When Sam Song Li first heard that Michelle Yeoh would be playing his mother in The Brothers Sun, Netflix's new action-packed black comedy and family drama, the 27-year-old actor thought he had landed in a parallel universe.
"Did I just go into the movie star version of the multiverse that we see in Evelyn Wang's world?" Li remembered thinking. He was of course talking about one of the realities in Everything Everywhere All At Once where Yeoh's Evelyn Wang lived glamorously as a martial arts supernova. "I went to bed one of the nights thinking, am I going to wake up and be a regular person, work a blue-collar job?" Li said. The reality that he was about to become the fictional son of Academy Award-winning actor Yeoh seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Even before Yeoh was cast, Li recognized the opportunity to play Bruce Sun as a rare one. "I remember thinking roles like these must only come a handful of times in an actor's lifetime," he said. It's December 2023, a few weeks before The Brothers Sun's premiere, and we're sitting in a lounge at Netflix's office in New York City. "This guy is an indecisive college student who was raised by a single mom, grew up in San Gabriel Valley — the 626 — and has dreams of wanting to be a performing artist but is forced to pursue something he doesn't want to," Li said, his six-feet-tall self slightly hunched over. On this day, he has swapped the plain t-shirts and jackets his character wears for a slick black leather and denim ensemble. "I thought about my life and I was like, oh my God, this guy sounds just like me."
Like Bruce, Li was raised by a single mom and grew up in San Gabriel Valley — "my phone number's literally 626," he said. And while he did become an actor, Li initially pursued the performing arts against his mom's wishes. "[She] really wanted me to be a doctor," Li shared. In The Brothers Sun, Bruce's mom Eileen (Yeoh), too, is hell-bent on him studying medicine. He has secretly continued taking lessons for improv — his true passion — and is terrified of his mom finding out. But that becomes the least of his worries when Bruce's estranged brother Charles (Justin Chien) suddenly appears in San Gabriel Valley and announces his mission to protect the family. Unbeknownst to Bruce, the Suns lead a deadly triad in Taipei and are under attack.
Playing a character so much like himself seemed like a dream, and Li remembered the emotional roller coaster during casting. "It was really difficult because one day, I would be going in to audition for possibly the biggest project of my life," he said. "And then it's over." It wasn't that Li was unfamiliar with rejection. There have been multiple instances when he went through multiple audition rounds for major roles — including one for a Disney project — before the opportunity was denied. "I was already in a state where I always knew there could be the possibility of no," he said. But maintaining an "if it happens, it happens" attitude for The Brothers Sun proved increasingly difficult. "I just had to live life normally again, when I feel there's this possibility of something so life-changing," he said. "Thank God it worked out in the end."
Starring as Bruce is Li's first leading role. Prior to The Brothers Sun, he played minor parts in shows including Never Have I Ever, Better Call Saul, and Home Economics. To many, Li is more familiar as a content creator. Across Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, he's gained more than 600K followers through producing comedy sketches. "Doing social media was actually, in a lot of ways, a daytime job for me while I pursued my secret passion of wanting to be a TV actor or a movie star," Li said. He began making videos in part out of financial necessity, and dreams of reaching a point in his acting career where he's constantly approached with work. "But until that happens, anytime I do have free time, I would love to continue to write and produce my own experiences," he said. "I just enjoy watching people resonate with things that are happening to me."
It's clear that his videos are resonating, considering how many have gone viral in recent months. The latest hits are about one subject: Dating. In one video, Li parodies the experience of going on a date with someone "cheap AF" who eagerly asks for complimentary bread before ordering a glass of ice. In another, he satirizes going out with a woman from New York City who nonchalantly lists Michelin-starred restaurants as future date spots. Asked whether the videos are inspired by real-life experiences, Li laughed. "They are," he said. "2023 is not the year for dating." Li quoted Olivia Rodrigo's hit song to describe the scene: "It's brutal out there."
Born in Shenzhen, China, before moving to California, Li knew he wanted to pursue the arts at a young age. His passion led him to do "naughty stuff," he said. "I was skipping high school class to work on my own movies because I wanted to be a director." Li spent his time learning how to edit videos. He paused, sheepishly adding that his mom is frustrated whenever he shares this story. "I just didn't care about school that much," he admitted. "I was way more interested in filmmaking."
Initially, Li was more interested in becoming a director. That was largely because there weren't many Asian-American actors in media when he was in high school. "It was 2010, 2011, times have changed a lot since then especially in terms of the conversation for representation," Li said. He didn't think it was possible to have a viable career in front of the camera himself, so he began to produce films instead. It's a skill Li continues to use as a content creator. "To this day, I edit all my videos and I think I'm exceptionally good at editing for the average actor," he said.
After a while, Li decided to pivot to acting. "I was like, if I want to be a director, I should probably learn how to act because that's what directing is all about — how to talk to actors," he said. Li started to read books on acting. One book turned into two, and two turned into 10. He became increasingly drawn to the craft, and decided to try theater in college.
When Li's mom first learned of this vocational direction, she was not thrilled. "It was rough," he chuckled nervously when describing her initial reaction. But she began to show more support after seeing changes in his character — changes that Li said were prompted by his passion for the arts. "Pursuing acting really helped me open up my humanity," he said. "I feel like it rapidly matured who I was."
The actor described himself as "honestly kind of a brat" in the years before college. "I was a little bit ungrateful for some of the things that my mom was doing," he said. "And it took the love for storytelling to really be moved [by them]." The actor gave an example. When he watched Boyhood, Richard Linklater's 2014 drama that follows Mason Evans Jr. across 12 years, Li was particularly struck by the character's mom Olivia. She was divorced and taking care of two kids, which made Li think of his own mom raising him and his sister. "This is such a beautiful movie that I could get emotional over, but sometimes don't even see my life the same way," he remembered thinking. "But my mom's life is actually way crazier than this."
Li recalled a pivotal conversation in their relationship. "There was one night where I called her feeling really emotional," he said. "I just apologized for everything. And I talked to her about how monumental it was that she sacrificed so much to take care of us." Both him and his mom were in tears. In recent years, watching films has continued to help Li cultivate empathy. "[My mom] saw how much I changed after I started pursuing acting," he shared. "And I think that's why she sort of allowed me to do it temporarily."
The Brothers Sun, which features an all-Asian writers' room and an all-Asian cast, pushes Asian representation forward in more ways than one. An obvious example is its portrayal of the push and pull between family expectations and personal aspirations. Both Sun brothers face this challenge, and their internal conflicts are complicated by the fact that choosing one path — the individual over the collective — is perceived to be more American than Asian. This very subject being an integral part of the series also brought some comfort to Li and his mom. "Hey, don't worry about it, it's not just you — there's a reason why this is also on the show," he had told her. "I think it made her feel much better that she wasn't isolated."
Now, Li feels more free to pursue his acting dreams. "It certainly became a lot easier when the first paycheck from Netflix came," he joked, before emphasizing twice that he was kidding. And even if it's not always explicitly stated, the actor recognizes his mom's support. "She religiously shares updates about what I'm up to, my career, on her WeChat with all of her friend groups," Li said. "She's so, so dang proud of me."
The Brothers Sun is available to stream on Netflix.