Pop-Culturalist Chats with Desmond Chiam
For Desmond Chiam, landing the coveted role as General Riga on The Shannara Chronicles, is a dream come true. As a young man, he devoured the bestselling series and never imagined he’d have the opportunity to star in the television adaptation. But it gets better! His character—General Riga—was created exclusively for the series, and it’s something that Desmond is eternally grateful for. Keep reading to find out why!
P-C: Tell us about your character and his arc this season?
Desmond: General Riga is a product of the first season of Shannara, where Wil and Allanon and all their magic usage drew the demons of the world to a big climactic battle. In that battle, General Riga is personally affected, and as a result, has a vendetta against all magic users. He doesn’t have any aspirations other than to actually keep the Four Lands safe from the tribulations of magic. But we do see with him a slow descent into this anger. He makes a vicious turn as a result of this personal vendetta.
P-C: What drew you to this project and how did you prepare for the role?
Desmond: I actually grew up reading these books. It was an incredible opportunity to live out a dream from my childhood. As far as how I prepared for the show, it was pretty intense. This is a very physical show and role. We have tons of fight scenes, especially this season. We had to train every day. Our set trainer and his team really pushed us hard. There was a fitness evaluation at the beginning of filming where they give you an estimate of where you are and then set goals. It’s for safety reasons and the fact that we’re swinging swords around for four days straight. You need to be able to keep going and act on top of that. It was brutal but so much fun. The thirteen-year-old boy inside of me was screaming with joy.
P-C: Were you ever nervous about joining the show because the book series has such a big following?
Desmond: That’s an interesting question. I guess in a way I was nervous, but I booked the show during a crazy time in my life. I was working on another project, that was pulling crazy hours, and the producers of Shannara called and said I got the part. They were like, “Heads up. We know you’re wrapping up this project this week and we’re flying you out the next day.” It was crazy!
There was a moment on the plane to New Zealand, where we shoot when I realized I was living out one of my dreams of being on a fantasy show. I spent the whole plane ride watching the show. I’d watched it in the past but I wanted a refresher. While I was watching it, I was like, “I’m going to be there tomorrow. I’m going to see all these sets.” It was that moment when I felt the most nervous and wanted to be like, “Hey, can we turn this plane around real quick? I want to go home.”
P-C: Was it challenging to play a character that’s not in the book?
Desmond: I actually think that for me it was easier. Shannara was my prototypical fantasy series. I read those books when I was twelve. So, I think if I played another character that had been in the books, I would have brought a certain amount of baggage with it. As an actor, I don’t think you ever want to do that. I think if I had come in with a preconceived idea of what this character should be, we wouldn’t have ended up with something particularly interesting or complex. With this original character, I got to work with everyone involved and ink out something that was a little more unique in the landscape of the show and where all the characters are going in general.
P-C: What is your character’s greatest strength and his biggest downfall this season?
Desmond: [laughs] His greatest strength is definitely his drive. He will stop at nothing and leave no stone unturned. It takes him far without giving too much away. His greatest downfall is his pride, as is so often the case with many villains. But I think his particular brand of pride is unique. It gives him a very specific tunnel vision in terms of his motivation. His ambition is actually one of peace. He wants to bring the Four Lands together. But his overwhelming belief in his absolute correctness leads him to many situations where his hands are definitely not clean. I mean, we’ve seen that already.
P-C: Have you had the opportunity to see the fan reception to this character?
Desmond: Yeah, I have! We’ve been live tweeting each episode and it’s been so cool. My character has had quite the fan reaction and I wasn’t expecting that, mainly because he has no previous history in the books. It’s been nice to see people latch onto him. He does a lot of horrible things to these characters that we love and people love to hate him. This has been the first time I’ve seen such a positive reaction to a project that I’ve done, it’s so rewarding.
P-C: Besides The Shannara Chronicles, do you have any other upcoming projects that you can chat about?
Desmond: I just finished Magic Camp. It’s a Disney film that’s directed by Mark Waters, who also directed Mean Girls. It was such a fun film and I have a small role in it. It’s a story about a group of kids who go to camp to learn magic. I’m talking about stage magic, not fantasy magic. It’s a retreat for aspiring stage magicians. I play one of their camp counselors who teaches them and guides them on their journey. My character is bombastic. He wears sequins and flashy vests. It was very different than Shannara. [laughs]
P-C: How did you get started in acting?
Desmond: I didn’t get started until relatively late in the game. I went to law school and became a lawyer. But after three months, I decided it wasn’t for me. I was like, “This is horrible. I can’t do it anymore.” It was then that I made the decision to make a career change. I remembered that back in college I did a few advertisements to help pay debt. I thought to myself, I could try and do that professionally, and so I signed up for some classes and the rest is history.
P-C: Do you have a dream role?
Desmond: I want to play a cowboy! It’s in my top three career goals. The other two are playing a super hero and then being in a fantasy series, which is something I never thought would actually happen. But it did.
P-C: Who’s someone you would love to work with in the future?
Desmond: I’m a huge fan of Tom Hardy. In my opinion, he’s one of the best actors, if not the best actor, of this generation. His stunt double was one of our coordinators on Shannara, and he had all these cool stories about how he works.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
P-C: Guilty pleasure TV show?
Desmond: Ah, let’s see! I just watched Stranger Things, but that’s not a guilty pleasure because it’s fantastic. You know what! It’s Property Brothers.
P-C: Favorite movie?
Desmond: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
P-C: Favorite book?
Desmond: Magician by Raymond E. Feist. It’s actually the book that made me love reading and literature.
P-C: Favorite social media platform?
P-C: A band or artist that fans would be surprised to learn is on your playlist?
Desmond: Taylor Swift
P-C: Hidden talent?
Desmond: It’s not that hidden but I’m a b-boy. I breakdance. I haven’t done it in a while but every now and then, I jump back into it.
Photo Credit: Ted Sun // Stylist: Simona Sacchitella // Groomer: Grace Phillips