Who is Kevin Shen?
My name is Kevin Shen and I am an actor. I just recently finished a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company called Snow and Midsummer, which is an adaptation of a Chinese classic for Western audiences in Britain. It was the first all East Asian cast that the Royal Shakespeare Company has ever had, so it was very fun. And then I've shot a few films that are coming out; one coming up this year called Unlocked, which hopefully should be decently sized, and you can see me on Netflix in a zombie movie called The Resort. And then I've done a few other plays in London.
I am a person who likes to try new things and do a lot of stuff. My mom is always complaining about how much I cram into my days and how much I tend to overdo, so I think that's probably my main thing. I have really bad FOMO, which is ‘fear of missing out’ – so I just want to do everything, and that kind of goes with my career and it goes with how I spend my free time and all that. That's probably my main characteristic. And I like to eat a lot.
I would like my legacy in the acting world to be seen as: an Asian-American male who has broken into mainstream media in positive leading roles that fight stereotypes and really raise awareness of the community and how we're viewed.
Tell us about your career journey.
In terms of my career journey, I started pretty late into the acting game. I started in the corporate world. I graduated in 2004 from Stanford with a Computer Engineering degree and a Sociology Master's and worked in New York for a couple years. And then I went to Wharton and got my MBA and then I worked for another couple years, and then kind of made the switch only about six years ago into acting while I was in London. I'm still in London. And from there I started pretty non-traditionally. I was actually doing more amateur work while I was working in my corporate job, and invited agents to come to see me there. And then I got signed off of that and then started working with an agent. The last six years have been a progression through theatre and television in London, and the last couple years I've been coming back and forth to LA to try to build a bit more presence in Hollywood.
The transition from non-acting – from the corporate world into acting – it was pretty smooth. My mom has actually been very supportive. I think for my parents, the biggest worry was that I wouldn't be able to support myself or that I wouldn’t be able to survive as an actor – especially given the climate of Asian Americans in Hollywood. But I was making money and I was very self-sufficient.
So in terms of my education and my background and how that plays into my current career; my current non-traditional post MBA career path, as I like to call it. What people don't realize, especially other actors, or what people take for granted is that really being an actor is effectively being an entrepreneur – with yourself as a product. And so having a business school education really does help in terms of how you market yourself or how you present yourself. You have a CV, and an audition is an interview, and all that kind of stuff; I think those soft skills have been helped by having an MBA on that front. Producing a play is effectively starting a business – raising money and hiring a director and a cast and the whole team. You're effectively starting a business. I think those business skills again – pretty helpful having an MBA.
I think one of the big things about coming out of Stanford and Wharton is that it does give you that confidence to be able to approach people who you might otherwise think are on a different pedestal. As an actor, sometimes you feel like you don't have that ability to approach these people. But knowing that all my peers are now in positions and if I had been on a more traditional route, I would effectively be on a similar level; it does give you that confidence to be able to talk to anyone as if they are your peers, whether they're running a building or whether they are you know a major director. So I think I think that is an important part of having good education.
What are your top accomplishments?
My biggest accomplishment is something I’m very proud of, and it was kind of at the beginning of my acting career. In London, there's a very big stigma around being trained to become an actor. And because I came with through such a non-traditional route – I did not go through any training – I decided that maybe the best way to showcase myself was to produce a play. Also, I had come across a poster at one of the theaters where there was an Asian character who was not an Asian actor. And so I went to the theatre and I was like, ‘is that is that just a white person in yellow face?’ And they're like, ‘yeah, yeah.’ And I was like, ‘hmm, that's not okay.’
So there's a play by David Henry Hwang – who’s also a Stanford alumn – called ‘Yellow Face’, which I decided to produce in London. And it was a very successful production. Our first run, we opened a theater off West End called the Park Theatre, and they were just being built; we opened the studio space in that theater and the production subsequently transferred to the National Theatre, which is a pretty big deal. I produced it with a co-producer and I starred in it. It was a really great stepping stone for my acting career – starting off my theatre career – and also just a really important moment of visibility for East Asians in the theatre landscape. Both with David Henry Hwang, who is a very prominent Asian American writer who hadn't been done in London for about 20 years, and just having a piece that really highlighted the themes that are very important, that are not often seen in the London theatre scene around East Asians.
