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LGBTQ+ actor Hank Chen talks OneWheaton, Tyra Banks and Robin Williams
by Emily Reilly

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Hank Chen is an actor and—perhaps more interestingly to people in Chicagoland—is a co-founder of the LGBTQ+ group OneWheaton, which consists of LGBTQ+ students and alumni of Wheaton College. Two of his recent credits include Life-Size 2 and The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, in which he worked with well-known names like Tyra Banks and Robin Williams.

Growing up in the suburbs of District of Columbia, Chen was inspired by leaders in his church and community who attended Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school in the suburbs of Chicago. Unbeknownst to him, this is where he would make a powerful impact on the student body.

"Our youth pastor had gone to Wheaton College and then some of the prominent leaders had gone to Wheaton College and it was just so absorbed in that community, like, 'Wow, oh so and so went to Wheaton College—oh wow," said Chen. "All these guys were seen as cool and I just thought to myself—what happens if I apply? So I applied and got in."

When Chen attended, he and other LGBTQ+ students at the college felt isolated on campus and eventually came together to begin OneWheaton, aiming to affirm the humanity and dignity of LGBTQ+ students.

"Everyone sort of took up their positions and then someone thought of the idea of a letter-writing campaign, so what had happened was a letter was drafted in response to the Wheaton College body in hoping that it would get in the hands of anyone who was questioning or closeted or struggling with isolation," said Chen. "Then, after chapel one day, a handful of locals in Chicago went to campus and handed out these letters as one of the chapels was being let out. So they were pretty much able to have access to the entire student body."

Hoping to hear a response from the college, OneWheaton quickly picked up traction from this on social media and news outlets.

"These letters were leaked to the press; next thing you know it was on Time, CNN, news broadcasts and our PR person was quoted everywhere," said Chen. "What was interesting is Wheaton College was trending on Twitter that day—so much so that the actor Wil Wheaton got alerted on what was happening because of his last name and he tweeted us. He promoted our cause and so the president at the time had to respond and said 'We believe marriage is between one man and one woman' and they were put into a very uncomfortable position, but they were kind of exposed for the bigot that they were."

Beyond his work with OneWheaton, Chen has since been onscreen for a number of credits, including Life Size 2, where he spent five weeks filming alongside Tyra Banks.

"It was shot in the summer and it was July in Atlanta and they can't turn on the AC when the camera is rolling because it interferes with the audio," said Chen. "We were just chilling in the car, she and I were just sweating, you know, waiting for them to say action."

Chen said that working on the film and being colleagues with Banks was a surreal experience and that he is grateful he was able to work alongside her, even through the heat.

"She was just fun, you know," said Chen. "It was really cool."

Before Life Size 2, Chen appeared in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, Williams' last movie before his death in 2014. Chen said that at the time of its release, he was feeling positive about its debut but disappointed when it was temporarily unsuccessful.

"I remember we were very excited when it wrapped and the director was, like 'I can't wait to see it premiere,' which I think it was on that Memorial Day weekend and, yeah, then it bombed," said Chen.

Months later, Williams passed away. Chen expressed how shaken he was, along with the rest of the world, when he heard about Williams's death. Consequently, this affected the film he had just wrapped with Williams.

"More people saw it the week he died than when it came out in theaters," said Chen.

Similar to Williams, Chen has a background in performing stand-up comedy.

"A couple years ago, I approached it from the method of an actor," said Chen. "I would have my jokes written out and then memorized and then onstage I would recite the joke and I was, like, 'Oh, they should be laughing here'—and it was just very stupid and it was very flat. Now, I really learned to read the room, so you don't talk at the audience; you talk with the audience. And sometimes you ask them literally to talk back. No joke is precious, no show is precious, sometimes you win them and sometimes you don't."

Because production has paused and most venues are closed due to COVID-19, Chen has plans to continue his work in film once everything starts back up again. Until then, he can be found on Instagram and Twitter @Hanksterchen.

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