With appearances in hit shows including Madam Secretary and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit under his belt and currently starring in The Walking Dead and new CBS series FBI, James Chen is becoming a more and more familiar name to TV fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Having trained at the Yale School of Drama and built up an impressive resume of work, acting and performing have been long established passions for this talented actor, with such passion evident in every role he takes on. With the holidays just around the corner, James spoke to ThisIsTheLatest about his early career, favourite projects and what he has lined up for the new year.
TITL: You’ve been acting on both stage and screen for a number of years now, having undergone training at the Yale School of Drama, but prior to that, growing up, did you ever have any other career ambitions or have you always been determined to find your way in the performing industry?
James Chen: I definitely wasn’t aware of the performing arts universe growing up. I loved movies and had my absolute favorite TV shows, but the idea that it was a skill you could pursue and a job you could have wasn’t even on my radar. When I was younger, I definitely had a big imagination and loved drawing and creating, starting from when I was a kid the progression went something like palaeontologist, to doctor, to scientist. In undergrad, I was actually pursuing this biochemistry masters program to become a research scientist… and found out quickly that wasn’t at all what I wanted to do. After some years of exploring and performing, acting really became a clear love.
TITL: You’re perhaps best known for your role of Kal in the phenomenally successful series that is The Walking Dead. Did you ever anticipate the reaction the show has had over the years and what impact has its success had on you both personally and professionally?
JC: I didn’t, because when I started working on the show I hadn’t read Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels nor was I watching the show on TV at the time. So it was only slowly over the next couple years shooting on set, catching up watching previous seasons,interacting with fans, that I truly got a sense of how ride-or-die The Walking Dead fandom is! I think as actors, we’re always just putting in our 20 years to have our ‘overnight success’, so I think overall my job hasn’t changed much in that I’m still ploughing away and hustling at the industry at every opportunity. People definitely know me from the show more, so that’s been nice in that it’s a kind of short-hand for people to place you in the industry. Personally the show has been really fulfilling. To get to know and work with fantastic people in front of and behind the camera. That family dynamic has been very fulfilling. Love all those guys.
TITL: What was/is it about the character of Kal that made you want to audition for the part? How is he different from any other character you’ve played before, and how do you feel he fits in with the dynamic of those around him?
JC: At the time the audition, it was shrouded in secrecy and mystery, so no one knew who exactly they were auditioning for. I only knew that he was extremely loyal to his community. It turns out that audition was initially for the role of Jesus, but honestly can’t imagine anyone other than Tom Payne playing that role. When I booked the role of Kal, it was under a fake name, and so it wasn’t until I arrived at the fitting, that I knew exactly who I was playing and was able to do some research into him. I think as a character he’s really exciting – great fighter, fierce protector, first line of defense, deadly killer with a spear and knife, lives and mans a real life fort! I think what makes Kal different from other characters is the nature of the world he lives in, how much death and killing he’s seen and done. That’s just an everyday part of his reality. I think what make the Hilltop work so well is the teamwork that everyone there falls into. It’s run really efficiently, and everyone has their role. Kal’s is definitely more of a veteran soldier at the Hilltop and I would say those are his closest kin and co-workers at the Hilltop and among other communities as well.
TITL: You’re also currently on screen in the latest series from Dick Wolf, FBI. Given the success of Wolf’s previous works, including L&O: SVU, which you’ve appeared in, just how badly did you want to be a part of this one? Can you recall your audition?
JC: So much! I am not joking with you when I say Law & Order: SVU was one my favorite shows growing up. I loved everything about it, the characters, the action, the drama of each case. So my time actually getting to work on that show and with Mariska and Chris and B.D. and the entire crew was incredibly rewarding. Getting a chance to return to the Dick Wolf universe is always an exciting and fun because of all those great memories. And it was also exciting to be there from the very first episode to create a new FBI world with everyone. I love working with all of those guys. My audition was pretty straight-forward… I was given audition material to prepare – it was when Ian is evaluating the burnt cell phone evidence from the bombing in the pilot episode. It was really fun to explore Ian’s expertise, wielding that technical jargon, but also his razor sharp mind and bit and the fun you can feel he’s having doing it all.
TITL: For those who haven’t seen the show, how would you sum it up and what part does your character Ian play in it all?
