Where are They Now?
We caught up with Abigail Hing Wen (AB ’99) to see what she has been up to since releasing the New York Times best-selling novel, Loveboat, Taipei. The sequel, Loveboat Reunion, will be released by HarperCollins on January 25th. Ms. Hing Wen is executive producing the book-to-film adaptation of the first novel with ACE Entertainment, creators of the Netflix franchise, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. She and her work have been profiled in Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, Fortune, Cosmopolitan, NBCNews, Bloomberg, Google Talk and the World Journal, among others.
Q. So much has happened since we profiled you in January 2020. You’re now a New York Times bestselling author. How does that feel?
A. Oh, boy. It's unbelievable. I wrote in obscurity for 10 years before Loveboat, Taipei was sold to an editor.
When I came out here to Taipei for the shoot and was introduced to the production team in their office, there were about 30 of them sitting around a big conference room table. Someone said, ‘this is Abigail, the author’, and I said, ‘I'm so grateful for all of you’. And then they applauded. That's when I realized how much this movie meant to them. Not only as a cool job, but they were working on a movie about themselves.
That was a huge moment for me because representation has been such an important part of the work that I've done in all my professions. I went to law school because I cared about social justice. I've tried to pursue it in my various avenues; I did work in economic development, microfinance, and venture capital thinking about implicit bias and the under representation of women and minorities, and now I'm addressing it through my stories. To also see the behind-the-scenes jobs that are being created by my book was an incredible moment.
Q. Have alumni of the Loveboat program reached out to you to share their own stories?
A. I actually did this little mini tour before my book came out where I had various Loveboat reunions around the country. I got to meet all kinds of Loveboat alumni. The earliest back I met was someone who'd gone in the 80s – the program has been around since the 1960s. The most recent was someone from 2013. It was fascinating to meet them. First, it's a very selective program, and the alum are incredible. Second, Loveboat was an opportunity to heal in terms of our understanding of ourselves as people between cultures. A lot of us had grown up without many Asian Americans and being made fun of or seeing our parents discriminated against. There was a lot of pain that came with that. By going on a program like Loveboat, you got a chance to meet other Asian Americans.
And for me, you know, this is something I wrote about in the book — that opportunity to just have that cultural experience was incredible. I think that healed us and made us stronger people, and able to bring our full selves to the table. The third aspect was this rebellion piece of Loveboat – it’s known for all these kids seeking out clubbing and really letting loose for the summer. But I think those are important skills to have in corporate America, because it taught us to buck that system a little bit more in a way that was healthy for us to grow as leaders.
Q. How did the project come together?
A. The scouts found my book pretty quickly after my book deal. I had had a number of agents and publishing houses bidding for the book. So it went to auction, it sold for what's called a major deal and there was a lot of buzz around the book. My film manager also shared the book. We talked to a lot of producers, and they presented different visions of it. I ended up choosing Ace Entertainment, the To All the Boys team, because I loved what they’d done with Jenny Han's work. The cinematography was gorgeous and I loved that they kept the Korean American girl character, in a time when main characters like her were still being changed to white because people believed mainstream audiences wouldn’t otherwise connect with them. But Jenny Han stuck to her guns and it proved it right. So that was important to me, to have a team that was willing to do that.
Q. How did it feel adapting your own work for the screen? Did you see it as an opportunity to tell the story slightly differently?
A. I love how every medium is different. One of the criticisms of the book was that it didn't have enough of Taipei. I think that's legitimate. I had to cut out some descriptions because the book is already too long. With the film you can fully show the city itself. I’m also excited to bring out the dance elements of the novel. Ever Wong loves to dance, as I do, and there’s a lot of dancing in the book. I actually danced a lot when I was writing, because it helped me to understand my character, and that is an element that we can also showcase.
Sean Presant AB '93 is an award-winning writer, producer, and director whose work spans film and TV, comedy and drama. A firm believer that stories can change the world, Sean also co-founded Writers Action, a messaging organization that teaches effective storytelling and connects Oscar and Emmy winning writers with political candidates and non-profit humanitarian groups.
