Since premiering in 2018, Freeform’s mermaid thriller, Siren, has captivated viewers with its unique take on mermaid folklore. It represents the network’s tagline of “A Little Forward” in more ways than one. Apart from tackling real environmental issues, the show also boasts one of TV’s only polyamorous relationships.
Siren also touches on themes such as cultural diversity, privilege/classism, mental health and addiction, found family, and women’s autonomy. Add in its diverse cast and top-notch special effects and it’s no wonder the show has already been renewed for a third season. Ben, Maddie, and his old group of fishermen friends have all had their lives changed forever by the events of Seasons 1 and 2 so far. Season 2 Episode 8, in particular, left two of Ben’s most reluctant allies, Xander and Calvin, in a fiery predicament. I recently got to sit down with the talented Curtis Lum, who plays Calvin Lee, to talk about the show. Here’s what he had to say! (Minor spoilers ahead!)
Remediality: What drew to audition for Siren in the first place?
Curtis Lum: It was a project a lot of people in town (Vancouver B.C, where the show is filmed) were talking about. Most of my actor friends were auditioning for one of the lead parts. Then, maybe a week or week and a half before they shot the pilot, they were randomly looking for someone to play Xander’s best friend, and I caught wind that they wanted an Asian guy. I have a relationship with the casting director, so I begged her to see me. I put down my audition and a few days later I got it.
Did any of you suspect that the show would take off as much as it has to become one of Freeform’s biggest shows?
I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me just knowing about the novelty of the show… it’s a show about mermaids, and all I ever really knew about mermaids is what most people in the world do. We know about the mythologies and the mysteries behind it, and then we know the opposite, like The Little Mermaid. As a grown man doing a show about mermaids there was definitely this idea of ‘it’s a show for teens about mermaids, it’s cute’. But as soon as we got the scripts and started shooting the pilot, and as soon as we met Eline [Powell] who plays Ryn, I think we all collectively knew we had something special on our hands.
Every single time we’ve stopped shooting we’ve always left the [show thinking] “Oh my God, this is getting better and better. We can’t wait to see what’s left!” There’s like a special synergy amongst the cast as well. It’s different and anyone can attest to that. The whole vibe on set is different. It’s a very special show. I always knew the show would do well among a certain demographic. I’m constantly surprised by how often I’m approached by people I would never ever in a million years suspect watch the show. Elderly people, grown men… my parents love the show. My dad has never really loved anything I’ve ever done, but he’ll text me on Thursdays like, “Oh my God, so-and-so did this,” and he’s caught up in it. It’s pretty impressive.
Were you and your fellow castmates surprised by the relationship between Ben, Ryn, and Maddie? Was that something that the writers always planned to pursue, or did it unfold naturally?
I’m not in the writers’ room so I can’t speak to them, but I think you can certainly see the possibilities brewing from very early on. Ryn has a unique relationship with each of them, so by the time the three of them end up doing what they do together, it’s really no surprise. I think they did a really good job in building that up over the two seasons.
Were we surprised? No, not really. I think it’s something we all wanted to see because we’ve never seen it before. I think I would have rooted for any threesome to happen on the show. The fact that they pushed the boundaries on a show for a younger audience, I think that’s really cool.
In terms of Calvin, he sometimes functions as a bit of comic relief (more so in Season 1). But I also really enjoy his serious moments with Xander and Ben. Do you prefer the comedic type scenes or the dramatic scenes?
Now that we’ve had two seasons with the character, it’s hard not to feel all the feelings he feels. After two years of going down our path, it felt really good to be able to lash out at Ben and say all those things that I did. It was cleansing for Calvin but also for me as a fan of Calvin. So in that regard, I enjoyed that a lot.
I love it the most whenever we do more action-heavy things. That’s something all of us look forward to doing and on this show. We have an amazing stunt supervisor and coordinator, Ed Anders, who really takes care of us and he makes the sequences look so good. But honestly, I like them both [comedy and drama]. I love being kept on my toes as the actor in terms of what the writers write, but I also love keeping the audience on their toes. I don’t want to be all serious all the time, or all funny all the time, so to be able to have a nice combination of both is really exhilarating for an actor to be able to do.
