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Iron Fist

Wingman Wednesday

James Chen

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Photo By: David Zheng

This is shaping up to be a defining year for James Chen’s career. Outside of his ongoing work on “The Walking Dead,” where he plays Hilltop resident Kal, the Yale School of Drama graduate also joined the Marvel Universe as Sam Chung in Season 2 of “Iron Fist” for Netflix and will be recurring as Ian Lentz in the new Dick Wolf-produced drama series “FBI,” which premieres September 25 on CBS.

And somehow that’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

We recently sat down with Chen to discuss how “The Walking Dead” prepared him for his super future, why the introduction of Blindspot is so topical, and the reason on-screen Asian stereotypes may finally be a thing of the past.

TrunkSpace: As far as Septembers go, yours looks like it will be one for the history books!
Chen: (Laughter) My man, it’s been an amazing year, I’m not gonna lie. You’re correct, September has been very busy and productive, and we just recently added another gig… I’ll be playing a billionaire race car driver on “Madam Secretary.” So yeah, I’m very grateful. It’s been very awesome. It’s the product of a lot of hard work and not giving up.

TrunkSpace: With so much of that hard work being released into the world this month, is there a different type of personal excitement at this stage of a project as opposed to your first day on a set?
Chen: Oh, it is, it is. Yeah, that’s a good distinction. I think like any first day – of school, first day at work, first day at a TV show – there’s excitement. I guess you could say it’s nerves, but I just like to call it excitement, because you’re meeting a lot of new people and going into a new space. Invariably it’s always wonderful, because everyone’s extremely collaborative, and at the end of the day we’re just playing. So that kind of thing facilitates just sinking into a good ease. There’s also a lot of technical things you’re doing in addition to meeting a bunch of people. You’re kind of just getting the lay of the land, and having conversations with the director about the scene structure, and stuff like that. But, something like the past couple weeks, “Iron Fist” being released last Friday, “FBI” coming out next week… yeah, you’re still working hard, having conversations with great people like you, just to basically tell your stories about what it was like on set.

TrunkSpace: When you joined the Marvel Universe for “Iron Fist,” obviously it must have been an exciting thing, but at the same time you kind of have to keep that excitement in check . Marvel projects are so shrouded in plot point secrecy that you’re really in a conversational holding pattern about it until it’s released.
Chen
: That’s right. I got to be honest though, I’ve been on “The Walking Dead” for four years, and they’ve got the best secret police game going on. They put the fear in you with those NDAs and stuff. (Laughter) So I was kind of trained and had some experience with that. But, it was tough, because you’d be gone for a while, and  I would run into my co-workers from set outside of work with other people, and it was like we’d be catching up and we’d have to kind of shield the conversation from people who are not in the know. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: With a show like “Iron Fist,” which releases all at once, that must help ease that loose lips sink ships vibe, because once it’s out, everything is fair game. If the audience is willing to put in the work, they could view the entire season in one sitting.
Chen: That’s right, yeah. I like that idea though, that the viewer has to put in the work too, but it’s true. That wasn’t around four years ago… five years ago. I like it, personally, I guess from a sharing point of view, because we can talk about bigger picture stuff, like arcs, or how different parts from different episodes connected or didn’t connect, or what it means. I like that part of the conversation as opposed to it being drawn out over several months from installation broadcast. I like people having the full context of Sam Chung, talking about “Iron Fist,” to see how he and Colleen work in a bunch of different scenarios.

TrunkSpace: While the viewers understand the full context of Sam Chung, those who read the comic know that there’s so much story to tell there, should Netflix choose to go down that road.
Chen: Right. We know for sure that there’s just tremendous, exciting, tremendous, one more tremendous, potential in the development of Blindspot and his back story. And it’s so topical these days, illegal immigrant, right? Also, it’s extremely topical with him being an Asian male character, an Asian male superhero. I mean, after Asian August, with “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Searching,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Awkwafina is getting her show green lit – it’s time!

TrunkSpace: And to be a part of this moment in pop culture, influencing the next generation, it has to be an amazing feeling.
Chen: It is, yeah. It’s so true. It’s interesting also, because growing up and initially my first phase in the biz, that wasn’t around, so it’s almost like… it’s hard to describe what it’s like. A part of me almost can’t believe it’s happening, because the stereotypes have been and are really awful, and degrading, and they’ve been so solid for such a long time, so it’s so refreshing. It’s so invigorating. And, kind of like what you said about as far as the next generation, I mean, you really feel like you’re making a meaningful contribution to the image of your people, which is so satisfying. It’s not like I’m selling soap for a commercial.

