The great General Riga aka the very talented actor and writer Desmond Chiam was able to take some time and answer some questions for me. Check our conversation below.
Desmond Chiam is currently playing in the second season Spike TV‘s The Shannara Chronicles. The show is of course based on the book series from Terry Brooks.
He is also in the upcoming film from Disney title Magic Camp and recently did a short film title Manifest Destiny.
RONN!E: So my first question is, were you a fan of the Shannara books before you were cast in the series?
Desmond Chiam: Oh yeah, it was funny cause I would go around set “Have you read the books? Cause, I’ve read the books.” *laughs* They were actually probably the second set of fantasy books that I read, after, I don’t know if you’ve heard of a guy called Raymond E. Feist. He did like a Riftwar series. I read that and I think Terry Brook’s book was in the back of one of his books, you know, a recommendations thing? So I jumped onto that and then from there I actually went to Tolkien. So it’s weird, but I didn’t actually read Lord of the Rings until I was working my way through Shannara. So it kind of had that lineage about it.
RONN!E: Okay, right on. So with your character, General Riga, when you were cast for this part, auditioned, did you know this was going to be an original character?
Desmond Chiam: Yes. Well, I sort of half-knew because it had been a long time since I read the books, and I couldn’t remember–was he in the books? I don’t remember this guy? Was he kind of a minor thing, or…? But I went back and did some wiki-ing and was like, oh right, he’s like standing in for Shadow Wind, basically. So, that whole plotline I was pretty familiar with. I was like, okay, that must be what we’re going down, we’re kind of combining that with Shannara, and we’ll see where they go from there, someone who’s a little new to the universe. It was interesting not knowing where the character, specifically, was going because we get episodes a few weeks out, shooting, so we wouldn’t get them all in one block. So when I first was cast for it, trying to craft a character is the fun part for me and I think if I’d had any history with a pre-existing character I would have tried to play it a certain way, given my history with the books. So I actually appreciated it being an original character for me.
RONN!E: Yeah, you get to bring some originality to it.
Desmond Chiam: Exactly.
RONN!E: That’s awesome, but were you hoping you would get to play a character from the books?
Desmond Chiam: Yeah, you know I was a big fan of Menion Leah. I like how he’s this reluctant, enormous bratty kind of prince, but he’s funny – that was always a redeeming thing for me. When I first saw the email come and it said Shannara Chronicles and I said, “If I open this up and it says Menion Leah, I’m gonna be flipping out.” But it wasn’t. The other character I would have loved to play would have been Garet Jax, and I would not have done anywhere near as good as Gentry, so I’m glad I didn’t play that character.
RONN!E: So what is your favorite of the books, the Shannara books?
Desmond Chiam: *sigh* I know people say that it wasn’t that good, but I actually really liked Sword of Shannara, the first one. It’s the first one I read and you know, I was like ten or twelve, and say what you will but I think nostalgia… Well, for me, it was original at the time, because I hadn’t read much other fantasy, so that was the one that kind of sticks with me and pulls me in. I was like wow! That was sort of my start in fantasy. I think some people’s argument with it was that it was too “trophic”, it was too basic for people who had read Lord of the Rings. They were like “this is just Lord of the Rings” but in Easy Mode. But for me when I was ten and I was reading it, especially coming off the Riftwar series, which is a little bit more complex and intense, and frankly I don’t remember it as well. I ended up having to go back and reread the Riftwar series when I was older, and kind of got it. Shannara I “got” when I was ten, or twelve and that first book still is my picture–when someone says “fantasy” to me, a lot of people go to Lord of the Rings for a visual, for me, I go to my imagined world of Shannara.
RONN!E: I’m right there with you, they were the first fantasy books I read, also. I actually read Elfstones first, but I didn’t know Sword of Shannara existed yet. I was at the bookstore, there it is, and “oh, I like that.”
Desmond Chiam: Elfstones is probably, honestly, a better book, but Sword of Shannara has a special place in my heart.
