A Chat with Actor Kelvin Yu

I recently met up with Taiwanese American actor and friend Kelvin Yu in Los Angeles. I’ve known him for years, even before he started his acting career, so it has been a privilege to see him find success in Hollywood over the past decade.

Kelvin’s studies range from the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television to London University at Goldsmiths in New Cross to Carter-Thor Studios in Los Angeles. Television credits include Popular, The Shield, Without a Trace, Gilmore Girls, ER, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and others. In addition to several independent film roles and theater pieces, his film credits include Grandma’s Boy, Elizabethtown, and the upcoming movie Milk.

With the buzz in the air over Oscar-worthy performances by the cast of Milk, even before its release, I thought it was an opportune time to catch up a little bit with Kelvin and have him share his past and present experiences and projects!

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HoChie: Hi Kelvin, thanks for joining me today and sharing your time with the audience of TaiwaneseAmerican.org!

Kelvin: Good to be with you.

HoChie: So tell me a little bit about yourself. When did you develop your interest in acting?

Kelvin: I would say my interest in acting officially arrived when I was 13 years old. I discovered ancient magical acting rocks in my backyard and I ate them. Just kidding.

HoChie: Oh man! This is going to be one of those interviews… [Laughs] That’s OK, you and I go a long way back with the Taiwanese American summer camps in the early 90’s. So, yeah, I’ll, uh, bear with you. [Laughs] But go on. Magical rocks.

Kelvin: Actually, a teacher suggested I audition for a school play. Not the most exciting story. It didn’t take much though. From that point on, I don’t think I ever seriously considered pursuing another profession. I studied acting in college and began working not long after that.

HoChie: Cool. Where did you grow up? And what was it like for you as a young Taiwanese American at the time?

Kelvin: I grew up in Los Angeles proper among mostly Latino and African-American peers until junior high. From there, we moved to a suburb which was essentially split 50% Caucasian and 50% Asian-American. So my first real exposure to Taiwanese-American friends or classmates wasn’t until I was a teenager. Prior to that, I was pretty sure I was Mexican. My parents were always very politically in touch and culturally committed to the Taiwanese identity. Much of my understanding of my own heritage came straight from my father.

HoChie: I hear you on that. I think it’s a common experience to figure out identity by exploring cultural roots and considering the environment you grow up in. I want to hear more about your acting experiences. One of your first roles was in the WB show Popular. How did you land that role, and what was that experience like? Did it open doors for you?

Kelvin: I was lucky. Often times, there is a long and arduous process for actors that involves red tape and logistical hurdles. I’m talking about entering the union, finding representation, building up a list of credits, etc. My very first audition came from a close friend who eventually became one of my agents and also happens to be Taiwanese-American. There was a breakdown for a high school aged Chinese boy and I was only 19 at the time and I guess, if the shoe fits… There was very little pressure considering it was my first audition ever and I think good things happen when you’re relaxed. Long story short, it was a recurring role on a sold series and I suddenly found myself in the union, with a great agent, and with several episodes of a network show under my belt. I don’t know if I would honestly have been willing to go through the grinder that most people go through. I don’t know if I would have had the constitution for extra work or the persistence to chase after agents and managers. It just happened very serendipitously for me and, yeah, I’m pretty grateful for that.

HoChie: Who were your mentors and role models?

Kelvin: My mentor is my sen-sai and my role model is Bruce Lee. No, really, the best mentor I could ever hope to have is probably my older brother. This is a profession of highs and lows, on every level I think, and there’s nothing more important than having someone who simply believes in you– often times, confidence can be a scarce commodity. He also happens to be a gifted writer, which is something I’ve always admired. As far as other role models, I tend to be fascinated with people in other fields. Tiger Woods is probably the guy who makes me want to get out of bed in the morning most often– and I don’t even play golf very well. I’m in utter disbelief at his mental discipline, his general ability to focus under pressure. Honestly, it’s something I think about a lot. I also have a mild obsession with David Axelrod right now. He seems like the smartest guy in the room.

HoChie: You’ve come a long way over the years, and most recently you acted alongside Sean Penn in the upcoming movie Milk. I hear that the reviews have been great! What was that experience like?

Kelvin: I don’t remember. I was heavily medicated for most of it. I slept a lot.

HoChie: Haha! Be serious, dude! We’re trying to have a legit interview here, Bruce Lee #2!

Kelvin: OK, sorry. I’ll try to be more serious. This was the first time I’ve worked on something that felt important–with a capital I. Movies are great, television is great. But at the end of the day, these media are forms of entertainment. If you lose sight of that, if you start to think of it as more than entertainment, you’re dead in the water. But every once in a while, you get the opportunity to make a film that can clearly change the way people think about something. We may not change anyone’s opinion with this film, but at the very least, we have a chance to take people into a world in which they might not normally spend two hours. The cherry on top is that the planets are aligning for this kind of movie. We’ve elected our first minority president, California has just eliminated civil rights for some of its populace. The climate is very political and one of the headlines is homosexuality– this is a very exciting time for a movie like this. I think people are interested. And yes, the movie is great.

