In 2005, after 30 years of great success as an actor in TV and film, Michael Paul Chan auditioned for a supporting role as a detective in a new show. Coming off the cancellation the previous year of another show he worked on, Chan was initially wary of reentering the series television world, but fate had other plans. “I’ll always remember the audition experience for The Closer; I got the material and the writing just popped. I instantly knew how I’d go with it, and my instincts were correct as the audition went great. And now it’s ten years later!”
MajorCrimesTV.net spoke with Chan as filming on Major Crimes’ second season was just winding down, and he told us that he is grateful for the opportunity to still be inhabiting Tao ten years later, especially as much of his early career was spent as a guest-star, with appearances on over 300 episodes of television, many of those as the villain of the week. Now he relishes the chance to play a smart detective with a good heart, and to have that role to come back to every season.
A San Francisco native, Chan’s earliest foray into the entertainment industry was as a musician, not an actor. After forming a band with some friends in Junior High, early success lead the teenagers to perform at many different events.”We started our own dance hall, and hired bands from the Bay Area like Big Brother and the Holding Company, with Janis Joplin. We worked every weekend for 3 years straight.” Chan encountered some other famous names along the way. “Sally Field was one of the MC’s at one of our events. That got me through high school; that was basically my first time being in front of an audience.”
While he continued to study music and perform in college, Chan says at a certain point, he realized he was not going to be able to make a living as a musician. His older brother, an English Professor at San Francisco State University, introduced him to theater and playwrights, and something clicked. “It stimulated my mind. And someone said ‘you know we need to start a theatre company to combat racial stereotypes.’ And I said ‘I’m in.’”
Chan became a founding member of the Asian American Theatre Workshop, and recalls that “While our hearts were in the right place we didn’t always know what we were doing like what stage blood was made out of. We did a show up at UC Davis and I remember we had a scene where we were reenacting the Vietnam war and we needed some blood. We weren’t familiar with what stage blood was so on the way up to UC Davis we stopped off at a McDonalds and grabbed a bunch of ketchup. And lots of ketchup really smells, so it reeked of vinegar as I made my way on stage- we almost all kind of lost our cookies!”
His work with the theatre led to a scholarship to The American Conservatory Theatre, where he got his first formal acting training. But it wasn’t exactly what he expected. “I was rather overwhelmed, as most of my peers had all been doing theatre since they were kids. So one thing lead to another and I left a little early and came to Los Angeles and started doing lots of small theatre. And kind of rubbing elbows with other actors and seeing what was out there and started to create a little niche for myself.”
His first on screen job was on an episode of Police Story, and Chan recalls being star-struck by the experience. “When the lead approached me I forgot who I was; I was that terrified. I think I learned early on that the best thing for a young actor, for a new actor in Hollywood, is to be prompt, do as you’re told, hang up your clothes, don’t make any mistakes. Because I realized that it was a very small town and people who mess up are found out really fast.”
His intuition paid off. He worked steadily in the 80’s as a guest-star, doing short stints on dozens of different series. “I did years of that. And towards the late 80s I started breaking into features.” His career reached a turning point in 1993, when he was cast in Falling Down with Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall, and found himself working non-stop. “That same year I did a film called A Thousand Pieces of Gold with Chris Cooper who we all know went onto Academy Award fame. And also that year was The Joy Luck Club and Heaven & Earth with Oliver Stone. That was a really big year. And I haven’t stopped working since then.”
His first role as a regular on a TV series came in 2002, on Robbery Homicide Division with Michael Mann. When the series was cancelled after only half a season, Chan found work harder to come by for a time. “I kind of sat out for at least a year; I think that when you’re on a failed TV show you get punished,” he says laughing.
Little did he know the next series he would join would last over a decade. When auditioning for the part of Lt. Tao, Chan was intrigued by the writing of the show, and how well-defined the character was. “There was a character right there on the page and I just took to it. I was very comfortable and confident with it. I walked into the room and basically did what I thought who he was and got a really good response.”
Chan says that even after seven seasons of The Closer and two (so far) of Major Crimes, playing Tao still presents new challenges. “It’s always a challenge anytime you’re working in front of a camera and you’re given good writing, it’s always a challenge. It never gets easy; I wish it would but no. It’s fun though.”
Going from The Closer to Major Crimes, Chan reveals that initially there was some trepidation about how the new show would work. “The first season of Major Crimes we were all kind of feeling our way; we weren’t sure what the show was going to be, it was all new and we were all a little nervous. But this year, me personally, it feels like I’ve been getting to do a little of everything: action, interviewing the bad guy, all of that good stuff. “ He also appreciates how the more ensemble-focused Major Crimes has given him and the rest of the supporting cast a chance to flesh out their characters, revealing more about their personal lives, their interests, and their strengths as contributing members of the elite Major Crimes division.
For Chan, learning about Tao’s backstory has been particularly exciting, and something he hopes will continue to be explored in future episodes. “The backstory, the family, we’ve touched on it in certain episodes; often times I feel that everyone knows more about Tao than I do. It’s been one long, continuous movie for me so every script is something different for me.” And with each new script comes the opportunity for Chan to learn even more about the character that he has been perfecting for the past ten years. Each week the collaborative writing provides new nuances for Chan to explore through his portrayal of Tao. “There is always something that opens up and you think ‘oh, okay.’ I know that he knows everything and there’s always a little bit more and how he deals with knowing everything and being put in that kind of a position and then there is always humor in that,” Chan shares.
Fans have enjoyed watching Lt. Tao as the go-to guy on the team for all things technically related, as well as the character that often provides some much-needed comic relief. “I think that’s part of his charm,” says Chan. He also stresses that although these qualities are perhaps Tao’s more recognizable characteristics, the writing team has ensured that they never detract from the fact that he is, first and foremost, an elite police officer. He elaborates that, “I think James [Duff] kind of has my back in regards to, the bottom line is, these guys are still cops, and all that entails.”
The biggest change that the shift from The Closer to Major Crimes brought with it was the departure of Brenda Leigh Johnson as the head of the Major Crimes division, and the introduction of Sharon Raydor as the new leader. While Captain Raydor’s new position caused tension between her and the veteran characters from The Closer, Lt. Tao’s treatment of Captain Raydor as his new boss was professional from the start. Chan explains, “I never really had a real negative thing for her in the beginning. And I came around to her pretty quick just because of her smarts. I always respect smarts.” Chan shares that the shift in direction from The Closer to Major Crimes with castmate Mary McDonnell has offered him exciting new opportunities. “I just finished [filming] an episode where Mary and I were kind of doing ‘the closing’ or ‘the closer thing’ I should say, so that was fun.”
As for what else fans can expect to see from Lt. Tao in the final episode of the season, and in season three, Chan isn’t allowed to reveal much. “More good stuff. That’s all I can really put my finger on right now.”
Chan says that he is looking forward to filming season three, and to the continued success of Major Crimes. “Well after nine years you just kind of pinch yourself. Being a working actor you’ve got to pinch yourself to begin with. And to be on a show and to play a character for this long is just incredible. Especially at this point in my career, I’ve done a lot of stuff and this came at the right time. I would have been very worried had this been my first or second job; I’d be really worried. But luckily it wasn’t, I worked my way to here so it’s been my reward.”
Michael Paul Chan recently completed filming the short film The Happiest Person in America, which is currently making its way around the film festival circuit.
Additional reporting by C. Bullen and A. Cascone