Henry Lau, the Toronto native turned global resident has juggled a bevy of identities throughout the span of his decade plus long career. For someone who has successfully built a brand appealing to a worldwide audience with his impressive artistry and atmospheric charm as a K-Pop music prodigy, Chinese TV star, and now as Hollywood’s newest face, it comes as no surprise that he thrives in the role of playing a global chameleon.
Now that his time with the behemoth SM Entertainment—who helped him cement his status into the K-pop culture lexicon—has come to a close last year, Henry has assembled a team with the help of his older brother to create a new agency, Monster Entertainment. Armed with his fluency in English, Mandarin, and Korean, his classically trained music background, and a decade of working in the entertainment industry in one of Korea’s most popular boy bands and as a successful solo artist, we would say that the move to leave the nest was the right one, and much needed. His hope is to fashion an identity ex-nihilo for himself and other multi-lingual, multi-talented artists as a fusion of image and music, acting and entertainment into one package and present it simply as is. No more, no less.
Here, we talk to Henry about this new era unbound by borders, as he sets out on a global journey to explore the sweeping possibilities of his talents and to show the world what he’s made of.
What was your childhood like? Can you describe how you were as a kid?
I was a very active kid. I had a wonderful childhood and grew up in a friendly neighborhood, the kind where your friends would bike up to your home, ring your doorbell and ask, “Can Henry come out and play some hockey?" Most of the time, my mom would answer with, "Yes, but only after he's done practicing.” So as you can guess, music was a big part of my life. My mom taught me piano when I was about four years old and at five, I started taking violin lessons. But it wasn't until I was a teen where my talent in music started to show.
As a teen, I was constantly practicing. During summer breaks, things would kick up a notch and I would have violin lessons four to five times a week. Mind you, I was also playing in several orchestras during this time. Being involved in so much music at a young age was definitely intense, but my parents sacrificed a lot for me and my siblings to learn music, and for this we are forever grateful. So while I can't say that I didn't prefer to be outside playing with my friends, my love for the violin, for the piano, and for music continued to grow.
I was also learning how to fine tune my craft at an early age. When I was 17, I entered and won a lot of competitions and was awarded the Gold Medal from the Canadian Conservatory of Music. This was given to the person who got the highest score in the last level of the conservatory across Canada.
Do you think kid Henry could have dreamt up everything that is your life now as adult Henry?
Never, not in a million years. I used to joke around in high school and tell people that I wanted to be a popstar. But I had absolutely no intention of becoming one, nor did I know how to become one. Realistically, the path I saw for myself was to enroll in a music program at a university and continue down the classical musician path.
When you decided at the age of 17 to sign with SM Entertainment and move to Korea, what was that decision making process like for you and your family? How did you get them to get on board with the move?
In my last year of high school, a big Korean entertainment company went to a few U.S and Canadian cities to hold auditions. I didn't know anything about K-pop and had never heard of the company at the time. When they came Toronto, a lot of my friends signed up and asked if I wanted to go audition too. Not knowing much, I thought sure, why not? So when the day came, off we went and lined up for six hours.
When it was finally my turn, I performed a violin piece by Vivaldi where I incorporated "popping" dance moves while playing the fast passages. I also did some acapella singing. The team was very impressed and the following week, I got a call saying that I made it into their company. I honestly didn't know how big of a deal it was at the time.
I was really excited but when I told my dad that I was going to South Korea to become a popstar, he simply answered, "No you're not, you're going to university" and that was that. So the next time the company called, I told them "I'm sorry, I can't come to Korea. My dad says I have to go to university, but thank you."
Of course, the company called back again and after a few exchanges with my mom, she decided to visit Korea with me to check it out. We had a great time and my mom was very impressed with the company. When she returned to Toronto, she convinced my dad about the opportunity and then the same year, I went to Korea to start my journey.
Tell us about Monster Entertainment Group, your management agency. How did the start of this relationship come about, and what are your goals with this company?
When I was just about to finish my contract with my previous company, I felt like I had so much I wanted to do but didn't really know how. I was looking to work in music, movies, TV and fashion in the Korean, Chinese and English markets, but I couldn't find a company that had one team that could do all of this. So my brother, Clinton, came over to Asia and assembled a fantastic team focused on building my brand globally. This team became Monster Entertainment Group. Clinton had a very clear idea on how to bring out the best in me. It also helps that he’s incredibly smart and is a genius at building brands. He's also a highly trained classical musician so that really helps with the music side of things as well.
I hope to work with Monster Entertainment Group to build myself into a respected artist across all those regions. I also hope that this becomes bigger than just me. I want to work with Monster to help other multilingual and multi talented artists in the future. There is so much talent in the world and I wish for the world to see more of it.
I want to talk about your debut role in Hollywood. When Steven Spielberg’s studio (Amblin Entertainment) reached out to you about a role in A Dog’s Journey, what was going through your mind?
It was a very nice surprise. I was in China at the time filming a Chinese movie called Doubleworld when Amblin Entertainment reached out. Gail Mancuso (the director of the film) and I hopped on a Skype call shortly after, and we talked a lot about the script and about Trent, the character I would play. I was taken aback at how similar Trent was to me. Many parts of his life and personality mirrored mine. What was great was that Gail was really looking for me to help her build Trent into the Trent you see on the screen. I knew that creatively collaborating with and working alongside such an accomplished director and prestigious studio would be extremely fun and rewarding, so in my mind I decided right then and there that I had to take this role.
