Sam Song Li on Being Asian in Hollywood, Content Creation, and The Brothers Sun

If you haven’t caught Sam Song Li’s entertaining skits on social media, it’s likely you’ve encountered his presence on your Netflix home page. Sam Song Li’s portrayal of Bruce Sun plays a pivotal role in the show’s success. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with this talented actor and content creator to delve into his background, the evolution of his passion for film, and his breakthrough role as Bruce in The Brothers Sun.

Sam’s love for all things filmmaking surprisingly didn’t start with acting, it started with directing. Usually ditching class in high school isn’t a recipe for success, but in Sam’s case, it honed his love for content creation, which would eventually put him in the position he is in today.

Sam’s love for acting started a few years later, while he was in college. As he was getting more interested in directing, he started to read books on it. One particular book recommended learning to act to become a better director and from then on, he fell down the rabbit hole. “I’m a huge nerd when it comes to learning new things,” he explains. “So I looked into acting. And then I read like three acting books. And I was like, I really like this. I read like three more acting books. I was like, wow, I really, really like this. And I read like three more. And before I knew it, I read like 15 books on acting.”

Sam’s big break didn’t come by accident; his curiosity and commitment to the things he’s interested in gave him the preparation and experience to succeed when the time came. A big part of this preparation comes from his experience doing content creation. Content creating allowed him to practice acting, but it also served a much greater purpose. “[Content creation] comes from a place where I feel like I can’t, as an actor, wait for people to give me opportunities,” he says. “Funny enough, as an actor, it’s one of the few things you can feel like you sort of can control, at least artistically.”

The exponential rise in content creation over the last decade hasn’t just helped Sam’s career, but many other aspiring creatives in the entertainment industry as well. “I really think in a lot of ways content creation is our generation’s indie filmmaking,” Sam explains. “In the same way that you see so many indie filmmakers sort of blow up back in the day and end up having great directing gigs, I really believe that content creators these days are our future directors. I do feel like the skill set you’re learning as a content creator helps a lot. I really think you’re gonna see so many content creators from this generation become filmmakers.”

And Sam’s right, content creation has become more and more advantageous for creators aspiring to transcend social media. For Sam, content creation served as an alternative to making short films. “I think that content is uniquely advantageous in certain ways because of the instant feedback and the reception that you get versus if you work on something more long term,” he explains. “I’ve done a bunch of 10-15 minute short films and stuff, and I feel like to be so attached and invest so much into a short film only for you know, no one to see, it’s kind of not worth it.”

Sam makes several good points here. It’s very true that posting content on social media allows for more instant feedback from your audience, whether it’s good or bad. Nowadays, with the influx in popularity that comes with short form content, posting on social media is sure to reach a much wider audience and this audience is more likely to watch a one minute skit versus a 10-15 minute short film. With these unique advantages content creation comes with, it seems like a no brainer for aspiring filmmakers and actors to prefer short term content creation over short films.

This isn’t necessarily new though. The directors behind Talk to Me, Danny and Michael Philippou started by posting videos on YouTube, and Talk to Me was their first film. It’s safe to say we all know what happened after that. There’s just not one set path to success in the modern film industry; talent is talent and nowadays, it can be found through a plethora of different mediums. Sam sums it up perfectly by stating “Hey, just because we’re content creators doesn’t mean we can’t be an actor or a filmmaker.”

Sam’s situation, however, is unique compared to most other aspiring actors, just alone from the sheer fact that he’s an Asian actor. The option to pursue a creative career path can seem concerning to anyone in terms of stability, but in Sam’s case, there is added pressure and drawback for a few reasons – the pressure to pursue a STEM career from his mother and the lack of roles in Hollywood when it comes to Asian actors. For the former, many first generation Asian Americans, such as Sam and myself, grow up with the constant pressure of prioritizing education so we can go to a good school and get a good, high paying job (this usually means pursuing a career in STEM). “It comes from a place of love, a place where they really want you to just succeed and do the best that you can,” Sam explains.

To diversify from this set plan that many of our parents immigrated to the Western world in hopes of their children pursuing can seem disrespectful or ungrateful to them after all the sacrifices they made to get us here. However, the fact that many Asian Americans even have the option to pursue something other than STEM is an homage to their parents’ sacrifice, not a lack of consideration. To pursue an unexpected path does not always have to be done through rebellion, it can be done with respect and gratitude too.

As far as the added pressure from the industry for pursuing acting as an Asian, it’s not new information that Hollywood is filled with predominantly white actors and actresses. Although diversity is constantly becoming more prevalent in Hollywood, it’s still a big risk being a minority and pursuing a career in the industry.

However, these extra challenges are exactly what drew Sam to the role of Bruce in The Brothers Sun and ultimately, his big break. The fact that Sam shared a very similar experience to Bruce in terms of both their upbringings allowed him to closely relate to his character on a personal level. “I am very, very shocked by the similarities that Bruce Sun and Sam Song Li have in common,” he explains, almost as if he still can’t believe it. “Bruce is somebody who was raised by a single mom in San Gabriel Valley, the 626. My phone number starts with 626. I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley with a single mom. And you know, he is someone who was forced

in certain ways to study to become a doctor while always having aspirations of becoming an improv artist. I myself was very much pressured by my mom to become a doctor, but I had my own acting dreams and my own performing arts dreams and comedy dreams that my mom was not very fond of. I remember reading the casting call and I was like, ‘Oh my God, a role like this must come only a handful of times in an actor’s entire career.’” This deep attachment to the character itself drew Sam into the role.