HoChie: I definitely agree! In California, with the recent controversies overProposition 8, the movie will have a timely opening later this month and maybe draw some additional attention! What are folks saying behind the scenes?

Kelvin: We’re all excited. It’s funny, we premiered the film in San Francisco a few weeks ago. And then we premiered it in Los Angeles two days ago. In between those two premieres, the world changed. The election happened and Prop 8 passed. Seeing the movie the other night was like a totally new experience in light of the events of November 4th. There’s just no way to see this movie without viewing it through the lens of what’s going on right now. I have my opinions about Proposition 8, but I think more importantly, what’s exciting is that we are watching democracy at work and people feel a sense of personal empowerment when it comes to their votes. The tradition of our country is a progressive movement toward individual liberties. Next in line is probably gay marriage and I think it’s not that big a coincidence that this movie is coming out right now. It’s just the zeitgeist, I guess. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was “groundbreaking” three years ago. Today, it just seems tame, in a way. The country’s sensibility moves, it evolves, and I think all of this is happening simultaneously for a reason.

HoChie: Very wise words indeed. It will be interesting to see this movement progress. I have another question. Most people only see the “glamor” of Hollywood, but don’t see the realities of life as a working actor. What has it been like for you?

Kelvin: Totally glamorous. I’m basically the Asian male version of Beyonce… To be honest, I don’t consider it that different from a lot of industries. There is almost no job security. We feel the recession. There are bonuses. There are opportunities. We offer a service. We interview for work. It’s just not that different in a lot of ways. A lot of what people perceive to be glamorous is actually fairly absurd when viewed up close. I think the vast majority of actors make a reasonable income and are happy to put gas in the car and go out to dinner a few times a week. I was actually just thinking about this at the premiere the other night–how the experience of the premiere could not feel more foreign to the experience of making the movie. I mean, one minute you’re with a small group of creative people talking about how best to tell a story, to connect to an audience, to appeal to a human element. And a few months later, you find yourself on a red carpet next to the Real Housewives of the O.C. trying to elbow your way into a party. It’s crazy! Truth is, that part of it only happens once in a while. The cool part is the work–everyone will tell you that, promise.

HoChie: I think that it’s quite important to pursue the things you enjoy, and if possible, to make it your career choice. What advice do you have for folks out there who are figuring out their path in life?

Kelvin: Come on, Ho Chie. I can’t answer that… I guess… um… Should anyone out there want to pursue acting, I do think it’s important to enjoy yourself. People tend to get caught up in what’s gonna happen next year or in ten years. If you’re not having a good time, I don’t know how much it’s worth at the end of the day. I guess that goes for everything. I’m gonna skip this one.

HoChie: So Kelvin, what’s next for you? Any new projects or routes you’d like to take?

Kelvin: Well, I was in New York last month shooting CSI: New York. That airs this Wednesday. I’m most excited about my writing right now. I’m creating a pilot with some friends (Martyn Starr, Jeremy Konner, and Steven Davis). Other than that, the film industry is on what they call a “de facto strike,” so I may work more on Dirty Sexy Money.

HoChie: Most important question ever – what’s your favorite Taiwanese food?

Kelvin: I guess I have to go with Bah-Tzang. Hard to screw that up. It’s like a Taiwanese hot pocket.

HoChie: Yum. Good answer. I should probably plug the new Bah-Tzang t-shirt design here! Haha! Well, Kelvin, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to share with all of us at TaiwaneseAmerican.org. We’re looking forward to seeing you do some great things in the years to come!

To find out more about Kelvin Yu, check out his (and his brother, author Charles Yu’s) website: http://thebrothersyu.com – Be sure to click on the “reel” link to see clips of shows and movies he has been in! Also, visit his filmography and profile in IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0950515/

On November 26th, catch him in the role of adviser Michael Wong in the upcoming movie Milk, the story of California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, the lead cast includes Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, and James Franco. The early reviews are buzzing with possible Oscar nominations…

About the Author

Ho Chie Ho Chie Tsai is a founding Board Member who also wears many hats in the Taiwanese American community. As a frequent speaker on the collegiate conference circuit and youth summer camp programs, a past Program Director and current Board Member of the Taiwanese American Foundation, and a founder of the Taiwanese American Professionals chapter in San Francisco, he hopes to inspire a renewed sense of pride in personal identity and to increase activism and involvement within the greater Asian American community. Ho Chie holds an Electrical Engineering BS degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a Bioengineering MS and an MD degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his spare time, he works as a pediatrician.