Descended from a long line of Chinese artists and poets, Szeto, 31, got plenty of encouragement from his parents when it came to creative pursuits. But his mother did have one suggestion—to eschew Hollywood in favor of Hong Kong, where opportunities for Asian actors are more plentiful. But Szeto ultimately decided to leave his hometown of Vancouver and move to Los Angeles, not only because of his lifelong love for American movies but because he saw a chance to fill a void. "At least I tried, instead of following the tide to Hong Kong, where I'm just the same as everyone else and I'm not changing anything," he says. "And oh, man, I'm so glad there's a good result so far."
Although Szeto's studied acting for years, The Edge of Seventeen is his first major film, in which he plays an awkward high schooler named Erwin. And while Szeto was the first actor whom writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig and producer James L. Brooks cast, he couldn't help but feel overwhelmed when he got to set. Still, he says, his own nervousness helped him connect with Erwin and his clumsy attempts to get the girl. "Overcoming that worked for Erwin as well," Szeto says. "I barely had to do any character work because I felt it on set."
TAKING A CUE
Since debuting at the Toronto Film Festival, the R-rated film has been hailed as a snarky heir to the John Hughes teen-movie throne, due in large part to its sharp, sparkling dialogue. Actress Hailee Steinfeld stars as the angsty protagonist Nadine (and the object of Erwin's affection), and despite their age gap, Szeto found himself picking up tips from his teenage costar. "That's something I had to accept, learning from this 19-year-old that is a goddess of acting," he says. "And she can sing."
PAVING THE WAY
Fremon Craig told Szeto she wrote Erwin as Asian-American to reflect the friends she had in college, and as the debate rages on about Asian underrepresentation and whitewashing in Hollywood, Erwin makes for a rare character: the Asian-American love interest (whose race isn't a plot point). Szeto says he was aware of the role's "revolutionary" significance from the moment he was cast, calling it a "big deal to the Asian community," but he'd rather see less time spent analyzing Erwin and more time devoted to creating other characters like him. "This is a small victory," says Szeto. "We should definitely give it a nod and continue moving forward because there's so much more we can do."