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Justin Chien and Sam Song Li on 'The Brothers Sun' and Familial Support

Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s latest offering brings audiences into the world of Taiwan’s triads with Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk’s The Brothers Sun. Lead by the infinitely extraordinary and legendary Michelle Yeoh, the eight-episode series introduces Justin Chien as Charles “Chairleg” Sun, the eldest son of the powerful Sun family, and Sam Song Li as Bruce, Charles’s little brother who moved from Taiwan to Los Angeles as a child with his mother (Yeoh). 

Premiering on January 4, The Brothers Sun tackles matters of criminal business and revenge, but above all else, the show explores what it means to be family and the universal obligations and sacrifices made in the name of family; and for Chien and Li, the series also marks their breakout roles. 

The Asian Cut sat down with the two actors to discuss their inspirations, support systems, and what they think their odds are on surviving the triads.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

TAC: How do you think you would’ve done if you were actually members of a triad?

Justin Chien: I think I'd do okay. From what I understand, there's definitely a sense of hierarchy, and that's something that I'm comfortable being in. I also fancy myself in a fight, although unlike my character I don't have to kill people on a regular basis, so that's good. But I think I'd handle myself okay. I hope I don't have to find out, though. [laughs]

Sam Song Li:  As long as I don't have to hurt anyone, then I'll be good. Maybe I'll do some lowly work. Like, I'll just be the one that to pick up like drug money or something...

JC: Just like the show!

SSL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

You’d be like the admin for a triad.

SSL: Oh my god, the treasurer, the accountant? Come on. Sign me up. Let's talk money. 

JC: The bookkeeper!

Probably the most dangerous position in a triad, though, let’s be honest.

JC: Oh, for sure. You mess up, you’re done. You good at math?

SSL: No, but I do have a calculator.


Alright now that we’ve got that settled, let’s talk about The Brothers Sun. In the first episode, Bruce and Charles’s father gives Charles advice about how to break down a situation and analyze what’s going on. Given you’re both early on in your careers, who has been there for you so far to give you that kind of advice?

JC: My father is probably the first person that I can think of, because he's in a leadership position in his job and he's definitely had moments [where] he'll look at me and be like, “Justin, you need to do it like this, this is how you be a good person, this is how you handle your business.” I've always been grateful for that. One of my favourite sayings of his is, “Whatever you can handle today, don't wait until tomorrow.” And I have applied that to my life. It's funny how simple it is, but how effective and helpful it is. 

I've also been lucky that I've recently had some mentors in my life that are in the industry that have helped me to prepare for different things I might face in this industry, but also how to keep my head on right and how to be a kind, good, genuine person. I feel like they hold me accountable and keep me grounded. So I'm really lucky to have them.

SSL: Just like [my character] Bruce, I actually grew up with a single mom, so I didn't really have a father figure in my life. When it comes to those strong paternal figures, I feel like I've always had to supplement that through novelists or substantial figures in a certain industry. I grew up watching tons of interviews with different actors, voices, and creatives just to hear how they tackle it and what their experiences are. I think that really shaped my train of thought for how to approach the industry. 

But my mom is my hero. She took care of me and my sister in a country that she didn't even speak the language of—she came to the US and had to learn English, and now she's an aerospace engineer. She's sacrificed so much and experienced so much. She's the type of mom who still is texting me updates about property tax or healthcare—these big life things that I feel like no one was really around to teach me and I think she does a phenomenal job of educating me. 

JC: I didn’t know she worked in aerospace—that’s super cool.

SSL: Yeah, she’s a literal rocket scientist.

JC: Damn, that’s dope.

SSL: I'm really proud. She had to really step up in that sense. I think she had to give me the...the talk. It was very awkward. 

JC: Oh! Oh, that one. 

SSL: Yeah, I don't think moms are supposed to usually give that talk.


I wasn’t going to ask this but knowing your mom’s a literal rocket scientist, and Justin, I know that your family is very accomplished in Taiwan: How did your parents take to you saying you wanted to be an actor?

JC:  At first, they were a little hesitant. Then the first time they saw me in a commercial in Taiwan, they're like, “Okay...that's interesting.” And then when I got into the drama schools that I applied to, they started to realize that I was actually serious. 

Occasionally we would have “Plan B” talks, which I always knew came from a place of love, because they only want me to be happy and stable. But they've always been so supportive. They came to see my plays in college, they surprised me at one of my plays after college—I noticed them as I was mid-scene and I almost completely lost my line. I've always had their support, but now [with The Brothers Sun] I feel like I really have their respect, and that means the world to me.

SSL: Wow, that’s amazing. Um, so I think the first time that my mom heard about my desires of wanting to be a performing artist...I think she genuinely thought she lost a son. [laughs] She was so disappointed. 

JC: [laughing] What’d she say? How’d it go? Reenact it a little bit. 

SSL: She was like, “Are you stupid?”

[Laughter all around]

SSL: No, no, honestly, she had a really fair point, because it was 2013 at the time, and she was so serious, so upset. She was like, “Name five actors outside of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.” I was like, “Ah, shit...uh...John Cho??” And I couldn't [name anymore]! I couldn't, because actually, there weren't that many. I think maybe Daniel Dae Kim was the only other one. So she was right, and I was delusional. 

I feel like over time, though, she grew very accepting of it. I think what really convinced her was how much she saw me change as a person. I feel like that's why I got into acting in the first place: how it’s changed my life in terms of understanding the human condition. Acting has done a complete 180 on my life perspective. She has been very supportive of me after that. She came to see my plays when I was in college. She'll come and see my short films [at] festivals. Now she's obviously very supportive.

JC: I'm sure she's very proud of you.


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