Story by Carol Park.
For Kenneth Choi, becoming an actor was never about the glitz or glamour. Acting was just a way he could truly express himself.
“I was always kind of an emotional, expressive kid, and I always felt I was different and weird,” says Choi. “[Acting] is something that kind of breeds [expressiveness]. I get to express myself, and it’s just the most rewarding thing when you have this dream as a little kid and you finally get it.”
Another dream? Landing a starring role in a much-hyped new series. After mostly small parts in a long list of TV shows and films, including Captain America: The First Avenger, Red Dawn, Sons of Anarchy and Glee, Choi is set to star alongside Blair Underwood in NBC’s remake of the 1967 crime drama Ironside, premiering October 2. Choi portrays the cool and pragmatic Captain Ed Rollins, working alongside a group of detectives solving difficult crimes. Underwood plays the title character, who is relegated to a wheelchair after being shot.
“What attracted me [to the series] is there’s this sort of family element that’s threaded throughout the construct of this crime drama,” says Choi. “There’s a paternal relationship between Ed and the detectives. As the show progresses, you’ll see not only how the characters evolve, but how these individuals come together as a team and grow.”
Despite his recent success (Choi is also set to appear in the highly-anticipated Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street, due out November 15), Choi’s rise to fame wasn’t easy. When he began his career more than a decade ago, he was broke, jobless and essentially estranged from his family.
“I had a very traditional upbringing, very traditional parents,” says Choi, who was raised in Chicago. “I asked my father once directly [about acting] when I was young, and he looked at me and he said, ‘I can’t believe my son would say something so stupid.’ Those were his exact words.”
Discouraged, Choi set aside his aspirations and went to college to study business. But it was during those years of freedom that he finally realized he had to pursue acting, no matter the cost. So he quit college, cut ties with his family, and moved to Los Angeles. He ended up sleeping on the floor of his friend’s 325-square-foot studio and living on a shoestring budget. And yet, “I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as that first year,” says Choi, “even now that I have a moderate amount of success. It was just the best year of my life.”
His newfound freedom gave Choi the chance to work on his craft and audition for parts. He landed roles on television shows like The West Wing and Reba. During this time, he avoided his family, but after five years, Choi could no longer stay away. One day, he decided to go home to Chicago.
The first thing Choi’s father did when he saw his son was open his arms — they hugged for five minutes. For two hours, Choi talked to his father about everything. “All this stuff came out and he just sat there and listened, and at the end of it, it was the most amazing thing,” Choi recalls. “He just said, ‘I grew up a certain way, my dad treated me a certain way, and that’s what I learned. That’s the way I learned to take care of you. All I wanted was to try and do my best. That was my best, and obviously some of it wasn’t good enough, but I always loved you.’”
Today, Choi and his father are close. Choi doesn’t regret the time he spent away from his family or quitting school. He believes it was the best thing he could have done not only for his career but also for his relationship with his father. “Find whatever makes you happy and go after it with everything,” says Choi. “Don’t let anything stand in your way.”
This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here.