Credit: John Schell
Whatever actor David Lim pursues, he pursues with relentless aggression. Whether it be sports, selling mortgages, or acting, Lim decides what he wants and then grabs it. If he doesn’t have the necessary skills, Lim practices, absorbs, and studies until he excels.
Lim currently stars as Lieutenant Victor Tan, a last-minute character addition on the CBS crime drama television series, “S.W.A.T.” During my recent interview with Lim, it’s immediately evident why the producers created this role especially for him. Both Lim and Tan switched jobs (albeit his character stayed within law enforcement) and made purposeful decisions to shoot for careers in what they loved, despite the risks.
In our conversation, Lim explained to me where he acquired his intense self-belief, tenacity, and determination. I imagined Lim coiled like a snake, prepared for the perfect striking moment — his energy palpable even through the phone. We discussed how the industry has changed since he started ten years ago when he signed with Ford Models and appeared in numerous commercials. Additionally, Lim expounded on his character on “S.W.A.T.”
Below is a transcript of our interview, edited for brevity.
VD: What is your favorite part about your character, Victor Tan, on “S.W.A.T.”? I know they created the role for you and it wasn’t what you originally auditioned for.
DL: I have Justin Lin, who would direct the pilot — and Sean Ryan, and Eric Thomas — those guys to thank for making that extra addition and allowing me to be part of the pilot, which then ultimately resulted in me becoming a series regular. And now here we are: Season 3. Because they created this character, he was a blank canvas. We could really go anywhere that we wanted to go with the character. If you’ve watched the past two seasons, it’s been a slow burn with my character and we’ll learn a lot more about him this [upcoming] season.
It’s been nice because we’ve been able to really take our time. I’ve been able to collaborate with all of our writers on where we want to head with the Tan character because we all feel, especially myself, [a] big responsibility because we have an Asian American character. It’s a non-stereotypical role on a primetime TV show and there’s a lot of viewership.
We feel like we have a nice opportunity to reach out to a lot of people. And let’s be honest. We just don’t get too many cool [Asian] characters in mainstream television and movies, so you’ve got to be careful with them. You’ve got to be responsible, so we have a lot of discussions. But I think that’s what I enjoy most. It’s open and we can really take it wherever we want to take [it].
VD: On the show, I saw this clip where your character is visiting a family friend, Uncle Yang. He says in Cantonese that your character could have gone to MIT and made the community proud by being an engineer, because apparently, that’s all we can do. I know you also have an electrical engineering degree from [University of California San Diego] and you were in the mortgage business. How did your family react when you left?
DL: In hindsight, now they’re super proud. They’re my number one fans and they couldn’t be happier that I made the decision. But they were pretty shocked when I first told them… I went to a private high school and [they helped] me with college tuition — and then they thought I was going to become an electrical engineer, right? [It was] almost like that scene: “Make this community, make the family proud.”
Then, I threw this one at them and said, “I’m not happy at my job. I want to pursue something else. I want to give this acting thing a shot.” … You know, my dad was a little more supportive at first. Both he and my mom are retired, but they both worked in the corporate world for 30 plus years. My mom was at [the same] job for almost 45, if you can believe that. So I think they just understood how difficult that was and what a grind that was.
At the same time, they didn’t really have a choice. Because they had to work from a young age. They were really poor growing up and they had to help their families [and] as they were older, provide for their kids. And because they were able to do that, it gave me and my [younger] sister a little more flexibility to pursue what we wanted to pursue. So while they didn’t have that luxury to drop everything and pursue their dreams, I did a little bit. I took full advantage.
VD: But that’s the goal, right? To make sure your next generation has more advantages than you did. That’s not what they had in mind?
DL: Yeah, for sure. Especially with Asian culture — and I think most cultures — you just want to provide a better life for your kids and their kids. So that’s what my parents did. Of course, I had saved up. I had saved up enough money working for Countrywide [Financial] and being a mortgage banker for a few years to quit and survive in L.A. for a little bit because I wasn’t making any money for a long time.
But as I was pursuing acting, I was having a little more success each year. I think that was encouraging to them. I still think that in the back of their minds, they were like, “Alright, how long are we going to give him? Until we say, ‘You know what, son? I think you should maybe put that engineering degree to use, sir.’”
