In Conversation With The Brothers Sun stars Justin Chien and Sam Song Li

Justin Chien and Sam Song Li discussed their profound connections to their characters, the intertwining of personal and on-screen narratives, and the unique cultural layers that enrich this thrilling epic.

Justin Chien and Sam Song Li discussed their profound connections to their characters, the intertwining of personal and on-screen narratives, and the unique cultural layers that enrich this thrilling epic.

the brothers sun justin chien sam song li

by Nathan Sing
January 10, 2024

Netflix’s latest action-dramedy The Brothers Sun starts as a tale of two brothers—one a stoic gangster and the other an aspiring comedian—and quickly evolves into a complex web of high-stakes drama and suspense.

The Brothers Sun not only serves up high-octane action but also delves deep into the complexities of loyalty, identity, and familial ties. Crafted by Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk, the show thrusts viewers into the heart of Taipei’s criminal underworld, where the Sun family, led by Eileen (Michelle Yeoh) and her sons Charles (Justin Chien) and Bruce (Sam Song Li), navigate a treacherous quest for power and survival.

In conversation with The RepresentASIAN Project’s Nathan Sing, Justin Chien and Sam Song Li discussed their profound connections to their characters, the intertwining of personal and on-screen narratives, and the unique cultural layers that enrich this thrilling epic.

The Brothers Sun is streaming now on Netflix! 

When you first got your hands on the script, what was it about this project that grabbed you from the start? 

Sam Song Li: I just remember reading this story and was like, “Oh, my gosh, this kind of sounds like my life!” Bruce is someone who was raised by a single mom, in the San Gabriel Valley in such an Asian-rich neighborhood in the 6-2-6! My own phone numbers’ area code is 6-2-6, and I grew up…in Temple City, I grew up in the area. And not only that, I had dreams of wanting to be an actor, I wanted to pursue being an actor, an entertainer, and I was doing comedy videos and all of that, and my mom also really wants the best for me, you know, and was very persistent on me becoming a doctor, studying to have a medical degree and stuff.

So I just remembered seeing the breakdown and feeling like, I was like, wow, this stuff must only come a handful of times in an actor’s lifetime, you know? So I was just very honoured to have seen something like that. And I didn’t want to get my hopes up. So I was like, Yeah, I think I’ve a good chance at this. I got a good chance. So yeah, just really excited all around.

Justin Chien: You’re lucky as an actor if in a year there are three or four auditions that really resonate with you. And for me, this was the one that resonated the most out of the hundreds of auditions that have ever been on. There’s just something that I couldn’t really place at first when I read this character that I was like, I get this, I understand Charles. And I feel like, this is me. That gave me this confidence and a sense of peace in that taping process. I knew what I wanted to do, and I was so certain of it that I just sent it off. And I was like, “This is what I am, take it or leave it.”

But the script itself also resonated deeply on a thematic level, but also with my own background. We touch on family a lot. My own family, I’m very close with. I love my parents and my siblings. I’m the oldest brother. I grew up in Taipei and in LA. So anytime I come across a script that has both of those elements, my curiosity is immediately piqued, and it was a tremendous honour to be a part of this project.

Personal experiences significantly shape artistic expression, so seeing yourself in a script like that is really something special. You’re both playing characters who are redefining their sense of family and brotherhood, did you find any aspects of filming to be healing or reflective?

S.S.L.: The whole experience felt really reflective just because I feel like there are so many similarities to my own life in really shocking ways. One of the first days we filmed at Bruce’s best friend TK’s apartment—who Joon Lee plays—and I remember walking to set that day and my jaw dropped. I realized that these apartments I walked by every single day when I was going to elementary school, so it felt like I was really grounded in the world.

But not only that, I think a lot of the struggles or I guess the problems that Bruce is going through felt really familiar to me. It was a reflection of a lot of our experiences, especially with there being this sort of generational difference in what we want to do with our lives. Bruce is experiencing the potential of so much loss and in my own life, I was going through that as well. 

J.C.: The character of Charles initially has a lot of annoyance, frustration and resentment towards Bruce. But as the story continues, he develops a love and care for Bruce to the point that even though Bruce lives a life that Charles wishes he could have had, Charles later on decides that he wants to protect and preserve the life that Bruce has, even if it’s something that he can’t or does not deserve to have. I embodied that. I felt that, and it made me confront how I am as an older brother and as a son in my own family. And it really made me think deeply about how I can be a better older brother to my own siblings and how I can be a better son. 