‘Yellow Face’ is a very entertaining play, but plays on a lot of different levels around what race is, what it means to be Asian-American, and what it means to play another race and to champion another race. It's a semi-autobiographical play about David Henry Hwang protesting the casting of Jonathan Pryce and the original Miss Saigon, and then he subsequently casts a white person in an Asian role in a play he's written and tries to pass off that man as Asian to save his own face. Then the white man becomes a bigger champion for the Asian-American community than David Henry Hwang does. And so it is a big question of what is ‘race’ – what does it mean – and also highlights the struggles that East Asians and Asian Americans go through in the entertainment industry, and all industries. So it's something that wasn't often seen on stage in England.
How has your background influenced your success?
My background is pretty interesting depending on where I am. In London, I think my American-ness plays a lot more into my character and who I am as an actor; both in terms of the roles I get but also in the way I sell myself. In London, I think the British way of doing things is a bit more reticent, and the American is a bit more straightforward and upfront about things. And so especially when I was producing my play and generally when I'm meeting people, I'm a bit more open and a bit more forthcoming in how I approach people – which has been really beneficial to me in terms of just being straightforward and asking for things, or meeting people and being willing to meet people, or take those risks. I think that part of me really comes out in London.
In terms of being Asian-American in London, as an actor, it's another one of those things where it kind of plays both ways. On the one hand I'm very unique, and so if there are roles for Asian-Americans specifically, I'm probably pretty high up on the list for those. But there are a limited number of roles and Asians, or East Asians as we call us in the UK, are a lot less represented. And so the roles that you get are bit smaller, if they are race specific, or a bit more stereotypical. When they're thinking of race nonspecific roles, they're not necessarily thinking about East Asian actors. And so it's been a fight in the last couple years to try to raise our visibility, which has been exciting as well.
Please share your thoughts regarding the P.O.L.I.N.G.® Principles.
The P.O.L.I.N.G.® framework, I think comes into play when I harken back to the play I produced – ‘Yellow Face’. And I think first of all it started with the (N)etwork. When I decided I wanted to produce this play ‘Yellow Face’, I used the Stanford Alumni Directory and looked up David Henry Hwang and sent him an email; and it was like ‘hey David, can I produce your play?’ And he was like, ‘sure.’ So that was pretty nice. David is a very down-to-earth and super supportive guy. So that was amazingly easy, and also very helpful in the future when we're trying to produce things and we can just say, ‘David Henry Hwang didn't have to do that.’ So he’s a wonderful guy. So that was the first step – we got the rights to ‘Yellow Face’ and the actual producing of ‘Yellow Face’ ended up being quite a difficult thing to produce.
Producing a play in general is like starting a company, so it's pretty hard work. And so I think this is where the perseverance for (P)riorities and passions comes through. So I found a co-producer who is a fellow actor that I had met at an acting workshop, and we were both kind of late-career actors and both overeducated and we said, ‘oh, we can we can produce this play together.’ And we had a really hard time pitching it as two first-time actor-producers. So she stepped back to be the producer so that I could star in it. We basically reached out to everybody, to venues all around London for our first year.
And this is I guess we're (L)eading comes through, where you have that proactivity and also where being American helps; where you just email or cold call Artistic Directors of major venues in London and say ‘hey can I have a coffee, can I talk to you about this play,’ which was actually pretty successful. We were able to have a lot of coffee and ask advice and kind of figure out how they program with a lot of the Artistic Directors in London. So we did that. We got a lot of rejection in terms of ‘oh, we had some people say it's too esoteric.’ ‘People don't know who David Henry Hwang is.’ He hadn't been produced in 20 years in London. And we had some people who would say, ‘oh but this is not an audience that will come to the theatre,’ or ‘nobody wants the East Asians in the theatre,’ or ‘East Asians won’t come,’ which is a little annoying.
