In Netflix’s San Gabriel-based crime action–comedy The Brothers Sun, actor Sam Song Li plays Bruce Sun, a kind-hearted college student who dreams of being a master of improv despite his mother’s wishes for him to be a doctor. However, his life gets turned upside down upon the arrival of his long-estranged brother, Charles (Justin Chien), a cutthroat assassin who enlists the help of their mother, Mama Sun (Michelle Yeoh), to take down a dangerous crime syndicate. Throughout the eight-episode series, co-created by Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk, Bruce has to contend with learning that his family, unbeknownst to him, are major players in one of the most lucrative and dangerous gangster businesses in Taiwan.
Here, Li speaks with Deadline about reconciling his own desires against family expectations as an actor, his inspirations and similarities to his character, working with Michelle Yeoh and the importance of Asian American representation on screen.
More from Deadline
DEADLINE: What is your relationship to San Gabriel Valley?
SAM SONG LI: I was born in Shenzhen, China, and moved to Arcadia very early on. So, my first experience in the United States was actually in San Gabriel in the 626. And I’ve kept my phone number my whole life since I was a kid. I know why my mom moved here because this town is basically Chinatown 2.0 in Los Angeles. It’s probably bigger than the Chinatown in Los Angeles. This is the real deal. If you go to San Gabriel, you go to Arcadia, Temple City, Monterey Park, that whole area–half the stores there are in Mandarin. So, I feel like I’m very familiar with the area, and it’s a very authentic part of my identity. I feel so blessed to see my childhood portrayed on screen like this. It’s awesome.
DEADLINE: Bruce’s Mandarin is a little dicey in the show, but how is your own?
LI: I grew up in China. I grew up in Shenzhen, in Hong Kong. Not many people know this, but Mandarin was my first language. I did not know English before Mandarin, so I grew up speaking Mandarin. Then, I moved to America, went to elementary school in San Gabriel, and learned English. Since then, I haven’t had time to brush up on my Mandarin fully, so I’ve lost my Mandarin in many ways. And I would definitely say my native language now is obviously English. I know way more English than Mandarin, but I think because Mandarin was my first language, it’s always stuck with me.
DEADLINE: One of Bruce’s cruxes in the series is that he tries to get his mom’s approval to be this improv comedy guy while attending school to do medicine. I read that your mom is an aerospace engineer, and you’re an actor. While you’ve been in Better Call Saul and Never Have I Ever, amongst other things, this is your first leading role. I’m curious as to where your desire to act came from.
LI: I wish I had a cooler answer, but if I’m going to be super real with you, it was probably The Lonely Island. You know, “Like a Boss” and “I’m on a Boat.” I don’t know why. It was the first thing that really clicked with me, and I was like, “This is so sick. I have no idea you can do this.” So, I started making my own parody videos and comedy sketches. And I was really drawn to humor online, humor via digital media. But the more I looked into it and the more I was like, “Oh, I want to do this,” I started looking into more traditional film and TV, and I just realized that good storytelling, good movies, cinema, for me at least, it rewired my brain chemistry. And I know that sounds dramatic, but let me explain.
There had been numerous occasions of watching a picture that made me question my self-awareness and who I am in the grand scheme of my life in general. One of the most impactful movies I watched growing up was a movie called Boyhood by Richard Linklater. That movie, I saw so much of my own childhood because I was raised by a single mom who took care of two kids who had a somewhat turbulent dating life while she was raising us. And I actually think, in a lot of ways, my mom’s life was even more insane than what we saw in Boyhood, mainly because English was not her first language. She was trying to learn English, and some of her situations were even more bizarre than I think in Boyhood.
And so my experience as an outsider, I really related to that, and it made me realize, wow, this is not a normal upbringing. This was not a normal thing to experience for most people. But I think that when you’re growing up, you don’t necessarily have that awareness, and it wasn’t until I discovered cinema that really held up a mirror to society in ways that I never imagined. I instantly fell in love with storytelling, the human condition, and the human experience, which led me to my path of being a performing artist because it goes hand in hand. And I think transforming myself and using my body as a vessel to tell these stories and express these characters, I am more drawn to at this stage in my career.
And, I mean, I watched so many other movies as well, but I think it was just the nuances of how different people can feel—for example, one of my favorite movies, Moonlight. I don’t necessarily see too many similarities with my childhood, but I know there has to be someone out there who watches it and is just in tears because they saw themselves in that movie. There’s something so raw about it.