Photo By: David Zheng

TrunkSpace: The path of actors as a whole seems to has changed as well. If we went back 10 years, it would be a rarity for an actor to be talking about so many different television projects at once. It just seems like there’s more freedom to spread your wings and be involved in more projects than there used to be.
Chen: Right. I think with so much programming out there, there’s a lot of opportunity. I’ve seen an increase in both the quality and quantity of auditions in my particular demographic, for Asian men, which is kind of what I see as far as the auditions that come down the pike. But, it’s been encouraging and exciting too to see that they’re opening up casting and auditions for roles that aren’t specifically written to be Asian. There were a few of those back in the day, like a couple a year, but now it’s like we’re getting closer to that place where ethnicity doesn’t have to define who you are. You’re a person and you happen to be of a certain ethnicity.

TrunkSpace: Jumping back to Sam as a character, what was it about him in the early stages, the audition days, that you liked on the page?
Chen: Well, I loved kind of how Sam’s dialogue was very… this is going to sound weird, but it’s very casual and conversational. It was very everyday. He’s just simply having a conversation with someone, as opposed to… he’s not talking about something super Asian or stereotypically something or other, if that makes any sense. He’s just having a conversation with another person who happens to be Asian as well. There’s no commentary on the fact that we’re both Asian. Colleen is Asian and I’m Asian and we’re just talking about helping her solve a problem. So I love that aspect of the fact that we don’t need to comment on it, it just is.

I love how there is history in that opening scene in Season 2/Episode 2 of “Iron Fist,” when we first meet Sam. There’s just some great history, and backstory, and rapport between Sam and Colleen. It’s not heavy, but you can tell that they’ve worked together for a while. They’ve got great rapport. They tease each other. I’m fishing a little bit, and they share a little bit about their private lives and what they’re doing, just some teasing. So that’s exciting, and I think you can see that in the series. Obviously certain plot emergencies come through that maybe don’t make it a priority, but it’s one of the layers of their relationship, which I think is great.

TrunkSpace: And that is one of the things that Marvel Studios is so great at, which is building out the world so that the viewer feels like they’re a part it as opposed to being on the outside looking in.
Chen: Right. And I like that idea, because Sam has more of a management, supervisory responsibility for the community center and it shows, because I know where everything is and what’s going on. I feel like I have an ear to the ground and a hand on the pulse of what’s happening in the community, because the community center is like a hub, more or less. So I thought that was pretty exciting to kind of be right at the brain of the nervous system of what’s happening in Chinatown, or in our community. I thought it was great how the community center became a hub for us to meet a whole bunch of other characters who also happen to be Asian, like Mrs. Yang, or Danny’s boss at the moving company, played by my buddy James Lai.

So I thought that was great, the inclusion of more Asian faces, and culture, and depth in the series.

Chen in “The Walking Dead.”

TrunkSpace: From TV superheros to superheroes of TV, your next project is Dick Wolf’s “FBI.” Obviously Marvel is a big brand, but in the world of television, Dick Wolf is a brand unto his own.
Chen: Sure, it is. That man is a genius. He’s kind of like the Stan Lee of procedurals. (Laughter)

This is not a joke. I grew up and “Law & Order: SVU” was my favorite show on TV. God, man, everything about that, from just the “dun dun,” it was so just clicked for me. I loved it. I loved Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni. Then I actually got a chance to play a recurring character on SVU for Dick’s show a few years ago, CSU Adrian “Andy” Sung, and I got to meet and work with Mariska, and Chris, and Ice, and it was just fantastic. A lot of the directors on that show are repeat directors, so it was just awesome to build the rapport, to be on that set, to work on a show that I loved so much for so long. That said, I kind of feel like I’m returning home in a way. Maybe like the same family/different house, kind of feeling. You’ve got the feel of all the same things, and obviously, Dick’s running the ship, it’s just with a twist… an FBI twist.

Iron Fist” is available now on Netflix.

FBI” premieres Tuesday on CBS.

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Wingman Wednesday

Michael Maize

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With a new season underway and Dr. Jonathan Crane bringing terror to all of those he faces, the inhabitants of “Gotham’s” fantastical world are finding themselves once again wondering why they have yet to relocate to a less chaotic city. Smack dab in the middle of the mayhem is new cast member Michael Maize, whose interaction with Crane’s Scarecrow in the first episode of the season helped set the stage for the frights and fights to come.

We recently sat down with Maize to discuss how much he enjoys playing in the comic book sandbox, the fun of exaggerated performance, and why he still talks about his demon-horned past.

