Vancouver- actor Hayden Szeto on identity, self-discovery and elusive Hollywood fame
I met Hayden nearly a decade ago in the kitchen of a house party hosted by a mutual friend (the kind with red sippy cups and driveways full of cars borrowed from our parents). Over the years I watched his journey unfold over Facebook: A move to LA, an updated headshot, a gym selfie, photos of palm trees and movie premieres sprinkled with the odd #behindthescenes snap… his life in sunny Los Angeles seemed so far removed from mine. I was based in Manila at the time chasing my own career in media as a journalist. But as we caught up over a Sunday afternoon nearly ten years later, the parallels in our journeys quickly began to surface.
Wherever you land, there’s no avoiding the universally Tumultuous Twenties. It’s a decade of awkward fumbling, stumbling and discovering yourself. Though our experiences couldn’t have been more different, we were both Asian Canadians who had left the comforts of family and familiar friends in our early twenties to carve out careers — and consequently, our identities — in foreign lands. The impacts were marked and defining.
After mutual grumblings about work permits and paperwork, our walk down memory lane naturally steered into a conversation about identity, self-discovery, and trusting the process.
From sharing a kiss with Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld as “Erwin Kim” in 2016’s Edge of Seventeen — a role that brought him back to his hometown roots both figuratively and literally — Hayden had a lot to reflect on his past seven years in Hollywood.
Devon Wong: So, it’s probably been close a to decade since we were last hanging out in a kitchen at a house party. How would you describe the last ten years in 3 words?
Hayden Szeto: Oh wow. Life changing. Fulfilling. Scary. And not in that order. Maybe scary first, then fulfilling, and then life changing.
DW: Some people have called your role in The Edge of Seventeen as your “breakout”. How did that opportunity come together?
HZ: I was actually on the brink of giving up. My visa was set to expire in a month, and I felt like I was going to have to move back to Vancouver and figure it out. I was at an all-time low. Then my manager at the time asked if I was interested in one more audition. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I said yes and read through the script. I remember thinking, “Oh it’s a good character. He’s Asian American”. But it was only one scene, and I thought, “Oh he’s probably the guy that gets rejected. Because that’s every Asian American guy in every American movie”. But I figured this was my last audition, so I went in and decided to let go. I read to the casting director, and she actually broke scene a couple times and laughed.
I didn’t think anything of it because you get so used to hearing the same thing after every audition. Anyone that’s ever told me I impressed them has never called me back. That’s just the life of an actor.
As I was getting into my car to leave I got a call from the casting director: “Hey, can you come back tomorrow?” The next day I met the writer/director, Kelly Fremon Craig who read the scene with me. And she laughed. She gave me the same thing: “Thank you, see you again!” and I was like “Don’t tease me like that! Cause I’m already ready to go home” And so two weeks go by, and I’m literally packing my bags. I get a call from my manager who tells me, “Here’s the thing: They still don’t even have a cast right now. But they’re so sure about you they want to lock you down”. And I immediately said, “Should I tell them my visa is about to expire?!” And he said “Absolutely not”. (*laughs) It was so wild. When we found out we were shooting in Vancouver it was like, what happened here? It was meant to be. And on the very day I wrapped my scenes, I got approved for my Green Card. It all came together, and it’s still extremely surreal to me that that happened. And in 2018, I feel like I’m finally caught up with myself in terms of believing in myself.
DW: Did that feel like full circle moment for you i.e. Going down to LA and then coming back to Vancouver to star in your breakout role?
HS: I literally came full circle. We shot it at the PNE and on the same Ferris wheel that I think anyone who’s ever lived in Vancouver has sat in. I remember shooting that scene in the Ferris wheel, and I looked at Hailee. And she’s like “What?” and I said “This is the same Ferris wheel that I rode when I was 10!” and she goes “Well, that is beautiful….and also, kind of scary!”
DW: You play a teenager in the Edge of Seventeen. How did you prepare for the role?
HS: You know, Erwin Kim isn’t too far from who I was in high school. I always felt out of place, and my friends would tease me for being so “artsy” much like Erwin. And I also knew a lot of friends whose parents lived overseas growing up, so I knew how they felt living by themselves and their insecurities about their family wealth and what people may perceive. I believe humans inherently want to be liked by others and Erwin Kim just wants Nadine to like him for who he is. He doesn’t want to be prince charming and flaunt his wealth, he’s just aiming for self-acceptance through her acceptance of him.
But I also wish I had Erwin’s game. (*laughs)
I really spent a lot of time developing that character because it was a homage to my childhood and all my friends who raised me into the person that I am, and I got to play this character for them on screen. It meant a lot for this role to be my “breakout”. It was extremely momentous for me.
DW: When you landed this role, did you get the feeling that this was the start of a new phase in your career?
HS: At the time, honestly no. I was just so happy to have a job. I try to not think too much about the result and just focus on the process. And that’s a great lesson in life to learn for acting: Process is what’s interesting.
