Headshot by U-Shin Kim
You might say, "who is Jake Choi?" Well, in my humble opinion, not only is Jake Choi an up and coming talent in the entertainment business, but he is living the dream. Because while many people talk about their dreams, Jake is actually bringing it to fruition. In addition, he is doing it with class, style, passion, talent, and a commitment to fighting stereotypes in his own way.
I had a chance to chat and catch up with Jake last month at a small cafe in Manhattan on 14th Street and 8th Avenue called "Think Coffee." Here's what he had to say:
How did you get started acting?
I was living in Korea. I was born and raised in Queens, NY, but I went over to Korea just for a few years to pursue a career in basketball...and I lost the passion for it. I quit. And I didn't know what to do. So, I mentioned to a friend that I might just teach English and model on the side because I was modeling part time. That's when she said, "If you're gonna be a model, you might as well be an actor and really go for it. Because you can show your talents and personality there." At first I was terrified. I thought she was crazy. But I went ahead and looked into classes...and I LOVED IT! I read some books on it, and ended up moving back to NY shortly after. Upon my return I started taking more classes. I went to Lee Strassberg Institute, and I was taking workshops with casting directors and agents, and even Striver Studio where I got some more training. Ant that was my start. Most professional actors start by doing a play in High School where they catch the acting bug and go from there. However, I actually did a play in High School (Hamlet), and I hated it...Total opposite!
Photo from photozaa.com
Why is it that you've kept doing this work?
I couldn't see myself going back to school and working a nine to five job. That's why I kept doing it, but honestly, I really love it. I have a hard time expressing myself as 'me.' But when I'm on stage or in front of the camera, and I don't have to be me. I have no inhibitions. I am not scared to just go all in or go all out. And since I was in basketball and was a bit of an athlete, it translates over into acting. And what I mean by that is that I love doing the work that goes into preparing for a play, a film an audition, a TV show; character work. It's all repetition really, and I love it. Because once you have to perform it all comes easy.
What other skills do you have that most people don't know about?
Besides basketball? I do yoga, and I did Muy Tai kickboxing for three years on and off. Oh, I can rollerblade and golf. I played golf for a while before I played basketball.
Photo by Jeffrey Gortiz
What is the craziest regular job you have ever had?
I was a photo technician at Duane Reed when I was 19. This was right before digital cameras. So people would come in and give me their cameras, and I would make pictures from their negatives. You would have to put it in a box where no light would touch it, and take it out of the camera, etc., etc. It was a crazy process. I worked at several different locations in New York. Including the Duane Reed in Times Square...and some of the pictures I got there went from shady and decadent, all the way to XXX. It was pretty interesting.
Wow...I don't think anyone knows that about me, that I was a photo technician.
Screen capture from Best Buy commercial with Amy Poehlr
I first saw you in the Best Buy commercial with Amy Poehler. I'm sure that when the project was released you were getting contacted by everyone and your grandmother, right?
Funny you say that because I signed an NDA, so I couldn't tell anyone about the project nor could I talk about it. So, the day of the Super Bowl when it first aired, people were texing me, calling me, FaceBooking me, emailing me, and tweeting me. So much that at one point my phone just turned off because it couldn't handle the traffic. I had to leave it off for about 5 minutes and then turn it back on. It was really weird when it happened. I was trying to call people back and it just wouldn't because it just froze!
Screen capture from Best Buy commercial with Amy Poehler
Did that project lead to more work for you?
Yeah, in a way I think it led to more opportunities and doors being opened. It definitely was great exposure. Casting Directors and Producers definitely recognized me and wanted to read me for other roles.
So, Gotham. How did that come about?
My manager was like, "Hey, you have an audition for this new show called, Gotham." And I was like, 'sure.' It was just a regular audition with an office that I knew. It was actually a really fun audition. There was no callback. The casting director (Allison Shumer) and I had a really good time in there. At one point, I was getting so into it that she was holding the sides in one hand and then moving the camera around with the other hand following me so that I wouldn't go out of frame. It was definitely fun. Very cool. And the show? Man, what a great set.
Screen capture from Gotham scene with Robin Lord Taylor (Penguin)
Robin Lord Taylor, who plays Penguin, seems like he is uber talented. I've really noticed that he brings a kind of humanity and character to Penguin which I've never seen!
He is so talented, man. And he's so humble and so nice. There isn't one egotistical bone in his body. I tell anyone that wants to talk about Gotham; Penguin is the most interesting character hands down. The other characters are cool and interesting, but he is by far the most three dimensional. And like you say, he brings some kind of humanity to the character of Penguin that people don't expect.
