IN CONVERSATION WITH JUSTIN CHIEN
interview by MAREK BARTEK
Justin Chien’s latest role in the Netflix show ‘The Brothers Sun’ will leave you short of breath. Martial arts lover also off-screen, he is not only a great actor. Fascinated by film, Justin regularly works on projects as a successful writer, producer and director, which were recognized by various institutions and film festivals.
First of all, congratulations on the huge success of Netflix’s show ‘The Brothers Sun’, which was released in the beginning of January. How do you experience this widespread positive response so far?
I’m just really grateful, and I find myself getting emotional about all of it. At times it almost doesn’t feel real. When I meet people who tell me how moved they were or I see videos inspired by our show that people have made, that’s when it really hits me. I must have done something right in a past life, because I don’t know what I did to be so blessed and lucky. So far, most of the online and in-person interactions have been very positive, and fans of our show have been really respectful. All in all, I’m so glad that the show has had such an impact with so many people, and I appreciate the continued support.
Social media plays an important role when it comes to promoting the show but also connecting to fans. Even during the break at the photoshoot, you went live on Instagram to share this moment with your audience and answer some of their questions. What’s your relationship with social media as a means to get closer to people?
Haha! To be honest, using social media isn’t something that I find natural or even easy. Normally, I’m much more reserved when it comes to sharing my life online. But, I will do whatever it takes to help the show. If that means having a greater social media presence, then I’m committed to doing so. I see social media as an extension of my job. I hope people understand that most of the content I post isn’t a full representation of my actual day-to-day life. However, it has helped me connect with fans. For that, I think it’s entirely worth it. The world is changing and I have to adapt with it. That being said, I do loathe myself when I doom-scroll mindlessly, so I think it’s important to create personal boundaries.
In the show you portray the role of Charles Sun. For those who maybe haven’t watched ‘The Brothers Sun’, can you tell us about your character and the story itself?
‘The Brothers Sun’ is a wild, genre-bending, gangster dark comedy, family drama (with some kick-ass, heart-pounding action). It’s a lot to wrap your mind around but, it is all true! The story follows a Taiwanese gangster family that is split down the middle – half in life, and half far removed from it. After his father, the head of my triad, is assassinated, my character Charles goes from Taipei to LA to protect his estranged mother and brother and investigate the people behind the hit. Most importantly, it’s a fun watch with a ton of heart and universal themes about family.
Charles is like an onion – there are many layers to him. On the surface he looks like a hardened MMA veteran, scarred from years of fighting. But deep down he is a broken man/boy, who is still traumatized by the things he was forced to do in the name of “protecting the family”. He has a soft side that he rarely shows, and deals with several emotional and mental problems that complicate his already complicated story. Despite his trauma, he still carries faint dreams of a happier, normal life, and I think people have been able to empathize with that side of him.
As you’ve just mentioned, the show is a blend of comedy and action/thriller, which is still quite a unique mix. How have you prepared for this role in terms of balancing out these genres?
I approached developing Charles from many different angles. I watched documentaries on the history of triads and the great gangster films. I referenced my own personal memories as a foundation for the imaginary history of Charles. I worked on his physical abilities, which affected my mindset, my physique, and walk, among many other aspects. Most of that covered the dramatic angles of our story, but when it came to the comedy, I just let Justin slip out from time to time. Some people may find me serious, but I actually think of myself as a pretty goofy, fun guy. There were moments after doing so, when I wondered if it was too much for the scene. But evidently they used a lot of them, so I guess they liked it!
Not only when playing the character of Charles Sun but also off-screen, you are passionate about martial arts like Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu. What motivated you to dive into developing these skills and what do martial arts mean to you?
In general, I’ve always been passionate about fitness. I need to work out consistently or else I would go crazy. But when it comes to martial arts, I’ve always enjoyed watching various combat sports, be it the UFC, ADCC, or One Kickboxing. I’m always trying to push the limits of my own physical capabilities. And, I enjoy the feeling of fighting tooth and nail against another person who’s trying to take my head off. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of lying on the mats, exhausted after battle. There, I am truly happy. In my regular life, I feel like martial arts has made me calmer. Since the early days of my personal martial arts journey, I’ve become way more alert, and also much less afraid of what may or may not happen in life.
Besides being an actor you are also a director, writer and producer. Among projects where you had either one or more of these roles is also the film ‘Continuum’, which was recognised by various institutions and film festivals. How do these experiences shape your approach to acting and vice versa?
I think the biggest effect that writing and co-directing ‘Continuum’ had on me was that it showed me just how much I loved this art form. It’s easily one of the craziest and most all-encompassing tasks I’ve attempted. Even though we shot during ridiculous hours, I loved it. Working on ‘Continuum’ also taught me how to manage my emotions as a director, which is incredibly important, especially when working with actors. When I think back on that project, the joy of that experience is the first thing that comes to mind. There were no expectations, no obligations to superiors, no investors we needed to please. We did it purely because we loved the story and our team.
jacket and tie COS
Before moving to the US to pursue studies at the University of Southern California, majoring in performing arts, you lived between Hong Kong and Taiwan. What would you say is the difference between the American and Chinese (or South-East Asian) film industry landscape?
I don’t feel qualified to comment on the Asian film industry landscape as my main experience there has been in commercial acting. But I will say, my experience on the commercial side has been really positive. I’m sure being able to speak the local language certainly helps.
I think it’s also very important to talk about the increasing popularity of movies that share stories relating to Asian or Asian-American communities, or with mainly Asian cast. As an actor of Asian descent, how do you navigate the industry’s growing efforts to represent diversity?
It feels like a massive hill to climb, and opportunities can be rare. But, I’m surrounded by so many wonderful artists that share the same mission. They make me feel encouraged. We are also lucky to have had so many amazing role models who paved the way before us. Because of their example, I take it as a huge personal responsibility to maintain a high standard of professional conduct. I believe we have to keep producing excellent work in order to continue broadening the scope of stories that we can tell.
As not only an actor but also director, writer and producer, how do you approach bringing depth and complexity to your characters beyond their ethnic backgrounds? What aspects of their personalities or experiences do you focus on to make them relatable and multi-dimensional?
It really depends on the story. For me, I go about my life and make the decisions that I make because, simply put, “this is who I am” and not “because I am Asian”. In preparation for a role, I tend to focus more on my character’s story, emotional history, and relationships. That being said, our backgrounds and cultures do affect every single character, even if a character’s ethnic background isn’t highlighted. When I was in college, every play I performed, I was cast in a role written for a Caucasian actor. For example, I played WALTER in The Rimers of Eldritch. I had to acknowledge that I was the only Asian man, part of a predominantly white cast, in a mid-20th century Bible Belt town. As an outsider to the town, my character was already isolated from the other characters. As an Asian man, I felt an additional layer of distance to the townsfolk in my preparation for the character. Background is never the only focus, but it definitely folds into my preparation.
Last but definitely not least, looking ahead, are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about? Possibly not only when it comes to acting but also directing, writing or producing?
Nothing confirmed yet! But I had a few meetings I was excited about in Taiwan, and I’ve been producing a project to star in that I’m quite excited about. Stay tuned!
talent JUSTIN CHIEN
photography DANIEL SARS
styling and interview MAREK BARTEK
hair and make up JIALI BAO
location PARQ STUDIOS
editorial direction JANA LETONJA
editor TIMOTEJ LETONJA
special thanks to NETFLIX NETHERLAND & BELGIË