Q. What did you study at Harvard, and how did that inform your career?
A. I started Harvard thinking I wanted to be a journalist. I wrote for The Crimson and Harvard Magazine and I interned at The LA Times. That was going to be my path. I wanted to take film classes, though, and, at the time, that meant you had to be a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator. So I concentrated in History and Literature and Visual and Environmental Studies. My diploma has a ridiculous number of 'and's on it. The big discovery for me, though, was that as much as I loved the written word, I loved the combination of the written word and visual imagery more. If I went into journalism, I had to choose between the two. Film let me do everything I loved. There was something else about Harvard, though, that was more crucial. Harvard, in any concentration, really pushes its students to look for the bigger picture. This is crucial in film in TV. I can’t tell you how many times on every project we’re asking, “What is this project really about?" It's a question of thematics, and it's often the most difficult thing to pin down. Harvard was excellent training for that, even if it does occasionally make decisions about which sandwich to order into an existential questioning of our place in the universe.
Q. You won the Harvardwood Writers Competition for your scripts Mental Case and A Situation (Comedy). Can you speak about what happened with those projects next?
A. Mental Case went into development with a production company at Warner Brothers, and both of those scripts helped me get other writing work. A Situation is a script I still love. It’s floating around out there looking for a producer who wants to do a political parable that’s also an accidental musical.
Q. What projects are you working on now? What are you most excited about?
A. I have a movie coming out hopefully next year that I did with one of my Harvard classmates, Sumalee Montano, called The Deal. I'm excited for people to see that. It was a special film, both in subject matter and because It was a collaboration with a close friend I’ve known since sophomore year. We shot it in Serbia and there were a lot of times on set when I would look over and remember us all hanging out in the Winthrop House dining hall and think, “would any of us have imagined back then that someday we’d be making a movie together halfway around the world?” She’s fantastic in the film, by the way. Her performance is heartbreaking. Besides that, there’s a big disaster film and a couple new series in the works. Stay tuned.
Q. How was your experience writing for ‘Instant Mom’ and ‘Happily Divorced’ which addressed modern family dynamics within the traditional sitcom structure?
A. Amazing. I love doing multi-cam sitcoms. That's the kind with a live audience. It's like putting a play up once a week, and, for a writer, especially in comedy, it's gratifying to see people react to your words in real time. I’ve had a strange career in that I’ve now been in every genre, and if anyone asks what the most fun format is to produce, I’ll say, without question, it’s multi-cam sitcom. It’s also a great format for addressing modern family dynamics because it looks so familiar. The shows feel comfortable and traditional, so you're able to speak about things that are not comfortable or traditional and your audience will go along for the ride--provided you're being funny. If the jokes don't land the audience will want to do you physical harm. You also have to be emotionally truthful. Audiences can sniff out dishonesty. In both shows we were talking about less traditional family structures, but showing that, at the end of the day, family is family and love is love. Instant Mom is one of those little gems of a show. We did 65 episodes and now, whenever I see people I worked with there, it’s genuinely like seeing family.
Anne Sawyier is a coordinator on the TV Team at Verve Talent & Literary Agency. Born in Chicago, she earned her AB in art history and Arabic at Harvard, an MSt from Oxford in art history, and an MFA in film producing from the American Film Institute. She focuses on literary and international talent. To learn more about Anne’s role at Verve, you can watch our recording of the Q&A session we held with her and partner Amy Retzinger HERE.
Q. How was your undergraduate experience at Harvard?
A. I loved it! I came in thinking I wanted to be a doctor on the Model UN team, and ended up a theatre kid with a degree in art history and Arabic so…filled with self-discovery.
Q. How did you feel Harvard prepared you for graduate school?
A. Academically, great; for dealing with boots-on-the-ground producing elements of an AFI degree, less so, but I also wasn’t expecting that from Harvard.
Q. How did you decide to pursue a career in entertainment?
A. Realizing that people worked on the TV shows and movies I watched all the time, then doing Harvardwood and learning the different ways I could fit into the business.
Q. What led you to Verve?
A. I studied art history at Oxford after Harvard, then moved out here to go to AFI. I realized I wanted a more office job than on-set job, and worked at Anonymous Content, Skydance, and Annapurna. I then realized that I wanted to move on from producing and that my favorite part of the process was matchmaking between a creator and piece of IP, and I was fortunate enough to have mentors that recommended I look into becoming an agent. I had worked with Verve at previous jobs and knew a few of the agents here and always liked their way of business, so I was excited when there was an opportunity not just to learn about representation, but to train to be an agent here.