Screen capture from Gotham scene with Robin Lord Taylor (Penguin)
YES! He brings qualities and life to this character that I feel I've never seen before, and I've been reading comics forever! Also these weird dimensions. Sometimes he catches me with unexpected things, and I feel that's so great because the character of Penguin in the Batman mythos has been so underplayed as just some fat guy asshole. But now, for us/the public, there's so much more to him. We are actually seeing the evolution of the character and exactly how he got to be that fat asshole. It's ridiculous! Okay, sorry. Back to the interview...
So, let's talk about diversity (or lack thereof) in Hollywood. Steven Yuen, of The Walking Dead, and who I'm sure you get compared to a lot, mentioned how he wanted to start making more roles for Asian-American actors. Have you perceived the need for diversity in Hollywood, and what is your take on it?
There are so many ways that I can approach this question. Steven Yuen, for example. He's da man, and I remember reading that article to which you refer. I think I might have even read it on your page.
Anyway, he touched on the fact that even with the success of the show and his career, he is still having a hard time auditioning for roles he wants to read for, in films. Which is pretty sad. He's one of the leads on one of the most popular shows on television. He's a good looking guy and a good actor. I mean, he looks like the leading man type to me. So, in my opinion, I think a big part of this is production. the majority of people who create and produce these shows have a specific perception of minorities. So, I feel that could have a lot to do with it.
Have you ever encountered a situation where you auditioned for something and knew it went to someone else who was less qualified than you, even though many other more qualified people auditioned in addition to you?
Many many times, but I hear stories all the time like this.
Screen capture from Law & Order episode
Shonda Rhimes' shows have been praised because they are so successful. She was interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter who called her TV's 'savior.' Mostly because of her diverse casting. I think people marvel at how she tells these human stories but yet the cast is so diverse. Yet, from all the interviews that I've read, she doesn't see it as difficult. What do you think of that?
It's true. For example, there's a show filmed here that takes place in a precinct in New York City. Last time I checked, every series regular on the show was white, and that just doesn't make sense. Don't get me wrong, I think there might be one woman who is Latina, but check it out...It's a police precinct in New York City. NEW YORK CITY! Are you fucking kidding me right now? It doesn't make sense. Now if it was a police precinct in Oklahoma, Wyoming, or Albuquerque, New Mexico (Breaking Bad) or even the Midwest somewhere, I could see. But it's Manhattan! And don't get me wrong, we are progressing. ABC, prime time, and all the cable networks are doing their best to add some diversity. However, they seem to sprinkle actors with co-stars and one liners. But very much like Shonda Rhimes' shows, the numbers don't lie. Her shows, Walking Dead, etc., all kill it in box office and ratings!
Photo of Law & Order script from Jake Choi
So, what do you think we need to do to fix it?
Good question. One way is to raise awareness. Continue having this conversation. As for me personally, I ask my reps not to submit me for stereotypical roles. Some actors don't mind. However, I fell exerting that kind of control over my career is one way that I can contribute. Also, producing our own work is another way to improve the lack of diversity because giving new light to previous stereotypes can be very informative to the general public. We can also do good work and give 100% for every role that you and I as actors book. And last but not least, we can support other producers of work who give opportunities to those who are not the majority.
How did you first get represented as an actor?
I met my current agent at a networking event back in 2010. I was super green. I had this terrible headshot. Nothing on my resume except for maybe a student film and a small play, and I went to this networking event and my current agent was speaking. I could tell he wasn't interested. He gave me advice, and as I spoke with him we talked almost ten minutes about basketball. I left, and never heard a word. It was very obvious that he hadn't been interested in me as a client, so there was no love lost. Then, about two months later, I got a phone call from him telling me that he had an audition for me, and it was for a Puma print ad (Totally hit me up out of the blue). I'm guessing he didn't have any actors that were my type. I was like, 'oh shit, I didn't even know you were representing me.' I went in...and booked that job. Then the next thing he sent me out on, which was a college humor ad, I booked as well. So, a few months after that, he asked me to come into the office so that we could talk. So, I go in and he's like, "Hey, man. I wanna sign you." It was a test, I guess, and I passed.
Photo from Reblollogy
I belong to a group of actors in San Francisco that supports and empowers the acting and entertainment community called Coffee & Catchup. If you could give any advice to some of the young actors in our group starting out, what would it be?
Gosh, where do I start? You've gotta work your ass off. That's the first thing. Because this industry is so subjective. Sometimes you're not going to get booked and the reason has nothing to do with your ability. For that reason, you've gotta keep working hard. So, basically do not base yourself on what you do or don't book.
Do you have anything that for you is your moral compass? Something that guides you?
I volunteer. One is a club that teaches elementary kids how to play chess. The other is a group that teaches kids drama. Volunteering always gives me perspective. I think that's especially true when dealing with kids.
If you had one quote to live by, what would it be?
"Be the change that you want to see." by Gandhi.
Photo by U-Shin Kim
Brian J. Patterson is an actor, writer and producer that splits his time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. His home is a shrine to comic books...but mostly Wonder Woman.