Parry Shen | “Do one thing a day towards your career, whatever it is”
Mention “Asian American film” and chances are, we’re all thinking of THE film from the early 2000′s; the FIRST American film with an ALL ASIAN cast that successfully made it to the mainstream market. Yes, you guessed it, Better Luck Tomorrow. If you’ve never seen it, buy it immediately (Click Here)! This was the film that put Asian Americans on the map as dynamic, fascinating individuals who could do more than deliver your take out. Moreover, the cast and crew overcame tremendous challenges in a climate plagued by rigid convention and stereotypes, helping pave the road for change. Skeptics of the film’s success–$250,000 in budget–were put to shame when the dough kept on rolling in: $3,809,226 in gross revenue, $15 million in DVD sales. Today, the OA team is proud to feature Parry Shen, the lead actor from Better Luck Tomorrow, and a pioneer who has already secured his well-deserved place in history.
Parry filled us in on his upcoming projects over sandwiches and then gave us some insider tips in getting into the industry. Read on as Parry talks about his growth as an Asian American actor, the struggles he faced during the production of Better Luck Tomorrow, and his awesome, hidden talent of building things out of cardboard!
- What takes up most of your time right now: It’s a toss-up between auditioning for pilot season, putting together my own pilot, “The Dim Sum Gang”, working on the second volume of my book, “Secret Identities: Shattered – The Asian American Comic Anthology”… and being a good dad.
- Guilty pleasure: Nikita! I get angry whenever I hear the announcer say something like, “Nikita returns in 3 weeks…”
- Favorite color: Gun metal grey.
- Relationship status: Married, 9 years in August. I actually worked my proposal into a scene from “Better Luck Tomorrow”. Check it out at: http://bit.ly/94kgD9.
- Pet peeve: When there’s a bad movie playing at my gym’s cardio theater. The ‘seats’ are treadmills. So if there’s a good action movie like, “Unstoppable” playing, I might run through the entire thing and burn like 600 calories but if “Are We There Yet?” with Ice-Cube is on, I may not even go in.
- Favorite food: New York Pizza.
- What you look for in a girl: A sense of humor.
- What kind of car do you drive: Acura TSX (gun metal grey obviously,) it’s the perfect car. It’s the same as a BMW 3 series but for $20k less!
- Can you speak/read/write Chinese: I speak Cantonese somewhat fluently.
- Favorite comic book: The 1995-1996 X-Men Crossover: Age of Apocalypse storyline. It showed an alternative world where Professor Xavier was accidentally killed in the past and sent a ripple in time where some good guys became bad and vice versa.
- Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis? Grant Morrison! His brain is capable of going into so many different directions.
- Fun fact: I can recite the alphabet backwards in under 5 seconds (OA: We asked him to do it and he wasn’t lying!). My 3rd grade teacher hired a folk singer who sung the alphabet backwards and recorded him. She would replay it in class over and over — and I eventually just tossed out the melody and sped it up.
- Funner fact: I can build anything out of cardboard.
OA: So you have accomplished a lot as an Asian American in this industry. You ever thought of acting in Asia?
PS: Probably not at this point in my life. I’m already settled here. I think it’s great that a lot of current Asian American actors are having revived careers making a living in Asia, but they all have one thing in common: They don’t have families. I’ve got a family here and don’t want to uproot my kids.
OA: So it is safe to assume you are a family man?
PS: Yeah, I guess so! Only when the kids are behaving though! *laughs*
OA: You just told us you can build anything out of cardboard. How did you develop this talent? Can you give some examples of what you’ve built?
PS: I once bought a patio set and it came inside a HUGE box. And I thought, “I can’t let this go to waste.” So I cut out different shapes for windows and doors. Added carpeting, a plastic bay window, a working mailbox, a secret drawbridge entrance, a hatch that popped open and bore the Dharma Initiative logo from the show “LOST”. Now anytime I see my kids playing, my mind tries to figure out cardboard components to complement. For example, I once saw them playing with dolls on two levels of a doll house, and I thought “There’s no way they could realistically leap from down there to up there, THEY NEED A WORKING CARDBOARD ELEVATOR!” (OA: Check out his work here).