Kalos Chu '23 is a junior at Harvard College studying English with a secondary in Art, Film, and Visual Studies. He’s a journalist and screenwriter interested in pursuing a career in feature animation. This past year, he interned at Nickelodeon Animation Studios and DreamWorks Feature Animation. Most recently, he helped found the On Campus chapter of Harvardwood.
Q. What inspired you to start Harvardwood on Campus?
A. This past year, I took a gap year and did a lot of work in the entertainment industry. I had to cold email many people and seek out tons of resources on what it takes to break in, and I realized that there weren’t necessarily that many Harvard resources where I could do that. There was OCS, and several upperclassmen that I knew of, but there wasn’t really a central place where people could get together and talk about these things with their peers.
And shortly after I started to break in, I did virtual Harvardwood 101, and I thought: "Wow! This is exactly what I was looking for! It’s everyone on campus who is somewhat interested in entertainment! Why doesn’t this group exist during the rest of the year?"
Shortly after that, someone from Stanford Students in Entertainment reached out to me and asked me to speak on a panel, and afterward I spent time speaking with their president and learned more about their on-campus group — which gave me the information and context for how to start a group like that at Harvard!
And even beyond all of the educational/logistical benefits, I think there’s value in having a place for peers to connect — to celebrate successes, to complain about failures, and to just have friends who are going through the same thing.
Q. How did you get interested in entertainment?
A. I came to Harvard wanting to study English, and sort of settled on one of two career paths - journalism or education. I had never considered entertainment seriously even though I really enjoyed movies, for the many reasons people don’t consider it: ‘it doesn’t make money’, ‘nobody can make it’, etc.
When the pandemic hit, it threw all my plans out the window. We were sent home, and it felt like the whole world was on pause. Also during this time, my father passed away from a five-year battle with cancer. There was a lot of turbulence, and it really made me reflect on what I valued and what I wanted out of life. And right at that time, I watched the Disney+ series Into the Unknown which is about the making of Frozen II — and I had this epiphany: “Oh my God, this is what I want to do with my life: I want to make animated films.” What struck me was how much everyone cared about what they did and the time and effort they put into the work and how much they enjoyed it. That was so infectious, and it made me realize that’s what I want to do.
Q. What did you do then?
A. I thought, "Okay, where the heck do I start?" I literally went through the credits of Frozen II, looked up everyone on LinkedIn, and cold emailed about 100 people! Something to the effect of “Hey, you don’t know me, but I would love to talk about your job for about 30 minutes on Zoom if you have time”. Of course, 90% of them ghosted me, but about 10% of them got back to me, and I got tons of helpful advice. I also talked to as many Harvard alumni in the industry as I could find, and listened to whatever podcasts/read as many books as I could. I just tried to learn as much as possible. Then, during my gap year, I interned at a few live action production companies in the fall, interned for Nickelodeon’s Creative Development department in the spring, and DreamWorks’ Feature Development department in the summer.
Q. What was your biggest takeaway from your DreamWorks internship?
A. Of course, I learned tons about the animation pipeline, about how the development process works, and what makes for good storytelling. But beyond all that, I also got to really understand a company’s culture. We were online the whole time, and it’s probably much harder to understand a culture virtually, but I think I was able to talk to a lot of people, not only in my department but from all corners of the company. From writers to recruitment to technical people, it gave me a sense of what kind of company DreamWorks is and how it’s different from other animation studios: How much people care about the community, why people come back and stay there for their entire career, and what they value.
Uzo Ngwu is a rising junior at Harvard College, dual-enrolled at Berklee College of Music studying Art, Film and Visual Studies and Vocal Performance. She’s a multidisciplinary artist with focuses in illustration, film/animation and music, but also has interests in writing, acting and directing. Alongside her academic obligations, Uzo works as a freelance illustrator and some of her clients include Hulu, Freeform and MTV.
Q. What sparked your passion for animation, visual art and graphic design? Do you define yourself or identify more as one than the others?
A. My passion for visual art is one I’ve had since I was a child. In elementary school we made compliment booklets at the end of the school year, and I vividly remember one of the recurring compliments in my book being “I like your drawings.” All throughout middle and high school I was known as the artsy kid, probably because I always decorated my textbook covers and went above and beyond on creative projects. Despite my obvious love of visual art, it wasn’t until freshman year of college that I really started to develop my skills as a visual artist. I purchased my first iPad and used it as my primary tool for visual art. Drawing so frequently made me realize how much I love the craft, and it reignited my love for digital art and illustration.
