Jake Choi is out to inspire change and he won’t settle for anything less. An actor, activist, and advocate, Choi is a multifaceted Asian American who is taking on Hollywood and American culture. You may recognize the dashing New York native from his work on the TV shows Gotham, Difficult People and Hawaii Five-0, or from his leading role in the film #FrontCover.
Beyond the screen, Choi is making his voice heard by tackling a wide spectrum of social issues through social media and volunteering. I recently caught up with Jake to discuss his work as an actor, as well as his efforts as an activist combating the desexualization of Asian Men and advocating for more diversity in Hollywood.
Your work has run the gamut from a friendly Best Buy employee in a Super Bowl commercial to a tortured former student in The Learning Curve and a gay New York stylist in Front Cover. What role demanded the most from you?
I would say the role of Ryan Fu from 'Front Cover' demanded the most of me only because of the depth and layers to the character, and the credit definitely has to go to the writer/director, Ray Yeung. Ryan was the most fleshed out, three-dimensional character I have ever played. I had some time and a lot of fun forming his backstory, all the way from when he was a toddler to present day.
There were times when it was a bit painful because Ryan and I are both sons of immigrants and Asian Americans born and raised in New York City. A lot of the struggles he went through, I have experienced firsthand. But Ryan has also been discriminated [against] for being gay, which I have never experienced firsthand, and that’s where listening to and empathizing with my gay friends helped so much. [That] is why I really wanted to portray Ryan the right way — I didn’t want to disappoint my friends and anyone else that hasn’t seen themselves on the screen. This was a huge opportunity to represent a whole demographic in a way that has never been shown before.
Of the projects you’ve been involved with, which do you think had the biggest impact on changing how Asian men are seen in the film and entertainment industry?
Really sucks to say, but I haven’t been involved in too many roles that have had a positive impact on the image of Asian men — I would definitely say 'Front Cover' and the Best Buy commercial. 'Front Cover' because it features two Asian men as leads who are sexy, smart, flawed, desirable and human. The Best Buy commercial because you have this popular white woman, Amy Poehler, who's flirting up and down the store with this straight-laced, non-stereotypical Asian man. But of course, if the woman wasn’t white, the impact wouldn’t have been as big, which is very unfortunate and that’s just an example of white supremacy. A lot of Asian men out there think if they date white women, it’ll elevate their status or image.
Front Cover has quickly become one of your most recognizable roles since its release, and stands out for featuring two leading gay Asian characters. What feedback have you received from the Asian American and LGBTQ communities about your character, Ryan, and the film?
I’m not even lying, but I’ve only heard positive feedback from the Asian American and LGBTQ community. Like, I would tell you if anyone has had any criticism, but I haven’t had anyone tell me personally. I think Ray and the team just did an amazing job putting this film together and telling this very rich, nuanced story. And, once again, the positive and human representation was very relatable to, not just Asians or the LGBTQ community, but for everyone. Because Ray wrote the character of Ryan so specifically, and told the story so specifically and close to his heart, it was felt universally.
What do you feel was the most powerful aspect of Front Cover for you as an actor? For the audience? What made the film hit home?
The most powerful aspect of 'Front Cover' for me as an actor was to have the opportunity to play a fully realized human being, with emotional complexity and psychological progression. It’s very empowering and inspiring and I really took it for granted while filming. In hindsight, it was a privilege. I think what made the film hit home for me and the audience both was the message of accepting yourself for who you are no matter what anybody has to say. Because, at the end of the day, you are perfect as you are, flaws and all.
What is your favorite memory from making Front Cover? What was hardest about making the film?
My favorite memory was definitely shooting the sex scene! And, any scenes with Elizabeth Sung and Ming Lee, who played my parents. They were just so amazing to share scenes with and watch them work so effortlessly off each other. Such present actors and under-rated. The hardest part of making 'Front Cover' were just those super late days that started at night and carried over to the early mornings.
With successful shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Into the Badlands, both featuring Asian leads, and the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians film, how do you feel the future of diversity in Hollywood is changing? Do you think there are more multidimensional roles becoming available for actors of color?
I do see progress for Asians and POC (people of color) in Hollywood but it’s too slow in my opinion. TV seems to be the more progressive platform — expectedly — than film, but the number of Asian leads in film and TV doesn’t properly represent the actual Asian demographic in the country. Or, for all POC for that matter. I hear my white guy actor friends tell me that they don’t get as many auditions, that their agents tell them that “ethnic” is the trend or “it’s in.” First of all, that’s racist as fuck. POC are not some trend or a quota you meet. I hate when white people call us “ethnic” — stop using that fucking word. Also, POC might be getting into the rooms for auditions, but who do they cast usually for those same roles? I’ll bet it’s a white man over a POC. Usually some dude with a name, so it really isn’t our fault white guys aren’t getting auditions. Maybe their reps should do better. It’s just causing a rift between white guys who are struggling to get seen and POC actors.