In my mind, I was like, “I’m not going to fail. I’m going to pursue this thing and I don’t care how long it takes. I believe in myself. I have people around me who believe in me, and I really think I can do it. And then, if it doesn’t work out, I do have my degree or I can go back to being a loan officer.”
VD: Did your parents just pretend to their friends that you were doing something more normal? Did they talk about it?
DL: Hey, that’s a good question. To be honest, I’m sure there were times that they were embarrassed to tell family friends or some of our relatives. Probably in the early stages when I was struggling. Who knows? Maybe they might have told a couple of white lies.
I remember I was dating a girl at the time I had decided to pursue acting and pursue modeling. Her parents thought that I was a loan officer. So I think she had told them I was still doing mortgages, that I hadn’t moved to L.A. and wasn’t a struggling artist. But I get it. I might do the same thing if I was in their position.
I was proud, you know. I didn’t care that I was struggling. I just knew that that was a part of the process. And I was happy that I was pursuing something that I was passionate about and that I was having a little more success each year. So, for me, it didn’t matter. I would tell anybody, “Hey, I’m pursuing acting. Yeah, I’m not getting anything right now. But it’s a work in progress.”
VD: Do you think that is an innate thing about you? Or [did] you learn that from being in the mortgage business because of sales? [Or] sports? Because as Asian Americans, we’re often told we’re never good enough.
DL: For me, that came from two places… I grew up playing basketball, baseball, soccer, and I was an athletic kid. But athleticism only takes you so far. You’ve got to train at each sport. You’ve got to spend a lot of hours to improve. I was very good at all three sports, but because I loved them, I practiced all the time. So I knew from a young age that if you put in the work and you practice a lot, you can improve a lot.
That’s something I took with me to acting. I knew when I started — when I first stepped foot into a class and I tried to act — that I sucked. I knew it was going to take time and a lot of hours to get good, or get good enough to compete… It’s probably one of the most competitive industries in the world, right? So you have to be good. I always felt I was behind the eight ball because I got a later start. I hadn’t been training since I was a little kid and in theater. I didn’t go to school for acting. I always felt like I had to work doubly as hard or put in twice the amount of hours. From my sports background, I always knew if I put in the hours, I could at least reach my potential.
Certain people just have more of a talent for certain things than others. It’s the same with acting. Some people just have that innate ability and talent; they’re just good from the get-go. I had a little talent for it, but I always felt I had to make up for it in terms of just studying the craft, rehearsing, spending hours on end, [attending] classes, and then just learning by trial and error.
The second place I would say is from my parents because they had nothing growing up. They were so poor, and they had to work from when they were about 10 years old. They made an amazing life for themselves and for their kids. It was just through working hard and saving money and making sacrifices for the family and for their kids. With my sports background and my parents [raising] me to work hard, that’s what gave me the belief that I could have success in [this] business.
VD: That’s so awesome. I really do mean it because it’s so refreshing to see — not that you’re not humble — but it’s so refreshing to see a narrative different from, “Oh, I’m a humble Asian person.” And more of, “I’m gonna go for it. This is what I want and I’m good at or I’m going to get good at it.”
DL: I just always felt I could achieve something if I put in the work and sacrifice and did whatever I had to do if I wanted it that bad. This was something that — even at the beginning — if you didn’t want it that bad, if you wanted to be successful, you had to be passionate about it. You had to really want it. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s necessarily worth going through all the ups and downs this industry throws at you.
This was always my mindset. I always took that into anything I did. Even when I started doing loans. I knew absolutely nothing about the industry. I just knew that I was a smart guy, and I could pick things up quickly. But I spent a lot of time and I learned the ins and outs of the business when I was working for Countrywide. I was able to have some really good success doing that. I [thought], “Okay. Well, maybe this thing applies to everything you do in life. Whatever it is: relationships, marriages.” Now I’m married, so I better work hard at this marriage thing so I’m good at it!
VD: Now that you’ve been in the business for about 10 years, how have you seen it change in terms of Asian American representation, both behind and in front of the screen?
DL: It’s changed so much in 10 years. When I first started, there was nothing; there were no roles for Asians. If there were, it was very stereotypical or it was a couple lines. I couldn’t get seen for any roles with substance, any regular roles on shows or in good parts in movies. Over the last 10 years, it’s really, really opened up.