OA: You grew up in New York and moved to LA to pursue acting. Mr. Big City Guy, we have to ask, which do you like better and why?
PS: I prefer LA. The medium I grew up on and prefer to work in is TV/Film – and all the work/contacts are here. Also, the weather is one thing I never have to worry about. It’s nice to be able to take my daughters anywhere at a moment’s notice without having to worry about bundling them up, keeping track of mittens, scarves, hats, etc. That hassle is enough to un-motivate me from ever leaving the house. I can appreciate “seasons” and everything, but there are some places in this country that just really shouldn’t be inhabited!
OA: How did you get into acting?
PS: My mom was a single mom, and while she was working at one of her 3 jobs, my brother and I watched a lot of T.V. This is where I got most of my story-telling sensibilities. When I went to college I was a business major, but at night my girlfriend and I would enter any and all talent shows on campus. We learned how to write, cast, hold for laughs, music cues, etc. through hands-on experience. The real turning point was my junior year when I was interning with Marvel Comics. Every morning on the subway, the faces of the business folks were expressionless and no one looked like they were excited going to work. That’s when I realized I needed to do what I wanted to do before I was ‘too late‘ in life. By senior year, hereandnow, an Asian American theatre company performed at my college, and I wound up joining and touring with the company when I came out to LA after graduation. All my closest friends to this day are from hereandnow. While in LA, I received formal acting training, then got my first agent, then booked a commercial, some TV roles… then 6 years into that, the “Better Luck Tomorrow” audition came up and other opportunities sprung from that.
OA: Why do you act? Why is this your weapon of expression?
PS: Here’s a good example: When I was deciding on a major, I was watching a lot of “Doogie Howser, M.D.” — and thought I wanted to be a doctor. And then I saw the course load for Pre-Med and realized, “Wait, this is really hard.” Then I thought about how when “Back Draft” came out I wanted to be a firefighter and after “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out I wanted to be an Archeologist and after “The Karate Kid”, I was ready to dedicate my life to studying martial arts. I quickly starting realizing that I wanted to experience all these different lives and the microcosmic worlds that they entailed — but not like, for real or forever.
OA: Ok! Analytical question time! How much do you identify with your Chinese vs. your American side? What does it mean to be Chinese American to you?
PS: Although I’ve grown up with the same culture/pop culture as any other American, it’s really cool the times when I’m able to introduce a Chinese perspective/aspect to someone – especially food. I think it’s a gift when Asian Americans (or any other ethnicity for that matter) can convey and share a childhood tradition or unique perspectives to people that were previously unexposed to. Even the smallest thing like when my mom would pack my lunch with different foods than the other kids. And as I grow older, I find different ways of using media to – for lack of a better word “trick” – the mass public into being more exposed to culture/history, like with “Secret Identities”.
OA: What does your family think of this career choice, given the generation and cultural gap?
PS: As a whole, they’re usually excited but of course worry like any ‘normal’ parent would. For anyone else not in the arts, it doesn’t make sense. Some years you’re making six figures and other years you can barely qualify for medical insurance (which is a little less than $15,000 in annual earnings). But unfortunately it’s more of an obsession, not a profession. The way my head and most creative people’s heads are programmed, we’d be bored to tears doing anything else. I mean, stories are always floating around in my head. When I take photos, I’m mentally cataloging them for future collages and video montages. When I read books, I need to voice the characters. When I see a cardboard box, well you know…
But with my mom, I simply sat her down and said, ‘This is what I want to do and I will work 100x harder than doing something that I just kinda like’. I had plan – I knew I needed to get formal training, work on getting small parts first, etc. Also, moving 3,000 miles away helped too.
It basically comes to a point where you need to make them recognize that at one point in their lives, they too had a pioneering spirit – and risked the unknowns of starting in a new country. Then convey that this now is my journey of trying to forge into something special, even though the future might be just as unclear as well.
OA: Are you a very “in the moment” kind of person?
PS: Yeah. Very rarely will I abandon anything unless there’s a very good reason. I’m there to do the task at hand and won’t get distracted. Like if I’m in the middle of washing dishes and the kids are crying, barring anything life threatening — I’ll probably deal with the dishes first and then attend to the crying afterwards.