Similar to my passion for visual art, my passion for animation started young. As a child, I loved watching animated films and TV shows and for a while I refused to watch media with “real people.” I’ve always loved watching animated media, but my passion for creating animated media didn’t come until much later. This passion was sparked when I had to create a short animation as a final project for the class Fundamentals of Animation. There was something so satisfying about bringing my ideas to life and telling a story through animation.
I strongly identify with all the art forms I engage with. I like to refer to myself as a multidisciplinary artist or a multi-hyphenate creative because I can’t be defined by just one medium.
Q. What do you study at Harvard, and how does that relate to your interests and aspirations?
A. At Harvard I study Art, Film and Visual Studies, which is perfect because it directly relates to my interests and aspirations. There are 3 tracks you can pursue within that concentration, and I’m pursuing both the Studio Art and Film/Video track. That means I get to take classes on subjects ranging from drawing to animation to narrative filmmaking. I also love how much freedom I have to explore my own specific interests within this department. Last semester I took a class called Directed Research, which was an independent study style class. I crafted my own syllabus and used class funding to purchase a 2D animation package.
Q. What are you most proud of that you’ve made thus far?
A. My sophomore fall I took the course Fundamentals of Animation and as part of my final project I made a short animation that was about 1 minute in length. I’m proud of this project because it’s the first narrative animated short that I’ve ever created, and the process of creating it made me fall deeply in love with the medium of animation. Not only does it hold significance as being my first short, but it’s also meaningful to me because I created a world where Black women can exist peacefully. Representation in animation is something I care deeply about, and I want to continue to create animated media that centers the experiences of Black women and girls. Additionally, my animation was received well by people on social media. On Twitter alone, the video has amassed over 900,000 views and got the attention of a director I greatly admire, Matthew Cherry.
Q. What are some challenges that you’ve encountered, perhaps with balancing time while still being enrolled at the college? Or have you taken (or at least thought about) time off?
A. Balancing school and my personal hobbies is a skill I’m still working on, but thankfully my major is centered around art so even when I’m not pursuing my own personal projects I’m still satisfying my creative desires through assignments and class projects. This question also just reminded me that freshman year I scheduled a recurring event on my Google Calendar that was labeled “DRAW.” I don’t think I ever really followed it, but I always did my best to make sure I was incorporating making art into my weekly schedule.
I have never taken time off, but it is something I’ve been thinking more about recently. Though the summer is a great time to pursue personal projects, I can only imagine how much more I could get done with a whole year dedicated to said projects.
Eric J. Cheng AB’ 20 is a Chinese American actor, writer, and producer based in LA. He recently was a part of the 24 Hour Plays: Nationals and acted in AFI thesis Cure. At Harvard, was a cast member of The Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
Q. When did you know you were a storyteller? What experiences in Michigan made you know you wanted to act?
A. I remember growing up and performing with kids in the family friend group—five girls who all danced and sang. I vividly recall performing in front of all the Chinese families every New Years and having the time of my life. It wasn’t until I approached high school though that I got to really act. When I was in eighth grade, I saw a production of The Drowsy Chaperone at my local high school, and I immediately fell in love. I promised myself that I would try to be a part of the troupe, so when I started freshman year, I took a leap of faith and auditioned. If I remember correctly, I got cast in a tiny role in the play Harvey but later got promoted to a slightly bigger role when the boy originally cast dropped out (or got kicked out— I can’t remember). After that, I kept at it, and with every production I fell in love even more.
Q. What has it been like transitioning from Harvard to LA, even part-time, as a recent grad? Can you talk about the journey to LA and what you've seen thus far in our increasingly remote (and changing) industry?
A. It’s been a crazy ride with ups and downs; I’m very thankful for it. My move to LA feels like it’s been a long time coming. I came to LA for the first time during the summer of 2019 to pursue an internship at MTV. I aimed to know once and for all if I really wanted to pursue this path after graduating. The summer served its function; I had gotten a taste of LA and the industry, and I left the city with the awareness that that I wanted to be a creative as an actor and writer.
Outside of coming to LA for few weeks or months at a time before going back home as the pandemic worsened, I’ve attempted pursuing an acting and writing career remotely— writing at home, taking Zoom classes, doing virtual performances— for the past year. Now that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic (fingers crossed) , I feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment being here. I’m finally able to shoot the project I’m working on and collaborate with other creatives.