JC: FBI follows the case work of agents in the field and at the joint operations command as they race to solve the most high-stakes, national security threats of our time. Assessing crime scenes, tracking down key witnesses and evidence, gathering intel on our suspects and using the latest technology to combine it with evidential analysis, we try to connect all the dots to arrest those behind these threats. Ian Lim is part of FBI’s CART -Computer Analysis and Response Team – and handles any electronic tech involved in any case’s physical evidence, surveillance, etc. to keep the team on pace with tracking a suspect or bring us that much closer to making an arrest. Ian is a genius and he’ll be sure to tell you all about it.
TITL: Of all the shows you’ve starred in over the years, could you pick your favourite? Do you have any particularly fond memories of times spent on certain sets?
JC: I think I’ve immensely enjoyed my time on each project for different reasons. But I recently had a great experience on Madam Secretary playing an eccentric billionaire whose hobby was racing cars. A day spent on the race track in a jump suit jumping in and out of a race car with such a fun character was incredible. As was my first day working on The Walking Dead… when we saw Hilltop for the first time, climbing up those practical walls and ramparts, grabbing and brandishing those very real spears, and heaving open those massive doors…that was surreal.
TITL: If you could appear in another TV show, past or present, which would it be and why?
JC: Wow… too many to choose from! Breaking Bad has been one of my favorites for a long time, with absolutely amazing writing, characters, and acting. To be a part of that world and have scenes with Walter White would be incredible. On another Vince Gilligan theme… I grew up loving The X-Files and would love to be part of a paranormal plot line with Detectives Fox Mulder and Dana Scully…I’ll have to look them up in the database next time I’m on the FBI set!
TITL: You’re also a rather regular feature on the big screen with credits in films such as “The Amazing Spiderman” and “Front Cover.” Do you find working on films any different from working on TV shows, and do you have a preference for one or the other?
JC: Sure… TV moves quite quickly and the storytelling format is about 50 minutes. Film can be 90 minutes to over 2 hours and – depending on the film – the pacing and development can be that much more drawn out. I think traditionally film affords the opportunity to take the time and really go into character depth, which is what I’m really interested in. But this golden age of television has been blurring those lines and getting to explore a character over several seasons is really exciting. I think it would really have to depend on the project.
TITL: What can you tell me about your new film “Fluidity”?
JC: Fluidity is about the intersecting lives of 10 millennial as they struggle to navigate their identity and sexuality in this fast-paced, high-tech world. At those speeds and levels of convenience, love, relationships, desire, sex… can all start to lose clarity and blur. This is a story about how we’re all surviving in that wild jungle.
TITL: This might be a hard question, but what’s been the highlight of your professional career so far?
JC: This summer I was simultaneously recurring on 3 different shows: Netflix/Marvel’s Iron Fist, CBS’s FBI, and AMC’s The Walking Dead. That was a place I never thought I’d get to, and I’m encouraged by the ever-increasing awareness to inclusion and diversity of the industry that things will only continue to get better.
TITL: Are there any other upcoming projects you can tell me about or are you just focusing on TWD and FBI for now? How’s your schedule for 2019 looking?
JC: I’ve had some great opportunities to stretch the comedic muscles and play with some absolute rock stars. I’ll be opposite Tracy Morgan on his show “The Last O.G.” as well as slayer queens themselves, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, on “Broad City” — both airing spring 2019. I’ve also been writing more recently and hope to have a couple passion projects developed later next spring as well.
TITL: Given how tiring shoots for shows such as TWD can be, how do you unwind after a hectic filming period? Is there a sport you like to play or vacation spot you most like to visit?
JC: Ooh I love this question! I’ve began a journey in MMA earlier this year, and I find that an amazing art-science-meditation-fascination hybrid for me. I’ve been trying to get back to Beijing or Shanghai for the longest time, but the schedule has yet to present an opening. I’ll just have to shoot a project there!
TITL: Finally then, given how cut-throat the performing and acting business can be, what advice would you give to aspiring actors/actresses? What one comment or piece of advice do you often find yourself reflecting on at difficult or stressful times that helps keep you motivated?
JC: Focus on what you love about acting, remembering why you ever wanted to do it in the first place as opposed to anything else. That will connect you to the source of your passion and keep you true to your mission amongst all the distractions.
FBI airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on CBS and will return in the New Year. The Walking Dead returns to AMC on February 10th. You can keep up to date with James on Twitter and Instagram. Header photo credit: Ryan West.