Quite a coincidence, Dallas' career is truly blazing. From the red carpet of Marvel Cinematic Universe's new superhero movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings, he will be firebending a new role in Netflix's adaptation of Nickelodeon cult classic Avatar: The Last Airbender as Zuko, the fire master and antagonist of the series. Although Dallas' genuine presence is far from villainous, just like Zuko he is a complex young man trying to find his place and purpose.
Prior to the interview, amongst the scenes of a bustling and noisy garage, photographer Vivian Kim creates a picturesquely private atmosphere against raw light while stylist Luca Kingston fashions an unmistakable fusion between relaxed shapes and spectacle of colour. Transforming from concentration to wholesome sweet satisfaction of recreation, the photography captures the hectic - perhaps existential - bliss of finding beauty everywhere, even in a windowless passage.
Having this conversation is a mere proof of Dallas' singular gift of perseverance and being oneself. A surefire way to learn about a person is to ask who their own superheroes are and in a heartbeat Dallas names his own parents, confessing how one day he hopes to be like them.
Pawing his own path, Dallas is a reminder that the case of being cool is tied to being just genuinely you and true. "I like to think that everyone's the main character in their own movie," he muses as the lights in London have already set, yet the Californian sun and Dallas under it, are only rising for another day.
Watch Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in theatres until 18 October.
Let's start with the main role: who is Dallas?
I'm 20 years old and I grew up right outside of Los Angeles, California in the San Gabriel Valley. I haven't been an actor my entire life, I actually only started at the beginning of high school, before that, I was just full of martial arts and basketball. I'm a huge anime fan and obviously, I love film and TV as well and enjoy snowboarding. I am a big foodie, love me some boba Korean barbecue.
For someone so young, you've had such a varied and interesting career already, from Tekken (2010) to Hulu dramedy PEN15 and now Marvel. What have you learned so far about the industry and moreover, what has the industry taught you about yourself?
I was at a weird transitioning age when I started acting - I was either too old to play younger or too young to play older. What's the point of booking a 16 year old who's in school, when you can book someone older that doesn't have to go through that process?
But it's showing me some flaws in myself and some things that I needed to work on internally. Also how to keep my life organised and disciplined, and getting my priorities straight. I think that's something that's really slept on. I mean, through the process of becoming an actor, I haven't been able to go to all the parties and hang out with people all the time and I guess there are just other goals that I've set before that. And I'm thankful that I've made this decision.
Did you ever have doubts if you can make it in the industry?
Absolutely, 100%. While being in high school you want to get any experience you can, and I guess my expectations were a little too high after watching a bunch of movies, but I just stuck with it. I kept working on my craft, doing my homework on different movies and just kept on grinding. I got a great support system, thankfully, from my parents and my friends along with my team. I felt like I could do it and I felt I had confidence in myself.
In this industry, they say, you have to pay your dues. And in the beginning, I felt like I didn't have to go through that. But once I became a teenager, it really hit me because I wasn't landing any jobs. I was driving out to LA every day and it really took a toll on me mentally. Seeing my parents and managers putting in that effort made me feel sort of bad. The biggest thing for me to overcome was to trust the process and be patient with everything that was going on. And hope that one day, my time would come after all the work that I put in.
How did you feel when you landed your first role?
I actually landed my first role before I even became an actor. I got a speaking role because I knew a friend of a friend and that was what really drew me into the entertainment industry. But when I officially signed with an agent and a manager and then booked my first job, I realised that it was possible for me to have a place in this industry.
Now, you are going to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's new movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings. This will be the first time an Asian character has a lead role to play in the MCU. What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Being an Asian American, I hope that younger Asian kids across the world are able to draw inspiration and relate to someone that looks like them, but also see that someone who comes from an Asian background and culture can be a superhero too. I haven't seen Shang-Chi yet - when we were doing it I didn't even get a full script. But I love the director and the cast, they were all super sweet and I got to spend a solid amount of time with them. It felt like a family and I hope that's something people are able to pull from the movie as well. This is the biggest project that I've gotten to take a part of so it's a dream come true. Especially getting to be able to prove that to everyone around me and thank them for sticking with me.
