Veteran actor Brian Tee is one of a growing list of Asian-American performers playing complex, multi-dimensional leading characters in a TV environment that features more than 450 scripted series. Tee, 40, plays Dr. Ethan Choi in NBC’s sophomore medical series Chicago Med, produced by Dick Wolf, and is known for roles in such theatrical movies as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and more recently Jurassic World and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead recently spoke to Tee about his breakout role in Chicago Med, as well as the opportunities and challenges facing diverse actors today. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
Your show, Chicago Med, features one of the most diverse casts on television. How did you get involved in the series?
I actually did a pilot for NBC a year before Chicago Med came out called Love Is a Four Letter Word. It was a show run by [TV writer] Diana Son and she had this tremendous multicultural universe of couples kind of growing up in their 30s just trying to make it. It was a tremendously wonderful script about interracial relationships that was really beautifully written, and she created this Asian, male Korean lawyer that was very alpha, very charismatic and very masculine. You don’t ever see that, especially with Asian-American men. There’s been this particular stereotype or stigma that we aren’t the leading men that people are used to; that we’re not masculine enough or don’t have that kind of sex appeal quote unquote. Unfortunately, it didn’t get picked up, but NBC kind of caught wind of it and asked me to join the Chicago Med cast as it was being developed.
I don’t think my character on the show was ever meant to be an Asian — I’m not even sure they even thought of it being ethnic. I just think they wanted a doctor, and what I love about our show and our series is that, especially within my character, there is no real color. You don’t really reflect on his ethnicity at all. He’s just he’s a man who is a veteran and served for his country and is now very passionate about helping people, and our show runners are writing stuff right wonderfully for him. Overall, if you look at our nine cast members, five are women and half are ethnic, so I hope that’s a growing trend within our industry.
Do you think a diverse show like Chicago Med would have been done five years ago?
It’s tough to say. I think it could have been done five years ago, but would it have been? I feel like you can say that about any show today. In hindsight, 20/20, the answer would be no.
With an increase in people of color in starring roles on television, do you feel that Asian-Americans are enjoying the same success and getting the same exposure and face time that has been afforded to African-American and Hispanic actors?
I just feel there’s a lack of face time for all ethnic minorities. As far as Asian-Americans are concerned, I feel like Asian-American males haven’t quite broken out into being the leading man. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to have Dick Wolf, the producing staff, and our writing staff on Chicago Med create Ethan, the character behind an Asian face. But I feel like it’s almost a one-off, in that sense, because you don’t really see it. I just don’t feel like there are enough actors that have broken out in a big way, but I think that time is coming. I say there’s maybe five or six of us now in leading roles, but If we play that five years ago scenario, I think there were maybe one or two back then, so it’s growing slowly but surely. I’m a very optimistic guy, and I feel like the trend is headed in the right direction. If a major studio can develop a television show that creates a very full and grounded, multidimensional masculine Asian-American character that has relationships, some sex appeal and all this other stuff, then I feel like so can everybody else.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.