Power Players

Growing up different helped me do my job better, says 'Crazy Rich Asians' star Harry Shum Jr.

Shelby Rabara and Harry Shum Jr. attend the 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 27, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Presley Ann | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Actor Harry Shum Jr. has become a familiar face on screens worldwide with his starring roles in hit TV shows "Glee" and "Shadowhunters."

But it didn't come easily. In fact, he had to fight his way to the front of the camera precisely because he was different, Shum told CNBC Make It.

When Shum landed his first TV role on "Glee" aged 26, he was originally given a minor role as the so-called Other Asian. However, he said he made it his mission to prove there could bring more to the character.

"I thought: 'I'm going to use this opportunity to make it my own and make the most out of it,'" said Shum.

If they're going to cast a minority, I'm going to use this to my advantage.
Harry Shum Jr.

"If they're going to cast a minority, I'm going to use this to my advantage," continued Shum, whose character Mike Chang was given his first major story line in season three.

"You only get so many opportunities, but it's how you shape them that matters."

That's a lesson Shum said he learned in his early days of arriving in the States. Born in Costa Rica to Chinese parents, Shum relocated to the U.S. with his family as a child and said he was struck by the value Americans placed on individualism and self-expression.

"When I first moved to the U.S. it was very different because it was a lot more about individualism and expressing yourself," said Shum.

"That was a stark contrast to how I grew up, but there are a lot of benefits to that."

Namely, said Shum, it allowed him to embrace his differences growing up in the predominantly white San Luis Obispo County, California and pursue a career in acting.

Now, he said, he wants to use his position to do more to represent minorities in film and TV. In his current role as Magnus Bane in "Shadowhunters," Shum plays a bisexual warlock. He has also teamed up with Chinese fast food chain Panda Express to share his story as part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this May.

I don't think it's black and white. There are roles you'd stay away from.
Harry Shum Jr.

Not all producers are responsive to those discussions, of course, said Shum. The film and TV industry has come under particular scrutiny recently over its role in perpetuating stereotypes and unfairly representing minority characters.

But Shum said it's important for actors to try and engage in "collaboration and communication" to help move the industry forward.

"I don't think it's black and white," said Shum. "There are roles you'd stay away from and you can have conversations with the directors before and see what you can do with the role."

Shum said he expects that to be less of an issue for his upcoming role in the hotly anticipated sequel to 2018's box office hit "Crazy Rich Asians."

"You don't have to worry as much as with other roles. You don't have to worry about being authentic," said Shum.

Shum will play Charlie Wu, the former flame of Astrid Young Teo (played by Gemma Chan), cousin of lead character Nick Young, in "China Rich Girlfriend," which is currently pre-production.

Don't miss: The money milestone that convinced Harry Shum Jr. he could make it in Hollywood — and his big 'Crazy Rich Asians' splurge

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Harry Shum Jr. has the answer for fixing Hollywood's diversity problem
Harry Shum Jr. has the answer for fixing Hollywood's diversity problem