RONN!E: So with General Riga, which you play very intense, a very intense character which, in my personal opinion, you’re playing very well so far, did you have to do a lot of character development for that or did you just kind of go with it?
Desmond Chiam: It was a limited development period because he was the last character to be cast, out of the main cast. They’d been in pre-production for about a month when I was cast, so I was quite uneasy as there were only about two weeks left. And in that time the showrunners were mostly doing location scouting and figuring out a lot of those last minute logistical details. So I couldn’t cast it with them, specifically, but I did put in a very good self-tape, and they basically just requested I build off that. So I went back to the self-tape and I looked at it and really tried to come up with some minimal things that the character could do. I didn’t see him as a big, loud, yelling kind of force. I feel like any sort of loud movement or like, huge movements would take away from his power. So I started with that as a baseline and kind of worked my way forward from there. And because I knew a lot of my things would be playing opposite Manu, he brings this very primal kind of feel to everything and if I bring a sort of towering arrogance instead, like an almost, how can I put it, like a high class, ivory tower arrogance to this character, that might be something interesting to play off against Manu Bennett’s. And then, of course, from there we refined it with directional input and showrunner input and they came up with the character design, which made my job really easy, with that one blue eye, because I could turn my face one way and be almost warm and inviting and charming, and then I turn my face the other way and he’s this ruthless, cold killer.
RONN!E: Who decided the eye and why is your eye blue?
Desmond Chiam: That was the showrunners, and I cannot tell you but it’s my Mwellret heritage.
RONN!E: Is it something we’re going to find out?
Desmond Chiam: Not specifically, no. It’s not in the show, it’s only a background detail. Primarily it is the Mwellret heritage, but there are a lot of small, character things they had loaded into it, but because of the scope of the show, there wasn’t really time to get into it.
RONN!E: With General Riga, how do you feel about the character, personally? Do you feel his need to destroy magic is sincere, I guess?
Desmond Chiam: That’s a good way to put it. He is, the way I kind of pitched it is that he has to be 100% sincere about this, otherwise we just have a fairly rote killer. You have someone who we’ve seen before. I’m not saying General Riga is someone that we haven’t but at least being sincere in his drive to eradicate magic, which he very, very, very honestly believes is a dangerous force–and he’s not necessarily wrong–if we’d played that any other way I believe it would have taken away from the message of the character. A little bit? The idea that sincerity does not clean hands make. It doesn’t necessarily give you the moral high ground. Simply being sincere about something doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the moral beacon in the room, which he believes he is. But it’s clear that he’s not. So that was the kind of by-play that we wanted to put into it. I’m glad that they let me do that. I’m not sure if you saw the screeners, but the recent episode, the torch scene with Wil, there’s a moment, between exsanguinating him, *laughs*, I kind of have a heart-to-heart. I’m like, look, here’s the deal, you’ve suffered, I’ve suffered, please, for the sake of both of us, let’s just figure something out and, of course, that doesn’t happen. But that moment is an honest moment, and we spent some time on it with the director and he’s like, this has to be honest, and I 100% agreed.
RONN!E: That makes a lot of sense. So, can you give us any insight as to what we might see from General Riga in the future episodes?
Desmond Chiam: Yeah! A lot of blood!
RONN!E: A lot of blood *Laughs*.
Desmond Chiam: Having been spurned, I think, or not spurned, but he’s very intentional, so having his plans disrupted, as they were, at the end of episode three, means he’s become even further unhinged. And he’s gonna stop at nothing to get what he needs and wants. And settle some vendettas along the way. That’s all I’ll say.
RONN!E: Besides Shannara, you’ve got some other projects going on. Magic Camp, where I believe you play Xerxes? Tell me about that one.
