Careers Talk AUS | Michael Teh | Careers Talk AUS
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Category
acting

MICHAEL TEH

Actor Bio

Michael Teh is Sydney-raised actor currently living in Los Angeles. He has been described as an “ethnically ambiguous, sophisticated Keanu Reeves meets younger Gary Oldman leading man and villain”, and he’s shot over 40 indie features and shorts and various TV productions.

Acting is his actually his fourth career. After three degrees – including a law degree from UNSW and top MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University, he pursued a variety of corporate careers. The longest was as a strategy consultant for what was called Booz, Allen & Hamilton and then Booz & Co, focusing on media and entertainment clients such as MTV, Nickelodeon, and Time Warner. He also helped start and successfully grow an Internet company in Boston. After a number of life-changing experiences – he quit the corporate world and commenced full-time theatre training in New York, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film and TV.

Dramatic leading roles in film include playing: opposite Michael Madsen & Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts in “Angels Fallen” (currently shooting); opposite Adrian Paul in “Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke” (SyFy prime-time premiere); he was the antagonist in the martial arts film “White Wall”; the heroic Queequeg in “2010: Moby Dick” opposite Renee O’Connor and Barry Bostwick; and he played the Han Solo-esque Captain Roscoe Simms in “Air Collison” with Jordan Ladd and Reginald VelJohnson (Die Hard). He is probably most proud of his leading role in the micro-budget feature “The Daughter”.

Michael is perhaps best known for his top-of-show Guest Star role as Seamus Duncan in the TV production of “Sleepy Hollow”. He’s had Series Regular roles in 5 TV pilots, and in the award-winning online series “Breaking Point”. He also appeared in the series finale of the TV show “Castle”.

He has trained for years with many of the U.S.’s top acting teachers including Larry Moss (Leonardo di Caprio & Hilary Swank’s coach), Lesly Kahn and Margie Haber in LA. In NY, Austin Pendleton and Susan Batson (Nicole Kidman’s coach) have commended his ability. In fact, Susan recommended him for a lead role opposite Meryl Streep in “Dark Matter”.

He was named Semi-Finalist and Prize-Winner out of thousands of contestants in the last TNT Dramatic Auditions competition, and was nominated for Best Actor in the Indie Series Awards and for an Achievement in Acting award at the SoCal Film Fest.

IMDb profile: click here

Interview

You haven’t taken a traditional pathway into acting – completing several law and business related university degrees, working in the corporate world, and starting an Internet company first. Did you have a passion for acting, make-believe, or entertaining others when you were a child?

I think most, if not all children enjoy using their imagination and playing make believe as they grow up, however I don’t think I ever gave “acting” much thought. I wasn’t in school plays or even university productions. I developed acting as a passion after studying and experiencing it as an adult.

As the son of an Asian immigrant father my “job” as a child was to excel academically in rigorous subjects and to have a well-paid prestigious profession… hence my studies and former careers. I was never really encouraged to pursue anything artistic and never considered acting until I was an adult. It was never on my radar.

You were working in America before you started studying Theatre full time in New York. What inspired you to make such a bold leap from an arguably secure career to pursue a career in acting?

All of my corporate careers: management consulting, banking (just for a summer) and the Internet start-up…. demanded 80-120 hours of work a week, in an office, often with a lot of stress. I hated all of them. It was only after: my father died; I was diagnosed with melanoma; a self-development course; and the dot.com crash – that I realised I wasn’t living my own dream, and that I’d never even allowed myself to have one.

After quitting all this corporate work in the U.S. and lots of travel, I spent some time back in Sydney to see family and friends. But as they all had jobs I couldn’t hang with them during the weekdays, so I ended up taking an acting course just for fun.

And it was there I had the thought… “Wow! That was so much more fun than law and business schools!!”. On a whim I applied to a full-time theatre program in New York and got in. It was only after about two years of training in New York that I decided to pursue acting as a career. At that mark, three things happened.

(1) I sat down with some of my teachers in New York and asked them “Look, I can walk into a six-figure job tomorrow, so I need you to be brutally honest with me. Do I have any talent and should I be pursuing acting as a career?” Teachers like actor/director Austin Pendleton really encouraged me. Another teacher, Susan Batson (Nicole Kidman’s coach) actually wrote a written recommendation to a casting director suggesting me for a lead role in a film opposite Meryl Streep.

(2) I went in a monologue competition that the TNT cable network used to run, and out of many thousands of nationwide entries I was named a semi-finalist and prizewinner.

(3) I won the Greencard Lottery and it was suddenly legal for me to pursue work as an actor in the U.S. I thought this was a “sign” and that it would also allow me to take side jobs to support myself if need be until acting took off. All these things gave me the confidence to pursue acting as a career.

What did you enjoy about studying at the HB Studio in New York and was there ever a time you questioned your change in career during this period?

I very much enjoyed it! I enjoyed using my imagination, making creative choices, reading excellent plays and poems. I enjoyed the movement classes, the stage combat and learning about the voice. I enjoyed the international, super-diverse community. I enjoyed performing. And to be honest, I enjoyed having some free time and a social life, as I had had very little during the corporate careers I had chosen before.

In terms of questioning my career change, like I said before, I wasn’t sure I’d pursue acting as a career until about two years after I started my studies. Since then, I think most actors go through stages where they question themselves and their career choice. Especially when they experience a long time between jobs and deal with having major income insecurity.

Income security probably one of the reasons I’ve put off settling down and having kids. Also, pursuing this profession involves dealing with tons of rejection, and not everyone is cut out for that. However, I don’t miss my corporate jobs at all. I’m still committed to acting.

What was the process like to move to LA, get a green card and then secure a theatrical agent and manager?

