Hi, Tim, thank you for talking to us at &ASIAN! To kick off with, who is Tim Jo?
I am a Korean-American husband, father of two but my second baby is coming in any day now, I think in the next three or four weeks! I'll have a daughter and a son; my wife’s pregnant with our son right now, so he should be out anytime. And I am a bassist.
Reasonable Doubt is such an intriguing and intersectional show so far, combining family drama with a murder mystery, whilst also asking some pretty nuanced ethical and social questions. I'm really loving that with the recently released episodes, we're finally getting more and more Daniel moments!
Are you able to tell us anything more about him and how you prepared for playing the part as well?
You know, I've probably been preparing for this kind of role… Maybe it's better to say I am prepared for this kind of role. Because for my entire career on paper, I would never seek out or I would oftentimes deny an opportunity to play - for lack of a better word - a nerdy character. Those were archetypes that I had no interest in really putting on screen. But maybe there's something about where I am in life, and my approach to my career, to the character and the story, that made me accept this kind of role and embrace him fully. So to play Daniel has actually been equally as challenging but equally as fulfilling because I keep telling myself: “Don't get in your own way.”
With the show produced by the Onyx Collective, and featuring an ensemble cast of incredible Black talent, both you and your character Daniel are part of this hyper-nuanced, grounded and diverse story.
How does your professional experience feel when you work on a project that really centers the telling of POC stories and points of views?
To be frank, with other characters that I've played, or auditions that I've gotten, whenever it doesn't show us in the most positive or even a nuanced light, I've always really fought against playing the stereotype. And that is exhausting, that is a lot of responsibility to put on yourself when, at the end of the day, your job is to serve the story and to really bring life to a character. I found myself putting so much pressure on how the character would be received by the audience or by other fellow Asian-Americans, versus focusing on the character, how they impact other characters or the story in total.
So bringing it back to working with the Onyx Collective, I realized very quickly that I was in safe hands, and that I had to surrender my trust to the creators of the show and the producers, to know that I don't need to fight that part of the battle. My trust in them allowed me to focus more on bringing life to the character: the way I see Daniel is, he just brings a different shade of Jax (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi) out.
And that is through his likeability, his joy, his passionate endeavors of investigation, that it draws out a side of Jax that no one else really gets to see.
The Pilot episode was directed by Kerry Washington, and it must have been cool to work with such an amazing actress and creator. Is it different to work with directors who have been in front-of-camera themselves?
You know, it's almost like… How comfortable would anybody be shooting free throws in front of Michael Jordan? You’d be real nervous! But let's say that Michael Jordan came up to you, talked to you as a peer excitedly. That Michael Jordan lifted you up, encouraged you, filled you up with confidence, and then said, “Do more than free throws! Why don’t you try shooting from here, or try shooting from there? Go crazy!” And every time, even when you miss, Michael Jordan was like, “Swish.”
That is a very long-winded analogy of how it was to work with Kerry Washington.
Reasonable Doubt doesn't shy away from exploring difficult themes concerning race, class and the prison-industrial complex. Something exciting and in-line with the show's high execution is this conscious subversion of East Asian impartiality that appears so often as a negative narrative trope.
Daniel's abilities as an investigator and ally are actually strengthened in the show by this position he inhabits in between the Black and white communities. There's even a particular scene with an older Korean man where Daniel’s confronted by the alternative version of how East Asian impartiality can look.
How has it felt to be given such nuanced material?
I love that you’ve picked up on all of those nuances, because every one of those nuances are things that are extremely important to me. Let's say I could have booked this role at the beginning of my career: I might have played it the same, but I'm about 20 years in and I've got such a different perspective on character, craft and stories now than I did before. So everything that you're picking up on are definitely things that I was constantly thinking about, had questions about and had opinions about while shooting the show. But let's say, even the scene with the older Korean man, I made a real point to not pre-rehearse my Korean because I wanted my authentic Korean-American Korean to be spoken as my character.
I didn't want my ego or my pride to get in the way of my Korean. If my Korean doesn’t sound good, this is just the way a Korean-American that was born in Mesquite, Texas sounds. I wanted to show that onscreen. That's really specific, but that's also the beauty of the show: the more specific you get with experiences and with character traits, I think that’s one step closer to universality.
Might Reasonable Doubt dive deeper into Asian issues, or even Asian and Black intersectional issues?
Oh, absolutely. Right now, we only have nine episodes for Season One and we've got a gigantic story to tell already; the suspect list grows every episode, so many relationships to develop and explore. But there's something about working with a company that was created to amplify voices of colour: I absolutely have so much faith that if the show were to be graced with another season, I 100% know that anything that has to do with my character: we've only seen the tip of the iceberg.
