Telly Leung admits that if he ever quit showbiz (which he jokingly says he thinks about once a month), he would "move to Hawaii and open up a shaved ice store on Waikiki Beach." Thankfully he hasn't.
The actor—most recently seen on stage in the acclaimed London debut of Allegiance, re-creating his performance from the musical's 2015 Broadway bow—made his Main Stem debut in the 2002 Lea Salonga-led revival of Flower Drum Song and has been brightening Broadway ever since, with his magnetic charm, joyful, heartfelt performances, and a soaring tenor rooted in Broadway but laced with a pop sensibility. In fact, in those two decades he also appeared on Broadway in the new musical In Transit, the revivals of Godspell and Pacific Overtures, and the final Broadway company of Rent. He also spent two years in the title role of the Broadway production of Disney's Aladdin and originated the role of Boq for the Chicago production of Wicked.
The Brooklyn native can currently be seen playing gay Chinese singer Marcel in the new season of the Max series Warrior, which is set in San Francisco's Chinatown during the second half of the 19th century. Gleeks may remember Leung as the leader of the Dalton Academy Warblers, Wes, on Fox’s Glee.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Leung shares the differences between acting on stage and screen, how rejection never gets easy, the importance of mentors, and why a leading cast member is so crucial to a company's overall morale.
[Editor's Note: This interview was conducted prior to the official start of the SAG-AFTRA strike.]
Where did you train/study?
I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama.
Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor standout?
I've had so many incredible teachers. It's hard to name one, but the one that popped immediately to mind is Barbara MacKenzie-Wood. She recently retired from CMU [Carnegie Mellon University] after a 37-year career dedicated to training a generation of CMU actors. Every teacher I've ever had has had a permanent impact on me and made me the artist I am today—but Barbara is the foundation. Her text analysis class and her acting classes during those formative first two years of my university training gave me the skills and tools to create a process and technique that works.
I still refer to her notes today when I find myself unsure of how to approach a new character. She taught us how to rehearse, how to focus on "process," how to take risks and embrace failure as a necessary part of discovery, how to be present with your scene partner, how to analyze the text like a detective to unearth the author's intention, and how to access our emotional instrument in service of the piece. Not a day goes by that I don't think of Barbara and what she taught me when I'm working professionally.
How did your role in Warrior come about?
I wish I had some crazy show-biz story to tell you, but it came about the old-fashioned way: I auditioned. I put myself on tape, and I forgot about it for weeks. I did not expect to hear anything. I find that as an actor who does a lot of self-tapes (and faces a lot of rejection), it is best to make the tape and forget about it and move on to the "next." To my surprise, I was told weeks later that the producers liked my tape so much that they asked me to put some more scenes on tape, which I did. Then, my final "callback" was just a Zoom meeting with the Warrior showrunners, Josh Stoddard and Evan Endicott. I didn't act at this final callback. Instead, it was more of a "getting to know you" meeting—and we tossed around some ideas about my character, Marcel.
Marcel is a gay, Chinese singer in the late 1800s who travels the world singing for his supper. As an actor who is always living out of a suitcase myself, going from gig to gig, I knew this character well. My character has to sing on the show, so part of the audition package I sent to the producers were clips of me singing at Birdland and 54 Below!
Can you discuss what it was like filming the third season? What did you learn as an actor?
First of all, I was thrilled to be reunited with my Broadway buddy Hoon Lee. Hoon and I made our Broadway debuts together in Flower Drum Song, and then we did Pacific Overtures together right after that. Hoon has been a series regular on Warrior since its inception. He also joined the writers' room in Season 3 and penned an episode. The show films in Cape Town, South Africa. The thought of being that far from home for four months was a little daunting, but it was a comfort to know my old friend Hoon would be there. Cape Town is an amazing place. It is a natural wonder. When I wasn't filming, I was climbing Lion's Head and Table Mountain. I was walking along the beaches of Camps Bay. South Africa is a place that has a complex history, and the local people I've met there have an inspiring combination of resilience, pride, and gratitude. The people of South Africa have been through a lot. Apartheid ended in 1994. That wasn't that long ago. Being there and immersing myself in the culture and history of Cape Town has given me a whole new perspective on the world, and I am forever changed by that experience.
I had a lot of downtime when I wasn't filming, so I ended up doing some pro-bono musical theatre coaching at LAMTA [a local musical theatre academy]. My Aladdin mate, Pierre Marais, is from Cape Town and introduced me to the school's founders, Duane Alexander and Anton Luitingh. I love performing, but I also love teaching—and I had such a wonderful time working with their very talented students. "By your pupils you'll be taught," as Mrs. Anna says in The King and I.