Desmond Chiam: That was fun! It’s funny because I actually booked Shannara while I was filming Magic Camp. I did the self-tape and I was working five days a week at the Disney mansion, on Magic Camp, and I played a camp counselor for a magic camp, for the Institute of Magic. Not magic in a fantasy sense, literally like stage magic. I play this, the character who has this big stage persona, he’s one of those really arrogant magicians that you come across every now and again, that’s very flashy. You know, the guys who wear the sequined vests and all that stuff. So I was playing that magician character, and then this Riga character, too, which is like anti-magic, so I’m playing back-to-back this very, very into-magic character and then one who is completely against it. Different types, of course, but that irony was still amusing. But Magic Camp itself is a cool little movie. It’s a Disney movie. It’s about a kid whose connection to his father was a certain sort of engagement with the magical arts and he gets sent to Magic Camp. And he wants to learn as best he can. And there’s also some colorful characters here and there. Adam Devine, and Gillian Jacobs, and Jeffrey Tambor play as various members of the camp staff. And then there was me and Krystal Joy Brown as the two other counselors who had acquired students in their magical tutorings.
RONN!E: When does that come out?
Desmond Chiam: It should be spring, next year.
RONN!E: Right on. Are there any updates on the Chronicles of Anatta?
Desmond Chiam: Not as yet. Chinese co-productions can either move quick as lightning or they can get quite mired as people figure out the sort of different cultural boundaries. So as yet, no, but hopefully waiting to hear where it takes us.
RONN!E: And you did a short, too? Manifest Destiny?
Desmond Chiam: Yes! Manifest Destiny. That was fun. So that was a short done for one of Justin Lin’s short competitions and a friend of mine was like, I want to shoot old film, I want to give this a shot. He was quite experimental about this: we’re gonna do it real quick, we’re gonna do it in like, a day, out in the desert. We’ll go out, we’ll camp, and shoot the short. And that was fun because I got to play a cowboy, essentially. It’s an old west kind of thing with a childhood hero of mine, Levy Tran, she was great. Great, great actress. And it was a lot of fun, because it was just a group of friends, and I got to be–I tell people that I have three dreams, in this career. To play in a fantasy, which is now, I did that, to get invited to ComicCon, which hasn’t quite happened yet, I mean technically it has, but I am waiting for like that big one, and three is to play a cowboy. So technically, Manifest Destiny also ticks that box.
RONN!E: That’s a random one. I like that. So do you have any other projects you’re working on?
Desmond Chiam: Not currently, no. I mean not of acting, specifically, but I do come out. I have a screenwriting background, as well, so I have another actor friend of mine who was recently one of the leads in a Warner Brothers movie and we’re developing a movie for Australia together. It tackles some hard issues and hopefully that goes. We have a meeting with some producers and we have interest. So… we’ll see what happens.
RONN!E: Good luck with that.
Desmond Chiam: Thank you!
RONN!E: And that’s a good question – do you prefer doing behind the scenes on sets or do you prefer acting?
Desmond Chiam: I’m a glory hog.
RONN!E: “I want to do it all!” right?
Desmond Chiam: That’s the easy answer. The longer answer is, to be honest, is it’s very hard to accrue the sort of, I guess, culture and power capital to yourself as a writer, to get your stories made. And I find, for me, at least, when it comes to writing in a professional capacity you have to make compromises. And that’s fine. That’s 100% fine, it just depends on the balance of it. But as a baby writer most of the time it’s 10% you and then 90% someone else. And then it becomes quite a frustrating process. So acting, at least, when you’re auditioning, when you’re filming, you get to 100% put your spin on it. Whether they like it or not is up to them, but at least you get creative control. And I think that’s something in acting that I appreciate.
RONN!E: That makes a lot of sense. So, I want to thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it. Like I said, I’m a huge fan of The Shannara Chronicles and for being an original story this year, you guys are doing it well.
Desmond Chiam: I appreciate it. Thank you. We’re excited for the rest of the season.
RONN!E: I too am definitely excited. Good luck with all of your adventures and hopefully I get to speak with you again soon.
Desmond Chiam: Thank you! Good evening and take care.
The second season of The Shannara Chronicles airs on Wednesdays on Spike TV, make sure to check it out. Follow Shannara on Twitter.
*Special thanks to Platform PR and Cheryl Dyson.