An Interview with CBS FBI’s James Chen

At TV Series Hub, we’re so lucky and thankful to get a chance to chat with FBI star James Chen. Currently, in the show’s second season, Chen plays the “brain wave” of the New York City FBI team which you can catch Tuesdays at 9/8c on CBS. But he’s not just an actor. Check out our chat.

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Photo Credit David Zheng.

How did you get the acting bug and what inspired you to pursue acting? 
Growing up I always was drawn to being creative and artistic, I loved to build and draw things.  Then I fell in love with movies, cartoons, TV, and video games. In school, I always loved history which I always thought of as just the coolest, most exciting stories, with interesting people and times… and it was all true! I think when I was in college and I finally had a chance to explore acting extracurricularly, I discovered it was a magical blend of all these interests of mine as well as imagination and a great community of other creatives.

Where and what was the first acting role that you could remember? 
Well literally the first acting role I can remember was as the lead in the 2nd grade solar system play. I played The Sun, I mean it wasn’t a big deal, it’s not like I still remember all of my lines or anything. Not at all.

You’re in this season of FBI, which we love, who do play and how did you get the role?  
Ah great, so glad you’re digging it. I play Ian Lim, who is a bonafide brain wave. In school he could have gone the tech entrepreneur route with his own patents, but his sense of justice and the challenge of tracking down the country’s most high tech criminals and hackers was too good to resist. Ian has a great sarcastic rapport with his colleagues at 26 Fed. He makes no apologies for his unique view of the world and just calls it how it is.  I’d auditioned for Ian like many other roles that pop into my inbox. I’ve been a part of the Dick Wolf universe before playing the recurring Andy Sung in Law & Order: SVU, so I felt a special familiarity with the world and my collaborators.

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When on a series like FBI, how much prep work is there to know how your character would act during a scene?  
It does vary from scene to scene. Often times our team is so hyper focused on the task at hand, urgently analyzing data and clues to connect dots and zero in on suspects that there isn’t always heavy character-specific moments. But Ian has had a nice through line of expressing shall we say great passion for the details of his job. Always eager to share the back end technicals with Jubal, Maggie, OA, or Scola. He’s also shared an aversion to commitment in relationships favoring the swipe-left-swipe-right method of dating. Had an opportunity to interview our on set FBI consultant as well as a technical expert who works with electronics evidence and data recovery.

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This isn’t the first time working on a Dick Wolf series, you had a recurring role on Law & Order: SVU. First off how was it working with Dick Wolf again and second from being on SVU was it as easy being on FBI? 
There’s a lot of transience in this biz. A lot of quick one day or one week gigs, and then it’s off to the next adventure.  So it’s really special and fun to come back to familiar colleagues, a familiar feel for a universe of shows.  I think like most things it gets easier the more you do it, and getting to work on FBI has felt different yet still familiar, so that’s been great.

Since we’re coming into the winter break, could you tell us what to expect this season?  
I’d say ongoing excitement from the nation’s premiere safety-keeping agency. With crimes that span everything from the domestic, to inter-state, to the international.  From high-tech white collar criminals to crimes of passion, the show has been great at touching on so many aspects of criminal justice.

You played Kal on The Walking Dead, what was it like playing a role on such an iconic show? Do you still get stopped by Walking Dead fans that talk about your character? 
It’s great, a little surreal to be part of something of such a large scale and international fandom. The cast and crew are amongst the best in their field, and their attention to detail and care for the show is inspiring and sets a high bar.  Not so much getting stopped on the street for Kal as I do for Ian Lim these days, but at the comic cons I’ve been to, there is so much love and passion for Walking Dead and it’s always so rewarding to interact with fans there.

You’ve been on a variety of shows from The Blacklist to Board City and even The Last O.G., as an actor is it best to work in a variety of projects like comedy and drama?   
I think so!  That iconic symbol of drama – the masks of Tragedy and Comedy – is no accident I find the more I do both.  I think each help balance out a performer to aid them in doing the other.  Plus I think both are incredible fun, interesting and stimulating in totally different ways that helps round out any actor.

What was it like working on The Last O.G. and The Blacklist?  
The Last O.G. was amazing.  The role and the scene was written so well… I played a bank loan officer named Da’vonte Jackson, and when I as an Asian man appear before Tracy Morgan and Allan Maldonado, there’s that great surprise of who they thought they’d be seeing. I love the idea of an Asian man named Da’vonte Jackson – so fresh and fun.  Allan also wrote that episode so it was really inspiring to work with someone who was also a writer on the show.  He and of course Tracy were just absolute geniuses at what they do and it was such an honor to work with them both.
Working on The Blacklist was super memorable as well. We drove far out into the forests of Staten Island to capture that remote spooky woods feel and it was an episode that was going to air around Halloween, so it was extra creepy and deranged.  First time I got ear tagged, put in a cage, or got the achievement Death By Arrow!

