As the Facebook call began to ring on a lovely Vancouver evening, the Cold Tea Collective team waited to be connected to the other side of the world. Suddenly, a handsome Desmond Chiam appeared on the screen with a smile (and Aussie accent) that could melt any heart.
Chiam is an Asian-Australian actor currently starring as Detective Wyatt Cole on ABC’s Reef Break. Filled with buried treasure and action-packed island scenes, Reef Break is Chiam’s first break into a crime-based drama.
You may also recognize him as “the Canadian” from Wong Fu’s Asian Bachelorette 2, General Riga in The Shannara Chronicles or Jethro from Now Apocalypse.
As he played with his luscious locks, Chiam shared with us how he landed his current role, his thoughts on mental toughness, and stories about his incredible wife and how he’s been balancing life both in Australia and Los Angeles.
No Internet, No Problem
“Every time I book a flight, I get a project. I booked a trip to Portugal with my wife and the day we were set to leave, I got a call from ABC,” said Chiam with a laugh.
Luckily, he would be able to screen test remotely but there was just one problem: this wasn’t a regular trip through Portugal. It was meant to be a road trip through the rural countryside, where internet connection would be almost non-existent.
“I was running around a cottage in small town Portugal trying to make it work. There was only one corner of the cottage that could get a decent signal so I had to ask other guests to move out of their rooms,” said Chiam.
Despite the screen test panic, he is now a detective on what he describes as a “cop show meets Tomb Raider meets Indiana Jones with a little bit of Miami Vice.”
Meant to act as a successor to the popular Hawaii Five-O, we asked him what it’s like to play a character not necessarily intended to be Asian.
“This character falls into an interesting spot. [With] Hawaii Five-O, the Asian culture is built in, but it’s not spotlighted. It’s very similar here.”
Now that he is a series regular, Chiam has the opportunity to develop a character as he grows in the show. He plans to continue standing his ground for what he wants for Detective Wyatt as the series progresses.
Dance: The Gateway Drug
Before blessing the world with his dashing good looks, Chiam was set to become a lawyer. Growing up, his family pushed the typical Asian success path of doctor, lawyer or engineer on him.
In the Australian school system, students were constantly ranked and anything that wasn’t in the top percent of the class meant failure. A common phrase at home for Chiam was, “Never compare yourself to the worst. Always be the best.”
The creative industry wasn’t on Chiam’s radar in school. He didn’t even know there were opportunities for creative careers like photography, acting or writing until he came to UC Irvine on exchange, and suddenly he was in this white picket fence city with so many people chasing a creative dream.
His first taste of the creative industry was through the vibrant dance scene. Dance was what he called his “gateway drug to acting.” Lawyer who?
After graduation, dancing became just a “hobby” and Chiam started work in a law firm. Three months in, he went to a lunch-turned-therapy session with a senior partner who said, “At the end of the day, I’m just waiting to die.”
Chiam put in his resignation that day.
Mental Toughness in Acting
“I naturally slipped into acting because there is a little bit of a showperson spirit in the legal career,” Chiam said.
Law also gave him the mental toughness to survive in the high pressure environment of entertainment. Just like in law, creatives can’t turn off their work and some days, they end up “eating shit.”
Chiam noted that there have been so many Asians who transition into the creative industry and do so while keeping their stride.
“A lot of extremely talented actors in Los Angeles don’t have the mental toughness we do. Asians in general are so resilient and have so much mental toughness.”
Through both the good days and bad days, this detective has found his support system in the Asian community.
The collectivism in Asian culture allows Chiam to draw strength from that collective. The incredible support — even from those who are not in the creative industry — motivates Chiam and pushes him to work even harder to make representation happen for everyone.
Take the success of Crazy Rich Asians and their gold open for example.
“We go through it together. We are all fighting the same fight. It’s not about competing with each other.”
Long Distance and Love
If you haven’t seen Chiam’s Instagram, pull out your phone right now. You’ll quickly learn that, first of all, he is not single (sorry ladies) and, secondly, his beautiful wife Sami is out in Los Angeles while he’s on the other side of the world.
They first met at UC Irvine through dance and it definitely wasn’t love at first sight. He was originally set up with his wife’s roommate but that didn’t pan out.
It was always Sami. Their first date was also unconventional because he didn’t know it was a date. He ended up bringing a friend (whoops).
But one thing led to another and 11 years later, you can still clearly see the love he has for her.
“Neither of us were the type that we thought we’d end up with. Our relationship never came out of one person seeking something from another or pushing a person to be someone they’re not. When someone comes pure and fully formed, that’s when it works.”
The power couple is well versed in long distance, and Chiam says there is no secret to it. They both just went with the flow and didn’t put any pressure on each other to plan every minute.
Now that they are doing long distance again, this time as a married couple, Chiam thought it would be super easy with their expertise.
“It sucks doing long distance when you’re married, but I wouldn’t ask her to give up her career for me just because mine is doing well right now. We will have to figure something out in the future.”
Staying in Shape Both Physically and Mentally
When talking to Chiam, you can’t help but notice he looks like an Asian Thor mixed with Jason Momoa.
“I lift heavy things a lot,” Asian Thor said with a laugh as he pushed his hair back. “Yoshi Sudarso is my fitness inspiration — you just need a picture of him hung up in the gym to want to work out.”
Joking aside, Chiam has always been physically active. From early morning swim practices in high school to dancing in college and now hitting the gym, he feels on edge when he misses a workout.
As an Asian actor, Chiam knows what it’s like to be put in a box. Asian masculinity is a topic that is finally coming to light in 2019 and he’s realized it’s okay to be prideful of how you look.
For a mental break, Chiam plays a lot of video games. In fact, when his friends visit him “down under,” the first thing they do is hit up a Net Cafe. “It’s the last creative thing that I can engage with that isn’t working,” said the gaming enthusiast.
Before we said goodbye, we asked our Australian friend about crazy creatures he’s seen in his home country.
“Midges! Their bites are worse than mosquitos and they are everywhere and anywhere there are trees. You can’t see them but they are horrible, tiny bugs. It’s a nightmare for makeup but you quickly get used to it if you’re a local.”
If you’re also asking yourself “what?” you’re not alone. We did a quick google search and it wasn’t pretty. We’ll pass on the chicken pox-esque bites.
Reef Break airs Thursdays on ABC.
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