The Silver Lining: Jake Choi
At six feet tall with alabaster skin and cropped hair, Jake Choi cuts an impressive figure. His muscular physique, toned from years of basketball, puts him in the same category as other up-and-coming Asian American actors who are known for their good looks and athletic builds, as well as acting talent.
The New York native grew up surrounded by hip-hop culture and idolized Tupac as a result. “He was my first role model,” Choi recollects. “He had a very strong personality. He respected women and made a song for his mom; on the flip side, he was very gangster, so that whole image was very appealing, especially when you’re a young Asian American kid growing up in Queens.”
The rapper also inspired Choi to start getting tattoos, which decorate his arms and chest. There are nine total: one for every year from when he turned 18 until he decided to pursue acting. “The first one I got was my grandmother’s name, date of death, and date of birth,” Choi says. “I told myself it’s very addicting to get ink, so I’ll stick to one a year. I have a whole bunch, but they mean a lot to me.” When playing a clean-cut character on camera, he covers up with a crew neck or button-down shirt.
Another inspiration for Choi was basketball, which has been a huge part of his life. He tried many sports as a kid, but started playing basketball at the age of 11, partially inspired by watching Michael Jordan on TV. “Before I started playing basketball, I was a good golf player,” Choi says, describing how his mother, a semipro golf player, took him to practice every day. “I had a lot of potential, but it was just so boring.” Basketball quickly became Choi’s primary pursuit—he played for his high school’s varsity team as well as the Brooklyn College team before accepting a basketball scholarship to attend Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.
A Taste of Acting
It was in Korea that Choi got his first taste of being in front of the camera. Having done some modeling since high school, Choi had never considered being on TV until his friend urged him to audition for Cuisine Tour, an English-language show that featured different chefs. “It was difficult,” Choi recalls. “I was just being myself, and people found me amusing, so I was very grateful.”
“I don’t have a backup plan. Acting is my plan A and my plan B and C, and I am running with my plan A until the wheels fall off,”
Cuisine Tour was a growing experience as well as a turning point. “I learned the technicalities of being on camera and playing to an audience,” Choi says. “There was some acting involved; it gave me a taste, and first I went back to basketball, but I kind of lost the passion. I was like, you know what, I like being on camera.” Shortly afterward, he made the decision to switch from basketball to acting, a path he’s pursuing with an all-or-nothing attitude. “I don’t have a backup plan. Acting is my plan A and my plan B and C, and I am running with my plan A until the wheels fall off,” Choi declares.
Two and a half years ago, Choi moved back to New York City, where he currently lives with his mother and younger brother.
“My home is here, and I figure I can try to get more training here in New York, and then when I’m ready to make the move to LA, I can,” he explains. He’s open to the idea of returning to work in Korean media but prefers to focus on the American market for now. “First of all, I have to be fluent in Korean, which I’m not,” he says, labeling his Korean speaking skill as proficient. “Korea’s a small country, and they have a lot of people pursuing a career in acting, so it’s very difficult. And I feel like in America you get way more freedom as an artist.”
Although he’s not based in Hollywood, there certainly hasn’t been a shortage of work—Choi has appeared in a slew of projects in the past two years, from solemn short films to Jeremy Lin parodies (the two have not yet crossed paths in person).
Asian Americans in the Acting Business
Now in his mid-20s, Choi is determined to succeed for himself as well as for others. “You get a chance to tell a story in your own way,” he says of what he finds rewarding about acting, “and you can give inspiration to aspiring actors and actresses; if you’re doing good, it can really inspire them to work harder. Even for yourself, it’s rewarding because you can express yourself in a way you probably can’t when you’re out in the real world.”
As for his own inspirations, Choi cites Brad Pitt, who famously left college just a few credits shy of graduation in order to pursue acting. “George Clooney,” he adds. “He slept in his friend’s closet for a few months!” Their perseverance has clearly rubbed off on Choi, who concedes that it’s harder to succeed in the industry as an Asian American. But there are positive aspects as well.
“It’s easy to say, because I’m Asian American, it’s going to be close to impossible to book any big leading roles, but at the same time, you have less competition because you have less people pursuing the same career,” he points out. “I think when an Asian American actor does something big, it’s blown up to a higher scale, and that could be good.” He refers to Jeremy Lin’s rapid fame as an example. “He’s very good for any point guard, but people hype him up because he’s Asian American, and it can give him and other Asian Americans confidence.”
Currently, Choi is concentrating on auditioning for roles and has a few projects in the works, including a feature-length film that he and his friends are working on. Honestly, I don’t have a specific goal that I set for myself,” Choi says. “It’s just to keep doing the best work I can, and when I do reach a certain level, use that to help others.”