‘The Brother Sun’ amplifies family dynamics, within the context of a crime family where the stakes are literally life or death. But despite this heightened setting, the show delves into these universal emotional conflicts and internal struggles. Do you think that these exaggerated circumstances helped highlight the more relatable aspects of your characters and the Sun family?

J.C.: Absolutely. Entertainment is a great entryway and vehicle into these universal themes, as you mentioned. I think if an audience is laughing and crying, and just mesmerized by action, they’re more able and more attentive to be able to absorb some of the things that we hope that they take away. I think our show has a lot of heart. We have heartfelt moments and heartbreaking moments. Ultimately, I hope that the package that we have —  though, fun and entertaining — really inspires the audience to feel something and to cherish the people around them that they love, because that’s something that everyone can do more of is be more mindful and more grateful for everything that we do have.

Bruce’s passion for improv classes and where they could possibly lead him, as well as his mom Eileen’s initial hesitation towards that, is, I think, a storyline that many people can resonate with who are grappling with familial approval and expectations that are sometimes misaligned with their own self-expression. Was this something that not only resonated with you deeply, but some of the people that you’ve met through being a content creator, and in your journey as an actor?

S.S.L.: I think this is one of the most common reoccurring themes or struggles that I’ve probably dealt with. It’s just a generational thing, our parents want the best for us. And they’re immigrants, right? So they come to this country to really give the best life for you. They want you to have the most financially flourishing opportunities that you can, but I think what’s so cool about just being here, and being in this country, is you also have the freedom to choose what you want. And this is a place where dreams can come true. It’s a place where [Justin and I] can be here right now. That’s something that our parents maybe didn’t see when they came here because it just wasn’t really available to them. But they want the best for you, and at the end of the day, it always comes from love.

J.C.: My character deals with the axis of duty versus his own personal desires, and I really do think that sacrifice is one of the greatest expressions of love. That comes from our parents’ side, and that can come from our side in terms of choosing our lives to align somewhat with what they might want or what we might want. We do have the freedom but that comes with a balance. You do have to make sacrifices sometimes, but more often than not, it comes from a place of love. 

…and sometimes that love is communicated through food, and so many core moments in the show are centred around food and food sharing. I thought it was very endearing watching Charles become a churro connoisseur (or should I say a cinnamon youtiao connoisseur.) How do these culinary experiences within the show reflect and enhance the underlying themes of family and tradition?

J.C.: In Asia, most of the time, when you think of a family meal — we eat family style. So you’re all dipping in the same dish, you’re serving your elders, you’re serving your younger siblings, too. So for me, food is representative of joy. Anytime I can have a good meal, it definitely improves my mood and, and brings me some happiness.

All of the examples of that were crafted with great care by our food stylist, Melissa McSorely really helped. It adds another sensation that the audience can experience. When you look at the food, when you see how well it’s made, you can smell it through the screen, and it reminds you of those times and triggers, memories that you’ve shared over food. It’s its own character in our show, and we’re lucky to have a great team.

Justin, how did this personal and cultural connection to Taiwan influence your portrayal of Charles?

J.C.: Taiwan’s a place of beautiful natural scenery, amazing food, but the number one thing that I would share with you is that the people there are so kind. Anyone from the people we meet in public, to the aunties that took care of me, to the aunties that taught me … Because I grew up with so many wonderful kind people, it really imbued an even deeper sense of responsibility to tell the story to the best of my abilities, to give it everything I had. Culturally, it informed me because I grew up in a society where family was so important, and respect for elders was so important. And it’s something that I’m really behind. I want to go back and take care of my parents, they didn’t ask me to do it, they’re not forcing me to, but that’s something I want to do because I love them and I want to tell this story to the best of my abilities to make those people back home proud.

During the filming process, were there any moments with the cast — maybe even shared over a meal — where you felt the lines between cast and family blur?

J.C.: We didn’t have a ton of time to share meals as a cast during production, but since then we’ve all gotten hotpot together. I was just at Jenny [Yang’s] birthday … I play pickleball with Heidi occasionally … So we’ve definitely kept in touch. Even though it’s not one big meal around a table, we’ve all maintained our connection together which is wonderful because I have a whole new set of family and friends from the show.

S.S.L.: There was one day when Alice Hewkin (who plays who plays June Song) and I were sharing a meal together. She’s so fun, she’s such a lovable person. Then the moment that lunch is over, she’s like, “Alright, I’m gonna go back to pretending like I hate your guts and trying to kill you now.” 

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