The Brothers Sun is set to ring in the new year with a bang at Netflix. The series is a crowd-pleasing blend of action, comedy, crime thriller, and family drama, and it stars recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh. At the center of this exciting new show is Sam Song Li, a young actor-slash-content creator who takes on his first leading role as Bruce, the unwitting youngest son of a Taiwanese triad boss. Throughout the series, Bruce must learn to navigate this international criminal underworld all while keeping his family together. Li spoke with Observer about his time on the series, from its high-octane action to how it’s shaped his own journey as a content creator.
To get started, the biggest, most burning question to ask is what was it like to work with Michelle Yeoh?
It was honestly really easy! As you can imagine, I was incredibly nervous, especially on the first day that we filmed only because Michelle is an incredibly busy person. She’s a movie star, she’s a global icon. She’s really tight with her schedule, and I guess I didn’t get to spend as much time bonding with her as [I did] with some of the other castmates, simply because we just had so much more time. We didn’t have an Oscar-winning movie to promote during pre-production!
But the thing with Michelle, she is so generous with her energy, and she makes you feel so vulnerable as an artist and like you can talk to her about anything. The way that she interacts with you and listens to you and pays attention to you, it’s like you could spend 10 minutes with her in a room and feel like you’ve known this woman for 10 years. It’s like playing basketball with Steph Curry or LeBron James, you’re gonna win so many more games and they’re going to make the game so much easier.
This is your first leading role, and it’s a pretty big series. What was it like being thrust into such a massive and intricate world?
There was a lot for me to figure out. The difference between a leading role and everything I’ve done before is the sheer repetition in the sense that you can be filming for months. There was a learning curve for me, I hadn’t really thought about it until I was in the thick of it.
I feel like it was incredibly fun, it was like theater school for me! I think there was an actor from Game of Thrones who once said that if you do a season of TV as a series regular, it’ll teach you everything you’ll ever need to know about acting—I can say that’s pretty close to the truth. I feel like I’ve learned a lot.
The Brothers Sun comes at a time when we’re seeing a really great uptick in Asian representation in the media. How important was that kind of cultural sensibility for you when working on the project?
It was incredible to see and to witness. The story was, for me, very personal, because here’s the thing—I grew up in San Gabriel. I grew up in the town that this show takes place in. The first day that we shot at TK’s [Bruce’s best friend in the series] apartment, we showed up on set, and I looked over at the apartments we’re filming at, and my jaw dropped. I walked by these apartments every day when I was going to elementary school. It was crazy. So surreal! It was a very personal feeling, to see this town, my hometown, with such a rich vibrant Asian community being shown to the whole world.
I think there’s a real desire and hunger from audiences to see this kind of content right now. There’s a reason Everything Everywhere All at Once was such a massive hit with the way that it reshifted the narrative about the immigrant story across the multiverse, or even Netflix’s Squid Game and how that became a cultural phenomenon even though that’s a foreign language, a Korean show. I feel like this show, in its own right, is so authentic and fresh, so I hope that audiences, regardless of whether they’re Asian or not, are drawn to it, because it’s something they’ve never seen before.
On to another facet of what people will really love about this show: the innovative action scenes. Admittedly, Bruce does a bit more creative running away than fighting compared to the other characters, but it’s clearly a lot of choreography. What was that prep process like?
There is an art to running around like a chicken with its head cut off! It’s so funny because we have this world class stunt team, led by Justin Yu and these guys who all worked on the original John Wick. So if you see action pieces that remind you of John Wick, it’s because we literally had the team. We have some of the best action that you’ll see on TV, and it’s incredible.
Ironically, when I met with them about my role, they were like “You are really overqualified! You’re athletic, you’ve had some martial arts training, so we don’t need you to know any more than you already do because it works so much more for your character to be completely clueless.” So I didn’t get the chance to participate too much in the specific martial arts sequences, but obviously we got to choreograph. Watching them choreograph work was amazing, just because of the way that we approached our action sequences.
I think there’s so much comedy in all of our action, it’s very creative with the way they’ve designed the fights. There’s a handful of moments that are funny. I’m really proud of the work that we did, and I definitely feel like I got the chance to channel my inner Jackie Chan.
Another big part of Bruce’s character is his love for improv. Did you have any background in that before the show, or was that something you got to explore on set?
A little bit—I’ve taken some UCB and some other improv classes here and there. Actually, I’d do a lot of these scripted videos with bits of improv in it that I was posting online that were going viral. When I found out I booked Bruce and he specifically was taking classes at Groundlings, I enrolled in Groundlings and started taking classes and studying the Groundlings improv techniques. Improv really affected the way I saw Bruce as a character. Bruce approaches life with a sort of “yes, and” mentality, and “yes, and” became a really big theme for me.
You touched on it a little, but you write and direct your own videos for social media. How much of a learning experience was this big production for you when it comes to making your own stuff?
It goes hand-in-hand. I do feel like making my own content allows me to have a more well-rounded perspective in the sense that I could really understand where our directors were coming from or where our showrunner was coming from. When they gave notes I could understand where their perspectives were coming from, because I’ve been on the other end of it. I’ve been on the end where I had to make content and watch things back and realize something doesn’t play a certain way. As an actor, you don’t necessarily have that foresight because you’re in the scene, you’re not watching the scene.
With all of that, what’s next on your plate? Is there a Season 2, another project, maybe some work behind the camera?
Obviously, Season 2—fingers crossed. I think that’s where things could get really fun, just because we’ve really grown to know these characters. I’m going to continue to write and direct and produce and act in my own things, mainly because as an actor it’s so hard to choose work. You don’t really get the chance to choose what you want to do, it just sort of happens. You go out for auditions and you never know when your next job is gonna come around, that’s just the way the industry works. There’s a lack of control as an actor, but the one thing I’ve always been able to control is my content. I’m always able to control the message I want to put out into the world.
With that, what are you hoping people will get out of The Brothers Sun?
Hopefully people really love it, because I think there’s something for everyone in the show. There’s so much badass martial arts action sequences, it’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and there’s something for everyone to really enjoy and see about their own families.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.