The Working APA Actor is a bi-monthly interview of Asian Pacific Islander American actors in the entertainment world, whether it be theater, film, television, the internet, or commercials. It is an inside look at these actors exploring their passion in their craft and how they balance their personal lives with their work. But more importantly, this column is dedicated to knowing these busy actors a little better as individuals.
It’s been quite some time since the last Working APA Actor interview but we’re off with a bang as we have a very special person here with us today. This fine gentleman is James Huang and for those of you into crime shows, you may have seen him guest starring in Rizzoli & Isles and Law & Order: LA this year. In addition, you may have also seen him in this hilarious short called REPRESENT, to which he wrote and starred in alongside Tim Chiou, Aaron Takahashi, James’ lovely wife Elizabeth Sandy, and Jerry Ying. You can check out James’ demo reel above.
James Huang was born and raised in New York and attended high school and college in New Jersey. He was captain of his high school Varsity football team, played lacrosse and wrestled, while learning tae kwon do in the summers. He started his film and television career in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he has lived since. It is here that he met Elizabeth Sandy, to whom he planned a dorky yet very sweet engagement proposal titled “Secret Mission.”
The two are currently initiating an indie film fundraiser for their project Starting from Scratch, which will be a much-needed entry in interracial romances from perspectives not usually seen in Hollywood. (More on that project in the questions provided below). But enough yapping, let’s go meet the man!
Tell us about yourself! What are you most passionate about in this world?
I’ve lived in Los Angeles since 2000 and hail from New York and New Jersey. I’ve been acting professionally since 1997 and have also worked behind the camera in various capacities over the years. I’m an active martial artist and I am starting to think that is why I tend to play alot of military and cop roles. I’m most passionate about acting and I hope to create a body of work that is considered meaningful in my lifetime.
When you’re not acting, what else do you like to do?
In no particular order, my wife and I like to karaoke (badly), catch up on Netflix, find a good hike, go to yoga, go to the gym, and look for new happy hour joints to enjoy. I also like to practice and teach Taekwondo of which I am a 3rd degree black belt. There’s been ten years for me to get my 4th degree but I always get kicked in the face by happy hour right around the time I’m supposed to be training.
When did you know for sure you wanted to be an actor? What inspired you to become an actor?
Of all the things I’ve tried, nothing was more fun that playing make-believe as a kid. Film and TV was such a gigantic part of my childhood and playtime. Before riding my bike or playing with G.I. Joe’s, all I wanted to do was re-enact movie scenes with my siblings from Indiana Jones to Star Wars to Enter the Dragon. We’d make props and bullwhips and light sabers and have contests to see who could impersonate Bruce Lee the best and kick the highest. If they didn’t want to play, I would draw comic books and movie scenes all day long.
I felt a longing for that kind of care-free play when I hit adolescence, so I took up every sport I could throughout high school and college to feel a sense of playing a game. In high school, I had it in my mind that I would get involved in movies through visual arts since I loved to draw. But it was in college that I discovered acting and made theater and cinema my major focus. Acting class gave me exactly the permission I needed as an adult to completely disregard grown-up behavior and play pretend once again. It felt really familiar to me. I was hooked.
But I think the ultimate inspiration to act was witnessing how powerful a good performance can be to someone. Whether its being a kid re-enacting a hero’s fight scenes, or being brought to tears because you saw an honest moment that made you feel ‘not alone’, there is something tremendous in story telling. I just want to be a part of that.
When you act, how do you get yourself into character? We want to know!
That is a very good question and no, you really don’t want to know. That’s the boring stuff that acting class is for.
What has been your most memorable experience as an actor?
I’m going to indulge here a bit and give you two answers that aren’t about my experience acting, but are about the effects my performance had on others. Bear with me, they’re good stories and not as boastful as it sounds.
First, I was fresh out of college and performing a year of topical children’s theater. We basically went around the Tri-State area doing assemblies for schools that addressed some issues that kids deal with from racism, bullying, peer pressure, to gender expectations. One of the three plays we performed included a single parent situation at home. After the play, we conducted group discussions with the kids about what they just saw and it was all about encouraging communication and sharing experiences about the topics. This one day, a little girl in fourth grade shared with us infront of her class that her father had recently died and watching our play that also showed a kid with one parent made her feel less weird. I shared with her and the class that my father had also died when I was very young and that it’s not so weird after all. I made her know that she was not alone through a terribly confusing time. I was so touched by this girl’s innocence and vulnerability and having the chance to turn her confusion into a smile of hope shook me to the core. A moment like that with an audience member was truly earth shattering to me as I put a smile on her face talking about something so personal and difficult. Afterwards, I went backstage and wept uncontrollably for the first and only time in my life over my father’s death. I was just too young at five years old to process it when it happened and that moment at twenty one years old really brought the experience into the fore. I felt so incredible to help this young girl by relating to her troubled experiences and she in turn helped me understand my experience right back.
A second very memorable experience came four years after beating up Jack Shepard in the TV show, LOST. A friend called me over the holidays from some far away state and I couldn’t hear what she was saying because her two adolescent cousins were going berzerk in the living room. She goes on to explain to me that her two cousins are these little boys who were adopted from China and often got picked on at school. She heard them going bonkers in the living room as they watched their new box set of LOST DVDs which they got for a Christmas gift. She asked what the commotion was and they were screaming with excitement that some Asian guy just beat the crap out of Jack and they were actually cheering me on! She said, “I know that guy; he’s my friend,” and they went completely ape shit and insisted that she call me to prove it. So through that one episode, I made two little Asian boys whom I’ve never met, feel excited and empowered because they saw a strong Asian man representing on TV. They said they were so happy to see an Asian guy be tough on television. Represent dawg, represent.