The fight to get Hollywood to be more inclusive and diverse has gained a lot of traction. What will you be doing as an actor and activist to continue shining a light on that issue?
I’ll be doing whatever the hell I need to do. From sharing articles, think pieces and my own words on social media, to sharing and supporting other POC artists also on social media, to calling out problematic projects, to writing and making my own stories. I’m actually working on a short film with two filmmakers about a black and Asian couple who has a Blasian daughter and it’s going to be fucking amazing. I’ll be starring and it’ll be the first project where I produce.
With so much talent among actors of color, why do you think Hollywood continues to whitewash films and TV shows?
Hollywood continues to whitewash because Hollywood is run by white people, mainly white men. They want to keep their power and dominance over the masses by using the strongest tool there is: media. They’re scared of giving that up. Which, is why they use that excuse of casting white leads because it’ll make more money for the studio/network even though they know damn well that’s not true. If they were really adventurous and courageous, they would give opportunities to actors of color to lead huge blockbuster movies. And, not just once or twice, then defer back to white actors. Give us the chance to fail and succeed numerous times like you do with white male actors. I doubt it though.
You are a strong, vocal force of advocacy and change for many communities. What drives you to be such a passionate advocate?
I used to be scared of saying anything political because I thought it would hurt my acting career. I mean, it might. After this article, you might never see me on screen anymore! But, over time, I’ve just stop giving a shit. An actor isn’t all that I am. I’m a human being with a voice, thoughts, and critical lens. If I’m gonna struggle to end oppression for my own community, it only makes sense for me to fight equally as hard for any other marginalized community. If one group wins, we all do. Intersectionality or nothing.
What advice do you have for those who want to start being a force of social change themselves?
My advice for people out there is, be yourself unapologetically, listen to others, put your ego aside (still working on that) and be intersectional. And practice what you preach everyday, someway, somehow.
You have participated in a few different projects that raise awareness for different issues, including posing for Haikus With Hotties and being featured in APAIT’s Status is Sexy campaign. What has your experience been like with those projects?
They were both really fun to take part in. Ada from Haikus With Hotties just emailed me one day and I was down from the start. The photoshoot was really chill and didn’t take more than an hour.
For the Status is Sexy campaign, I met with APAIT in their office here in LA and it was so great to see a group of young LGBTQ people who were so driven and passionate to help their community. I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever they were advocating for.
Haikus With Hotties takes a stand against the desexualization of Asian men that is prevalent in American culture. How did it feel to be a part of that?
It felt good to be a part of it — it’s one way of opening minds and eyes, you know? I love that they didn’t just feature actors/models but people from all different fields, sizes, colors and shapes.
In your opinion, why does the desexualization of Asian men continue to occur and how can we change it?
Oh, I think it occurs for many different reasons. One is going back to the fear of white men scared of giving up their privilege and power. Also, white male insecurity/sexual insecurity. If you have Asian men believe they are what you want them to believe, which is not desirable, not masculine, invisible, etc., it’s easier to control them. We can change it by not believing these harmful tropes and stereotypes to begin with.
Hollywood can produce and help finance stories with Asian male leads who are three-dimensional characters. Actually cast asian men in non-stereotypical roles as the leads of shows and films. Hire Asian writers, directors, producers and give them creative control for these big budget shows and films. I mean, [there are] so many ways to help change the way we are portrayed.
Also, Asian men shouldn’t act hyper-masculine and be misogynistic to compensate for their insecurities, and to change how they are viewed from these harmful stereotypes. That’s something important to note because Asian men do that, a lot.
What upcoming projects can we look forward to seeing you in?
I just got this dope pilot about a group of friends, who are everyday people but are passionate gamers. I’m the smooth, successful, ladies man of the group who makes everyone feel comfortable even when they’ve hit rock bottom. I can’t really say much more but it’s gonna get picked up and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.
How will you continue raising awareness about, and combatting, the lack of representation and diversity in Hollywood?
While I, as a POC, am grateful for the opportunity to play a three-dimensional lead in a film, I would like for a future where POC don't have to feel like that's so rare, but instead, the norm. It's about time we stop having to play stereotypes. I’ll continue raising awareness and combating lack of inclusive diversity and underrepresentation by doing what I’m doing now: doing interviews with amazing allies like yourself, using social media, and supporting other POC artists who are telling awesome, compelling stories that center POC in the forefront of the narrative, unapologetically.
Be sure to check out Jake in Front Cover, available on iTunes and Netflix, and be on the lookout for his new project. You can also keep up with him on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and at jakechoi.com.