I have a lot of hope for the industry with regards to representation. This past year has demonstrated that we need stories that reflect the state of our world. As someone who creates projects from the Asian and LGBTQ+ perspective, I feel a sense of excitement. Though I still get discouraged at times, I think that the change that we are seeing will only continue. In a way, I think that the shift towards more virtual processes has actually been conducive to this. There are new ways to tell stories and get one’s voice out that didn’t previously exist, and the need for content to be high-budget has dissipated. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all of this (and one singular piece of advice that I’ve universally received), it’s that creating one’s own work and opportunity leads to positive outcomes. And in a time when people are looking for authentic, diverse, and new stories, I like to think that holds true now more than ever.
Q. For a young actor/writer/producer, how do you balance your days? What do they look like?
A. Often I still don’t know! I think I am still and will continue to be striking a balance; I feel like my day-to-day always changes. Usually though, my day starts after I knock out some tasks for my part time jobs. I try to prioritize writing at least four times a week, though in reality my inability to counteract distraction sometimes makes this an unmet goal. Other than that, I spend my days taking acting and improv classes at The Groundlings (which I’ve loved), filming tapes/doing auditions, trying to meet new people and collaborators, and producing the project that I’m currently working on.
Delon de Metz is an actor on the TV show The Bold and the Beautiful. He portrays Zende, the charismatic, handsome and talented grandson of the Forrester patriarch, Eric Forrester. De Metz's acting career has spanned theater, film and television. His recent credits include Netflix's The Kominsky Method as well as CBS's NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Zoo and Scorpion.
Q. When did your interest for acting first begin?
A. I always loved movies, but my interest in pursuing acting as a career didn't start until my mother sent me to take acting lessons with a coach named Susan Batson during my sophomore summer in high school. Apparently my mom didn't have much interest in my pursuing acting as a career either - she told me the classes would be good prep for college interviews a few years down the line. After going to my first lesson - somewhat begrudgingly - I was hooked.
Q. Did growing up in New York City relate to your passion for acting? Can you speak about any thread between childhood and now?
A. I lived in the cinema. I can't remember a weekend I wasn't at the movies through all of middle and high school. It didn't matter what was out or what the reviews were; I was always there. There are some NYC movies that definitely influenced my love of performing, specifically American Psycho, Cruel Intentions, Zoolander, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My friends and I would speak almost exclusively in American Psycho and Zoolander quotes through high school.
Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story?
A. Well I studied economics, and for a while it seemed like finance would be my path, but I kept performing in school on-camera and theatrical productions. During the summers I would always make time to be in acting class at night back in NYC, and at some point - probably during the summer after sophomore year in college - I got an agent in New York.
By the end of senior year I arranged my schedule so that my mandatory sections were all held during two days of the week - I think it might have been Tuesday and Wednesday - and Wednesday afternoons I would hop on the train to New York and spend Thursday to Monday taking acting classes, auditioning, and clubbing. My friends back on campus would joke that they only saw me with a suitcase the last few years at Harvard.
Q. What motivated you to pursue acting full-time after college?
A. It was a tough decision, I had some offers from investment banks and hedge funds etc, but one of my friends - who was working in the mail room at a management company in Los Angeles called 3 Arts - called me, asked if I was considering pursuing acting at the professional level and offered to represent me in LA. After she mentioned that Power Rangers was casting and she could get me an audition, I turned down the finance offers and packed my bags. I didn't get cast on the team that season, but I ended up being offered a role on the show a year or two later . . . that's a story for another time.
Join us in congratulating Chloe Cho (Pilgrim School, Los Angeles, CA) & Lucy Yue (Valley Christian High School, San Jose, CA)!
The aim of the Harvardwood Prize is to recognize and celebrate the artistic accomplishments and potential of high school students who exemplify our mission. Given Harvard University's robust arts communities and arts education opportunities, the Prize is meant to encourage high school students to apply to Harvard College. It is awarded annually to a high school junior (rising senior) who will apply for admission to Harvard in the upcoming fall and who has demonstrated excellence in their dedication to the arts, media, and entertainment and its power to enact positive social change.
Chloe Cho (Pilgrim School, Los Angeles, CA) | Born and raised in California, I grew up in a predominantly artistic family--with fashion designers, architects, toy designers, ballet dancers, and bakers. At the early age of three, my mother enrolled me in ballet lessons, telling me stories of how I danced while drinking from a baby bottle. By the age of six, I was attending the Kim Eung Hwa Korean Dance Academy, where I studied the art and music of Korean history. I learned traditional folk dances and performed at various events--in which I have received several President’s Volunteer Service Awards and Medals, as well as certificates recognized by the Korea Times Los Angeles.
