Being multi-talented is nothing unusual in Korean entertainment as Henry Lau can attest. The Canadian 30-year-old is one of K-pop’s biggest stars, and is now simultaneously breaking into the Korean, Chinese and English-language film and TV businesses.
The top Korean talent agencies typically cast their recruiting nets very wide, and Lau was found by SM Entertainment at a 2006 audition in Toronto. When offered a contract with the powerhouse agency he had to choose between a career in classical music, where he had expected to be a professional violinist, and an uncertain future as a singer in Korea.
Making the decision harder, Lau actually has no Korean roots. He has the looks that could allow him to appear Korean, but is instead of Chinese descent — a second generation Canadian who at the time spoke no Chinese.
Lau’s “culture shock” involved full days of education and training within the agency. The curriculum had him learning the Korean and Chinese languages, Korean culture and multiple different forms of dance and song. “It was like a big school,” Lau says.
By 2008, the agency had packaged him as part of Super Junior M, a Chinese-targeted spin-off from the hit boy band Super Junior, where M stood for mandarin. “All this was before was before the world went K-pop crazy, before K-pop had truly taken off,” Lau says. He admits to carrying his violin with him everywhere, like a defensive blanket, but it became part of his brand. He toured Asia and the U.S. – including playdates at Madison Square Garden – with the band.
Success was not instantaneous. And there was resistance by some fans to his position in the Super Junior constellation. Lau took time out at Boston’s Berklee school to learn music production. But as he amassed skills, Lau returned to the group, increasingly made solo appearances, broadened into song-writing, and started acting. His 2013 EP “Trap” was a hit that was later re-versioned in Chinese and Japanese, while its music video has over 81 million views.
Lau’s first major screen role was as co-star opposite Michelle Yeoh in “Final Recipe,” an English-language feature drama about an aspiring chef who takes part in a cooking contest in order to save the family business. It was directed by U.S.- and Korea-based Gina Kim and played in both the Berlin and San Sebastian festivals.
In the past year Lau has stared in DreamWorks’ “A Dog’s Journey,” and “Double World,” a major film for Chinese streaming giant iQIYI adapted from a video game of the same title.
“I had not played the game, but was certainly aware of it, and its huge number of fans. I had to be very accurate in my representation of it,” Lau says. Additional challenges including the large amount of green screen work it involved, and having to learn his lines from a script re-written in pinyin (romanized Chinese).
Having left SM behind him, Lau has struck out on his own under the management of Monster Entertainment, a company he formed in 2018 with his brother Clinton, another former musician. “Initially, we tried to find a company that could do everything I needed across different languages, countries and disciplines,” Lau explains. “I never expected to have to start a company, but it is interesting to see things from the business side. It is a lot more responsibility, and things make more sense now.”
Variety caught up with Lau in Seoul, just as Monster was putting him through boot camp all over again, a month intended to get him in shape for a major Korean TV role, in a continuing series, alongside one of the best known Korean-American stars.
In previous interviews Lau has spoken of surprise that Asian acts could succeed in the U.S. These days he sees the horizon as much wider and audience tastes as broader. “There is always the question of whether I’m right for the role. But it is no longer a choice (between China, Korea and Hollywood). It is all one.”