On the hit immigrant family sitcom Fresh off the Boat, Evan is the youngest of the Huang brothers, the adorable sprog who’s wise beyond his years, dishing out pearls of wisdom to his less enlightened siblings. Evan is not unlike Ian Chen, the 12-year-old actor playing him.
“I guess the writers kind of based our characters around our actual personalities,” Chen tells 8 DAYS from LA. “There are always multiple writers on set [observing] how we act in real life. I hope my voice sounds sophisticated [enough to pull off his lines].”
Born in LA to Taiwanese immigrants (just like Evan's) — father is a software contractor, and mother a piano teacher — Chen started acting at the tender age of five in commercials, before branching out into TV shows, scoring bit parts on Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family. Then, he landed his first big role on Fresh Off the Boat, now in its fifth season; the 100th episode airs in the US Apr 5.
This month also marks a new chapter in Chen's career: he makes his feature film debut in the superhero blockbuster Shazam!, now out in cinemas. And later in May, he’s in the doggie-reincarnation dramedy A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to A Dog’s Purpose.
Here, Chen recalls his favourite Fresh Off the Boat moments, his role models, and how he stays sane in showbiz. Even though he’s learnt a lot about acting since the pilot, Chen has other non-actorly plans when he grows up. Now, where shall we begin?
8 DAYS: Fresh Off the Boat celebrates its 100th episode this week. What are your memories of making the pilot? Did you ever imagine that the show would’ve lasted this long?
IAN CHEN: Fresh Off the Boat was the first show featuring an all Asian-American cast in 20 years [since All-American Girl starring Margaret Cho]. We didn’t really know if it would survive this long. Five years is an amazing length of time. We can’t believe that it’s gone so far and it’s been a really fun ride. It was really fun working on the pilot, especially to work with Constance Wu, Randall Park, and my other TV brothers [Hudson Yang and Forrest Wheeler]. We really bonded over that first episode, and we’re all friends today. I guess that’s pretty good.
Were you aware of the show’s cultural significance then?
I was six or seven. I don’t think at that time I would know that by myself. My parents told me that this is a really big deal because it’s the first in 20 years.
Do you have a favourite episode?
One of my favourites [sees us] going to Taiwan for the Season 3 premiere. That episode also has Ken Jeong [as Uncle Gene]. I think going to Taiwan was a really special experience because I also have family members — my grandpa and great grandma, mostly from my dad’s side — in Taiwan and it was cool to film there and be immersed in the local culture.
Ken Jeong is clearly one of the fan favourites. Who are your favourite guests?
The writers love writing a lot of [guest] stars into the show. Jeremy Lin was great to work with; I look up to him. We also had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — all these basketball legends. It was pretty fun to work with all these amazing, influential people.
Executive producer Melvin Mar was in Singapore two years ago. He told us that your mother helped Randall Park, who’s Korean, with his Mandarin.
That is true! My mum and Alice, who is Forrest Wheeler’s mum, do the translations and captions. We did this cool Lunar New Year episode last year where we played a game where we could only speak Mandarin. If you spoke English, you lose. So my mum helped out on that. Of course, there were actual translators on set as well. They do the quality checks to make sure it’s perfect.
Has Randall’s Mandarin improved over the years?
[Because] he’s Korean, I don’t think he speaks Mandarin that often. We’ve only done one Mandarin episode, but hopefully, he’s improving. Maybe the translator helped a little bit. I haven’t heard him speaking it that often.
Besides Jeremy Lin, who else do you look up too?
Randall Park and Constance Wu. They’re really amazing with improv, and they like to ad-lib with each other. I think they’re just fantastic actors and learning from them for five years has been pretty nice.
Fresh Off the Boat has been to Taiwan. If you can choose which other Asian countries would you like the show to be filmed in?
I’ll go with Japan. I haven’t been to Japan yet. Maybe it’ll be cool filming there. Or maybe China, Beijing, Shanghai, or even Singapore! Constance was in Crazy Rich Asians and she was in Singapore.
Did Constance bring back any Singaporean snacks for you guys when she returned from Singapore?
We weren’t filming by the time she came back, so I think all the food would’ve gone bad by the time we [got back together]. But it would’ve been lovely! I’ve seen videos of them on BuzzFeed trying different foods from Singapore and they all looked delicious.
Did she regale you with her adventures in Singapore?
No, not really. What I’ve heard is that it’s pretty cool and it was a nice experience, I guess. She doesn’t really talk about that.
How do you balance filming and school work?
I was in third grade when I started on the show. At that time we had to go to online school and we had studio teachers. So I did online school for a little while and now since I’m in middle school, they’ve allowed me to stay there so I can be with my friends. It’s really fun because a lot of the times when I don’t work as much, I get to see my friends on those days.
Has Fresh Off the Boat inspired your non-Chinese friends to learn more about Chinese culture?
Oh yeah, I have a lot of friends at school who actually watch the show, and sometimes we talk about the show, like what we did, and how we filmed it. I think they're pretty interested.
You make your movie debut in Shazam!, out this week, How do you decide which projects to pursue during the Fresh Off the Boat hiatus?
We have agents and they do all the scheduling. Fresh Off the Boat actually takes quite a long time to film, like multiple months, so we have to make sure that the movies — like Shazam! — fit the schedule during hiatuses when we wrap. So it’s all a big puzzle.
Shazam! is a big-budget movie. What was it like working on that set compared to a smaller, more intimate set like Fresh Off the Boat?
Shazam! was the first movie I worked on. I don’t think it was that different from Fresh Off The Boat, but there were a few differences. We were filming in Toronto, so that meant I had to be away from my family for three months. But also, my cast-mates and I were staying in the same building, so we spent a long time with each other. We really bonded over those three months, living in the same building. It was a really cool experience.
Next month, you're in A Dog's Journey...
That was filmed in Canada, in Winnipeg. There is also another kid in that movie, [Ant-Man's] Abby Ryder Forston. We did cool things off-set like getting pizza. We also got to play with the dogs. It was a really cool experience overall.
You’re 12 and you’re on a successful TV show and in a comic book movie. How do you stay grounded and not let fame get into your head?
My parents definitely keep me grounded. They supervise all of it, as well as my social media. They make sure that I’m successful and not ruining my career.
Do you think you have a normal childhood?
Well, yes, mainly because now that I’m able to go to school instead of an online school. That’s allowed me to have a normal childhood and be with my friends, and do all the things that a regular kid would do. But there’s a lot of cool experiences that come with being an actor as well.
Are you planning to pursue showbiz in the future?
My primary goal in life is to become a pilot because I really am fascinated by aviation and those kinds of stuff. But maybe acting can be on the side or acting as a pilot (laughs).
Fresh Off the Boat returns from its mid-season hiatus on Apr 21 (Sun), FOX (Singtel TV Ch 330 & StarHub Ch 505), 9.25pm. I’s also streaming on FOX+. Shazam! is now in cinemas; A Dog’s Journey opens May 16.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Photos: FOX, TPG News/Click Photos, Warner Bros