My biggest acting takeaway from Warrior was to trust the camera, and trust the people behind it that are shaping the arc of the season and how your character fits into it. In theatre, I have much more control over my performance as an actor. After opening night, the director leaves, and it's up to me to drive the pacing of a scene in front of the audience. It's also my job to maintain that pacing night after night. Film/TV is a totally different medium. So much of my "performance" is not what I do on camera, but what gets edited in post-production. It was a big lesson in relinquishing control and just being present. Any moment that feels manufactured reads false on camera. I just have to live moment-to-moment and trust that the cameras will capture all of that. Then, all of that has to go through the post-production process, where the work I've done on set that day gets chopped up into moments and sequenced together—and it's out of my control.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
I almost "give up" show business about once a month! This business is hard. We are constantly putting a piece of ourselves out there and getting rejected. You'd think that after 20-plus years in the business, you'd be numb to it—but you're not. It still hurts. It still stings. You still constantly feel like you're "not enough," and no one is immune to imposter syndrome. The fear of becoming irrelevant or inadequate lives in all of us—and it doesn't magically disappear when you book that dream role or win an award. I know people with multiple Tony Awards who will tell you the same thing. But, you get better at dealing with it and coping.
There are small victories along the way that keep you going. For me, it's the people. There's that great lyric from Curtains: "We're a special kind of people known as show people," and it truly is "special." The community I have found being in this challenging profession makes it all worth it to me—even those times where I want to throw in the towel, move to Hawaii, and open up a shaved ice store on Waikiki Beach. There's always someone in my "chosen family" that lifts me up or inspires me to keep going, and somehow, the universe delivers them to me when I need them most.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
I have the utmost respect for mentors. To me, teaching is the noblest of professions. Mentors take teaching one step further because there is continued nurturing and guidance that goes beyond the lesson. There is follow-through and added responsibility that comes with mentorship. It means going above and beyond to make yourself available to the mentee. It's a greater investment of time and energy. I would not be where I am today without amazing mentors in my life that went above and beyond the "teacher" role. My mentors are those that I can call at any time for encouragement and guidance.
Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
I won't name the specific job, but it was a role in a Broadway revival that I wanted very badly. I tried to tell myself I didn't want it badly to cope with the inevitable disappointment—but in all truth, I did. I knew I was "right" for it. I knew, deep in my soul I'd be able to deliver a great performance should I get cast. I even got encouraging words from that show's creator that I was right for it. But, I made it to final callbacks, did my absolute best—but ultimately didn't quite fit the creative team's vision for that character.
My dear friend (and colleague and, yes, "mentor") Michael McElroy gave me a great motto that helped me cope: "What's meant to be yours is yours." It's such a simple concept, but so hard to grasp when you're in the depths of disappointment. But, it's 100 percent true. The universe had other plans for me, and Michael was absolutely right. That job, as wonderful as it would have been, wasn't meant for me. It was meant for someone else.
There will come a time when I'm on the other side of that profound motto, and I get a role that is meant to be mine—and someone else will have to say it to deal with their disappointment. It's a powerful statement because it allows you to move on.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
To anyone just starting out, I'd say: Remember to have grace. Have grace for others and have grace for yourself. We are all ever-evolving human beings. We are meant to grow and change and evolve until the day we die. A mentor of mine always reminds me that, "with every breath you take, you are a different human being." This is literally true: As oxygen floods our cells with every inhale, we change on a molecular level. That means that we have to allow ourselves the room to grow. The past versions of ourselves will make mistakes, say the wrong thing, hurt people, have poor judgement—and that's OK. What matters is that we learn from all of those experiences and attempt to do better. We have to forgive that old version of ourselves, and also have grace for others that are going through the same thing.
What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
I've had the honor of being a leading man in two shows: Allegiance and Aladdin. Being a leading man has the obvious onstage responsibilities that come with that title, but I am very proud of the way I led a company off stage. Being a "leader" is not something they teach you in college. It's something you learn by observing incredible leaders and learning from them. I learned from the best: Lea Salonga, Jose Llana, BD Wong, Lou Diamond Phillips, Ana Gasteyer, Paolo Montalban, Michael K. Lee (just to name a few). Not only do they deliver the goods on stage, but they lead a company off stage by example in the way they comport themselves professionally and personally with the company.
They say "it all starts at the top," and they are right. If the leader is centered and calm during the chaos, so is the rest of the company. If the leader is able to come into the building with a positive attitude even if they've had the worst day in the world and give 100 percent, then so will the rest of the company. Sometimes that means putting on a smile and doing your job when you don't want to—and doing it because you understand that, as a leader, that face doesn't 100 percent belong to you anymore.
When I've had the honor of being in a position of leadership where I can truly have an influence over the workplace culture of a company, I do my very best to lead and make sure I contribute to making it a happy place to work—and I can proudly say I did that with those two opportunities I was given to lead.
am starting to direct more these days, and I take the responsibility of
leading a room and establishing a healthy workplace culture very
seriously. Directors like Stafford Arima, Christopher Gattelli, Tara
Overfield Wilkinson, Amon Miyamoto, David H. Bell, Michael Greif (just
to name a few) have been shining examples for me as I find my own style
of leadership as a director.