Winning the Green Card lottery took about 8 or 9 years of trying, but once I won it, the process was relatively easy. Securing a decent manager and agent took many, many years. I spent years in LA unrepresented… putting myself up for student and low budget films and other projects from listings on various websites, and slowly putting together a decent showreel.

It was easier to get a manager a few years in, but my first few were really “C” grade and didn’t have the clout (relationships) to get me into audition rooms. It was probably 4 or 5 years before I got an OK agent.

I have better representation now, but most of the Aussies coming to the US off soaps downunder or from NIDA walk into “A” level representation “Day One” and have a very different opportunities and a much faster trajectory.

You have been able to bring to life emotionally, socially and culturally complex characters through film, television and theatre productions. Have there been any characters you’ve played that you feel have helped you to grow as an actor?

I would say that my work experience has built my confidence in my ability, but that most of growth still comes from class many years into my career. This is because in a great acting class one gets to work on incredible writing, on characters with much greater depth, with super-talented actors. So often when one works, one might have very talented cast mates but if the material isn’t as strong, it limits the growth opportunities.

You’ve played Caucasian, Mediterranean, Asian, British, South African, and Native American characters. What is the process like to develop accents for the different characters you play?

I’m just blessed to have an ear for many dialects and can just mimic many from memory well. Others I’ve needed to listen to and practise to learn. One can get recordings with exercises, or sometimes I’ve learned by watching YouTube videos, listening to native speakers. Occasionally, I’ve booked private lessons with dialect experts.

Throughout your career, you have worked alongside respected actors, coaches, producers and directors. Have there been any particular people you feel have assisted you to further develop your skill set and acting techniques?

I think most of my learning has come from great teachers. Above all, would be Larry Moss. His workshops are truly inspiring. However, different teachers, teach you different things, and are good for different people at different stages of their learning. So many teachers have contributed to my skills and craft.

There is a saying that ‘if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life’. What do you find to be personally fulfilling about your career in acting and how have you kept motivated to pursue your dreams when you haven’t secured roles you’ve auditioned for.

What’s fulfilling is still using my imagination, making creative choices, and collaborating with other artists. It’s play. It’s fun! My goal and my motivation is to “touch, move and inspire” others with my work. Am also very happy to simply entertain, and to be honest most of my work so far has fallen into this latter category.

What motivates me to keep going, is the dream of getting more opportunities to do the former type of work. And yes, ideally this will be a job I never retire from.

What has been challenging for you as an Australian pursing acting roles in Hollywood and how have you overcome these challenges?

As I was blessed to win the Green Card lottery and with the ability to do various American dialects, I’m not sure that being an Australian is a source of challenge for me in getting roles. The biggest challenge for me has been in getting decent representation over the years, and even then in getting good audition opportunities.

Of the roles that aren’t offered to stars (most of the good ones) – the ones where actors are auditioned – commonly 1000-3000 actors are submitted for each role. Furthermore, casting directors often only have time to audition 10-25 people for each role (like for a TV guest starring role). So they’ll call in people they know, like and trust already, rather than spend time seeing someone new or that they don’t know (who might be great).

Because I came to acting later in life, actors in my age range who I compete with often have 15-20 year relationships with casting directors because they started in their teens or early twenties. So it’s just hyper competitive. I consider it a blessing and a miracle when I get a good audition.

What advice can you offer young people who are thinking about pursing a career in acting and to those who dream of working in America?

Apply for the Greencard Lottery every year. If you didn’t graduate from NIDA (or another top school Downunder), don’t snub your nose at working on an Aussie soap for a few years. Those actors leapfrog their American competition when they get here.

Find good teachers and learn different things from each of them.  Some are better at comedy, some teach plays, some teach auditioning for camera, some teach voice, some teach “the business of acting” etc. Keep learning from different masters in their fields.

If you’re not learning, you’re in the wrong class. And if you’re serious about succeeding, then don’t quit.  Find ways to enjoy the pursuit and develop some passions outside acting, as very few actors get paid to do it very often.

Also, now since the advent of good digital cameras, don’t wait years like I did to assemble a decent reel. Shoot your own scenes or pay a little production company to shoot great scenes for your reel, so you have a solid marketing tool early in your career. I haven’t yet, but finding a good mentor probably really helps too.

What have been some of the highlights of your career journey so far?

In no particular order – I had a top-of-show guest starring role in Sleepy Hollow in the third episode of it’s first season.  Everyone working on that show, in every department, from fellow actors to costume and set designers were at the top of their game.  Loved the people, loved the work and loved how there was a budget to do everything properly.

I’ve had series regular roles in 5 indie TV pilots, some of which were great fun to shoot. Unfortunately, none of these have been picked up for series, although I think one or two are still pursuing distribution.

Just last year I had a super fun role in a new play called Suckin’ Injun put on as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Doing a good play is both thrilling and delightful!

Another project I thoroughly enjoyed was one of my first features Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke. I loved it because I got to combine fun acting work with travel, my other passion. We shot that film in Bulgaria in and around Sofia, and I made some great friends and got to see a bit of a country I hadn’t visited before.

Keeping in mind that careers are constructed over your lifetime, what are your career goals and plans for the future and what initiatives are you currently working on that you are excited about?

In terms of “currently working on” – I still have one or two days in a lead role on an upcoming genre feature film called Angels Fallen. We started shooting last year in Macedonia – so I got to combine travel somewhere new and work again.

But generally, I’d simply love to be working much more frequently, on higher quality productions (be they film, television or stage) that touch, move and inspire audience members… (and I’m open to some bigger budget ones that just entertain too =).

I’ve been fighting it, but writing and producing are probably in my future too. Smart actors cast themselves, rather than sit on the shelf waiting to be picked.