Acting requires a tremendous lot of work, both physically and mentally. How do you keep yourself active and level-headed?
Who ever accused me of being level headed? Acting is a job like many others and also like no others. It requires skill, training and discipline across the board. I think it’s way harder to be a school teacher. I ask them the same question about how they survive being teachers.
Does your community play any determining factor in your decisions as an actor? (ie. taking on roles that may be deemed “stereotypical”)
While I recognize my ‘community’ as in my ‘demographic,’ an actor really can’t categorize themselves when it comes to showbiz. The powers that be do that enough for you. Actors want to believe they can do anything and I believe they should. I’ve been cast in roles that were scripted as White, Black and Latino, just as often as I’ve encountered stereotypical auditions or directions (“That was great, now can you do it again with a Chinese accent?”).
I think it’s the actors responsibility to make the most of any character choice and not play archetypes for the sake of good story telling. Anytime you see something stereotypical on screen, it means that either the writer, director or actor took a lazy, generic way of telling a story. I fit some stereotypes with martial arts and indoor slippers, but I am also awful at math and I was the captain of my high school football team and dated a cheerleader. And as an adult, I could approach attractive women with confidence and didn’t ALWAYS make a fool of myself. I could show you five hundred other Asian-American guys just like me – only not on television. That’s what I hope to help change. That’s what I hope everyone helps change.
But look, nobody wants to hear people complain about their race issues; they will just tune it out. Rather, we should be celebrating and promoting more stories about real Asian American experiences and their contributions to the arts, society, politics, humanity, sports, and the like. If we forward a video or article that shows an Asian American doing something awesome, friends just might forward that it too, and that is a step in the right direction. There’s so many great things Asian Americans are doing and we just need to promote more of that good stuff, rather than talk about what used to be.
We all know there is a gross lack of on-screen representation that showcases how Asian Americans have flourished and diversified in this country for the last century. That’s old news. That’s why I think it’s important to constantly celebrate and publicize new, progressive achievements of Asian Americans. How else are the members of the Hollywood industry going to know that something is popular if it’s not celebrated by the masses? That’s all this business of show thrives on: making more of and profiting from what is popular. We need to make Asian American’s more popular and that can only happen if we’re doing a whole lot of awesome in America.
Who would you love to work with, whether directors, writers, or other actors?
I don’t discriminate. I love everyone out there (Justin Lin, Ang Lee, Wayne Wang).
Let your imagination run free. If you could create your own story you want to put on screen or on stage, what would it be about?
I have a futuristic, sci-fi, post apocalyptic story that I started creating in comic book form when I was five years old. I hope I can one day turn it into a franchise film. That’s about all I can say about that. Otherwise, I’m currently more focused on smaller, human experience films like the one I’m currently making about going through a divorce and an audit at the same time. The myriad of absurdity happening right here on earth is so worth exploring before you set it in a galaxy far, far away.
Where do you see yourself in the future in terms of what you would like to accomplish?
I just hope I do accomplish something meaningful as a storyteller in my lifetime. Any other answer would just sound more pretentious and I’d like to exercise an ounce of self-preservation here. Simply put, I have been positively influenced and I just hope my work can positively influence others one day.
Promote yourself! What new projects are you working on right now that you want people to know or keep an eye out for?
Starting from Scratch is a dramatic comedy about a young couple on the brink of divorce who are faced with an IRS audit. In dealing with the audit process, they begin to see what went wrong through sorting through a years worth of receipts.
We’re promoting an IndieGoGo campaign to help raise donations for our low budget feature film shoot set for October. We hope nice people will help support us either through donations, no matter how big or small, or simply by spreading the viral word. Making movies is expensive and difficult if you want to do it right, so we’re just asking for a bit of donation help in our efforts to tell a meaningful and entertaining story.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring actors?
Haha! Oy vey, this question again… My advice is that an aspiring actor doesn’t need advice. They’re just going to find a way to become an actor no matter what anybody says. A real aspiring actor will become a professional actor and nothing is going to stop them. I would only say that along the way, always be humble, respectful, and know when to keep your pie hole shut and just listen instead.
Tell us how Starting from Scratch came into existence and your inspiration behind it!
The genesis of my script began long ago when I was bawling my eyes out because I got dumped after a nearly seven year relationship. Then on top of that, I was audited and had to sort through and account for a year of spending money. I learned alot about myself through that audit, and all those hard lessons learned came through sorting out receipts. It was like a gigantic pile of mistakes that I had to face one memory after another. I had to calendar it all in chronological order and I could see the devolution of my character by the way I spent money in a single year. I think I journaled, “There’s a movie somewhere in this hell hole,” because men are allowed to journal when they’re depressed and becoming a better man.
Seven years later I met and married the girl of my dreams, my lovely wife Elizabeth Sandy. I often see how I could make the same mistakes twice if I weren’t conscious about it, so I wrote a script that inserts the two of us back into a time when I was very immature, irresponsible and incapable. I see now that I deserved that break up and audit and it made me a better man today. It’s so easy to change over time from laziness, lack of focus, changing priorities, and I got dumped and audited because of it. People really learn the most when they go through tumultuous times and hard times are what makes movies interesting to watch. I don’t know anyone who couldn’t relate with the intertwined quandary of relationship and money. The lesson for me was to always be the man she fell in love with, and that’s the moral of this story. Oh, did I mention our movie is really funny too?
Your top 5 favorite cartoons from childhood and/or now. Don’t be shy!
Easy. Tom & Jerry, G.I. Joe, Voltron, Thundercats, and Muppet Babies.