Comisery Week: Interview with Harrison Xu, the Time Traveler

Comisery is an Asian-American Science Fiction Screwball Comedy that Quentin Lee and I created and made over eight weeks during the lockdown. It stars Bee Vang, Harrison Xu, Amy Hill, Jennifer Field, Nat Ho, Sheetal Sheth, Richard Anderson, and Verton Banks. It's a screwball comedy response to the pandemic and living under lockdown. It premieres on September 1st on Quentin's streaming service AsianAmericanMovies.com and on Amazon Video.

Comisery Launches – How to Accidentally Make a Movie
"Comisery" key art, courtesy of Margin Films

Full disclosure: when I'm not working on screenplays and film work, I'm a correspondent for Bleeding Cool. In the week leading up to the premiere, the editors of Bleeding Cool have let me run a series of interviews with the cast and crew to talk about what it was like to make a movie during the lockdown, shot on zoom, without leaving home. It's a new form of narrative filmmaking that the industry is still coming to terms with.

Today, we speak to Harrison Xu, who has been acting since he was a teenager and appeared in shows like Shameless and Pretty Little Liars. In Comisery, Harrison plays Kel Lee, the head of a tech startup that claims to have come from the future to prevent a virus from destroying the world. Kel's actions set off a chain of bizarre events that Skylar and his circle of friends have to survive.

Comisery Week: Interview with Harrison Xu, the Time Traveler
Harrison Xu in "Comisery", Margin Films

Harrison, I wasn't privy to Quentin's first conversations with the cast because I was busy writing the scripts. How long had you known Quentin? 

Quentin and I have known each other for ten years! He actually cast me when I was still a teenager in Vancouver in his short film; Today Has Been Weird, which premiered at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. It was one of my first roles ever, and I'm so glad Quentin took a chance on me.

How did Quentin approach you about playing Kel in Comisery?

Quentin and I have been friends and have talked on and off about working together again on a project for a while. This actually came up pretty suddenly. He told me he had teamed up with you for a web series pilot to be shot the week after. He told me that Bee Vang, who is an incredible actor, had been cast alongside Akemi Look, who unfortunately couldn't make the taping. What I initially thought was going to just be a pilot ended up being a whole series!

What do you make of your character Kel?

In some ways, Kel is very different from me. In others, he's completely the same. He has this insecurity about himself, but also this driving need to save the world. I love how he's constantly battling with himself throughout the series, so in some ways, I feel like he's always been his own biggest obstacle in life.

Did the character and the story go where you thought it might?

Not at all! I thought Kel was simply coming back from the future to stop this looming alien apocalypse caused by a deadly virus. I knew his ex-girlfriend was going to be the main antagonist in the film as well. However, what started off as a trio ended up being this wonderful cast of 8 incredible actors who all took the story in unexpected directions. I didn't anticipate Kel having an existential crisis about whether or not he was also an alien or the extent of his insecurities about his relationship with Camilla. Without spoiling the ending, Kel also does right by a few different people by the conclusion of the film, and I love the arc he goes through.

I found your performance endlessly hilarious. I muted my microphone during the takes so you wouldn't hear me laughing my head off. How did you approach playing the character?

Thank you – I appreciate that! I knew off the bat that Kel would have to be played with utmost seriousness. This situation with the virus is already so wacky, so I wanted to play the character as grounded as possible, while incorporating extremely high stakes. If Kel didn't succeed in his mission to enlist Danny, the world would end. Also, from watching a ton of comedy, some of my favorite moments are the most subdued, simple reactions. It's the feeling that the audience members experience alongside the character that makes a situation relatable and funny. Especially in a Zoom format where you can have all the actors' faces on screen at once, I wanted to really lean into that and react to some of these absurd scenarios as honestly as possible.

What was it like to perform on zoom and with a cast with vastly different personalities, energy, and styles?

Honestly, it was really weird at first. It's never going to replicate the feeling of seeing a 3D person in front of you that you can see, touch, hear, and sense. On Zoom, you're talking to someone who isn't exactly looking at you since they're looking at their screen of you looking at your screen. In real life too, you get to know each other a lot quicker and better than over Zoom. However, I think the cast was able to quickly adapt, and the more we rehearsed, the better we became. Comedy is especially hard to shoot over Zoom because comedic timing is definitely more challenging, but more importantly, the editor has less to work with. While shooting, you don't have camera movement, different angles to use, or location changes, so it sometimes feels like you have to work harder for the comedy since you don't have these other factors working in your favor. But overall, it was an incredible learning experience, and I think the cast was able to really gel together.

Quentin said he was surprised at how funny you were. I just felt the more you leaned into Kel being serious, the funnier you would be. And your playing straight man to everyone else's craziness not only grounded the story but also made you even funnier. One thing that I liked was how you often ad-libbed little bits that added more humour. Can you talk about how you approached your performance?

First off – thank you for letting us improvise. It's really easy to ad-lib when the writing is good, and you have a good understanding of the character and their quirks. I think it's always extremely freeing to be able to add little things here and there to round out the character and make it natural to our own voices. I always try to bring a little of myself to each character. One teacher I had recently said, "no one does you better than you, so double down on yourself". Not to say, each character should literally just be you playing yourself, but you have your own unique essence that you can bring to each character.

Would you be interested in exploring Kel's journey further if we can swing a sequel?

Yes! There is so much left to explore, especially his relationship with Camilla. If we are also able to somehow film this in-person with other actors, I think it would lead to a really interesting dynamic that we haven't seen yet.

Comisery is available AsianAmericanMovies.com and on Amazon Video.

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Adi TantimedhAbout Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist who just likes to writer. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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