OA: Do you encourage your daughters to get in the creative’s too?
PS: Let’s put it this way, if my kids entered into a field that wasn’t in the creative arts, I would be extremely disappointed in them *laughs*.
OA: You have quite the impressive acting resume–we checked out your reel you go from a closeted gay suspect, riverboat guy, yam salesman, to gangster thug, etc. What’s your favorite character to play?
PS: Anything to do with humor, whether it’s a drama or comedy. Sometimes I actually lose roles because I’m injecting too much humor in a scene. But I kind of pride myself in being able to find humor in any situation.
OA: Token Better Luck Tomorrow question…you knew it had to come Parry. Obviously, this is the pioneering film that put Asian Americans on the map as dynamic, non-stereotypical individuals. We’ve heard rumors about this and that, so let’s hear it from the source: what kind of hurdles did you guys have to jump to get the film made, and were there opportunities to “sell out”? Also we heard that director, Justin Lin had to pull out 10 credit cards to fund this film, is this true?
PS: All true. Justin kept pulling out credit cards one by one, and in the end was maxed out at $250,000. While editing the film, he had no bed to sleep on and was eating oatmeal every day. He was actually offered something close to $1 million for the script on the condition that the cast contain any ethnicity other than Asian, because that was box-office suicide (and this was coming from an Asian movie exec). Justin decided to take a gamble and didn’t want to make any compromises on this project. He was tired of the lack of good Asian American stories and representation in mainstream media and he was gonna go big or go home.
OA: You said in past interviews that your agents wanted to you stopped working on BLT and go to other auditions, but you asked them to trust your judgment because the project was special. How do you pick your roles?
PS: There’s such a small, select group of actors that can actually ‘pick’ their roles. There are some roles I won’t consider but for the most part, you find yourself having to trust your own sensibilities and walk that line of staying true to the voice of the project but also trying to make it a character that is progressive. You can’t worry about what other people are going to think. Whatever role I get, I try my best to do what I can with it. My part on Better Luck Tomorrow was an anomaly — when I got the script and was told to look at the role of “Ben”, there was “Ben” starting on page one. Something I was, and still am, not use to seeing.
OA: So this is more of a business question, we understand that all that was involved with BLT expected no payments from this project until after launch. This movie successfully grossed 3.8 million dollars. So when something, unexpected like that happens, how are you guys compensated?
PS: It’s called a “deferred payment”. In this case, Justin had to get his $250,000 back first, $1 million back to MTV films (they bought the film), then after advertising fees are recouped… if there’s money left over the cast & crew finally gets paid. To give you an idea on how rare a cast & crew actually sees their “deferred payments” — our lawyers actually had to refer back to their old textbooks and see how exactly to pay all of us because in their 15 years in the business, never once had they done it. But once everything was settled, Justin called us all in for a meeting — to which he had a LARGE stack of checks in envelopes to give to all of us. It was literally a check party.
PS: “The Dim Sum Gang” is a pilot I’m putting together with “SI” art director, Jerry Ma. Imagine SpongeBob but with Dim Sum characters. If things don’t go the way of a traditional show, maybe it’ll be a web-series or graphic novel. Then in April/May, I’ll start touring my Asian Americans in the Media workshop for AAPI Heritage Month at colleges across the country. http://parryshen.com/tour.php
OA: Words of wisdom for other aspiring actors and fans?
PS: Do one thing a day towards your career, whatever it is. My H.S. Principal drilled this concept into me and it applies to any occupation: If you slack off just one hour (from your studies), all those hours eventually add up over a course of a year — 365 wasted hours. But on the flip-side, if you do one thing a day for yourself, (in this case, as an actor) whether it be reading, writing, watching a movie, breaking down the characters in a play, or working out — you’ll have done 365 things towards your larger goal. It’s too easy to loaf off in this business because there is no set schedule/deadlines. The blessing and curse with this occupation is that you really have to be accountable for yourself and remain diligently proactive. No matter if you have the best agent, manager or publicist, ultimately no one will ever work harder for you… than yourself.
OA: How can your fans stalk you?
Interview by Melly Lee
Photography by Melly Lee
Edited by Benny Luo
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