Desmond Chiam: From Law to Hollywood!

The Australian actor talks with DA MAN about cop shows, Asian representation in Hollywood and Space Cowboys.

Jacket by Dior; pants by Guess; shoes by Kenneth Cole
Jacket by Scotch and Soda; pants by Everlast

Desmond Chiam didn’t start out as an actor. After graduating from law school, the Australian-born Chiam pursued a career in law before he decided to call it quits after just four months. He then quickly started pursuing acting and even breakdancing before finally appearing in Aussie TV shows such as “Neighbours” and “Better Man”.

Shirt by Karl Lagerfeld

It was not long before he landed a role in ABC’s hit series “Reef Break” as Detective Wyatt Cole. Interestingly, he has also been making appearances in other crime TV series like “Bones”, “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Hawaii-Five-O.” It was as if he was destined to play a cop and continue his study of law in a completely new way. A committed and hard-working actor, he now resides with his wife in Los Angeles. More importantly, he has quite a few exciting projects coming soon. As he’s taking a break from chasing bad guy, he takes the time to chat a bit with DA MAN.

Jacket by John Varvatos

We heard that you were set to become a lawyer before getting into acting. What eventually made you decide to pursue the latter?

A horrific chat with the partner of my law firm. I’ve only worked for him for around four months when he asked me to come to lunch. As a new hire, that’s career gold. Turns out, though, the guy just needed a therapy session and unloaded twenty years of stress on me. Direct quote: “Des, every morning I wake up and wait for the tram, then I’m on the tram waiting to go to work, and then I’m waiting for lunch, and then I’m waiting for the end of day, and then I’m eating dinner waiting to sleep and while I’m sleeping I’m waiting to wake up to go to work, and in the end I’m just waiting to die.”

I quit pretty soon after. Sidebar: My old boss also quit and is doing much, much better.

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Do you still remember how your first professional acting gig went?

Yeah! My first gig was an Australia Post advertisement, as an extra. That’s where I first met Chris Pang, actually, and we’ve been mates since. As far as how the gig itself went—our feet made the cut walking in the background. So, definitely super successful. I guess I peaked early.

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At the moment, you play as Detective Wyatt Cole in “Reef Break.” What do you love most about the show? And what can we expect from your character in upcoming episodes? 

I love that “Reef Break” is a cop show taken up to the nines! We’re not reinventing the formula but we’re definitely having fun within the confines. Instead of the standard murder of the week, or grim crime of the week, we sort of have an adventure of the week instead: Buried treasure, pirate hackers, hostage situations, you name it. It’s an almost “Tomb Raider”-ish romp, mixed with the detective work we all know and love, mixed with heart, humor and levity and set on a beautiful, almost fantastical Pacific Island.

Wyatt Cole is the male lead character of the show. He’s a detective who considers himself a bit of a hot shot, who ends up having a one night stand with the character of Cat Chambers. That in itself is pretty revelatory for an Asian character on screen. She’s a force of nature who completely upends everything he thinks he understands about “Reef Island” and himself!

Jacket by Wrangler; pants by Guess
Tank top by Uniqlo; shorts by Wilbi Wear

Of course, you’re no stranger to cop shows, having played in series like “Bones,” the “Hawaii-Five-O” reboot and “NCIS: Los Angeles.” What do you think is the secret behind the constant popularity of the genre?

TV, particularly network TV, is such a familiar landscape and I think you lose something if you mess with that familiarity. Not to say that you don’t want to be artistically inventive, but there’s a reason why shows like “Bones,” or “Castle,” had millions of eyes on them year after year after year after year. In a lot of ways, these shows reflect a cultural aggregate of the times, which I think is still an incredibly valuable barometer. Our show, for example, is a “blue skies” show—it’s fun, it’s light and it’s a definite reaction to a lot of the grimness we’ve seen on TV recently.

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Shirt by Zara; pants by Calvin Klein; shoes by Cole Haan

We heard that you’re set to appear in a few upcoming projects this year, with one of them being “The Chronicles of Anatta: Mark of Existence.” Could you tell us a bit about it?

Yeah! That one is one hundred percent the brainchild of the lovely Madeleine Kennedy. It’s an independent sci-fi series that we currently can’t say too much about. All I can say is, keep your ear to the ground in the Comic Convention scene. You might hear something pretty incredible soon.

Top by Cos; shorts by y3; shoes by Puma
T-shirt by All Saints; pants by Pull and Bear; shoes by Frye

Touching on a rather touchy subject here, but how do you feel about the way Hollywood currently portrays Asians in film? 

Not a touchy subject and it shouldn’t be. I think we’re at a point in history where we can and should discuss these things frankly. Call me a crazy emboldened Asian.

Our portrayal is better than it’s ever been, but it still has leagues to go. The door has been opened in some cases, but there are still a number of productions that reduce us to the joke, or the emasculated Asian male, or the hypersexual Asian female. But it’s changing. Wyatt Cole is a character who could have been any race and ABC picked us to lead, with all the usual things that go with a lead character. He’s heroic. He’s scrappy. He does get the girl. These aren’t great metrics. And let’s talk about how “getting the girl” isn’t really a great feminist moment. But it’s a sign that the needle is moving.

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Who’s your biggest inspiration so far in your career?

Big fan of Tom Hardy and his ability to be heavily imitative—not other people necessarily, but groups and various sub cultures as a whole. I’d say, him aside, I’m a big fan of actors who vanish into their roles. The Daniel Day Lewises and Gary Oldmans. We don’t have an Asian one of those yet, and I’d aspire to be that. And, to return to the previous question, we won’t until we’re seen outside the lens of the prevailing culture. An Asian actor does not yet have the privilege of disappearing into a character.

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Are there any specific roles you want to tackle in the future?

That’s a hard one to pin down. The way I approach things, that’s such a moving target. I think shifting goalposts is such a Chinese trait, and if you combine that with acting where stagnation really screws you in terms of how good a job you can do, you have a very potent brew to never be satisfied.

One thing that is definitely bucket listed though is a Marvel villain. When they nail their bad guy’s motivation and writing. they truly, truly nail it. And not just movies: I used to rewatch David Tennant’s turn as the Purple Man over and over. Thanos, Loki, even Ultron. Yeah, I’d definitely enjoy a casual dip in the sinister.

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What’s your top tip to staying in such good shape?

Follow the Nike saying: Just do it. I’m not even kidding. I think my parents referenced that a few times when I was loathe to go to my early morning swim training sessions when I was a kid. I’m fairly sure they purposely bought me Nike Speedos with that slogan emblazoned on the butt to remind me specifically of that.

Look, as much as I resented it, it has become pretty defining for how I not just stay in shape but run my life. Context: I have deep, deep, entirely irrational thalassophobia. I can’t get in the deep end of a pool without my heart rate spiking to this day. But, I was forced to train every day for fourteen years, and even though the fear never went away I learned that it never stopped me from … just doing it.

Having said that, I quit swimming the moment I could in college.

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We also heard that you took a master’s degree in screenwriting. If you were given the opportunity to make your own script, what would it be about? 

Space cowboys. Between “Serenity” and “Cowboy Bebop” we may be tapping out on that genre for a second, but hey I can dream.

I’m actually working on a project with Chris Pang and Osric Chau right now, that, again, I can’t say much about. Let’s just say it appeals to my geeky, nerdy heart. Keep an eye out!

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Photography Jonathan D’Ambrosio
Styling Anakin
Photographer Assistant Maria D’Ambrosio
Stylist Assistant Brittany Zdrojewski
Grooming Michael Janda at Ted Gibson Salon
Grooming Assistant Thomas Shaner
Location Studio W Flowers

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