Harry Shum Jr. is many things to many people: the non-annoying dancer in iPod commercials; the star of the upcoming Step-Up 3D (his fourth dance movie); a trilingual wonder (he was born in Costa Rica, and speaks Spanish, Cantonese, and “English, pretty well”); the co-choreographer of the description-defying Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (he plays good guy Elliott Hoo in the LXD’s soon-to-be-released online dance film). But he’s now best known as Mike Chang, the mysteriously dialogue-less “Other Asian” on Glee. Until now! Shum will get his first audible line in tonight’s episode, “Theatricality.” He spoke to Vulture while on the road with the Glee tour about his dance talents, experience on the show, and finally breaking his silence.
First of all, Harry, we are beside ourselves with joy that you have a line this week!
Aw, thank you. And yeah, it’s happenin’! Usually we get the script like a week before and you just take a look at it, but then you look at it and say, “Hey, I get to talk today! Or … this week!” It’s happening slowly and surely a little more for me, so it’s very exciting to be a little more involved.
So why is this week the special week?
Um, I think it just felt right for the writers to involve me and Dijon [Talton].
Whoa, so he talks too?!
Yeah, I’m givin’ away stuff! It’ll be sort of boys versus girls as far as costuming and music go, this week. We’ll be in Kiss getups: the crazy costumes, the makeup, and the really, really, almost-too-tight pants. But it looked okay on us, so it’s cool. And the boots are nuts! They’re so heavy, I don’t know how they wore them all those years. We did a lot more dancing than Kiss would have.
I’ve read that you were originally supposed to be only a day-player on Glee. So how did you end up in a recurring role?
Yeah, I went through the whole audition process, but obviously it wasn’t as heavy as the other actors [who have major roles]; for me it was just like a regular acting gig where you go on for a day. I didn’t really know what the show was about, I was just happy to be working. And then when I got on, I looked at Dijon and was like, “Uh, so what are we doing? Like, one episode?” and he was like, “Yeah, I think so?” From the first episode, we did have names: I was Mike Chang and he was Matt Rutherford, but after that, they didn’t really mention our names again, so people thought we were these two random guys. And the next thing I know, my manager called me and told me to go to rehearsal the next week, so I did, and then it just kept going. It was always up in the air, “Are we coming back?” But it’s been a year now, crazy!
How did you get into dance in the first place?
In high school, I saw our dance team perform, and for some reason seeing them dance just made me really happy. I felt like, “I think I can do that, I think I wanna do that.” I’d done a swing number in a musical once, and that was pretty much the extent of my dancing. And then my friend dared me to audition for the dance team, and I ended up making it — though I don’t think I made it for my skills, I think they just needed boys! From there I grew a passion for it, and took more classes and eventually got to this place I’m at now. My big job was probably touring with Beyoncé as a backup dancer, for her first tour, with Missy Elliott and Alicia Keys.
We all marvel at how bendy you are. Did it take you a while to figure out how to use your body?
It did! I consider myself a freestyle dancer, and for me it was watching street dancers like B-boys and poppers and realizing, “Wow, they’re doing their own thing,” just improvising to the music with their bodies. I just found that fascinating, and once I did that, I realized that I guess I don’t have joints [laughs]. It’s a cool skill to have.
I find it funny that so many people seem to call you “the non-annoying iPod guy.”
[Laughs.] That’s really funny; it wasn’t until recently that I heard that, and I’m like, “Nooo, the other people weren’t annoying!” I don’t know why I’m the non-annoying one — I’m dancing to the same song they are. Maybe they find the song annoying. But every time I hear it I’m like, “Oooh, I just got another check!” That was a good thing for me.
Many fans seem to think you’d be upset at never having had a true spoken, or solo sung, line before on Glee. Are you?
In my eyes, it’s better late than never. I know what my talents are, and at the end of the day I’m an actor who can dance. I’ve always been a person with patience, and I don’t like to force things. I think that’s how my whole career has worked out, so in that sense I’m not upset. I think people are more upset than I am. It’s cool! I know things will happen, and it’s just a matter of time.
How did you discover that the world was calling you “Other Asian” regularly?
I think it was on Twitter that I first realized people were calling me that. We were all just like, “This is crazy!” It’s funny, man; it’s really funny to have Sue Sylvester call you that. And I knew it was going to be a phrase — people will know me as that for however long. I thought it was funny, but ten years from now if I’m still called that, I’ve done something wrong and haven’t progressed. And the last episode was nuts when they called me Mike Chang — ;everyone was like, “Oh my GOD, you have a name!!!” I’m like, yeah, they just haven’t said it over and over again.
You’ve really developed a cult following. Do you encounter groupies with any regularity?
Yeah, it’s something I’m definitely getting used to. It was weird, I was eating at a restaurant with my family, and three different tables were taking pictures of me eating. It’s nice, because now I expect the “Other Asian” thing, but lately sometimes it’s Mike Chang or even just Harry Shum! Even my actual real name! Or they recognize me as Elliott Hoo, my LXD character.
Your tap-dancing duet with Jenna Ushkowitz last week was incredibly charming. We almost sensed romance vibes?
You know, I really don’t know. It would be very interesting if it did happen! I know the writers do things for a reason, or sometimes they throw it out there to see what the response is. But it would be fun. I actually had absolutely no tap skills; I put on tap shoes for the first time two days before. I was kinda nervous; I watch it a lot but I’ve never taken a class, and I loved it! Having to make sure you make rhythms and not just be visual, and to rely not just on myself, was really different.
I think it’s fair to say that 80 percent of our commenters either think you’re hot, want to marry you, or, well, so much more. One, TheMissingScarf, politely asked “Art thou single?” Another, RebeccaRose2004, would like to do something to your stomach involving whipped cream.
[Laughs.] Oooooh my God. That is hilarious! I, I … I don’t know how to respond. I … like whipped cream? [Laughs.] Is that a good enough answer? And I’m dating right now. So, I mean, that’s the best response I can give!
Commenter ArtStruck noticed that Matthew Morrison seems to like you a lot — we all enjoyed your dance-off on Oprah. Will we see your relationship with Mr. Schue evolving on the show?
I hope so, man; I love that guy. What he said to me on Oprah, it was just so unexpected; I knew something was gonna happen, but it wasn’t certain that they’d have time for it, and man, when it did I got a little emotional cause it’s like, he said this on Oprah! He’s like an older brother to me. He’s told me, “I’m really protective over you, ‘cause I just love what you do.” We get along really well in a kind of little brother–older brother relationship. I hope that translates to screen — we’ll see!
I don’t want to end on a tragic note, but commenter ADub notes something very disturbing — that IMDb has listed the other cast members for 44 episodes through 2011, and you’re still listed for 16 through 2010. You’re not leaving the show, are you?!
No no no, IMDb is so on and off; there are so many things that aren’t fact. The other characters are series regulars, so they are signed on for everything, and the rest of us are still, you know, anything can happen. We just hope we can stay as long as we can. But yeah, it doesn’t mean anything at all. I’ll be in season two.