DW: Incidentally, I had PVRed the entire second season of The Good Place which I started watching the other day, not realizing at all that you were in it(!) It was so great. And you got to work with another Vancouver-actor, Manny Jacinto. What was that like?
HS: Oh man, we were so happy when we figured out we were both from Vancouver. We immediately started talking about the Asian food from home, and he was like “Bro, I’ve got places…”
DW: As an actor, you’re in the centre of a huge political and social uprising in Hollywood right now, from #MeToo to #OscarsSoWhite. Have you become more involved?
HS: Let me just start by saying that being an Asian American actor in Hollywood, of course I champion diversity. It’s something that I’ve definitely found maturity in and is still something that I’m learning about. I was guilty of blaming the “system” for my shortcomings when I wasn’t working. And — don’t get me wrong — some of my views from before still hold water. However, the system-blaming got me nowhere and was proven to be tactically ineffective in achieving my goals of being the best actor that I needed to be to make a real difference. I don’t deny that there are problems in the industry with regards to opportunity, however, I believe there needs to be a paradigm shift in attitude to meet those opportunities when they arrive. If every time I didn’t get a part in a movie and my reflexive response was to blame others, there won’t be any growth and zero personal responsibility. And I mean this not as some finger-wagging-high-horse BS, it’s just how I overcame my personal struggles to reach my potential.
DW: In the last year alone the Asian acting community has had lots to celebrate from Kelly Marie Tran’s casting to CBC’s hit Kim’s Convenience. Have you noticed a shift in your casting experiences?
HS: Absolutely. The rooms I get into now, they’re not bound by colour but by merit. I’ve proved that I can do my job and that’s the universal passport. It matters less about what you look like, but whether you can deliver.
The way you play your part has a way in changing people’s minds. Erwin Kim could have been any colour, his ethnicity had nothing to do with his character. It goes back to relatability. His character wasn’t a caricature. But also, big kudos to Kelly for the writing.
DW: What are your thoughts on what’s happening with #MeToo?
HS: It’s extremely important giving a voice to the voiceless. When I was new to the industry, I witnessed behaviour on set… and when you see things happen and people don’t react you think it’s okay. But now that people are speaking out you know that it wasn’t okay. It’s a much-needed movement.
DW: Whose career trajectory do you admire the most?
HS: I’ve always admired Robin Williams because he was just on another level of comedic delivery. The speed that his brain worked at could make you cry and laugh. He was so versatile and he got to do everything. No job to him was just a job. I also admire Tom Cruise for just being Tom Cruise. I remember the first movie I got obsessed with was Top Gun. My dad would watch with me in between art lessons where he would try to teach me how to be a painter, but he ended up incepting another dream into my head (*laughs). I also look up to a lot of female actresses too. I really like Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, and Alicia Vikander who’s going to be Tomb Raider. I’m really excited.
DW: What would your dream project or casting be?
HS: I want to continue doing roles like Erwin Kim. But those don’t come by often. One of the greatest fruits to come from that project is that it inspired so many Asian American kids. I got a lot of fan mail from Asian American teens stating how inspired they were by the character of Erwin Kim, and how Edge of Seventeen helped them through their formative years by showing “a regular person with weaknesses and flaws” on screen. It’s too often that we see Asian Americans depicted as model minorities or outdated caricatures, so Erwin was a great way to shake things up. This is the greatest gift of all, doing roles that can have that kind of impact. I’m up there just playing pretend, but if the product can come out and inspire people to chase their dreams, that really puts a smile on my face.
One of the most prominent people I’d love to play is Bruce Lee — not him as a martial artist but him as a person, what he had to do growing up, and what he had to overcome as an immigrant. That story is so relatable. He put an Asian American Leading Man on the screen, and had such a masculine energy. That was unseen before.
DW: Okay, speed round! What should first-time visitors to Vancouver do?
HS: Try to beat my best time on Grouse Grind: 45:0 (!) I sprinted. That was when I was extremely fit. Lucy Hale nearly beat me recently. Also, enjoy Stanley Park, bike the seawall, and eat a Purdy’s ice cream chocolate bar dipped in nuts.
DW: Favourite smell?
HS: The smell of rain in Vancouver. The freshness of the water and the way it smells on cement. Like Granville Island in the rain.
DW: Least favourite smell?
HS: California rain. North Hollywood evaporating rain. It smells like sorrow and stress… and broken dreams.
DW: And finally, what’s next for you?
HS: I have a movie coming out called Truth or Dare with Universal and Blumhouse Productions. It stars Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Sophia Ali, Violett Beane, Nolan Funk and myself. It’s a supernatural thriller/horror movie about a harmless game of Truth or Dare among friends turns deadly when someone — or something — begins to punish those who tell a lie or refuse the dare. I’m also in a new TV show for AMC called Lodge 49 which is being produced by Paul Giamatti and is being released this August.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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