So talking to these different venues and getting that kind of pushback was a big part of where (G)rowth came in – where we had to face adversity and figure out what to do. And then we ended up approaching the Park Theatre – which was pulling off our (N)etwork – which was run by an Artistic Director and Executive Director with who I'd worked with before in this workshop where I had met my co-producer. And so we were able to come and go in with them, and have our pitch; and they had a little bit more confidence in us since they knew us, and we were really able to take advantage of David Henry Hwang’s name. It happened around the same time as the Orphan of Zhao controversy, so we were able to kind of capitalize on that and open our play when it was at top of people's minds.
Producing the play itself is a big job, and starring in the play and producing it while you're actually doing this play; at one point my director had to come up to me and say, ‘Kevin you're really bad on stage right now. You have to not do any of the producing.’ Because I was effectively rehearsing from 10:00am to 6:00pm every day, and then going home and producing from 6:00pm to 2:00am – which doesn't give you too much time to work on the performance, and it is pretty exhausting. And so my co-producer, Lucy Fenton (she's awesome and also an actor) – and this is also where Network comes through – she did it all, and she basically threw everything onto her plate. The director was like, ‘you're not allowed to call Kevin, you're not allowed to make him do stuff.’ So she really handled it all in the last couple weeks of rehearsal. That was again a big moment of growth for me as an actor.
Then the play came out to be quite successful and we were very happy. And then we transferred it into the National Theatre, which was again a moment of (L)eading. There’s a longer story behind it, but effectively I decided to email the Artistic Director of the National Theatre and asked him if he wanted to transfer us in. And that happened, quite excitingly. And finally in terms of (O)thers, the entire cast of seven of us all made their National Theater debuts through the piece –as well as David Henry Hwang – and really the visibility of Asian-Americans and our story became a lot more mainstream. It was seen by a lot more people, it was endorsed by this great global institution, and I think brought the East Asian and the Asian-American experience to a much wider platform.
The entire ‘Yellow Face’ production experience for me did really exemplify the P.O.L.I.N.G.® framework. The perseverance that required over two years to get this play up, which was very much a passion project for myself; bringing others along with me, as well as kind of raising the visibility of the East Asian / Asian-American community in the theater world; leading, I think a lot of it was taking big risks and making those asks and being proactive on that front; inspiring, I was inspired by David Henry Hwang, and hopefully the play inspired others to take similar action in raising visibility and Asian American / East Asian issues; the network obviously was very important in getting the play and getting a venue and getting a co-producer and basically everything; and then growth for myself and my co-producer as actors and producers, and the adversity we faced and what we had to overcome also played a big part. So I think it was a pretty P.O.L.I.N.G.® experience.
Tell us about a challenge you faced because of your background.
When talking about a central issue around being East Asian or Asian American in the acting world, I think about a 2012 event. I talked about the ‘Yellow Face’ controversy here with Miss Saigon and David Henry Hwang leading that protest. In 2012, the RSC the Royal Shakespeare Company – who I actually just worked with – had put on a Chinese classic play, and it was through a season in repertory, so they used the same actors across multiple plays. But they did a Chinese play in which the East Asian cast members were not particularly well represented. And so there was a bit of a protest around that from the East Asian community, which really helped raise our visibility.
And for my part, I was relatively vocal but I think the way that I was able to handle it was – I managed to meet the Head of Casting of the Royal Shakespeare Company. And we had a great chat about it in terms of just questioning what it was about, how it made me feel in terms of the influence that the Royal Shakespeare Company has on diversity in the theatre world, and how it made me feel disappointed to see what they were doing and how they responded to it. And so it was a great chat where I got to know the casting director very well and she got to know me; and I think that played a big part in my casting subsequently for this piece recently. So I think that was probably one of the main moments in which my Asian-American or my East Asian background really came to the forefront in the theatre world.
Who are the people who have influenced you most?
In terms of influences, as a person – just how I was raised – my mom is really important. I think my mom is very positive and very generous as a person, and I think those are two traits that I try to keep in my life and are very important in the sometimes soul destroying industry of acting – to keep that positivity. And then just to be good to people. Be generous and be friendly; I think being good to people pays itself forward or pays itself back in some way. The people that you meet will remember you and if you help others, others help you. I think this industry is very much based on who you know and what your relationships are as well, so that’s been really important.
