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Alum talks acting at Stanford, guest role on HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’

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The cast of HBO's Silicon Valley. Photo courtesy of Frank Masi, HBO.
The cast of HBO’s Silicon Valley. Photo courtesy of Frank Masi, HBO.

Although better known for generating the self-righteous technocrats HBO’s “Silicon Valley” tends to satirize than the actors who play them, Stanford is not without its fair share of students who are passionate about the arts.

On such student, Stanford alum Joshua Chang ’09, uses his experience in the heart of tech industry to better mock the new-age elitists of Palo Alto and beyond in his recurring role on the second season of “Silicon Valley.” A Palo Alto native and former Human Biology major, Chang sat down with the Daily to discuss his acting, his time at Stanford, and the decision to forge his own path.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you get started in acting and what drew you to it?

Joshua Chang (JC): To be honest, I probably started taking acting classes at Stanford. I didn’t really take anything before that. I really had no idea what I wanted to do before I got to college, so I followed the mold: Everybody in my dorm was pre-med so I took those classes. And then, somewhere in the middle of freshman year, off a whim, I had an interest in acting and I started taking classes.

TSD: When you started taking these acting classes, did you think of them more as something on the side or something you wanted to commit yourself to and pursue as career?

JC: At first, it was just something on the side, it was like a secret passion of mine. I was too afraid to tell my parents even, just because I thought they would look down on it — just see it as a hobby.  As I was taking more and more classes, I realized this was something I could maybe do, but it wasn’t really until after I graduated that I actually considered it a possible future career or anything. Even after I graduated, I had no idea how to get into the business side of things, so I asked a couple of my classmates and friends and they all recommended that I work for talent agencies in LA just to get a sense.

TSD: You don’t see a lot of actors or artists coming out of Palo Alto —  it’s a very tech-focused, academically-focused place. Do you think there should be more of an emphasis on pursuing artistic interests like you ended up doing?

JC: If that’s something you want to do, of course. For me personally, I was really influenced by the people around me, so I didn’t even think of the arts as a possibility until I really started going into it myself. It’s really easy to give into peer pressure – not that taking engineering classes or science classes is giving in to peer pressure – but I think if there’s even an inkling of curiosity about acting or painting or dancing or whatever art that you want to do, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice by not exploring it even a tiny bit. I know so many people, so many of my own classmates who never really had the balls to do it and, I think, why not give it a shot?

TSD: Even without a major in theater, did you feel well prepared for acting coming out of Stanford or do you wish there was something different about your college experience?

JC: I wish I had taken more classes. There is no amount of acting classes that can actually prepare you for the business of Hollywood, obviously, it’s so different from what you learn in classes. Whether you major in drama or not or even if you go to a drama school it just takes a certain level of real-world experience to really start understanding how the business works. That said, I think anybody can get into it, I don’t think I was at a disadvantage for not studying drama full time.

TSD: Tell us a little bit more about what your role on “Silicon Valley.”

JC: My role is a little recurring role where I play a network security specialist. My role actually starts tonight [the 24th] and then, next Sunday [the 31st], the episode’s centered around me. Basically, I’m a network security specialist for a rival company to the main guys. We sort of steal their technology, and then they manage to hack into our company’s security and I get blamed for it, when it wasn’t my fault at all. So I actually got to have a nice big role, at least in next week’s episode. I go on this rampage about getting wrongly fired and stuff, so it was fun to play.

TSD: Did you conduct any preparation for this kind of a role?

JC: Honestly, I just kind of played myself. It wasn’t too hard to relay what I know about the techie people in my life. Most of my friends growing up are engineers in some way, so the technical jargon wasn’t too hard to memorize and all that. Because it’s a comedy, it makes fun of itself a lot, so I just played a nerdier version of myself – I’m pretty nerdy myself, so it wasn’t too hard. Just having fun.

TSD: Do the other actors on the show have a similar background as you? Do they have real experience with Silicon Valley or are a lot of them going into a bit more detached?

JC: Most of them have actually very little experience with the technology industry. All of them came from more of an improv comedy background, so they were very good at improvising funny lines. All of them are slightly nerdier, so that certainly helped. Embracing the fact that you can make fun of yourself certainly helps with their characters. The weird thing for me was going on set and knowing these characters. It’s their second season together, they’d already been together for more than a year, so watching the first season and knowing their characters I just assumed they were their characters in a way. So talking to them and seeing that they weren’t so technologically educated or whatever, that was a funny shock to me in a way. To see that some of them didn’t know how to use their phones, or they still used flip phones and stuff, it was just like, “oh yeah, it’s just acting.”

TSD: Having both lived in it and satirized it on the show, what do you think of the culture of Silicon Valley as a whole?

JC: It is what it is, I obviously haven’t worked in it for real, so I wouldn’t know exactly how people interact with each other. It’s funny, when I grew up in the Bay Area it was a very different world what it is now. A lot of things have changed since, even in the five years since I’ve left Stanford. Every time I go back, I feel like something changes and the vibe of the city changes, but I think it works. What I like about acting is that people from around the world come to LA and they all are forced to interact with each other, and different people from different backgrounds are forced to learn about each other’s background and cultures. I think the same goes for the technological industry. People from around the world come to the Bay Area to work in the industry, so it’s a nice way to become more well-rounded as a person.

TSD: Once filming for your role on “Silicon Valley” is over, what are your plans? What’s next on the slate for you?

JC: About a month ago, I shot a role on the upcoming season of “True Detective,” so that’s coming up. I think the new season starts in late June, so I’m looking forward to seeing that, that’s really exciting. I shot a couple of commercials — I just shot a commercial for Doublemint gum a couple of weeks ago — so it’s just whatever comes next, taking it day by day.

TSD: Any advice for current Stanford students looking to make the best of their time here?

JC: Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t take life too seriously. I’m sure everybody tells us to, I heard it all the time while I was there. I took grades really seriously, classes, studying, cramming for everything, and when you take a step back or a couple years down the road, you realize, just have fun, just enjoy the experience and have no regrets.

Contact Ryan Holmdahl at ryanlh ‘at’ stanford.edu

Ryan Holmdahl is a television critic at the Stanford Daily. He has a soft spot for trash TV and is currently seeking ways to appear on his favorite show, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” To contact him with ideas, please email ryanlh “at” stanford.edu. Ryan is a sophomore from Seattle, Wa. pursuing degrees in computer science and philosophy.