Exclusive Q&A With Eric J. Cheng AB '20

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?

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?

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?

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.

Q. What is that project, and what else have you worked on?

I am currently filming a short project that I began writing at the beginning of the year. It’s called Appearance, and it’s a dramatic comedy about a gay Asian porn creator who is confronted by his straight older brother when he finds out about his profession. Ultimately, it’s a story about beauty, race, sexuality, love, and well, appearance. What started off as a project with a good friend of mine and fellow actor to get some reel footage turned into a production directed and DP’ed by talented creatives I got to meet in LA. I’ve learned so much throughout the process, and I’ve loved every step. To be able to see a story and world come to life and act in something that I created has been very fulfilling. In a sense, this is what I want to be doing in my career: creating a story from the group up and telling it from my perspective.

Other than that, I just finished filming an AFI thesis film where I got to play a dramatic character and speak Mandarin. It’s a sci-fi film, and the role is unlike anything I’ve done before. I also got to be a part of the 24 Hour Plays: Nationals this past week, where I met a group of diverse, talented, kind young theatremakers. I’m very excited collaborate and create with them down the line in-person.

Q. What advice do you have for students just a couple of years behind you? What campus experiences should they focus on?

Even though I feel like I’m early on in my career to be giving advice, I will say that I wish I had expanded the scope of my abilities and opportunities that were out there. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t gotten in my own way by seeing myself as just one thing. I thought that not getting cast in an HRDC production my first semester meant that I couldn’t act. I thought that not having any writing or improv experience in high school meant that I shouldn’t even consider attempting to write or do improv. Though I can’t say what specific experiences current students should focus on, I would say that they should go for it—regardless of what their “experience level” is—and if they experience rejection, to seek out resources and collaborators to do the thing themselves. Looking back, it’s the projects that people created from the ground up and put out that I am most impressed by (and for the most part, the ones that have gotten them the farthest).

Q. What have you learned about the industry?

So, SO much. I am very thankful to everyone within and outside of the Harvardwood community who have given me such great advice. I feel like I saved five years worth of mistakes just from speaking with people. Off of the top of my head, the main things I’ve learned are 1) this town is TINY and people know each other, 2) the industry is incredibly risk adverse, and if you want to do something, you need proof that you can, 3) create your own content, 4)Every bad project you do or create help you get closer to the good one, and 5) MONEY makes the industry world go round, which brings me to:

Q. What creative endeavors are you most excited about moving forward?

I am most excited about producing a higher-budget short film that I began writing almost two years ago. It’s about queerness, Asian American identity, mother-son relationships, and drag. The script has gone through countless iterations, but the director and I are finally making moves to go into production. I’ll be launching a crowdfunding campaign in the coming months and hope to share the project with the Harvardwood community.

Most of all, I’m excited to keep learning as an actor, writer, improviser, and storyteller and collaborate with passionate creatives.

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