Even before I did “S.W.A.T.,” I did a show called “Quantico.” When I auditioned for that, [there] was actually a role written for an Asian American and it was a really great role with a lot of depth. There was conflict in the role and I loved playing that character. That was in 2016, so things had already started to open up slowly. Then, “S.W.A.T.” came along. Now I have this awesome, great role where I get to play an action hero. I get to save the day. I have a girl. I have a character with a family and a personal life. It’s really a dream come true.
Then, obviously, [there] was “Crazy Rich Asians.” Was it last year it came out?
VD: I think so. This year was “Always Be My Maybe” and “The Farewell.”
DL: Now, I don’t think the floodgates are open. But it’s opening and there’s a lot of progress being made. There’s still much more progress to be made, but at least in the last 10 years, it’s really changed. When you talk about behind the cameras as well, I think that’s so important because you’ve got to have Asian directors, writers, producers, and showrunners.
I don’t watch or know everyone, everybody who’s behind every show, but I know “S.W.A.T.” I know we have an Asian American writer in our room. That’s so important when we’re telling diverse stories. We’ve had a few episodes about my character that have been an Asian American story. We get a lot of directors who come on. Justin Lin did our pilot; he’s an executive producer. We’ve had multiple Asian American directors come in. We have episodes where we feature multi-Asian cast, which is important because it shouldn’t just be me. You shouldn’t just have the token Asian guy on the show and be good with that.
If it’s happening with our show and I see it, it’s happening with other shows. Now we have movies that are coming out starring Asian actors and multiple Asian actors. It’s really cool. Because we have more visibility and we have more representation, the next generation of Asian artists are going to be like, “Okay. Well, this thing is possible.” There’s going to be an influx of Asian actors and artists who are going to get into the business now. So, it’s fun to see it evolve from when I moved to L.A. in 2009.
Credit: John Schell
VD: There’s a lot of Asian American representation on YouTube. Do you see people crossing over from YouTube into the acting business?
DL: I feel like everyone’s crossing over everything. I see influencers and YouTubers in commercials and then I see them having their own web series and even in TV shows. YouTube is such a great thing because it’s hard to get on a TV show, right? And get your story out there and get your words. It took me essentially 10 years. But it’s easy to put together a short film with your friends or write something or make a web series or put something up on YouTube. There’s so many talented people out there, not just young Asian Americans. So I think it’s a really cool platform.
And I know some of these guys who are making a living doing this, doing funny skits. I’m like, “This guy’s got the life.” I’m over here putting in 14-hour days on set, nine and a half months out of the year to make to make episodes of “S.W.A.T.” But I think it’s really cool and definitely, if you’re a talented actor or artist, you can cross over into whatever you really want to do.
VD: What advice would you give young people, especially Asian Americans who want to pursue acting, directing or writing? What would you advise their parents?
DL: Create your own stuff, for sure. For young artists, make short films, make YouTube videos, do skits, do fun Instagram videos. If it’s an actor that you want to be, always be acting. You can just pick up any camera and be working on your craft. That’s really important.
If you’re not already a super talented actor, find a good class and study [acting] because it is a craft and it takes a long time to get good. I still feel like I’m learning and growing and improving. I still feel like I have a long ways to go even though I’m a series regular on a show. That never stops as an artist and actor — the learning aspect of it. Make your own stuff.
For the parents, at least give your kids a chance… It wasn’t until I was 25 that I figured out I wanted to try acting. Sometimes, it takes time for a young person to figure out what they’re passionate about or what they want to do. Some people know from a very young age, which I really admire. And they’d just know that from a young age [that] they want to be a baseball player, or they want to be an actor, or they want to be a politician or whatever it is. And that’s really cool.
For a lot of us, it takes a lot of navigating our way through life to figure it out. But when you do figure it out, it’s so beautiful. It’s such an amazing feeling to do something that you love, that makes you happy. And if you can make a career out of it, if I can make a career out of this and do this for a long time, I don’t think it gets much better. So I would say [to] at least let them try.