Why do you think the relationship between Calvin and Ben is so tense?
That’s a really good question. If I had to break it down into its simplest form, it’s tense for a few reasons. I think Calvin, in many ways, feels like himself and the rest of the crew were left behind by Ben, especially because he’s such a loyal friend to Xander. I think things are quite black and white to Calvin in many ways; so it doesn’t matter if you disrespect me or if you disrespect my friend, you’re still disrespecting me. It’s a combination of us being left behind by [Ben], and now it’s like, “Oh, okay, now when this serves your purpose or serves you well, now you wanna come back and now you wanna include us, and befriend us and use us.”
And then, economically, upbringing comes into play. I think there’s a lot of envy of Ben’s upbringing — his family, who his family is, his relationship with Maddie. [Ben’s] whole situation from Calvin’s perspective is that he’s kind of had it all given to him, whereas Calvin is a blue-collar guy who [has] had to work for everything he’s got and he doesn’t have much. So I think there’s a lot of anger there.
Also, with the mermaids thus far, all [Calvin’s] seen is kind of the ugly side of the mermaids. They accidentally caught one, which led to one of his best friends — Chris — being helicoptered away, and taken to a facility. The next time he encounters a mermaid, they get attacked, and then basically his second dad ends up getting murdered by one. For Calvin, there really is no space for empathy or sympathy with these monsters because he hasn’t seen that side of them yet, whereas Ben has. Because there’s a lack of communication between Ben and Calvin, I think it’s totally justified that there’s this barrier between them.
Where do you think Calvin is now in terms of character development, compared to where we met him in [Siren] Season 1?
As soon as the mermaids entered the picture, our whole world changed. The world as we know it has been rocked upside down. And obviously, as you can see, the future for the North Star doesn’t look so bright. What you’re gonna see now is a man who’s been broken down and now needs to question everything. Obviously his safety and his friendships, but also his livelihood — how is he going to survive?
He’s a fisherman and he can’t fish, so how is he going to make money? He wants to pursue a relationship with Janine. How is he gonna take care of himself and her without a source of income? What you’re gonna see is just a lot of questioning: What am I gonna do with my life? What’s the next step? How do I move on from this? What’s happened in the past couple of months is such a dark and twisted memory now, so, yeah, it’s really about figuring out what the next move is. Figuring out how he’s going to be able to take care of himself and Janine, sustain a relationship, and also get by.
When it comes to Calvin’s personality, how much of what you do on-screen comes from the writers’ input, and how much has been created from your time in Calvin’s shoes? Have you created your own detailed backstory of his life?
Everything they’ve given me is written in the script, so I’ve definitely had to create my own backstory of who Calvin was leading up to the first time you see him. I’d say it’s like a really nice balance. The writers do a really great job writing him, but I’d like to think that I bring a lot of both myself and the character that I’ve developed to the table as well. It’s like a really nice collaborative effort for Calvin.
Calvin and Janine ( played by Hannah Levien) are low-key my favorite couple on the show. How could you see the two of them getting in on the action?
Calvin is one of the few people that know about the secret, so he can either be really dangerous, as you’ve seen, or he can be a really strong ally. Now that we’ve been out in the water a few times, and he’s actually worked with the mermaids firsthand, I think that initial fear is gone. So whether it’s dealing with them or working with them, he’s technically one of the most experienced. I think that makes him a really strong ally or a really good enemy depending on how they utilize Calvin.
Right, because before everyone was kind of concerned you were trying to tell the reporters about the mermaids. Do you think he’d tell Janine about it?
Personally, I would. I don’t think Calvin would necessarily. I think for [Janine’s] safety, [but] I can’t be certain if he has. It remains to be seen whether Janine knows because it’s one of those things where if too many people know then things can get really bad. It’s like the tough decision of, “Is ignorance bliss or not?” So that’s the difficult decision Calvin has to go home to every day. And Janine is a badass in her own right, so she would definitely hold her own if it came down to it.
Speaking of Janine and Calvin, we see you guys in bed a lot. Is it awkward to shoot those sex scenes?