Do you have a favorite character from one of those shows? 
Last year for Madam Secretary, I got to play a Japanese billionaire who we find on a race track with one of this race car toys. I got the whole legit racer suit and helmet and spent all afternoon climbing in and out of a race car window. So much fun! Plus for the bookend scene, got to wear the nicest wardrobe to date – Fendi head to toe! Spoiled!

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Photo Credit David Zheng.

You’re in an independent film called “Fluidity” written and directed by Linda Yellen. What’s the film about and who do you play?  
The film is about sexuality and relationships in the modern millennial world and the heavy influence of technology on it all. I play Eric who is engaged and has a young son with his girlfriend, and let’s just say he’s curious about what else is out there and has some new experiences. Linda Yellen is a veteran auteur and it was such a pleasure working with her on her script and a really talented fun cast of young actors. Please check it out streaming now on Showtime!

How did you get into this project? 
Like so many of my projects, an appointment from my agent came into my Inbox. Then usual prepare and share, and in this case the project and role as a good fit. I initially went in for the role of the police officer, Jim, and my wife wasn’t originally written to be Asian per se, but Linda and casting (the legendary Billy Hopkins) I think came up with a real interesting idea to cast myself and (my friend!) Danni Wang as a couple. There’s something that felt authentic about that and also added to the idea that Eric was exploring something so outside of the traditional norms he was used to.

You were also in Front Cover, in which you won an award for your role. Who did you play and what did the film mean to you?  
I played Ning, an Chinese actor from China who has traveled to New York to promote his latest movie. I’ll try to be concise, but this role and this project meant a great deal to me. It was the most complex and challenging role I’ve had the chance to dig my teeth into, and I really got a chance to use so many of the tools I learned in drama school… creating a full complete character and arc. Our writer-director, Raymond Yeung, (whose latest film just premiered to acclaim at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards) is a gifted storyteller and I think an actor’s dream to work with.  He wrote a beautifully nuanced story with very compelling, complex, characters. It meditated on the conflicting identities and struggles MF many gay Chinese in a strict traditional society like China as well as the identity struggles of Chinese-Americans in America.  Ning and co-lead character, Ryan, are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin, and it was a beautiful project and journey to work on with many wonderful artists.
Besides being an actor, you do a lot of narratives for audiobooks. How did you get into that job? Is it fun?  
Funny enough it was all purely incidental. I was asked one day to submit an audition for a title because an actor friend had recommended me. It required someone who could speak native English and also some Chinese. Many titles later, I’m still going strong having had to turn down offers due to schedule but also having just accepted a new title today. The books tend to have Asian or Asian-American protagonists, spanning everything from coming-of-age, to mystery thrillers about detectives in Tibet’s, to non fiction. It is a lot of fun – and a lot of work! – because you get to really make directorial stories on how to shape the pacing and tone of the story as well as do quite a broad range of characters that you normally wouldn’t get a chance to play. Please search my name on for a list of my recorded titles.

You’re a trained MMA fighter? How did that come about? Any chance that those skills would be useful in an episode of FBI?  
Well I would say I’m a student of mixed martial arts which includes Jeet Kune Do, Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu jitsu, boxing, and Filipino knife and stick fighting. I’d had a passion for martial arts over the years back from high school – wushu and Kung fu – and I wanted to pick it up again with something that was practical self-defense and also a useful skill as an actor.
I’m dying for the moment Ian Lim gets to step away from the keyboard and surprise everyone with striking combos, joint locks, and chokes. I love the idea that even though he’s brilliant at what we’ve seen him do from an analyst standpoint, that he also has this rich exciting life that we’re just beginning to tap into!

As an actor what advice do you have for those that are thinking of getting into acting?  
Learn your craft – study study study. It’s a very competitive field and you have to be great what you do to start booking work. Best advice I’ve ever gotten when I told my then acting teacher I wanted to be an actor was, “If you can imagine yourself being happy doing anything else, do that.” The craft and art form are beautiful, but the profession and industry will reject you every single week. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you dedicate yourself, be in it for the long haul. You’ll get better, you’ll build a career, it will all slowly start making sense.

What kind of television shows and movies did you grew up to and even looked up to?  
Growing up it was the sitcoms from the 80s and 90s: Perfect Strangers, Full House, Family Matters, Fresh Prince, In Living Color. But also MacGuyver, Quantum Leap, The X-Files. And a ton of cartoons — classic WB Looney Tunes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Duck Tales. I think Perfect Strangers, MacGuyver, and The X-Files were amongst my faves for sure.

Any future projects you would like to talk about?  
A couple projects have been circling, finally got an offer today. It’s pretty new so
will have to wait a bit to telll more but suffice to say it’s a new, fun kind of character I haven’t gotten a chance to play before and I’m excited to share it with you all.