Sydney-born actor Michael Teh is building a name for himself in the tough Hollywood market, with roles in instant cult-classic horror films like Megashark vs Giant Octopus, Sharknado and Alien Rising. Moreover, his performance as the enigmatic Seamus Duncan in tv hit series Sleepy Hollow has been praised by fans.
Check our full interview with this growing Aussie-born star below:
SR. As an Australia-born actor, what would you say has been the biggest challenge of your career so far?
MT. I was lucky enough to win the Greencard lottery after about 2 years of theatre school in New York allowing me to work as an actor. So this solved the greatest bureaucratic hurdle that many Aussie actors face coming to the U.S. Therefore, I share the same biggest challenge that 99.5% of all actors face over here – getting auditions and work.
First of all, it can really difficult to get representation be it a manager or agent. I took me about four years in LA to get a theatrical agent. Even when one has representation it can be difficult to get auditions, especially when you come to acting later in life like I did. People would rather audition and hire people they know, like and trust. Guys I compete with in my age range often have 15-20 year relationships with casting directors because they started in their teens or early twenties, so they fill most of the audition slots. It’s really hard for people not already known by casting to get auditions, unless they’re young and have great representation. Furthermore, producers would rather hire “names” with large existing fan bases, as that obviously helps with audience numbers and sales.
MT. I was actually already living in the States. After law school at UNSW, I started a career in management consulting in Sydney and then moved to the U.S. to do my MBA at Northwestern University (Kellogg) to advance my corporate career. I ended up living in New York City several times, the last time for full-time theatre school, before I moved to LA.
The transition to Hollywood was still a little challenging, having been spoiled growing up in beautiful Sydney and then enjoying New York City for many years. Initially, I made the mistake of comparing LA to these cities. Everything indoors (restaurants, nightlife, theatre and a lot of other cultural stuff) is better in New York. And Sydney has the harbours and beaches and the water is warmer and cleaner than in Southern California. And of course, initially I didn’t have many friends or much of a network in LA. It took a while, but now I really, really appreciate LA for the weather, the optimism, the hills, the opportunities and near absence of tall-poppy syndrome, and now I just wish my absent friends and family would move here to enjoy it with me.
The motivation for moving to LA was to pursue film and television opportunities. New York is more of theatre town, and while I love theatre, it’s much harder to make a decent living in it. And I suspect, it’s harder to make a living as an actor in Australia too.
SR. We read that you had 3 different corporate jobs before attending full-time theatre school. What triggered that decision?
MT. That’s right. There wasn’t one trigger for the change. All of my corporate jobs involved a lot of stress and working in an office 80-120 hours week. Then over the course of a few years a number of things happened. My father died of cancer; I was diagnosed with melanoma; I did a “self-development” course and the dot.com crash happened shortly after I helped start an Internet company in Boston. All of these things had me reevaluate my life, and I realized I was living my father’s dream for me, and he was dead and I was mortal and unhappy. These realizations encouraged me to start looking for something I loved to do instead.
SR. You are making a name for yourself thanks to films like Sharknado and Megashark vs Giant Octopus. Why do you think those kind of genre movies have become so popular in recent years.
MT. Oh boy! Yes, unfortunately I am associated with these films. I think there’s always been a global market for “monster movies”… since black and white film days with the original King Kong and Godzilla films. However, I believe it was the film Megashark vs. Giant Octopus that really relaunched the “Shark Genre” which had fizzled out after the Jaws franchise many years ago. The trailer for Megashark vs. Giant Octopus (which I was featured in) went viral on the Internet the year it came out – becoming the 6th or 7th most-watched trailer of the year, beating the views of heavily-advertised Hollywood blockbusters. I think it beyond ridiculous very end of the trailer is what hooked people.
This sensation enabled a very low-budget film to do incredibly well, financially. There was always a demand for monster movies, but great profit potential is what attracted other filmmakers to the genre. And I guess there’s a lot of people out there in jobs they don’t like who desire entertainment or escapism. That, or a lot of stoned college students demanding this kind of content.
SR. Can you describe to us a typical day at the Sharknado set?
MT. Well I actually only had one day on that set and my experience involved waiting around all day for them to get to shooting my scene. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, they didn’t get to shoot my direction until it was nearly dark and then in post they couldn’t match the lighting with the reverse which had been shot in full sunlight. So my scene actually had to be cut from the film. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I did get to watch Ian Ziering chainsaw some imaginary Sharks though =).
SR. You also had a role on the popular tv hit Sleepy Hollow as Seamus Duncan. What can you tell us about that experience? Any chance to reprise the role?
MT. It was an awesome experience! It was a top-of-show guest-starring role that involved them flying me out to Wilmington, North Carolina where they shoot the show for ten days. Everyone working on that show, in every department, from fellow actors to costume and set designers were at the top of their game. I loved the people, loved the work and loved how there was a budget to do everything properly.
On off days I also got to explore Wilmington with some dear friends who had driven in from other nearby cities. It’s a pretty Southern town that I hadn’t visited before, with tons of restaurants, and a beach nearby. It felt like a working vacation. A total joy!
My character didn’t recur in Season 2 and I believe Fox is still deciding whether to cancel or renew for Season 3. If the show gets renewed, I’m hoping there still a tiny chance we’ll see more of Seamus Duncan.
MT. There’s a great monologue in the first Matrix film where Agent Smith interrogates Morpheus for the codes to get into Zion, that I had learned perhaps 10 years ago for a competition ran by the TNT cable channel. Then about 5 years ago, while hiking a local hill (Runyon Canyon) I was somehow inspired to flip it and rewrite it in a funny way. I knew a talented actor Greg Thompson, who I thought looked like Agent Smith but I procrastinated so long he moved to Florida before I did anything with my script. Then last year he emailed me out of the blue saying he was coming back to LA for a medical appointment and asked me if I wanted to shoot the parody I’d shown him years ago. I said yes and scrambled to pull it all together just recently. You can watch it at www.matrixparody.com.
SR. People say you look a lot like Keanu Reeves. What do you think? Do you see a resemblance?
MT. To be honest, I don’t see the resemblance, other than height and hair color. However, quite a lot of folk seem to think I do look like him. I also get Lou Diamond Phillips and Ben Bratt, but I get Keanu more than anything else. It obviously helped inspire me to make the Matrix parody.
SR. What is next for you? Any film or tv show in development?
MT. Actually, I just shot the pilot episode of a show called The Other Brother. It’s a spec comedic series about what it’s like to be the brother of somebody in Hollywood who has an infinitely more successful career than you do. It was created by Gavin Grazer, the brother of Brian Grazer – the Hollywood mega mogul – and stars Gavin himself. I play his best friend – another struggling actor in LA – who’ll do just about anything to get a role. It also features Jim Hanks (Tom Hank’s brother) and was super fun to shoot. I look forward to seeing it cut together. Apparently, Showtime has first look, so fingers crossed it goes somewhere.
SR. Have you seen any Australian films lately? Which one?
MT. I have seen some great Aussie films recently. I thought Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook was a really well made old-styled, horror flick. And I just saw Julius Avery’s action film Son of a Gun with Ewan McGregor, and a bunch of talented actors. Really enjoyed it. Was thoroughly impressed!