I think my mom and her side of the family are much more open-minded in terms of career and in terms of following your passions. I have a cousin who is quite a successful artist in LA, who is very cool. And so my mom has always been more supportive on that side. I think when it came to making the switch, my mom is learning about the industry through me and very gung-ho in terms of making sure I'm building my skillset and she pushes me to her friends and other people in the industry that she meets. So yeah, she's great.
In terms of influences in the business, obviously David Henry Hwang, who wrote ‘Yellow Face’, is an inspirational figure for Asian Americans creating their own work and trailblazing our stories into the mainstream. And so it was great to be able to do one of his plays and bring his work into London again.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Advice to my younger self. I would probably say ‘be a good person.’ I think when I look at younger actors now and I think about myself as a 22 year old just out of college, you have that kind of entitlement, or you have that kind of confidence and that kind of – I guess it's a bit of arrogance. And I think when I was at that age, I probably burned some bridges when I was working. I didn't I didn't love what I was doing on the job front. And my advice now is to just pick your battles and just maintain your relationships and be good to people; and just to kind of recognize when you're doing things that are not so great, that might not be viewed so favorably. And if you recognize that, at least apologize for it. So I think that's probably one thing.
But then also in that vein I would say try to spend less time doing things that don't make you happy. So I remember just working and dreading going to work; like just being unhappy about that. And I'm a pretty happy person so that was always the thing, like ‘wow, I can't believe I'm doing something that makes me so unhappy.’ And so I would say trying to spend less time doing things that make you unhappy, because then generally you'll do better in life and be happier.
What are your thoughts on Inspiring Diversity?
In terms of what Inspiring Diversity can do to elevate the community – I think the important thing, to be able to bring about diverse talent and to bring up diversity in your community, is really about finding people and letting people get to know them. Which is effectively what you're doing here. Because I find a lot of the time, especially when it comes to casting but I guess when it comes to hiring in organizations, it is just a dearth of knowledge of people who can do the job or people that people that you're aware of.
I think people have a tendency to stick to circles that are bit more homogenous, and branching out requires some effort. So whether it's casting for a person with a disability or of a different ethnicity than you, if you don't know those people you're not going to be able to easily cast them. And if you don't know those people, you're not going to think about them when you're casting a part that doesn't require that. And so if that network is spread out wider, and if you are just aware of more people, then when you're hiring or whatnot then those people will come to mind more easily.
I think a lot of also what happens in this world with xenophobia and the tensions in the world do just arise from people not having experience with people who are unlike themselves. And so I think really the interactions, just having simple interactions, let people see how similar everyone is how universal humanity is. And to be able to open that Network, to just meet new people, we'll see a universal growth all around.
What is the call to action?
In the acting world, I think what it comes down to is having decision-makers recognize any unconscious bias they have, or any bias they have. And in order to hire more diverse talent, a conscious decision has to be made to find that talent. Because just how the industry is right now, your diverse talent is going to have less exposure and going to have less experience. And so it's making that effort to find people who are not in one’s circle already; to nurture and give them exposure. So I think that is really important to be able to raise a community. And then with that you will create role models that will allow people to see themselves reflected, inspire more people to get into the industry, and support each other.
So I think the Asian-American community – in order to support Asian-Americans in entertainment and on film – first of all, they need to support them monetarily and go to all the films, and support all the work that comes out because Hollywood is always like, ‘we'll follow the money.’ So Asian-Americans need to show them that the money is behind diversity and Asian-Americans and that there is money to be seen there. But in general that needs to happen by just having a more united Pan-Asian-American front. A lot of times when things come out there is criticism of Asian-Americans on screen, or dissatisfaction with the casting because they're not the right background to play certain role. And I think that kind of infighting or negativity that does pervade through certain Asian American announcements or entertainment areas only inhibits the cause. I think there needs to be a bit more of a united front to support Asian Americans generally on-screen.