Do you have a superhero yourself?
Definitely my parents, both my mum and dad. My dad, he's one of the hardest working people I know. I wasn't able to spend as much time with him because he was always out working, but he was providing for us and later on, it really hit me that the time he spent away was for us. And my mum constantly drives me to auditions, taking me to practice for martial arts or basketball. She put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into me and it is finally paying off. I hope to be like them one day.
What's one nugget of gold you discovered about yourself while being part of this scale production?
I got to spend some time with Awkwafina off-set when we were filming there. And she gave me an affirmation, but also some advice, telling me that I do have a place in the industry and I am worthy of being here. I really took that to heart just because she's a huge inspiration. Just being able to talk to her and telling me that I can do this, meant a lot to me, and I guess that kept my head up through most of COVID.
How was COVID for you?
I was in the middle of shooting PEN15 when COVID happened, and they made us leave the set in the middle of the scene. COVID was hard but I think there were some pros to it. Obviously, all the auditions ended up being self-taped so you didn't go into a room and meet with anyone. I ended up going back to school, enrolled in college and took a bunch of classes. I got to spend a lot more time with my family, which is something that was much needed. Before that everyone was doing their own thing, but we all became closer again and I'm thankful for that.
Going back to Marvel, bringing an Asian cast forward in the movie is very relevant today. What was it like contributing to telling that story and being part of the cast?
It's a huge honour, especially for a first real Asian American superhero lead. To be a part of this, along with Simu Liu and Awkwafina, and all the other actors is incredible. I mean, my name will come up after about three minutes into the credits, but I feel proud that I took part in that I had some scenes there. I'm super psyched especially since that this was my first major one - I think it's a good start.
Now that you have a growing presence in the public eye, do you ever feel any responsibility, pressure or desire to open up conversations around social or political issues on your platform?
I think we all have some type of responsibility to speak up on specific topics. Obviously, I feel that in order to do that, you have to have a qualified position, be educated and very well informed. It's a little annoying when you see people going around making Instagram posts, thinking they know everything. Personally, that's not really my thing. A lot of this world is an ugly place, whether you like it or not. I think even though it is good to speak out, you get to know your place, and how privileged you are in the world. Some people just have a superiority complex, and it just gets really annoying.
You have a background in martial arts which is said to help to improve self-esteem and even the sense of belonging. What did you learn about yourself in competing in the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA)?
It pretty much taught me almost everything I know, as far as I approach life. It taught me a lot of self-discipline, keeping my head on straight and staying focused. Even though it teaches you how to fight and defend yourself, most martial artists don't go out on the street, getting into fights and that's because in martial arts, you practice fighting and you know the damage that can be done. So you tend to stay away from it. It also taught me to keep calm in situations and it's a great way to really share your emotions.
Does it grow your confidence?
I think martial arts teaches you how to find your limits, know your own abilities, what you're capable of, and when to make the right decision at a specific time. I used to be very insecure in middle school, and that's why I was doing martial arts. But I think getting more confident also has to do with getting older and maturity. Self-confidence is something that social media has really ruined. There are definitely times when I look at myself still through this, and it's only natural to have these feelings. Some people are "feeling great" 24/7 but I think they are lying. Social media is hard, but martial arts can just become an escape - just something to keep your mind off of daily life.
I imagine the emotional rollercoaster of getting in and out of a character is quite tiring. How do you decompress?
Exercise is something that people should use to cool down - it puts you to sleep, in total relaxation. Your muscles are going to be sore, of course, because it's a workout but that's how I've been able to let loose. Rest, sleep, and eat well. It's good to take breaks with a movie or TV show here and there. Staying out of social situations after a long day of going in and out of character is essential and just having alone time.
Let's talk about Hulu dramedy PEN15, which has been a success around the world. What attracted you to the script?
