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Hayden Szeto on Edge of Seventeen, and Why He Doesn’t Want to Make Asian-American Representation His ‘Thing’

Light spoilers ahead for Edge of Seventeen.

Sometimes, you have to have a conversation about the conversation. That’s what happened when I met Hayden Szeto, the breakout star of The Edge of Seventeen, a sweet and spiky teen comedy starring Hailee Steinfeld that opened to strong reviews on Friday. The 31-year-old actor plays Erwin Kim, an awkward and earnest paramour to Steinfeld’s morose and lovesick Nadine. Nadine thinks she’s into someone else (a white dirtbag), but in the end, she — gasp! — chooses Erwin.

As you might expect, people have been asking Szeto to speak on what it’s like to be an Asian-American actor in Hollywood, with various websites running headlines calling him an “unexpected” “Asian love interest.” I met Szeto at the end of his New York press tour in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel, and it was clear that the Canadian-born actor was already growing weary of the conversation about Asian-American representation in Hollywood — even though he thinks it’s important. What’s interesting is that Szeto is still figuring it all out himself, and this interview is a reflection of that process — by someone who doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but is trying his best. Just like the rest of us.

Your character, Erwin Kim, is very awkward and has a lot of tics and mannerisms. How did you start building those?
This being my first big feature film, I thought I would just use the nervousness that I had in my body, you know? I think suppressing it made me less interesting. As Hayden, being on that set felt like Erwin. I was trying to fit in with all these great talented actors that have quite the legacy already. So I tried to embody that and it became the physicalization of Erwin, how he behaves and how he works. But I made sure that all his mannerisms came from trying to be strong and not trying to be awkward, because if you’re trying to be awkward then it doesn’t come off as endearing.

Did you draw back on your own high school experiences?
Oh, definitely. It took no work to bring me back there, especially shooting in my hometown, Vancouver, in schools that I recognize. We shot in the Ferris wheel that I rode when I was 15. When they dress you as a high schooler and put you in an actual high school, and it being my first movie and being nervous all the time, it felt like high school, man. It took no work. I wish I could say, “Oh yeah, I had to write a diary as my 17-year-old self.” But I didn’t need to. It came so naturally, just trying to fit in with this cast.

When did you start acting?
My first dip into the pool of acting was when I was in high school, and I think that’s when I caught the bug. After college, I went back to acting school. So I’ve been doing it for a long time, over seven years. This is my first big movie so it was a long struggle. A lot of people don’t see that. They’re like, “Where have you been?” And I’m like, “I’ve been right here. What are you talking about?” I’m like every other actor in L.A. or in New York. Any bartender, every server that you meet is a triple threat. They’re so talented but they just don’t get the opportunity and it’s heartbreaking. Some of them will never get that opportunity and I was just lucky and you pray. There’s a lot of praying in this industry.

What do you think changed for this one, for this role? This is a big deal.
It’s a big deal. It’s the biggest movie I’ve ever worked on. It’s a really good part. I think you’re implying being an Asian-American, this is a big deal. Yes it is, because it’s such a character. Erwin is such a great character and it’s a revolutionary role, I feel. I’m really happy I got the opportunity to play him.

I wanted to ask you if Erwin Kim’s ethnicity specified in the original script?
It was specified, yeah.

That in and of itself is fairly rare to see.
Oh, for sure. I asked [writer-director] Kelly Fremon Craig, “Why did Erwin have to be Korean?” And she said, “You know, real life is diverse and films should reflect that.” She told me that growing up she had two best friends who were Korean and Filipino, so she wanted diversity in her film. Thank God she believed in that and she found me.

How do you feel race has affected the audition process and the kinds of roles you go out for?
Yeah. I used to. You know what, I don’t really see that it’s any easier for anybody no matter what color you are. I feel like acting in the end is just hard. We all level out. It’s not any easier for my white, straight, male actor friends or my really pretty white female friends. It’s not easier for them. The pool is so vast for them. I don’t feel there’s an advantage to being them and there’s not an advantage in being me either. I think we’re constantly at a disadvantage being actors in this industry. It’s really, really hard and nobody ever talks about that. I could sit here all day and talk to you about, ‘Oh yeah, we need more inclusion and we need more diversity.’ But nobody ever talks about the hard work you need to put into it.

I’ll tell you what really wounds me. I’ve auditioned for really, really big parts where ethnicity was not an issue and I got a chance to audition for these parts and that’s huge that they were open to that. And I heard a couple of people in the audition room saying, “I don’t know if I should waste money on acting class.” I’m like, That is offensive to me. Where do you get off thinking that you don’t need any training? You think people in the NBA or the NFL, they just practice right before the game? They just warm up and they’re ready to go? They’re in shape year-round. That’s how actors should be. Not enough actors treat it that way and then we complain about how much we’re not included. I don’t buy that for a second. People who work, people who work hard get their break. People who really dedicate themselves to this, get their break.

I know many big casting directors in town, over at Warner Brothers and over at Fox, they’ve been doing it for 30 years, and 30 years back it was never about ethnicity, it was always about how actors embody the character and that all comes from training and comes from the soul. That comes from acting training.

Okay. But if we’re talking about 30 years ago, the character was Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles.
Yeah, I know it.

So it’s not quite as simple as just saying that actors of color just have to work hard and they’ll get the good parts that they want. I don’t think that’s historically been true at all for people of color in the industry.
And that’s really unfortunate.

Have you seen Sixteen Candles?
I’ve seen it. Yeah, Sixteen Candles.

What do you think of it?
It was a great movie.

