Actor Mike Tan Talks About Race And Romance Onstage

The star of Chromatic Theatre's Cowboy Versus Samurai on playing the straight man



The cast of Cowboy Versus Samurai from left to right; Matt Glessing, Carmela Sison, Mike Tan and Richard Lee Tsi

Jenna Rodgers

Betty Mitchell Award-winning actor Mike Tan is a funny guy. He's known for his physicality, expressive face and big choices on stage. In Chromatic Theatre's debut performance Cowboy Versus Samurai, Tan tackles a very different role, that of the straight man romantic lead. Tan plays Travis Park, a Korean-American living in a small Wyoming town who falls in love with a teacher who claims to only date white men. As one of Calgary's newest theatre companies, Chromatic Theatre is dedicated to creating more opportunities for diverse artists on stage and Cowboy Versus Samurai highlights some of Alberta's best Asian-Canadian actors. We chat with Tan about his own nationality, dream roles and kissing on stage.

How many different nationalities have you played on stage?

I’ve probably played at least a dozen, some of those are subtle with just accent or costume. I’ve only ever really played an Asian character for two of those shows and this is my third time. I’ve played a black character, Spanish, Italian, Mexican, Turkish, I’ve played someone from Sierra Leone. A lot of these characters are loosely the nationality, more like a clown character with an accent. 

What is your nationality?

I’m Filipino and Chinese-Canadian. 

Would you describe yourself as a character actor?

I’d say so. That’s definitely where I’m comfortable. I enjoy physical parts. I’m much more inclined to do something bigger than smaller. I’m the straight man in Cowboy Versus Samurai. It’s the role I don’t often get to play. I’m usually the psychopath.

Has it been uncomfortable for you to play the love interest?

Yeah, totally, because I’m terrible at kissing people on stage. My scene partner Carmela hates me. 

But you’re not a terrible kisser in real life?

I yearn for it and then the moment passes and I’ll end up standing there with my mouth agape. Then someone will throw something into my mouth and I go home crying.

Seriously, has it been hard to play the romantic straight man?

It hasn’t been, because it's something I’ve always been interested in playing. I have an inclination to be big and I have an expressive face, so getting to tap into something that’s a little more quiet and sincere has been a really neat exploration. Having a supportive scene partner helps to. I can screw up and be shy or weird and all in all probably not be someone who you want to kiss all the time. 

Have you ever felt limited as an actor by your race?

I did, but only in university. I had a bit of time with it, maybe in second or third year, where I really felt like I went for certain roles and was totally not getting them. Post-university, I didn’t feel that way because the theatre projects I worked on were quite a bit more open and explorative about self as opposed to interpreting work that’d been made by middle-aged Caucasian men as most plays are. 
I’ve been very fortunate, but I think I’m an odd case to be perfectly honest with you. I think in general it is pretty difficult because there aren’t that many roles out there.

If you could play any role or character regardless of race or gender who would you be?

I would love to be Tom in The Glass Menagerie. There’s something in there about having responsibilities but wanting to get away and living another life in your mind. I always thought that was really romantic and beautiful. Or an Asian Hamlet. I’d dye my hair blonde so I looked like a Dragon Ball Z character. 

What stories would you like to see more of onstage?

Kim’s Convenience at Theatre Calgary last year was such a hit. A lot of people connected with it because a lot of people are that. It’s about strangers coming to a new place. It’s a real feeling to feel kind of alien. I think stories that represent the demographic of immigrants in the city are important.

Cowboy Versus Samurai runs Nov. 13 to 22 at Motel, Epcor Centre. Buy tickets at chromatictheatre.ca.

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