Harry Shum Jr is best known for his role as Mike Chang on the hit series, Glee, but a new role in the film All My Life has been one to remember.
Based on a powerful true love story that inspired an entire nation, Shum plays Solomon Chau, a young man who is diagnosed with liver cancer.
When Jennifer Carter (Jessica Rothe) and Sol meet, sparks instantly fly. They fall in love, and get engaged, seemingly having their whole lives in front of them. That is until Sol is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and their plans for a wedding the following summer become impossible.
In a race against time, their friends and family launch an online fundraiser to help the couple create their dream wedding in just two weeks. In the process, they unleash an outpouring of generosity and attention from people around the world who want to celebrate the power of love with them.
For Shum, who said he cried while reading the script, it was having the input of the real-life Jenn Carter that was most meaningful.
“She was sharing a lot of things about her and Sol and how they interacted with each other and a lot of what went down was in the script,” he said in an interview with The Latch. “It was really helpful to try and at least bring our take onto it to make sure that it really came off the screen and allowed the audience to deal with what this couple was going through.”
For many people, including myself, the story will resonate on many levels as many of us have experienced or have come close to experiencing devastating loss but for Shum, this movie is about hope.
“The movie, it’s very hopeful in a lot of ways because it’s just flipping the script,” he said. “There’s a couple of places where Sol and his outlook on life are very different. And it was a conscious choice for him to do that because he didn’t want to live the other way, which can go down a really dark path which is what a lot of people go through.”
The 38-year-old has endured a lot of public grief in the past few years, specifically with the passing of former castmates Cory Monteith in 2013 and Naya Rivera earlier this year. While devastating, it has taught him to look at what is important.
“What I would say to people who are dealing with loss right now is to hold on to the people that you care about, love, and express that constantly,” he said.”I think if anything, just to know what people left behind and to hopefully continue the beautiful moments that you’ve created and try to create more with the people that are here right now. Hopefully, that’s a constant reminder to just, again, live your best life with the limited time that we all have.”
Here, Shum talks to The Latch about All My Life, what it was like to play Sol and how the experience changed his parenting style to his two-year-old daughter, Xiao.
Anita Anabel: Hi Harry, I’m so thrilled to be chatting with you. I’ve followed your career since your Glee/Mike Chang days. Congratulations on All My Life! I’ve just finished watching it and I have to say, I sobbed my eyes out.
Harry Shum Jr: (Laughs) I’m sorry that I made you cry.
AA: This movie meant so much to me. My sister actually had leukemia at the age of 30 and we almost lost her so this movie resonated with me on so many levels.
HSJr: I’m so glad to hear that she made it. I think there’s a lot of people that it’s going to resonate in this same way.
AA: Absolutely. She’s been in remission for six years and has run five marathons. I’m really proud.
All My Life is such a beautiful story. It’s one that tugs at the heartstrings for sure. What drew you to the project initially?
HSJr: I remember watching the video that came out of Jen and Sol a couple of years ago back, and obviously it was just a heart-wrenching story of this couple whose lives just changed within a day and everything just started to spiral.
What was gorgeous is the reaction. How they reacted to this news and how they approached things and how they had just the whole nation basically lift them up and supporting them and I thought it was just beautiful.
So, when Todd Rosenberg wrote this script, as I read it, I cried from even just reading it on the page, so I could imagine how it would affect me if this was on screen.
The fact that I was able to have the opportunity to play someone as spectacular as Sol and inspiring as him, I jumped at the opportunity.
AA: Jennifer had a really big part in the process. What was it like meeting her and hearing her story for the first time first hand?
HSJr: To actually have Jen be part of that process was something I thought was truly special and I think the combination of the whole team that we put together, I was really, really excited to participate.
It’s very nerve-wracking. The story’s inspired by a slice of life, the part of her life that was very intimate. And to kind of do our jobs with Jessica [Roth] and me, to be able to just be a vessel and try and make this as real and capture a lot of their essence was important to us.
She was sharing a lot of things about her and Sol and how they interacted with each other and a lot of what went down was in the script. It was really helpful to try and at least bring our take onto it to make sure that it really came off the screen and allowed the audience to deal with what this couple was going through.
AA: As were saying before, so many people are going to resonate with their story because a lot of people have had to go through or are living an experience like this.
HSJr: There’s a lot of loss happening in the world, especially right now, but anything to just bring a little bit of hope into their lives, that’s what makes it different from other films that have dealt with this particular disease or this tragedy. The movie, it’s very hopeful in a lot of ways because it’s just flipping the script.
There’s a couple of places where Sol and his outlook on life is very different. And it was a conscious choice for him to do that because he didn’t want to live the other way, which can go down a really dark path which is what a lot of people go through.