It’s an interesting movie to talk about compared to Edge of Seventeen and the representation of Asian-American men in teen comedies.  
I do really think times have definitely changed since then. Unfortunately, there is still some writing out there that still come off very offensive. Like, “Oh wow. This is still a joke? Who still laughs at this?” But I think now, it is more inclusive you know? You see Daniel Wu in Into the Badlands, you see Steven Yeun, Daniel Dae Kim in Lost. It’s been happening. We’ve made strides. It’s becoming normalized but I feel like what’s really holding us back is headlines. At a Q&A, some lady was talking about the desexualization of Asian males, I’m like “Who’s been saying that? You’ve been saying that. Nobody’s been saying that to us.” We amongst ourselves are saying that to each other. The people at the top are spending no energy on us and we’re talking about how we’re desexualized. I feel like that’s doing us a disservice; we do more harm to ourselves because we headline ourselves that way. Even though what we talk about, it’s not in that context. We’re trying to talk about it from a positive angle but because we headline it that way. Imagine an Asian-American kid growing up and he’s never heard of those headlines, how different he would grow up. If he grows up hearing headlines like “Asian males are desexualized,” how would he feel?

But that’s supposing that that only happens in the media. I grew up without the the internet, so I never read headlines like that. But it was definitely part of my life in some way that I didn’t quite understand or know how to articulate. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you but I also think that the thing exists regardless of whether the media packages it. It’s possible that the media’s making it worse.
Exactly. The only thing we can do is ask, how do we limit the amount that we put that into the media? The damage that’s been done has been done. But now, how can we progress past that? I feel like we’re still having a lot of the same conversations, you know? I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate our victories, but I feel like we shouldn’t celebrate small victories too much, because that makes us look less than. Do you understand what I mean? Like this part bringing it back to Edge of Seventeen, it’s great. We should definitely give it a nod. But not make it too big of a deal, you know? Because I’ve been talking about it with many outlets like, “It’s making Asian guys sexy.” And that implies that Asians guys were never sexy and now we’re opening up a whole different can of worms. People are like “Whoa, what’s going on here?”

Do you feel like there should’ve been a kiss at the end?
No. I really don’t. A kiss would’ve been too predictable and that’s not what the movie’s about. It’s not about the love story between Erwin and Nadine; it was about Nadine’s journey in finding herself. She just made the good decision that she stopped beating herself up and started making the right decisions and the right person was right in front of her. The fact that she made that decision was important. We did talk about it. We did shoot several endings.

Did you shoot an ending where you kiss?
Yeah, we did. We had a couple more romantic endings, but I felt like it would’ve been too cheap. This movie has way too much heart to cheapen it right at the very end. It was such a smooth finish. It cuts right there, off her reaction. That’s all you need. I like that because it’s like, “Oh, now what happens?” There’s not going to be a sequel. We don’t want to do a sequel. Now it’s all up to audience interpretation: Where do they go from here? I think it’s very beautiful the way it ended.

Did you get super-ripped for the role?
I try to work out as much as I can, but for this role, fortunately I was pinned to a different project which required me to be very physically fit so I was on a very strict diet leading up to the movie and then I ended up walking away from that project and jumping into Edge of Seventeen. In the script, Kelly Fremon Craig says Erwin has a really nice chest. And I’m like, “Well, just make him have nice everything!” I’m just kidding, but I lost a lot of weight for this role. I definitely don’t look like that anymore. The secrets of Hollywood, man. I did a lot of push-ups before the shot. Did a lot of sit-ups before the shot. Made sure I was under a warm coat so like when you’re warm, your muscles activate. They look nicer. So it’s all Hollywood. They shot me from a hero angle, from down below. So, of course, I look nice. But I don’t look like that in real life.

What was the hardest scene to shoot?
I don’t swim, so in that swimming pool scene, it was physically challenging to mimic how to swim. I did manage to get swimming lessons from my sister a week before the shot. And Hailee, of course, helped me as well. She’s like, “Hayden, I’ll hold you.” She’s like, “Do a handstand.” I’m like, “No, I won’t do a handstand.” “‘Why?” “I’ll drown, Hailee.” I’ll save you.” “I’m not going to let you save me, True Grit. That’s embarrassing.” But it was fun. I remember doing my first cannonball ever into the pool.

Have you reflected on this as your big break?
Yeah, I definitely have. I’ve been so happy lately because I get to do these Q&As, and it’s making me learn a lot about myself: What I want to do with a platform should I have one now.

What have you learned?
I’ve learned what I stand up for. How I want to represent myself and now Asian -Americans. I feel like there’s some sort of responsibility. What I say, how I help the community. There is responsibility whether I like it or not; I’m learning how to be comfortable in that. Like this conversation we’re having now, I’m learning a lot at the same time.

I try not to get overly political, because I feel like I’m not good at that. Some people are better than me and I’m not mad about that, because I feel like we need people to lay down cover fire for some of us to advance. Because those people got political is why I probably got this audition. I’ll forever thank them for that. Ultimately, whatever we get out of this interview, I just want to represent Asian-Americans well without beating that headline into the ground like, I’m representing Asian-Americans. I can’t have that be my thing. My job is just to be a good actor, and in turn, that will represent Asian-Americans. But I can’t make that my mission statement.

I really don’t care about my own vanity at all. I really care about young Asian-Americans reading it and what they get out of it. Because I’ve grown up feeling those pains of Asian-Americans. I’ve interviewed many of my Asian-American actor and actress friends and they’ve told me heartbreaking stories, like it was like a therapy session. How we improve that condition is my concern. Because my kids will grow up as Asian-Americans one day, whether they like it or not. Doesn’t matter who I intermix with, they’re still going to be Asian-American. I want them to grow up in a better place, and hopefully I can start that conversation now. That’s what I care about.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Hayden Szeto on His Edge of Seventeen Breakout