And I think in trying, even if you’re not successful or even if you fail at something, you still learn all sorts of valuable life lessons. If I fell flat on my face after “S.W.A.T.” and that was it for me in this industry, I wouldn’t take a day back. I’ve learned so many lessons and made so many friends. I’ve really had the time of my life the last 10 years.
Obviously, now it’s a little better because I’m working steadily. But I wouldn’t regret quitting my job and just moving to L.A. on a dream.
VD: In an earlier interview, I saw that you mentioned acting in the arts was never a part of your vision of the future as a kid. Can you expand on that? Was it because there was no representation of Asian Americans? Like it wasn’t something you thought we could do?
DL: That was a huge part. You just don’t think it’s something that’s feasible because you don’t see it. I didn’t see any actors or people in movies or TV that looked like me when I was little. Or if I did it, it was a very stereotypical, uncool role. So then, it messes with your psyche because then you’re like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be included in the rest of society because [I’m] not included up there on the TV screen.”
That definitely has something to do with it. But then, there are [also] no actors or artists really in my family. And I think that probably goes for a lot of Asian American families. Because it’s not something when you immigrate to this country or — I don’t think we thought to do that as a living. It’s not like we came over and we’re like, “Yeah, we’re all gonna be actors in America.” You just find a good job and you try to provide for your families; [you] just try to make it.
There was definitely that aspect, but I think maybe now, it’ll be a little different because we’ve got all these young kids who want to be entrepreneurs. The opportunity to be your own boss, start your own thing, or be an influencer or an artist or an actor is now the thing for the younger generation.
Back then, I just didn’t know you could do that as a living. Me being an actor was something that was so far removed from my world, especially growing up in the Bay Area. Now when you move out to L.A., sure everybody’s pursuing the arts or wants to be an actor so you’re around it a lot more. I just never thought of it growing up and I still don’t know how it came to my mind that I could do it. But I made the decision, and I’m really happy I did. I do remember that when I did make the decision, I was like, “There needs to be more Asian representation. It’s coming; I can do it.” I just had no idea if we could actually do it because there weren’t really people paving the way. Maybe it was John Cho. He’s the first guy that comes to mind who had success as an Asian American actor.
VD: What is something you wish people would ask you?
DL: That’s a good one. I don’t know. I’ve always been a guy who doesn’t like to get asked questions. But obviously, it’s fun now to do interviews because I’m really proud of “S.W.A.T.” and what I’ve been able to accomplish so far in my young career. I do like to talk about that. Of course, I love and am a big fan of the people I work with: our showrunners, writers, and the other actors. I could talk about them all day.
I was really a shy kid. That’s why I still can’t believe I became an actor. I used to hate talking in front of people. I used to hate being asked questions. When the teacher would call me in class. I would freak out that I didn’t know the answer. So I don’t know, I’ll have to think about what I wish people would ask.
VD: All right, so last question. In addition to “S.W.A.T.,” are there other projects you’d like to tell us about or one you want us to keep an eye out for?
DL: I would if I had some. We shoot so much — almost 10 months out of the year. We’re right in the thick of it. We’re filming Episode 11 of 22 right now. So we’re right at that halfway point. We’re filming an episode in Tokyo which I’m super excited about. Half the cast is going to go out there and we’re going to go film in the streets, which is going to be incredible.
Last year, we did an episode in Mexico City. This year, we’re going to do our international episode in Tokyo. What other TV show gets to go school film in Tokyo? I know we’re gonna go do it, but I haven’t read the script for that yet. I know we’re just gonna go do some car chases, blow things up, kick down some doors, and save the day. It’s gonna be awesome.
Then, I got married on our last hiatus so I didn’t have time to entertain any other projects. When the next hiatus rolls around, which will be next April of 2020, I might be able to pick something up. But usually by then, we’re all so exhausted from the long season that all we want to do is catch up on sleep and relax and go travel and everything. But I’m totally open. I see so many great projects out there right now, and there are lots of Asian American actors who are getting cast in really, really cool roles. So who knows what the possibilities are next year?
Check David out as Victor Tan in “S.W.A.T.” on CBS (out now) and Season 2 of “Quantico.” Previously seen in “GQ China” and “People Magazine’s” Sexiest issue, he can also be found @davidbradleylim on Instagram and @davidbradleylim on Twitter.