Fortunately, she and I have done it enough times where I think it’s gotten a lot easier. Those type of scenes are always gonna be awkward I think. Two people being vulnerable like that in a room full of strangers, with a camera rolling, is definitely awkward on many levels. But she and I have known each other long enough, and worked together long enough, that I think we’re quite comfortable with each other.
Which character/cast member would you like to have more scenes with that you haven’t had a chance to play opposite of yet?
You know what, I think Calvin and Jerry would be really great friends. I definitely ship the two of those guys together. Calvin and Levi could have a lot of fun together too. I think I’d really be curious to see how Calvin interacts with Ryn or what Ryn thinks of Calvin. But I think Calvin and Jerry should be friends, that’s the main one.
If you could play any other character in the show, who would you be and why?
Oh, wow, that’s a really good question. Nicole does a really good job; I think that’s a really great character (played by Natalie Linez). But Dale’s pretty cool too. I don’t know if I necessarily wanna play him but he’s one of my favorite characters to watch. Who would I like to play? I would like to play Ryn. I don’t think it would get more fun than that.
Yes. Enough said.
Yeah, there’s not much more I can say. That’s THE best character.
What’s your favorite Siren episode?
Definitely [Siren] Season 1 Episode 7. Either that episode or the mid-season finale episode that just aired.
What has been your favorite scene to shoot?
My favorite scene to shoot was surprisingly the jail scene (from [Siren] Season 2 Episode 7). That whole arc for the entire first season with his anger towards Ben, and to finally see that manifest through words and not just fists, I think was a really beautiful scene.
I loved that moment.
Yes. Because from there, after he got all that out and they got into their fight, the result is them becoming friends. And I love that in real life too. When things go bad you see who your real friends are, or when you fight sometimes it brings you closer.
This next question goes back to what you said before about loving the action scenes. Did you really get caught on the hook in [Siren] Season 2 Episode 8 or was that a stunt double?
Yes, that was really me on the hook. I always try to do my own stunts. I’m gonna be honest with you and tell you that there was also a stunt double there. I technically did all my own stunts, it’s just that there was a guy that did it better, but everything you saw that happened, I did that.
What was the experience like filming the boat scene at the end of the mid-season finale? Are you guys really out on the water?
Yep. Honestly, that’s the best part about working on this show – is that there’s a lot of practical shooting. So every time you see us out on the water, we’re really out on the water. Every time we shoot outdoors, we’re outdoors. That scene was really something special to shoot. There was real fire used but obviously not to that extent (covering the ceiling). I’ve always said this as a joke, but a lot of time there really isn’t much acting required on the show because we’re really out there doing it. We’re really out there fighting with these mermaids or we’re really driving on the boats. So it’s really us reacting to our actual surroundings and it’s been a real blessing. It felt very real so it was not hard to feel sad about that situation.
Favorite moment from [Siren] Season 2 so far?
It’s got to be the final minute of the [Siren Season 2 Episode 8]. I don’t know how much more exciting it gets than that with like the James Bond-style music and all the action that’s happening. And the drama between Ben and his dad, and then Helen, and us on the boat, and poor Sarge. It was brilliant. Shoutout to Joe Menendez; he absolutely crushed that episode! Him and our showrunner, Eric Wald, who was the writer for that episode, absolutely crushed it.
Are there any other fun/cool on-set stories you can share?
I think one of my favorites was shooting the mid-season finale when we were actually on the boat. We’re shooting in the middle of winter in Vancouver, so it’s very cold. So, when we’re shooting, we’re absolutely freezing our butts off. In between takes, we would all shove ourselves inside the cabin and we’d all be bundled up, shaking. And we’d do things and play games to stay warm, but also to take our minds off the fact that we’re freezing to death.
There was a moment where Eline started singing a song from The Little Mermaid. I think she was singing it in her native tongue — because she’s Belgian — and it was the most beautiful serene moment. I was just looking around the table and all [of] the mermaids and all of us humans were just mesmerized by her singing. It was like she was siren-ing us in real life. Everyone was just, like, jaw on the floor. That’s one of my favorite moments.
What can fans expect from the second half of [Siren] Season 2?
All I can say is you guys are gonna be taken to explore a world we haven’t seen yet. I’d say it’s very different from the first half of the season, so buckle up, it’s gonna be a crazy ride!