My appetite for exploring different forms of creative expression began as I watched my sister pursue her creativity and imagination through drawing and painting. I was immediately inclined to uncover this realm of sorcery, participating in ceramics and pottery lessons and attempting traditional mediums of art: watercolors, acrylic paints, and oil pastels. Eventually, my portfolio started shifting to photography, digital art, and 3D models. Throughout my course, I have been selected as the Top 10 in the Kidizenship American Flag contest, accepted for publication--in the Celebrating Art Summer 2020 contest, LA County Library Brand New Day exhibit, and LA County Library Safer At Home exhibit--and nominated as a finalist in the LA County Library Bookmark Contest.
Entering junior high, my dance teacher presented an opportunity to take dance to a competitive level, gathering teammates to form the pom dance team, perform at school fundraising events and annual dance shows, and compete in national competitions—even joining our first virtual meet this past April. Meanwhile, given the opportunity to pursue the arts at a greater level, I was determined to pursue a career in design and psychology, in which I had found a great appreciation for architecture. I was incentivized by the interplay between structures and psychological settings, as well as how architects could positively respond to current global issues, in light of today’s unpredictable climate.
I have always found my sanctuary through art, allowing me to vividly contextualize universal opinions and ideas in the minds of individuals that cease to exist in reality. Therefore, I intend to incorporate my knowledge and observations of the human psyche into my own artistic endeavors--through traditional and performance art--and understand how art could unravel the battles that humanity endures and propose innovative perspectives.
Lucy Yue (Valley Christian High School, San Jose, CA) | Lucy is an acclaimed artist and hard-working academic, who started experimenting with the brush at the age of 3. Now a junior at Valley Christian High School, Lucy takes part not only in leading activities to promote Asian heritage and culture but also in the most rigorous classes Valley Christian has to offer.
Lucy integrates visual arts into the Valley Christian community through her involvement in the founding of the Asian Arts Club, as well as the National Art Honor Society and as a member of the Applied Data Science Program. With connections to STEM and art, Lucy intertwines the two worlds via design and application with technology.
As an artist, Lucy enjoys working with all mediums ranging from watercolor to oil painting and charcoal. Her artworks, accumulating over 6 Gold Key awards, 4 Silver Key awards, and 1 Honorable Mention award from the Scholastic Art Awards demonstrate her excellence in the artistic field. Lucy was also a 2020 National Gold Medalist of the Scholastic Art Awards, gaining the opportunity to exhibit her work at Carnegie Hall and at the Pacific Grove Art Center. Lucy displays her roots as an Asian American by practicing traditional Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. Her outstanding skills are acknowledged with national level awards from the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts.
Additionally, Lucy is passionate about social issues extending from financial inequality to gender inequality. Her artwork titled “Who’re you?”, focusing on the treatment and perception of women in modern society, was exhibited at the New Museum Los Gatos and selected as number one in the category of printmaking for the ArtNow juried exhibition in 2019. A key member in her community, Lucy helps people of all ages by spreading love for art and learning. Lucy is a volunteer art teacher for students at her local public elementary school and also a part-time tutor at Kumon Math and Reading Center. She also delivers handmade cards to the elderly, easing their loneliness exacerbated by COVID-19. Furthermore, Lucy contributes to the art community here in the Bay Area and Taiwan by being one of the directors of the Youth Art Foundation, uplifting artists in her domestic community while fundraising internationally to provide art supplies for children in Taiwan.
Shirley Chen stars as the female lead in Beast Beast, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2020, opened in select theaters on April 16, and will be available for streaming on May 4. Shirley is a junior at Harvard pursuing a joint degree in Theater, Dance, & Media and History & Literature with a focus in Asian American Studies.
Q. When did your interest for theater and acting first begin?
A. When I was in elementary school, I would go to every one of my older brother’s high school theater productions. Back then, from the audience, I remember thinking that collaborating with friends on stage looked absolutely electric. I began to take acting classes in Seattle and fell in love with acting as a way to connect with others— whether that be a scene partner, director, crew, or the audience. Then, in middle school, my mother moved with me to Los Angeles to pursue acting full-time. I’ve realized that when that connection feels authentic and every part of the creative team works to produce great art together, it feels like pure magic; that’s the feeling I love when acting and always try to chase.