However, The Brothers Sun offered more than just a deeply relatable role to Sam, it offered a chance to work with an all Asian cast and writers’ room, which is a part of the overarching conversation about diversity in Hollywood. “It was a project that had an all Asian lead cast and an all Asians writer room,” Sam starts. “So that itself was very exciting to me because I think that obviously, representation is a huge conversation. It’s a huge part of a cultural movement.”

This cultural movement, in question, is a movement for inclusivity and diversity in Hollywood, especially when it comes to Asian representation. In the past decade, the industry has seen an influx of representation, especially Asian representation, in the forms of award winning films (Parasite, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Past Lives) and popular television shows (Fresh Off The Boat, Kim’s Convenience, Single’s Inferno). These films and shows have really put Asian creatives and Asian culture on the map in an accurate and authentic way for the Western audience. Sam lumps The Brothers Sun in with this company. “I thought [The Brothers Sun] was very unique and fresh in that same element in the sense that we’ve never quite seen a show like this before,” Sam says “And I thought that was incredibly unique when I first saw the pilot and the tone of the show. It’s very genre bending.”

In the landscape of reruns, adaptations, and one too many superhero movies, this authenticity is something that the industry deeply needs, as well as something Sam was eager to be a part of. “It’s incredibly important to be authentic in storytelling. I think it’s amazing to have conversations of diversity where we are able to see these characters that have never been Asian before, or black or other races before, now starting to pop up in different TV shows that don’t necessarily need them to be of diverse ethnicities,” Sam says. “I think that conversation is very important because it adds diversity into the real world. “[The Brothers Sun] creates a fresh perspective, it creates a story that I think not many people have seen before. I think that audiences are hungry and they crave something new.”

The chance to work alongside fellow Asian actors and actresses he looked up to used to be just a dream for Sam, so much so that he used to literally dream about working alongside them. “That was, at the time, my life’s goal to be able to do that,” he laughs for a second, his eyes beaming with nostalgia before they turn soft, almost like it’s just now hitting him that his dream came true. “And I think that spoke a lot to my subconscious and what I wanted in life and for that to now manifest into reality is incredibly special.”

And working with the people he looked up to was no short of incredible. “We connected in the sense that I felt like we became a family,” he says. “With a show like ours, where we have themes of family, doing things for the family, and having the family come first, I really felt like our

set took that to heart and we practiced what we preached. I’ve been on different sets before, but I really do feel like this one stood out to me, just because of how close we all got and how much we really all saw each other as one family.”

There’s something special about the sense of community that an all Asian lead cast and all Asian writers’ room can bring to all Asian creators. This is part of the reason why Sam jumped at the opportunity to work on The Brothers Sun. He is one of the many aspiring Asian creatives pushing away the traditional safe path instilled in them in favor of a career they actually want to do, and he wants to be a trailblazer for the future generation. “I really feel like if you’ve had any thoughts of wanting to do this, now is the time because never in the history of this country have we seen opportunities that we have now,” he says, a fierce look in his eye. “And I think the people that came before us walked so that we could run and I think that we’re running so that the future generation also now can sprint. And then the future generation after that is sprinting so the next generation can fly.”

He reminds aspiring Asian creatives that he knows what it’s like to be in the position they’re in. “It’s normal that our parents question what we want to do,” he explains. “And I know that our parents want the best for us, but there’s a generational divide. And I think that this is your life and you have to go and do what you want. You’re not living this life for someone else, you have to live your life for yourself.”

Even given the newfound stardom, Sam still makes time for the things he loves to do outside of acting. Outside of playing basketball with his showrunners in their down time and working on his physical health, content creation is still something Sam loves to do, especially during the time he spent in New York City the past few months. “Content creation has been a massive part of my life in the sense that I get to write, direct, produce, and act in it,” Sam says. “And that in itself is its own hobby. Like it’s so multi faceted. Also, being in New York has opened my eyes to a lot of things and as silly as it sounds, dating has been a very interesting part of my life as well. So much of my content recently has been about dating which I feel like has really touched on some very interesting societal perspectives.”

An actor, content creator, motivational speaker, and overall energetic and kind man, Sam Song Li is the type of person who leaves an impression on you after you speak with him, as he did with me. Even more motivational than his words is his story, one filled with rebellion, hard work, and success. The “American dream” for Asian Americans has been construed for far too long and Sam Song Li is at the front of the line to change the conception of what Asian Americans should do in order to be successful. To me, this is just the start of his story and after witnessing the success of the Brothers Sun, I have a really good feeling that we’ll be seeing more billboards of Sam on Sunset Blvd in the near future.

Photography Jen Rosenstein @jenrosenstein
Styling Michael Fusco @mikeystyles
Grooming Ayae Yamamoto for Exclusive Artists using Shiseido and R+Co @ayaeyamamoto
Interview by Robby Wong @shehatesrhude
Production & Location BELLO Media Group x Maison Privée @bellomediagroup @maisonpriveepr_la

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