David Lim loves his job. Like, loves it — late-night shoots outfitted in heavy SWAT gear; those director’s chairs etched with his name; table reads. After all, it’s been a pretty good past two years, with his acting career taking off — first with a meaty recurring spot as a former priest struggling with his sexuality in ABC’s “Quantico,” and now in his first series regular role as the hunky, diligent officer Victor Tan in CBS’s “S.W.A.T.” reboot.
A payoff, he suspects, following years of hustling in and out of auditions for bits as “Waiter” and “Fireman #2.” But Lim knows there’s still a long way to go. One of the first things his co-star and TV veteran Shemar Moore told him was, “David, you’re talented, you’re handsome, you got it all. Just be patient.”
Some 10 years ago, none of this would have made any sense to Lim, who is second-generation Chinese American. He’d graduated with an electrical engineering degree from the University of California, San Diego, realized he didn’t actually like engineering, and found work as a loan officer in the mortgage industry. There wasn’t much he knew about real estate except that it made good money — so the idea at first was to chase the dollars and climb the corporate ladder.
“It was a commission-based sales job, and so whatever you put into it was what you were going to get out of it, and I wanted to get a lot out of it,” he said. After three years of constant overtime, working from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., the hustle left him feeling unchallenged and burnt out. Even worse, he was bored — and he felt he was getting boring, too. That’s what attracted him to an acting class. He’d always been interested in modeling and acting, despite not coming from a family of artists or entertainers.
“In my first acting class, we had a little theater setup. I got to play these really cool characters who were really interesting. I loved making people laugh or even making them cry,” he said. “On TV, these actors look so good and make it look so easy that, if you’re a normal viewer, you’re like, ‘I could do that! They’re just being themselves!’ It’s not until you get into a class and you fall on your face a thousand times that you’re like, ‘OK, all right, it is a craft.’ People work hard and spend years trying to improve. How cool would it be to do this for a living? What an amazing career to be in if you could affect people like that or get them to change the way they think.”
Lim looked for Asians on TV and movies but saw none. Still, he figured, “Well, they’re gonna need some Asian people. There’s just so many of us.” In Los Angeles, he ended up in commercials for Gillette, McDonald’s and Apple, and in 2012 he booked his first recurring role in “Hollywood Heights” as Smith, best friend to one of the show’s leads.
“For me, [pursuing this career] was a no-brainer,” he said. “If you keep thinking about it and you can’t sleep at night and you’re wondering [what if], then it’s probably a sign that you should try to give it a shot.”
In 2016, he moved to New York City for the second season of the Priyanka Chopra-led “Quantico” as Sebastian Chen, a closeted C.I.A. recruit whose religious background prevents him from accepting his and others’ sexuality. Much of Sebastian’s arc was wrought with inner conflict. He refused to confront his budding romantic relationship with Harry Doyle, played by Russell Tovey. Lim, who is straight, said the role was a complex and daunting one to take on. “I spent a lot of time talking to people and trying to do as much research as I could to play Sebastian. I was gifted with very good writing and Russell Tovey, who is one of the best actors I’ve had the privilege to work with. A lot of times we were just playing off of each other and trying to be in the moment,” he said. “As an Asian actor, these [roles] don’t come along very often, where it’s a role that’s really filled out and experiences the whole range of emotions.”
(Courtesy photo/Manfred Beaumann)
For “S.W.A.T.,” the Tan character didn’t appear in the pilot script. He was created specifically for Lim after his audition, and bumped up to a series regular a few episodes into shooting. Lim, who had already moved on after assuming he’d failed to get a part, was amazed and “over the moon” when he received a call saying otherwise. He’d wanted to be a part of it from the get-go, after seeing names like Justin Lin, Shawn Ryan and Moore attached. “I was like, ‘What? Tan?’” he recalled. “That wasn’t in the pilot! I read that thing three times!’ I was just so excited and so thankful that they had seen something in me and felt like they needed it in the show.”
As it turns out, Justin Lin was the force behind Tan’s addition. The director, who helmed the pilot, wanted to bring some balance to the team with Tan, who is more level-headed than most, according to Aaron Thomas, the show’s executive producer. Lim, whose personality is not so different from Tan in real life, fit the bill. “David brings a positive attitude and an unparalleled work ethic, but most of all, he’s a cool customer,” Thomas said.
Tan’s romantic past was hinted at, but not quite played out, in the show’s first season. Lim said he converses frequently with the writers about what’s coming up for Tan, especially now that the show has gotten its freshman year out of the way. The main cast — excluding Moore’s Hondo, who leads the drama — is a team of six officers, all whose back stories remain relatively unexplored. Expect that to change with some serious character development for Tan and his personal life in Season 2. “We’ve discussed the idea of presenting a dope, smart, kick-ass Asian male action star who gets the girl,” Thomas said. “That’s David.”
“The first thing you see is how handsome he is,” Moore said. “But when you really take the time to watch him, he’s hungry, he’s passionate and he’s determined. When he delivers his lines, I see past his looks and I believe him. He’s very good at that, and I know with time, age and experience, he’s just going to get more and more interesting.”
As a kid, Lim ran around with his friends with Nerf guns in hand, playing cops and robbers. He idolized Indiana Jones and “Star Wars.” “You’re watching these action movies imagining you’re the hero who saves the day, takes down the bad guys, gets the girl. That’s a lot of what we do on ‘S.W.A.T.’ This character is a beautiful blend of everything that I’ve wanted to do as an actor. It’s action, it’s fun, it’s cool, it’s badass.”
That means being on a set, even through 14-hour days, still has him pinching himself. “It’s pretty crazy when I take a step back and think about what I’m doing for a living,” he said. “Any project I’m on, I’m always the least experienced dude there. It’s great because I’m a sponge, soaking it all in.”
“Quantico” was Lim’s first opportunity to learn the ropes of being on a major network TV show. There, he gained friends and mentors, some of whom he’d been watching on screen for a long time. That’s continued on the set of “S.W.A.T.,” especially in Moore, whose bits of advice stem from their shared experiences — both being minorities trying to make it in Hollywood, and, as Moore said, having to “defy a lot of odds not knowing if it was possible.”
“[David’s] innate passion and hunger to learn reminded me of me,” said Moore, who’s had a fruitful career spanning 25 years. “I am well aware and flattered by the way he looks up to me and watches me. I told him, ‘Nothing happens overnight. Keep doing the best work you can do with whatever is given to you — whether it’s a little bit or a lot.’ I said, ‘You’re a young version of me. Find ways to get people to look at you beyond the surface of what you present. And if you keep digging deep you will surprise yourself, and you will surprise the industry and you will be somebody.’”
“I’m a fan of all my co-stars,” Lim said. “It makes me curious as to whether there will ever be a day where I have all of the experience, and I’m able to mentor. But until then I’m going to keep asking questions and continue learning from these guys.” Who knows? One day Lim may be in Moore’s shoes, distributing sage wisdom to younger actors who see him as a role model. Until then, we have a feeling Lim’s just happy to be here.
This article appears in the October 2018 issue of KORE Magazine. Subscribe here.