DEADLINE: Speaking of representation, there’s been an uptick in Asian representation in the media, but for you, how has it been to be a part of this all-Asian American cast in The Brothers Sun?
LI: This means the world to me, and how lucky am I? I think to myself how lucky that I get to be a part of an all-Asian cast as one of my first series regulars. This show is going to be part of the history of Asian American cinema, and it’s going to be one of the projects that will hopefully inspire many others to continue to blossom this AAPI representation movement that’s happening right now. I consider this time the golden age of Hollywood for Asian Americans, and I want to pay homage to all the Asian American projects that came before us because we would not be here without them. But I also hope this inspires more filmmakers and Asian American artists to go and pursue their dreams because this story is one of many that can be set upon you. And [I hope it inspires people] to really chase and pursue the things you want to–just like Bruce wanting to become an improv artist. I really resonate with that message.
And I also hope that more young Asian Americans also resonate with it. And if there’s one piece of advice that I have for a young Asian American out there who’s thinking about pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, I would say this is the time. There’s never been a better time. We’ve never seen shows like this growing up on streaming platforms on TV. And so it’s one of a kind, and I’m just very lucky to be a part of it.
DEADLINE: How did you prepare to play Bruce? What was the most challenging aspect of that?
LI: So much of Bruce was myself in so many ways. I saw a lot of myself in Bruce, but I definitely think he was the most heightened version of myself in specific ways. For example, I’ve always thought that Bruce is the most sheltered mama’s boy in the world. He is terrified, and it works very well for the clash between Justin Chien’s character, Charles, and my character and how that all mesh into the same story. But I would say the most challenging thing about Bruce is that he is going through it. And I think some of the more sassy comedy wasn’t too hard for me. Obviously, with this being my first acting experience as a series regular, there were a lot of consistency things that I wanted to keep track of. And that, to me, as an actor, is always challenging.
I’ll give you an example. On the first day of filming, we shot the first scene of the show, of my introduction, and then the last shot of the first day, we were filming the very end scene for my character for episode two. And then we bounced around to episodes five and six and then seven and eight and then back to three and four… we shot a lot of things out of order, and that was interesting. The most difficult thing was that, towards the end, Bruce is really going through it, and he is torn; his whole world is collapsing in so many ways. And I think as an actor portraying this for the camera…people don’t realize that you spend hours filming a five, 10-minute scene. When something catastrophic is happening in your life, you might experience it for 15 minutes, and it might linger, but that peak lasts only 15 minutes, whereas on a film set, you have to be in it for two, three hours because they need to have multiple coverage, different angles. And so that was something that I struggled with. There were some days where it was like my whole world was collapsing, and I had to be in [that headspace] for a week, 12 hours at a time, for multiple days. It was very draining and exhausting. And there were just some days where I was just like, “I’m done, I’ve got nothing left emotionally.”
DEADLINE: In the show, Bruce comes from this gangster dynasty, but he remains so true to himself throughout the show by not wanting anything to do with that lifestyle. He’s so resilient. Were there moments when you were reading the script or acting, where you’re like, “Bruce, no, we need to start ganging.” How did you come to see Bruce and his decision to be so strait-laced?
LI: I do. And I really think that Bruce is the most normal one out of everybody because if you think about it, the rest of the world is crazy in The Brothers Sun. It’s insane. And I think if anybody, if tonally this was a different show, Bruce is in a lot of ways right [about the decisions he makes] here. He’s really trying to change his family’s legacy, but the only thing is he’s just too naive to understand what family legacy means in this world because this is a family that has established this over a long course of time via tradition. But Bruce has been completely sheltered, so he’s so isolated from that side of the family, and he really is trying to learn and take it all in. And in the end, he has this moment where he figures it out.
But I do think that in his mind, he wants the best for everyone, and he really thinks he can save everyone and find a way. And there are moments where I feel like Bruce can do some stuff. I know that in the script, there were a couple of moments that Bruce is a little bit more proactive, but I think because of pacing, or maybe it was just a time constraint thing, there were a few scenes that were cut, not just from me, but from a few different places I think to move the story a little faster. But he does have that sort of moment. And I think Bruce’s story is still one in the making. I think there’s still a lot left, and Bruce will play a vital part of that story.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk a little bit about the cast. You’ve got Jenny Yang, Justin Chien, Joon Lee and Michelle Yeoh. How did you all lean on each other? Who kept you on your toes or made you break character often?