What was the experience of shooting A Dog’s Journey like?
The entire A Dog's Journey team was incredible to work with. Gail had such a welcoming and collaborative approach. Her directing style really put everyone at ease. My co-star Kat and I got along very well, and we'd always try to help each other out. It never felt like going to set every day was a job. I guess the hardest part about filming was working with the main stars of the movie... the dogs! I would get too distracted by how cute they were.
What language do you think in? Dream in? Prefer to sing or act in?
This is a bit of a tricky question. I work in English, Korean and Mandarin on a daily basis. After a while, all three start to mix together and keeping them separate is sometimes a challenge. If I had to pick my most comfortable language, I'd say it's still English. But I think even then, it's not as straightforward as it seems. For example, I used to write music predominantly in English first, and then slowly convert the songs into Korean or Chinese. But as the years went by, I would start to write and think about my Korean songs in Korean, and Chinese songs in Chinese. So today, I really do think in all three languages constantly.
It’s not often people can successfully straddle different countries in their entertainment career. From what I’ve been able to gather, you’ve have been working non-stop as of late, which has been good for us, the public, because we get the privilege of seeing your work. But how do you keep from burning out and move forward creatively?
As a musician, as an actor, as someone who works in the entertainment industry, I am blessed to have been so busy lately. It is a privilege and I never forget it. That being said, it is difficult straddling so many different countries and doing so many different things at once. Not just for me, but also for my team. Whatever you see me do is just the tip of the iceberg. The amount of activities and global coordination that goes on behind the scenes is incredible.
I guess what drives me is my sense of curiosity coupled with an inner passion to do well. I never look at something and treat it as work. It's always about finding a project that resonates with me, putting my best foot forward and not looking back. I think my intensive training days as a classical violinist really help with the stamina piece as well. Nothing beats standing for hours on end, trying to perfect the most miniscule detail in a violin solo, for weeks at a time. So even though I'm busy, I'm working on so many different types of projects, so things stay fresh to me.
A lot has changed for you in the past year, with some major leaps of faith on your end professionally and a lot of new opportunities on the horizon. What’s your current mindset right now? What’s driving you?
So much is happening right now and I'm just so excited. I have an amazing team that's helped put together everything. A Dog's Journey is out now in theatres worldwide. I just released my first single since leaving my previous company about a year ago, and I have more songs releasing this summer which I'm very proud of. I have a large Chinese movie set to release at the end of the year where I play the lead male role. Prior to coming on this L.A. trip, I finished a 10 day tour in Italy where I performed over 100 songs with an incredible cast of musicians on JTBC's Begin Again 3 (a Korean music TV show). So as you can see, I'm definitely excited that all these projects I worked on are coming out, and I hope to continue working and bring joy to as many people as I can through my work.
You have obviously achieved a lot of success because of the work you produce and your work ethic. What are personal attributes that make for a good musician/actor, and what do you do to foster them?
Once I started working in so many different areas, I realized that professionalism is key to success. To me, being a professional means always honing your craft, being the best you can be, and always being respectful. Having that pursuit of excellence and always trying to figure out how to do better is really important. I'd also say hard work is the foundation of success. There is no free lunch and I think working hard and working smart are two things someone needs to do well in order to be really successful—especially as a musician and actor.
Of course, luck also plays a role but I'm someone who firmly believes that you can make your own success and your own luck. This is how I think about luck: the harder you work, the more doors you open. The more doors are opened, the more opportunities come your way.
Could describe one exhilarating, proud moment that you like to think about time and time again?
I still remember the first time I showed someone a song I produced on my laptop. This was maybe eight to nine years ago. At the time, I was in a K-pop group and we had a pretty jam packed schedule with touring and a lot of events. So one day after a show, I was thinking that the song we just performed could've been edited a little bit to fit the stage better. But I didn't know anything about music production at the time and had no idea how to edit the song. So I got my hands on some music production software and started playing with these programs every night on my own time. It was a little hard because after a day of activities, shows, meetings and practice sessions, you just feel like passing out. But I was really interested in editing it so I kept plugging away.
After several months, I put together a song that really wasn't that great, but I remember when I showed it to some of my producer friends for the first time, their eyes lit up. I think they saw some potential in me as a producer. It was this validation that led me to think that maybe I could show more people my music, and that they might like It. I'll always remember those moments.
What are some milestones you hope to reach in this next decade both in your career and personal life?
I guess I'm more kidding than serious if I told you that an Oscar would be nice. But in all honesty, I never set out to really achieve certain things. I don't have end targets in mind when I start doing something. I trust my team that whatever I'm doing is in the right direction but the moment I get into "it", whatever it may be, I just want to make sure it's the best work I can do.
That being said, I do want to become a better musician and actor. I've done much more music than acting so far, but I'm learning so much every day that it feels like I'm brand new to both of these genres. I want to continue honing my craft and at the end of the day, if I'm proud of the work that I put out, and people enjoy listening and watching my stuff, then I couldn't ask for more.
At the end of it all, how do you want to be remembered by your fans, your colleagues, and your loved ones?
I want to be remembered as just Henry. Some people know me today as Henry the K-pop star, Henry the TV star in China, Henry the music genius in Korea, Henry the Canadian kid or Henry the new face in Hollywood. There are a lot of Henry’s and the meaning changes everywhere you go. But when it’s all said and done, I want to pull everything together and be remembered as just Henry to everybody.