure that the representation is done right.  

Talking about the importance of seeing such representation on screen, Harry said to Jim Halterman, “You want to broaden– you don’t want to stereotype roles that you see on television and film so I think it’s great that people are accepting. You know what’s really cool that I did see with a lot of the kid fans, or teen fans I would say, they watch it with their parents. And to see them kind of get into the relationships and the different dynamics, I think that’s huge growth. It’s so cool to see it make a family show in a weird way.” He understands the importance of representation, being underrepresented in his life as he mentions in an interview with Windy City Times.

The hard work that he put in definitely paid off. In 2017, Shadowhunters won at the GLAAD awards, an award show that honors particularly well-done representation of the LGBTQ+ community in American Media, for “Outstanding Drama Series”. Although the award was for the show, there is little doubt that the hard work that Harry and Matthew put in makes the show deserving of this win.

From The Small Screen To The Silver Screen

In the summer of 2017, it was announced that Harry has been cast in the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel, Crazy Rich Asians. Apart from promising to be wickedly funny, the film also boasts an All-Asian cast with an Asian director, making it the first of its kind. Harry will be teaming up with Jon Chu once more, playing Charlie Wu, a billionaire with a complicated love life and is joined by the likes of Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina and Ken Jeong amongst others.

When speaking about casting Harry as Charlie, Jon Chu said “… this summer, we shot Crazy Rich Asians. There’s a part that gets bigger as the franchise goes if we’re still lucky and it fit Harry the best, but it was a little part in this movie so I asked him to come and do this as sort of a favor and with the idea that this would grow, and knowing he could kill it. But at the same time not fully knowing because when he showed up he’s with Gemma Chan in this scene and it’s this like… He walks in with this suit and literally I did not expect it. I’m looking at this guy and he is so suave and charming. He went from this level actor to this level actor, like leading man. A man showed up on screen that day and honestly it took my breath away like ‘Holy f@#k… This guy made it. He figured it out. He worked with all these people and kept working and got better and better’ so to me that is inspiration alone to see him progress. Not just want it but progress so much that it shocked me, and I’ve known him for a long time so it was a weird moment. Now I look at him and I’m like ‘Damn you’re good-looking, bro.’

With Jon’s optimism in Harry’s portrayal, we’re certainly excited to see where the film is going, particularly with it being such a big milestone for Asian representations in media. Speaking about his own experience working in an all Asian cast, Harry said “the coolest thing is – and going back to where we’re at right now with the Asian community – meeting this cast of Asians that came from completely different places. Because we say Asian American a lot – obviously L.A., Hollywood, it’s all here. But there’s Asian British, there’s Asian Australians, Asian Singaporean, Malaysian actors all over the place. And this movie had that and it made me realize ‘Wait, there’s only a couple of Asian Americans in this movie’ and in my mind I’m like ‘I’m not even full Asian American so I can’t pride myself on that!’ So I thought it was just so cool that once we all can really see what’s out there and learn from that and also kind of come together, I think it’s such a huge thing. And never would I have thought that that would’ve ever happened. And to see that, how much talent is out there, I can’t wait to see how much talent is here and for Hollywood and the media to actually see that.

It leaves little doubt in our minds that this film will spark a conversation about representation of Asians in media especially in a time where people are more aware of its importance. It’s incredibly heartwarming to see Harry be a part of such an important film and for him to continue blazing trails with his various projects.

Harry has definitely come a long way in his career with iconic roles already under his belt. Above all, however, he’s proven to be more than just a passive actor in the industry. He has been a long time champion of representation in the industry, not just for the Asian community but also the LGBTQ+ community. He uses his platform well, knowing that his voice has the ability to reach millions of people and continues to talk about issues which might be underrepresented, or not given enough attention to. We can’t wait to see what the future has in store for him and what impact he’ll continue to leave.