I think it’s just giving a different perspective and it’s flipping the script and flipping the numbers. With Sol, he worked with a lot of numbers and just making sure that there’s not just one way to deal with something. It was about his reaction and how he dealt with it, how it made people feel until the end.
AA: I loved the whole theme of the story, which is what you’re alluding to, it’s about living life to the fullest. I think that no matter how much time you have left, we need to do this. How did this particular story change you for the better?
HSrJ: I’m very lucky to have a job where I’m constantly being taught something about humanity, about myself, about the people around me and I think Sol, playing his character, what I really took away from him was that it’s okay to feel how you feel at the moment, but it’s what you do with those feelings that matter, that truly matter.
We’re all wired to feel anger, to feel pain, to feel joy and to be depressed at moments when you hear the news but it’s what he does with that and how he makes other people feel with that. I just think what a beautiful way to live. No matter what, how many years you have left or days or months. It’s hard to be in the shoes of someone who only had a couple of months left to live, but I think there’s this beauty because it’s how he affected people at the end of the day.
People will always remember Sol as that shining star in their lives and it’ll be a constant reminder to hopefully live your life that same way because of how he made other people feel.
AA: You’re a relatively new dad. You have a two-year-old, how wonderful! Did this story change the way you parent at all?
HSJr: I mean, yeah. We just kind of talked about it, that it’s something I’m definitely going to at least talk about to my daughter. Having a kid, the thing I think about the most is how can she not have to go through the pain that I went through that took me a long time to figure out and then you realise that you do have to go through those things sometimes.
You just have to go through it yourself and you just think, “Okay, what is the safest road that you don’t have to go down certain paths.” But at the end of the day, it’s not really about putting a shield over my daughter, it’s more about just making sure that she understands things and to give her the tools to be able to do with her reactions.
You’re going to be faced with things that are going to come at you and you can’t control it. But if she has all those tools to be able to navigate through those things, man, I mean that is my biggest hope that I can pass down to her.
Outside of that, it’s been a complete joy, man, to see this little human just run around in Elmo slippers and then look up and be like, “Daddy.” That’s all I got to say because I’m just starting to tear up because it’s such a beautiful thing that I didn’t realise I would feel that way.
When you have a kid, you hear about all those things that you have to do, change diapers and all that stuff, but I think it’s that feeling of just having this kid that looks up and just wants you to pick her up, a simple gesture like that, and hold her. It’s worth everything.
AA: That is so beautiful. I also wanted to touch on the diversity of the casting on Glee. I read that you said you were cast as a “minority” and that you actually wanted to flip that on its head.
How important is it for you to get these lead roles and to really show diversity in television and film?
HSJr: It’s incredibly important to me. I’ve been going at this for 15 years plus. I think a lot of times we talk about diversity now, when people are coming in and I think a part of Hollywood is realising, “Oh, yeah. This is an important thing for not just for the industry, but for humanity to see people reflected in ways that they haven’t had opportunities to be reflected as just a whole human being and not just as a stereotype.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of characters that aren’t that and some that were just a stereotype. But I look at what I can do because sometimes you can’t control things, If you want a job in Hollywood, you kind of have to sometimes placate to whatever’s written on that page.
But what I’ve learned over time is what you can do in between those lines and it was important. You go back and watch Glee, a lot of times they wanted to make a straight-up stereotype. And I had to always find ways to combat that. It was hard for me when they say, sometimes with certain projects, when they try and emasculate an Asian male. I try and find ways to not be that. Now, I’m able to actually have these conversations with producers and directors and say like, “Hey, this is probably not going down the right path. Can we talk about this?”
It’s been very helpful in those days. And I hope that the work with not just me, a lot of other performers and directors are having these conversations right now.
I’m hoping that the next generation doesn’t have to deal with what I dealt with coming up in the industry and having to be a character. But there’s still so much work that needs to be done.
This is an important thing for not just for the industry, but for humanity to see people reflected in ways that they haven’t had opportunities to be reflected as just a whole human being and not just as a stereotype.
AA: I know that as a cast, you’ve had a very tough few years and this year in particular and having to manage it all while in the spotlight. I’m so sorry for your loss and that you had to deal with it so publicly. How did you cope with such huge grief in this last year in particular?
Harry Shum Jr: I think the whole world, to be honest with you, has just dealt with grief with this year in general. I think it’s going back to this beautiful support system from my castmates and other friends and people I consider family.
What I would say to people who are dealing with loss right now is to hold on to the people that you care about, love, and express that constantly. And, I think if anything, just to know what people left behind and to hopefully continue the beautiful moments that you’ve created and try to create more with the people that are here right now. Hopefully, that’s a constant reminder to just, again, live your best life with the limited time that we all have.
AA: Thank you so much for your time today. It truly means so much.
HSJr: Thank you so much, Anita. And send my love to your sister and I’m so glad that she’s doing well.