Q. Do you think starting your acting career at such a young age has informed your perspective on the career or the industry more broadly?
A. Definitely. The more experience I’ve gained through working on projects, the more I have been able to see directors, writers, and producers as collaborators, rather than as an intimidating pressure, which has allowed me to develop stronger relationships and work more freely in a professional environment. Growing up as an Asian American child actor has particularly allowed me to more deeply appreciate recent industry conversations on “diverse representation.” As a kid, I often viewed other Asian performers as “competition” because of the scarcity mentality surrounding such limited opportunities, but as conversations have shifted in the past few years, I have been able to see the types of roles I’m considered for opening up in a new and exciting way. There’s still work to be done, but starting out in the industry at an early age has ultimately hardened my sensibilities so that I now have a clearer perspective when approaching the industry as a business.
Q. What compelled you to apply to Harvard and to continue your acting journey there?
A. Harvard was actually a far-off dream of mine — I never thought of it as a real possibility! I was a theater major at a public performing arts school, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and was originally planning to apply to conservatory programs in Los Angeles so that I could continue my education while auditioning. At the end of my junior year, my guidance counselor recommended that I try applying to a school like Harvard, where students gifted in both the arts and academics would fit well into its new theater program. I applied to Harvard on a whim and, to my surprise, I was accepted early! Compared to other programs, Harvard has such a rich, unique history in the arts and humanities — both academically and extracurricularly — and I found the prospect of auditioning for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals during its first year of women in the cast to be a particularly exciting opportunity!
Q. What do you study at Harvard, and how does that relate to your interests and aspirations?
A. I am currently pursuing a joint degree in Theater, Dance, & Media and History & Literature, with a focus in Asian American Studies. While I plan to continue acting after college, in my long-term career, I aim to also write and produce work that draws focus to Asian American history and culture. Through my studies, I constantly find new historical narratives to tell through art, which will culminate in my senior creative thesis approach.
Ria Tobaccowala AB '10 is an Indian-American writer-director based in New York City. Her short film, Shadows, was selected for the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is now streaming on HBO Max.
Q. What parts of your upbringing in Chicago led you to becoming a filmmaker? Can you speak about any thread between childhood and now?
A. My love for storytelling and filmmaking started in my early years. Instinctually, I would gravitate towards my father’s camcorders. In our home movies, I’d be jumping in front of the lens, begging him to let me use it. I remember my childhood home being full of cameras, books, and music. My parents love the arts and gave me access to different art forms throughout my childhood. They are the single most influential force in my journey as a filmmaker.
At my high school in Chicago, I had a wonderful photography teacher who inspired me. I spent the majority of my time in the school’s dark room. I also shot my first short film with a Super 8 camera. By then, I was hooked on the power of images to tell a story. In many ways, as a teenager and now as an adult, I’ve simply been nurturing the young girl within me who was born keen to film stories about life.
Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story?
A. At Harvard, I varied my creative interests. I was a photographer for the Harvard Crimson as well as produced and danced in cultural shows, such as Ghungroo. My blockmates would lovingly laugh whenever I edited promo videos for campus events in a baseball cap. They called it my director’s hat. Little did we all know, a decade later I’d be keeping up the tradition of wearing baseball caps while editing my films. Harvard was the beginning of an important detour from pursuing filmmaking as a career. I spent college filling my mind with new subjects and filling my heart with amazing life experiences and friendships.
Q. Can you speak about your time at Google, staying creative in a corporate setting, and maintaining your goals?
A. Google surprisingly brought me back to the world of storytelling. Google is an intrinsically creative place where storytelling is required when imagining future technologies. I joined their rotational marketing program after graduation. One product I worked on was Google+. Our team’s mandate was to encourage content development on the platform with some of the most influential thought leaders and creators, as well as elevate underrepresented voices to the mainstream through social and video platforms.
I developed content partnerships with the New York Times, ESPN, NBC as well as produced interviews with President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, the Dalai Lama, and many others around major cultural, social, and public events. For example, I produced State of the Union interviews with President Obama, inviting Americans to be the first to converse with the President before the media. To use technology, such as social and video platforms, to democratize storytelling was a central mission for me at Google. I’ve carried with me, as a filmmaker, the same mission to elevate unrepresented voices in my work.