Actor, real estate agent, entrepreneur: Lyman Chen manages to toggle effortlessly from one to the other
Unlike author and minister Robert Fulghum, who wrote the 1986 bestseller All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Lyman Chen received his life-changing and painful lessons a few years later—in middle school.
Born in Newark to parents who had immigrated from China, Chen entered those formative years at the height of the school busing movement, which for him proved to be bad timing. “I wasn’t black and I wasn’t white,” he says. “So I got it from both sides.” Sixth to eighth grade became a personal gauntlet for him, punctuated by the occasional beating and frequent thefts of his money, lunch and comic books.
He complained to his father, who, hardened by his previous life in China, showed little sympathy. “My dad told me I wasn’t there to make friends,” says Chen, “just to get good grades.”
So he did. He adapted, survived and, eventually, thrived. Indeed, Chen looks back on those years with his characteristic jovial attitude. Laughing, he says, “I’m actually thankful for that experience. It taught me people skills, how to get along with people.” And, he admits, it involved a bit of acting, too, a nascent talent he would develop later in life.
His years at Newark High School, where he was captain of the tennis team, went much smoother. He moved on to the University of Delaware, where he joined Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and spent four happy years.
With a degree in finance and marketing, Chen embarked on a career in the financial world, going straight out of college to J.P. Morgan & Co. on Wall Street, no less, before being assigned to the firm’s Delaware office. Although he was successful in his work, he came to realize that banking, as he says, “was just not my thing.”
He wanted to be his own boss, much like his father, who was in real estate. “He ran a little mom and pop shop and he encouraged me to get into the business,” says Chen. At first he resisted, but soon relented and found himself studying for the exam, which he passed while still at Morgan.
He dabbled in real estate on the side for a while, then, after two-and-a-half years, he left the financial world and went into the business full time. It was a quick and successful transition.
“Real estate came easy to me,” Chen says. “I had worked at the old Wick’s Ski Shop during summers and I learned there that I had a knack for selling. And I had a ready-made customer base in the Newark area because I had spent my life there.” He formed RE/MAX Sunvest Realty, which has multiple offices in Delaware.
Meanwhile, his wife, Caroline, who also was in the banking industry, was accepted by Wharton, the prestigious business school at the University of Pennsylvania. But she too was unhappy and decided to pursue her true love—art. She started a graphic design firm—Chengraphix—and also developed her talent for painting. Today she maintains a studio at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, and she was included in the 2010 book 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley by Catherine Quillman.
Both Chens achieved success in their banking careers, but, says Lyman, “We decided we didn’t want to be held hostage by money, and we pursued our passions.”
But he wasn’t finished with alternate careers. While he enjoyed selling houses, Chen discovered that his true love was something that had its beginnings back there in middle school: acting.
“I was always a movie and TV fanatic,” he says. “I was one of those annoying people who would mouth the lines of the character on screen. I saw random Asian actors and I would say, ‘I can do that!’, and other self-deluded statements.”
Finally, Caroline said, “Oh, you think it’s that easy?” and called his bluff by buying him acting classes at Delaware Theatre Co. Inspired, Chen then took lessons at Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. Lemon quickly saw the potential in the 6’-1”, 210-pound Chen.
“There were no Asian men actors in Philly, and especially none my size,” says Chen. “Mike was like, ‘where have you been?’”
Lemon soon cast him in a training video for the DuPont Co. (“They were pushing diversity,” says Chen).
That 2004 project was his introduction to how a movie is produced, and he reveled in it. “We put in 14- or 15-hour days,” he says, “and all the extras were miserable. But for me, it was, like, the greatest day ever. I got to see behind the scenes on a film.”
His next significant role was a small, recurring one on Hack, a TV drama about a former Philly policeman who becomes a crime-fighting cab driver that starred veteran character actor David Morse (ER, The Green Mile) and Andre Braugher, who won an Emmy for Homicide: Life on the Street, and who currently stars in Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
For two years, Chen was in almost every episode of the one-hour show. “It was great,” he says. “The job didn’t interfere with my real estate business, and I got to watch David Morse and Andre Braugher work.” Aside from garnering acting techniques, the garrulous Chen picked the brains of the crew, learning film-making terminology and procedures. “I treated it as my master class in film,” he says.
That approach is appreciated by casting people. “Lyman understands the business, whereas many actors don’t,” says Diane Heery of Heery Casting in Philadelphia, who has worked with him several times. “And this is huge. Plus, he’s a very personable, fun guy; everybody enjoys working with him.”