LI: What’s so funny is no one’s going to expect this, but Michelle was the one who glued us together and made us work the hardest. She was also the one that made us break character the most because she’s so silly. She’s so silly, and she goes into her process with a very light-hearted approach that really boosts the morale of the set. I think for all of us newbie newcomers here, and so we’re taking this very seriously, and we’re like, “I got to be committed to every scene,” but then Michelle will just be silly and have a throwaway line here and there, and it would always catch us really off guard. And there were a few moments that I had with Michelle that I couldn’t hold it in. Michelle just really knew how to have a good time and put us in a good place where we felt really relaxed and comfortable.
DEADLINE: Now that the show is out, how did your mom process this step in your career? Does she still want you to be a doctor or engineer?
LI: Listen. I’ll just say this. I think if I told my mom I wanted to be a doctor tomorrow, she would have no problem. She would have no problem with it. She’d be more than excited. It’s not going to happen, but I think she’s come to accept what I want to do so much more now. I think that this whole project and just how long I’ve been working at this really gave her a lot of validity and my passion for wanting to be an actor, wanting to do this. She’s the proudest parent on the planet. Seriously. She loves sharing Brothers Sun news. She loves sharing everything that’s happening with our success with me, my life right now. And anytime I see her talk about Brothers Sun or mention anything, I just see her face light up. I mean, this is a dream come true for her.
I think there were people in our family who actually wanted to pursue film and TV or media, but we just were never in a situation where I think we could out of necessity. I think my mom, at some point very early on, had dreams of maybe wanting to be an actress because she’s beautiful. And I think a lot of her friends growing up told her she’d make for a wonderful actress. So, I think she’s always been a little bit curious, and I feel like I get to see her vicariously experience that via what I’m going through right now, but she’s over the moon and overjoyed.
DEADLINE: Have you seen any reactions on socials yet that have stood out to you since the show’s release?
LI: Yes, there are so many, but I’ve realized that this show [already] has a cult following. The people that love this show really, really love this show, and I think we’ve done something very different here. And this is a story that, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of tone, storytelling aesthetics is very one of a kind. I feel like there isn’t anything quite like it on TV that you’ve seen before. I’m quoting Byron [Wu, showrunner], but the show is uniquely itself. And so, it’s really interesting to just see people appreciate that and see people go on this ride with us.
DEADLINE: And you sort of touched on this a little earlier, but Bruce does have these dreams of improv, and you’re a young multi-hyphenate in the sense that you run your own social media platforms to do these skits from time to time and you’ve directed your music videos and things like that, but when did you start putting this acting career into perspective for yourself? Just thinking of the parallels between yourself and the character you play on the show.
LI: I think filmmaking was the gateway for me; it was the entry point. And I think I started with filmmaking as a necessity because I really didn’t think I was able to be in front of the camera. I pivoted into social media because it was an opportunity for me to take my filmmaking skills and now transfer it to putting myself in front of the camera. So, doing social media was out of necessity for me to toy with the idea of being on-screen. And I always make this joke, but I really saw social media as my Clark Kent glasses and suit look, right? I think by day, I was doing social media just because social media has always been a little bit ahead of its time. And we’ve had massive success with Asian Americans on screen in social media than in traditional media. It’s always been ahead.
And so I did that as a daytime job, but secretly, I was waiting for my Clark Kent moment. I was waiting to take off my glasses, rip off my suit, reveal my true identity, and just leap into the sky. And I think that’s how I saw acting for a very long time. I was working on it in secret. I would share only with my close friends, but I never really talked about exactly what’s happening with me and acting. And I really feel like this moment for me is, first, validating that I feel like my hunch that I can do this has always been right, but second, now I can embrace it a lot more. And I just want to be clear that I see myself as an actor first and a content creator second.
I think I see myself doing so much more in acting and narrative storytelling. There’s so many stories I personally want to share. There’s so many stories I want to help share, but content will always be around because there’s so many advantages to content. You get instantaneous feedback. You can share a lot of very relevant trending messages that are more difficult in film and TV, especially with how fast I feel like culture is moving these days. One week on social media is like one year for the rest of the world. Things move so quickly. So I have a lot to share about things that are happening that are recent, and I think social media is always going to stay around for that. But I think there’s a human element to traditional film and TV that really sucked me in and was the reason why I even wanted to do all of this in the first place.
The Brothers Sun is out now on Netflix.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Best of Deadline