I related to the character on a personal level. I also have a younger sibling that I'm extremely protective of. We're about three years apart so we spent a lot of time fighting. But I think that only brought us closer, if anything. My brother means the world to me, when I go out and do these acting jobs, and I think about what I want to do, it's for him. I love him to death. And even though I'm extremely hard on him on certain things, it is just because I want the best for him. I think that's what I saw and saw in Shuji. I wasn't cool in middle school, but my brother, he is the shit. I definitely was not that guy. But I thought it'd be a fun part to play, especially with such a unique script: themselves playing 12-year-old versions of themselves in middle school.
Unlike a lot of teenage dramas, PEN15 looks at an Asian coming-of-age story, a demographic that rarely gets screen time, particularly in this context. Your character Shuji comes across as a strong big brother, but there is also a real sensitivity to him. Is this a quality starting to become seen as a strength in male characters?
Absolutely. Being in touch with your own emotions is lacking in the male community, but I think that's just because it's tied to society’s standards. Life is tough, you know? it's okay to shed some tears, whether it's in front of someone or on your own. It's good to release those pent up emotions.
What do you think could break the stigma around it?
I think it's self-confidence. If you're feeling yourself, then I think that you start to understand how to be aware of yourself and who you are. I feel like you got to love everything about yourself, including flaws. I mean, nobody's perfect. Everybody knows that. Being in touch with who you are, and trying to try to be a good person in general really does help.
You grew up in LA, could you paint us a picture and tell us a little more about your adolescent years there?
I didn't grow up in Los Angeles where it's the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Beverly Hills, I grew up in the suburbs. It's a completely different world out here. You wouldn't even think it's part of what people think California is. But then you have a vast land of nothingness. And that's pretty much where I'm at. I live the average life. I went to school and then high school - I went to an all-boys private Catholic school actually, which is definitely one for the books. I tried to make as many friends as I could, even though I wasn't that successful. I feel like I had a great small circle of people that I could trust whenever I needed them. And they ended up becoming my support system in acting. They always want the best for me.
Growing up and having a small group of people really taught me loyalty, which is something that is hard to come across nowadays, with everyone wanting to climb the ladder and be at the top. Growing up, I didn't really have any of these super high expectations of myself. I just took everything day by day. In LA, everything is super fast but for me, I just went for a swim out in the park with my friends. I kept things pretty simple. Obviously, the more I went out for auditions in LA, I started meeting people from there and I became friends with them. That was a new experience for me to get to see the dynamic of the people in the city itself. And I'm glad I got to know both worlds. But I grew up in the suburbs so that whole fast life of going out all the time and partying is just not really for me, I guess.
Do you feel like you had to almost play a version of another Dallas when you were down in LA?
It was like that when I first got out there for sure. And I feel like that happens with most people when they come out to LA, whether they're following their dreams or it's for social media. People get caught up in not being themselves because they see all these other people who are super happy all the time taking pictures and posting on social media. It gets tiring. I'm glad that I wasn't able to learn from that early on. LA is a lot to handle. And I feel like a lot of people just end up losing themselves in the process, which is unfortunate. But like I said, luckily, I have a great group of family and friends.
Who is somebody that you look up to in the industry?
I wouldn't say there's one specific person that I would like to become. I think that I want to become someone that people look up to. I don't think there's any specific career path of anyone that I would like to follow. I'm going with the flow and seeing how things turn out. I'm currently putting everything I've got into acting in the entertainment industry. I do have a passion for writing and directing, they're things that I want to do behind the camera. And I'd love to become like Leonardo DiCaprio.
Maybe they'll do a Titanic remake.
Definitely! Obviously, all the big stars up there, they've had amazing journeys. I guess there hasn't been one that really I felt like I can relate to, just because I want to pave the way for myself. I want to be completely my own person. I like to think that everyone's the main character in their own movie.
Lastly, what is one goal you'd like to achieve by the end of the year?
Every day, I try to be a better person than I was yesterday. That's just kind of how I approach things. And of course, it doesn't work out like that all the time. But it is a work in process. I set a goal for myself at the end of the year, to get my name out there a little bit more. That's how this industry works. It's about who you know. And this project is definitely taking my career to the next level and I'm ready to take it head-on. I've been waiting for this for a very long time and I think I prepared myself pretty well. Just taking the next step, the next chapter of my life.