Desmond Chiam is a man of many talents; a true Renaissance Man! In addition to a Master’s Degree in Screenwriting from USC, Desmond also has a law degree from the University of Melbourne. Desmond can be seen in episodes of Con Man with Alan Tudyk, NCIS: Los Angeles, Bones, Offspring, and Better Man. He’s also a dedicated dancer. A native Australian, Desmond gave up a law career to pursue acting in America. Thanks to The Shannara Chronicles, Desmond is on his way to becoming a household name (it doesn’t hurt that he is also devastatingly handsome). Desmond graciously took the time to answer a few questions for Talk Nerdy With Us. Here’s what Desmond has to say about Shannara the TV series, the Shannara book series, and some of his upcoming projects:
What can you tell us about General Riga so far?
He’s a Crusader – and I mean that in the most literal, historical usage of the word. The leader of a strong military core, supported ideologically by the common folk throughout the Four Lands. Of course, we know the evils that the actual crusades visited on people before they pulled back – and Riga himself is cunning, charismatic, and not at all unwilling to throw down in the mix of things, which makes them him and his supporters all the more dangerous.
Do you think Riga’s motivation for hunting magic users is sincere, or is he just an opportunist preying on people’s fears?
It’s quite sincere. People are speculating about his little collection of magical artifacts, but in truth Riga understands them more than most. He speaks druidic. He’s studied the ancient texts. He’s not about to use this dangerous collection, but I will say he is arrogant in his ability to keep them secure. At his core, he truly is sincere about the security of the Four Lands. But sincerity does not necessarily mean clean hands.
The socio-political commentary of the Shannara is much less subtle this season. What do you think a fantasy series can tell us about our current times?
You’re asking the big questions! I mean, if you look back at Star Trek, one of its prime directives was to be an erstwhile commentary on society. A fictional world removed from the trappings of reality allows us to more succinctly look at one particular perspective of an otherwise complex issue. It clears the noise away – and while the big picture is important, it’s equally important not to let personal experiences vanish inside that. I think that’s what fantasy or science fiction can do, whether it’s as veiled a metaphor as Tolkien’s well known series, or as direct a commentary as Black Mirror. Shannara in particular, as you’ve picked up on, plays on the idea of a pure motive – say, making a particular land great again – gone too far and how that can lead to a violent clash.
Have you read any of the Shannara books?
Ha! I think I’m probably well known in the Shannara crew and cast for obnoxiously pointing out wherever possible that I’ve read the books.
“Hey, what’re you reading? New Zealand Travel guide? Cool, let me tell you about another book. Called Sword of Shannara. That I’ve read.”
“We get it, Des. Please go away.”
Long story short, they were the second set of fantasy books I read when I was around 10-12 years of age, and they were sort of essentially a gateway into the larger world of fantasy and sci-fi literature. So many books. I still have them here on my shelf.
Describe a day on the set.
Incredible, especially for a fantasy nerd. Listen, I grew up being an Elven ranger or some derivative in almost every MMORPG you could name. I was that kid. So getting to set in the morning – call times were regularly 4am for me – was easy, because I was literally living my dreams. First thing they would do would be put the ears on me, then the armor, then strap me up with the weapons and sometimes the cape. It was hot, uncomfortable, itchy, hard to sit, impossible to pee in, and I would have stayed in it forever.
We’d usually be on set for blocking by 6-7am, and then shoot through until early evening. That, as well, was incredible – whether we were on location or on a set built in a soundstage, it felt very much like the Four Lands. And this was no small production, either, so just seeing the different roles, the atmosphere, seeing very talented people work together to create a world – it drove all of us to work that much harder. If we weren’t shooting, very frequently we’d be training instead – grueling, but ultimately worth it.
You are a man of many talents, including a law degree and a Master’s in screenwriting. What drives you?
Fear, of invisibility, of failure, of disappointing my parents (sorry, mum) are probably all the most honest answers here. But in fact, a lot of it is a sheer contrarian nature. Once that kicks in, I don’t really have problem fixating and working hard on something. In fact, that Masters from USC was essentially the result of a bet with a mate that I wouldn’t be accepted into the hardest film school to get into in the world, made a week before the application cutoff date. I wrote a bunch of stuff from scratch in the week, applied for some grants, and lo and behold suddenly I’m living in the US.
The other part is laziness, which I think actually has a pretty close link with proficiency. I don’t enjoy it if something is hard, and the only way to make it not hard is to do it over and over until it’s easy. Once it’s easy I can be lazy about it!
You also wear many hats: actor, writer, dancer, producer, even cinematographer. Do you have a favorite of these medium?
Acting! It’s the most natural for me, and thereby the easiest to do, and therefore slots right in with that lazy lifestyle I like. It’s why I chose it for my career!
But to be honest, dance is my safe space. It was my gateway drug into creative careers, and I always go back to it when I just need pure catharsis.
I have to ask: do you still breakdance?
Yes! There’s still a surprisingly vibrant underground dance scene in SoCal. Particularly in North Hollywood or parts of the OC, and definitely in all the colleges across the state too. I’m still regularly throwing my body into the ground, for fun.
What were some of your adventures as the Singapore Cleo Bachelor of the Year?
Oh God. We had to do the most PG strip tease ever, which frankly made it all the more embarrassing. We’re up there on stage, in a club in Singapore (my poor, poor sister in the crowd had to shield her eyes), stepping to some cheesy choreo’d routine, taking off our tie, shirt, belt and— That was it. That’s as far as we got. I would’ve felt seriously cheated if I were in that crowd.
Other than that, there was a fun photoshoot where they put about fifteen thousand dollars worth of clothes on me, and told me to wade into the ocean with it on. I never thought I’d weep for threads.
Are there any new updated on the Chronicles of Anatta project?
Nothing yet! But we’re all pretty excited to see where it takes us.
What other irons do you have in the fire at the moment?
There’s a movie coming out next year that I have a small role in called Magic Camp! It’s a Disney film directed by Mark Waters of Mean Girls’ fame. I got to sit next to Gillian Jacobs for a whole week, and I think I was vaguely coherent. She is a woman of intimidating talent and wit.
Photos by Ted Sun and Retouching by Emerald Monzon