Jake Choi is heating up our television screens as the lovable single dad on ABC’s Single Parents and will be steaming up on the big screen in this week’s release of The Sun is Also a Star.
When the new ABC’s hit series Single Parents was picked up for a full season last year, actor Jake Choi could only think of one word to describe it: surreal.
Choi, one of the stars of the hit half-hour comedy, feels grateful to be part of an ensemble and playing a character that Hollywood isn’t used to seeing — the sweet Asian “bro” and single father, Miggy Park.
“I grew up with people like Miggy Park,” Choi tells The Nerds of Color over the phone. “I used to be a Miggy Park. You know, like, he is someone that I feel like a lot of Asian-American like me have been waiting to see on TV but just haven’t had a chance to. He is not a smart geeky nerd, he’s not a kung-fu artist or martial artist, he’s not like in a big Asian gang or mob. He has tattoos, he’s a very nice kid who just loves to hang out and party and wear cool sneakers. He has a newborn son.”
Choi has a long history of playing multi-faceted characters on television and in movies — from the vape-smoking gamer in TV Land’s Younger to an openly gay celebrity stylist in the romance drama Front Cover. Choi has avoided being typecast into the ‘model minority’ bubble that Hollywood is used to seeing Asians being portrayed as.
“The importance of avoiding stereotypes in the roles I play cannot be overstated. It’s absolutely crucial for me as an actor and human being,” Choi stated. “But, not only do I simply want to avoid stereotypes, I look for three-dimensional roles with real flaws, complexities, fears, and dreams. I’m looking for those in characters [that] goes hand-in-hand with avoiding stereotypes.”
As frustrating as Hollywood has been for westernized Asians, Choi does see that there is progress being made.
“It’s slow, but it’s there, which is encouraging,” says Choi. “You got Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and you know, shows like that. It really does show different sides and aspects of Asian people and it’s great. It does show Asian men in a desirable light, whether it’s sexually or otherwise. And, I feel there is a lot of room for improvement for representation.”
Choi will be seen next in the teen romantic drama The Sun is Also a Star, which opens this week. In the film based on the #1 New York Times Bestseller by Nicola Yoon, Choi plays Charles Bae, the ‘asshole’ brother (that was exactly how the character was described in the book) of protagonist Daniel Bae (Charles Melton).
Although Choi himself is vastly different from the character in the film, he couldn’t help but be drawn to him. “So, that character really spoke to me because he is the firstborn son who had the unfortunate circumstance of both parents putting all the pressure on him to be the golden child — to be the most successful person in the world so, sort of, the parents can live their dream now through him and vicariously through him. He couldn’t take it. There was too much pressure.”
Choi is also the firstborn child with a little brother. Unlike Charles, though, Choi is extremely close and protective of his family, but he understands the parental pressure to succeed.
“Charles is trying his best with what he’s got and what he’s been given. He goes about it in a way that a lot of people might not agree with. He’s a little abrasive. He can be an asshole. He’s very smart and cunning, but he’s a little selfish, but it’s really, he’s just trying to protect himself.”
In the book, Charles is a college dropout who returns home to his parents’ house and antagonizes his little brother’s hopes and dreams. Charles is described as someone with self-hatred for his Korean background, even going as far as changing his last name to an anglicized version — Charles Bay. Charles does not really have any redeeming qualities, but Choi fought for the film version of his character to have some sort of redemption for his problematic ways. Working with director Ry-Russo Young, Choi was able to add more layers to humanize the character.
Empathizing with Charles, Choi revealed, “I had an issue growing up myself for many years because I didn’t know what to be. I didn’t know if I needed to be more Korean or American. Also, not seeing yourself reflected in media, you kind of thought less of yourself and push your Asianess away to sort of assimilate and be more accepted by non-Asians. That’s a real thing – that sort of self-hate.”
Of course Choi is proud to be Asian American. Proudly sporting the Sandra Oh quote “It’s an honor just to be Asian” at events, Choi thinks being Asian is beautiful and calls out anyone who thinks otherwise.
“I think it’s important, especially if you are in the industry, and you see that there’s wrongdoing and injustice, to have a voice, to have an opinion, “he said. “You know, I know it’s hard to always kind of have that sort of guard up and always be on the defensive all the time. I’m not saying to be like that 24/7, but I feel like as actors, artists, it’s important for us to be vocal and fight for proper representation because representation is what molds perception of people in everyday life. Perception is what helps you navigate through the world as a human being.”
Choi doesn’t take his platform lightly. He understands the power of social media and his words have a huge impact. When asked about the controversy regarding the film’s casting choices of the two leads, Choi said it wasn’t his place to answer for his castmates, but does admit that colorism does exist.
“Colorism is very real in this world. In Hollywood, I think dark-skinned women and girls don’t get the same kinds of opportunities as light-skinned women in film, TV, and ads and stuff like that. You know, it’s very tough,” says Choi.
— Jake Choi (@TheJakeChoi) August 30, 2017
As for Melton, who is of mixed Asian descent, Choi understands the difficulty for “hapas” (mixed Asian) to be cast in films because Hollywood doesn’t really know where to place them. “That’s complex. I feel like people don’t accept mixed people as one or the other, and they are ‘other-ized’ by Asians and white people. Like, it you’re half white, half Asian, sometimes there’s not a lot of roles for hapas out there. So, it’s hard. On the flip side, I do see a lot of hapas get cast in roles that are non-mixed Asian characters. It’s tough because non-mixed Asian actors, you rarely see them play hapa roles.
He doesn’t blame the actors in the films because they are just trying to tell a story, but puts the responsibility on the ‘higher ups’ and gatekeepers to be more conscious and considerate about their casting decisions. “It’s the people that do the hiring, because me, as an actor and as a human being, authenticity is very important. And, as an actor, real is like, it’s a truth, authenticity, that is very important. I want to be as real as possible when you tell these stories.”
Choi hopes the next story he could tell is that of a superhero. With last month’s release of Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, the superhero bug has been buzzing in Choi’s head and his name is Amadeus Cho, a Korean American super genius with the powers of the Incredible Hulk.
“Overall, Amadeus Cho is my number one dream role,” Choi exclaimed. “So yeah, if you know they haven’t really got the ball rolling on him yet, I would love to play in Amadeus Cho, I’m putting that out there right now. I would play the shit out of Amadeus Cho. I love that character. Amadeus Cho is a badass. He’s one of the smartest people in the world, but he’s also a smart ass, impulsive, and very charming. And, it will be a dream role.”
The Sun is Also a Star opens in theaters this Friday, May 17.