She adds that Chen’s availability to travel and his ethnicity also are advantages. “It’s all a package,” she says.
Following Hack, he landed in a series of commercials as what he calls “the token Asian.” In one, for Campbell’s Soup Co., he was garbed in winter clothing and eating chili. “The commercial was shot in 90-degree weather on a set that made it look like 10 below,” says Chen. “It ran for two years during football season, and I was on screen for maybe a second, but the residuals were pretty phenomenal. In fact, sometimes when my wife asked if I was going to work that day I would tell her, ‘let me check the mail box.’”
But seeking roles in commercials soon became frustrating. He was driving to New York four days a week for auditions that often didn’t result in a job. “That was four hours a day away from my family.” (The Chens, who live in North Wilmington, have a 17-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son.) So he told his agent he wanted only movie or TV work. “I thought that was probably the end of my acting career,” he says.
But in 2005, his biggest role came along. His agent called him to audition for The Departed, the Martin Scorsese-helmed movie loosely based on Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger.
Chen went to New York four times for auditions, then waited. And waited. A month went by and he heard nothing. Which is not unusual, he explains. “If you don’t get the job, they just don’t bother to tell you.”
The Departed was one of the year’s major productions, with a cast full of heavyweights—Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg—and Chen assumed he had little chance of landing the part. “I said, ‘this is a joke,’ and I was ready to quit. I had given it three years, I had a couple good wins, but I figured that’s it, I better get back to selling houses.”
And then, out of the blue, he got the job. “I was beside myself,” says Chen.
In his first speaking role in a movie, he played an interpreter negotiating a deal between Nicholson’s mob and a Chinese gang. The scene, which included Nicholson and DiCaprio, was shot on three consecutive nights in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. “It took about 100 takes because of the different camera angles,” says Chen, adding that DiCaprio stayed through the entire scene, even though he didn’t have a line in it and could have easily had a stand-in take his place.
“He’s a great guy,” says Chen. “He came up to me and introduced himself on the first night.” Chen ranks DiCaprio right behind Danny DeVito among the friendliest actors he has worked with.
Following The Departed, his next career milestone was the role of a concierge in the campy Sharknado 2 in 2014. His character was swept away by a wave, created by the sharknado, which shot out of an elevator door. He of course was a fan of the original, and he threw a party for about 250 family and friends at Theatre N to watch the movie’s premiere on the Syfy channel. The audience cheered wildly when he delivered his two lines—”Can I help you? No one else is here.”
Last year, he and his whole family got a fleeting, uncredited moment in Creed, the Sylvester Stallone boxing film that was shot largely in Philadelphia. They played tourists at the Rocky statue. “My wife stressed over hitting her marks,” he says, “but it helped her understand what I do and that it is pretty stressful.”
And last November, he landed a recurring role as Joseph Yun, a Chinese CIA agent in Rush Hour, a CBS show based on the 1997 film starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan as two mismatched police partners. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after one season.
His acting gigs inadvertently led Chen to yet another endeavor. While doing some TV work in California, he says he became “quite addicted” to the frozen yogurt served in the Los Angeles area. And he wasn’t alone. “Those places were just packed with customers,” he says.
When he came back to Delaware, the real estate market was in a severe downward cycle. Looking to make up the lost income, he sat down with his wife, who also had become a fan of frozen yogurt, and said, “Why don’t we diversify?”
So it came to pass that the week before Christmas of 2011 the Chens opened Berri Yummi Frozen Yogurt in a strip mall on Naamans Road near Shipley. Despite the winter weather, he says, “There was a line out the door right away.” The next year he opened a second store in the Shops of Limestone Hills, and both locations are busy year-round.
Today, Chen toggles effortlessly from one of his three careers to the other. At 44, he has accumulated more than 30 credits in his IMDb in just 12 years, and he has one or two projects lined up. That includes a small but recurring role on Mr. Robot, the popular USA Network drama that’s in its second season, airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
“He’s been very successful, especially in the past year,” says Diane Heery. “There are so many variables in acting that it’s hard to predict, but I think he can go as far as he wants to go.”
Chen has thoroughly enjoyed his ride as an actor, and whatever roles may come his way will just be icing on his many-tiered career cake. He chooses to use a different metaphor to describe his acting endeavors: “I’ve been playing with house money since day one.”