You don’t find someone every day who loves acting as much as Hayden Szeto does.
“I love how people discover their own self through this art,” the Chinese Canadian actor says. “It’s the most confronting art form. There’s nothing to hide. It’s just you and your soul, and I find that really rewarding.”
Szeto speaks of his profession more eloquently than most, but he admits that the story of how he caught the acting bug is “the very cliché story of every actor growing up shy.”
“I just wanted to break out of that,” he shares. “I remember watching high school plays and being like, ‘Man, I want to be like them.’” As a ninth grader, Szeto admired the drama kids’ confidence and their ability to make people feel something.
Eventually, Szeto went from sitting in the audience to stepping on stage and even writing his own “Charlie Chaplin-style” skit. He describes the experience of getting laughs from the audience for the first time as “the best feeling in the world.”
It’s been a winding journey from there to the big screen, most recently opposite Hailee Steinfeld in the much-praised coming-of-age flick Edge of Seventeen.
Unlike actors who have thrown themselves completely into the industry since they were young, Szeto took a detour to study sociology at Canada’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University. “I did that because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” the breakout star says, laughing. “I think that’s okay. College is the time for people to figure that out.”
But Szeto discovered that his passion remained in acting and, with the support of his artistic family, he moved to Los Angeles to study at the New York Film Academy.
Szeto credits teachers like Larry Moss for more than just his acting: “[The program] not only gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do, but it changed how I looked at life. It empowered me.”
That perspective helped Szeto with his character Erwin, the nice guy who gets the girl in Edge of Seventeen—oh, and he happens to be Asian.
“When I got the part, I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t try to prove something as an Asian American actor,’” Szeto says. “It was very crucial for me to do a good job, but I can’t focus on just doing a good job. I knew how big this could be. I knew that people were going to be talking about it if I did a good job.”
The potential for buzz stemmed from the fact that Erwin is a well-rounded character—a rare and distinct standout from the one-dimensional sidekicks that Asian actors are typically tasked to represent in Hollywood.
“I’m used to [Asian characters] being somewhat of an accessory character, so I’m like, ‘Whatever, I’ll go in for it,’” Szeto says of his initial reaction to the audition material for Erwin. His response when he saw the full script? “‘Holy crap.’ You don’t see roles like this written for Asian Americans.”
Despite the enormity of this singular role, Szeto’s wishes are for something much larger. “Hopefully one day, my kids, your kids, the next generation of Asian Americans, we don’t have to talk about us being represented so much because we’re just going to become a norm,” he says.
For now, he recognizes that Asian American stories “haven’t been told properly”—and that the situation needs to change.
“There’s a lot of fear in America right now, and I think we need diversity in art more than ever,” Szeto says. “Right now, if you’re a person of color, you should not be discouraged. If there’s any point in your life you should be encouraged as a person of color to tell more stories, it is now. Look at what’s happening to the country. They want you to shut up. So now, more than ever, you should be encouraged.”
Szeto takes his own advice to heart: “I’m not an activist, but the most I can do is put forth good work and continue to push things forward for everyone. I’m going to try my best to do the best work possible to improve our narrative.”
To do that, Szeto believes he, and any other actor of color, needs to put in the work first. “We’re up against a flawed system, but we’re not going to change it unless we do something—and people are doing it right now,” Szeto says, praising prominent Asian American actors like Into the Badlands’ Daniel Wu and Fresh Off the Boat’s Randall Park and Constance Wu.
“These opportunities are here and they’re going to grow, so you’ve got to be ready as an artist,” he says. “You better train your ass off because when that opportunity comes, you’re representing us.”
And the best outcome of all that hard work?
“One day, we sit down and we don’t need to talk about what I look like and we can just talk about the work and the stories we’re telling,” Szeto says.
Stylist & Producer: Esther Cho
Photographer: Melly Lee
Hair: Yumi Kotani, Maria Coca
Production Assistant: Stephanie Lee
Clothing courtesy of: US Repo and Left Field
Jewelry courtesy of: Joe Hwang
Location courtesy of: Austin Jose, Carina Aguila & DeimMy D.
Last modified: March 16, 2017