TrunkSpace: Generally anything comic book related comes with a rabid fandom. Are you prepared for whatever the “Gotham” fandom will throw at you now that you’re a part of the universe?
Maize: Yes, I love it. I’m ready for that. I wasn’t into comic books per se growing up, but I was a huge comic book film fan growing up. I loved the whole Superman series, and then I loved the original Batman trilogy from “Batman,” “Batman Returns,” and “Batman Forever.” I was a huge fan of that, and I always had a great love for the high concept that went into those films, which then started to get carried over into the television stratosphere within the last decade. So, it’s really exciting, and after doing “Iron Fist” last year, I was always hoping I would somehow get involved in “Gotham.”

TrunkSpace: You mentioned some of the earlier films from the super hero genre and what’s so great about “Gotham” is that it is a bit of a throwback and feels more like those than the grittier, hyper-realistic adaptations of today.
Maize: Yes, I completely agree, and I actually feel that, in general, that has been the atmosphere of where the films have been going with the last Batman movies and some of the newer Marvel movies. And, in my heart, I really love the high concept comic book entertainment that really pushes the edge of reality, and pushes the edge visually and takes you to a whole other realm. Like, for instance, “Iron Fist” was very grounded, cool, real, and it was great to jump into that realm, but from the first second that I stepped onto the “Gotham” set, there was an immediate difference with, just, the colors and the energy. You’ll see where my first scene is and where that takes place, and you just feel all of a sudden that you’re inside of this crazy universe. And it was really easy as an actor to tap into that energy and then use it for my performance.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned the colors and energy you felt stepping onto the “Gotham” set, but we have to imagine that Scarecrow costume helped set the stage as well. We’ve seen lots of iterations of the character on screen over the years, but this one in particular seems to hit the terrifying mark.
Maize: It does. The first second that he walked on set, I was definitely terrified. That’s a super-cool scene. I was so happy they used that in the trailer because you’ll see in the episode that everything goes off into very exaggerated realities, as we’ve been talking about, and then when you finally get to that scene, it’s just really grounded in the truth of, “Oh my God, what is really happening here? This villain is greater than I thought he was!”

Maize in Gotham with Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned the exaggerated reality of “Gotham.” Does that allow you as an actor to take a different approach to performance than you would in something like “Iron Fist” or “Mr. Robot,” which are both more grounded in reality?
Maize: For sure, and I would say the extreme of that would be “Mr. Robot” where I walked onto that set and there was a very obvious mood and energy going on, which was extremely understated and, yes, based in reality. I had watched season 1, and I was in love with season 1. I thought that it was one of the best pilots I had ever seen, and I loved that mood. I loved the tone. It was almost flaccid, then there was this energetic heartbeat under it all that kept it going. So, I really tried, with that role, to stay completely understated, but always have this drive underneath me that was bigger than what was on the surface.

With “Gotham,” I’m a fan of the show, so I know the contents of the show and I know that it is more outside-the-box. Like I said, when I walked on the set there was that energy and you could immediately see the conceptual style in front of you, and it did really drive me. It was so much fun because, although I love playing many different characters, and I love diving into the skin of very reality-based characters and how they think and feel and not having to show too much but just be in that moment, I very rarely get to push the realms toward big, or bigger than life. With “Gotham” I really felt like it was no-holds-barred and I could just go and be a little more exaggerated and play with the tone, and play with the beat, and play with the people in my scene. I really enjoyed it.

TrunkSpace: Without giving too much away, can you tell people about where your character Grady falls into things?
Maize: He is part of Merton’s gang. Merton is the leader of the gang and I’m his right-hand man. Grady has a past connection to Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. the Scarecrow, and that connection is what propels us forward into the next episode. It’s the encounter with the Scarecrow that moves me forward as a character more than anything else.

TrunkSpace: You have appeared on many shows that have pretty incredible fandoms, but what people may not know is that you were a part of one of the original modern day television fandoms, the Buffyverse.
Maize: I was. I was in “Angel,” which I still talk about today because I wore this crazy prosthetic piece that covered from my forehead up, and I had two horns. That character was named Artode and he was a crazy lizard man of sorts. That was a super-fun and exciting show to do.

And I was in “True Blood” for a bit and that also had a wonderful, big fan base. And actually, “Power Rangers in Space.” We’re going way back in my resume now.

Maize can be seen next in Syfy’s “Happy” with Christopher Meloni.

Gotham” airs Thursdays on FOX.

Featured image by: Michael Becker

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