That's also part of the trust; I did not allow myself to get frustrated by saying, “Where's my scene where I get to fight back? Where's my scene where I get to be cool?” I was like, “You know what? Daniel is supposed to represent passion.” And if being nerdy is another word for being passionate about something, then lean into it. Daniel is passionate, but he's also skilled. Yes, it might seem like he's a little quirky, but the fact that Jax doesn't have it easy at our law firm, that she would trust someone like Daniel with her career and her information, shows that Daniel is really good at his job. And I also wanted to pursue that kind of excellence just with Daniel.
Even though there's no reason Daniel needed to be athletically fit; there was no question about it, other than the initial character description that I got for the character which said that he was your 'dorky next-door-neighbor who grew up to be hot, and he still can't shake being a dork.' I said that to my wife almost like I was offended by it, and she's like, “It's true! You’ve got a great body.”
I thought, “Oh, well, maybe I can make it maybe even more [so for] Daniel.” Because what I believe is the way you pursue anything, is the way you pursue everything. If Daniel is excellent in his mind, then he's excellent in every other aspect of his life: the way he dresses, the way he works out, the way he investigates. So I tried to get into the best shape that I could and it wasn't for any future role; it wasn't to try to be some superhero in a movie. It was truly because I felt it was authentic to the character that I was building with Daniel.
It all really works, it's not super in your face! The whole point of this character is that he's not a peacock; he's not peacocking.
You know, something that I've had to really appreciate about him is that he's authentically him. He's not trying to be cool. He just is; he's just himself and he's so comfortable being himself.
Was the placement of Daniel as an investigator a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to East Asian invisibility?
To be real, when you're an Asian actor, you're always that satellite. You're in the cast, and you're almost token. And you're there; you’re put off to the side. I remember I got into the Screen Actors Guild doing a Super Bowl commercial. I didn't even have to audition, I got into the Super Bowl commercial because I was Asian. And then when they shot the actual spot, they put me next to a light stand. Wasn't even in it, but I know I filled the quota.
Then let's fast forward 15-16 years and I'm on Reasonable Doubt. I'm in a courtroom scene where everyone's wearing suits; Jax is looking fly but everyone's wearing their gray and black suits. And Daniel's sitting there in a yellow cardigan with headless dogs. He's not peacocking, you're right, but the show is not letting him be by the light stand.
Onyx is doing the same thing for me too. As we're doing publicity, I'm like, “Oh, you guys want me to speak for the show?” And then they say, “You have this event” or “You have this interview,” like… [laughs] So that way, they're even lifting me up. They're not putting me in the corner at all, on the show or even the company. And so there's just something that feels so encouraging, exciting and new and fresh about the show and this entire experience.
That was a great segue into my next question, which is about your acting journey. You just mentioned SAG and the Super Bowl ad, but what's your experience been like since?
My first network series, I remember when I got that job, there was a Deadline article that came out about my casting announcement. And it was filled with so much hate and vitriol, and people calling to ban the show, and to boycott it. There's so much negativity about my casting, and I was nobody. And in a funny way - I forgot that happened - I don't think it really hurt me very much. But it did make me aware that the audience was thirsting for some kind of representation that they weren't getting, and the fact that I had gotten a role on a show seemed to them like I was perpetuating what the world did not need. So that's why I say when I get a job like this I've been very careful, but I come to this job [now] with a lot of reverence and a lot of wisdom versus a flippant acceptance of a job where I get to play a comedic and excitable role.
But aside from that with my career, the main person that I can really say has kept me employed over the last 15 years - or maybe the last 12 years - has been Dan Fogelman, who did This Is Us. But in between those times, I've had six years, to two years, and then six years of extreme unemployment. So if you look at my resume, I don't have a stacked resume of consistent work, I've had spurts. At the end of each spurt, I was living in poverty until Dan called again, and then living in poverty, and then being called again.
But there is something about this, in the last six years of not being able to find acting work, there was an aspect of surrender. You know, as long as I've been doing acting, for the last 10 years I've always had another job. And so in a beautiful way, in a peaceful way, acting has become the job on the side for me. I ran a floral business with my wife, and then I was delivering flowers to influencers while I was shooting and working on This Is Us; while I was working on Reasonable Doubt, I was working for my church and I still work for my church.
So there's been a lot of peace for me, of letting the job be what it is with acting. I think I'm at a place now where my cup is full, aside from the acting, so any opportunity I get to do it… It takes a lot for me to want to act on something. Because I love my job and my other job, and I don't want to quit that job.
Hearing you describe this, it sounds like an amazing way to live an artful life where the highs can be as high as you’d normally feel, but the lows will not be as low as they used to be.
You know, in a way, it's been really difficult because everyone has been giving such congratulations about Reasonable Doubt. And I haven't really figured out the best way to articulate the way I feel because they're like, “Congratulations! Aren’t you so excited?” I'm like, “Yes, good, I'm happy; I got a job, and I've got children.” When I got Reasonable Doubt, I had no money and I was working a part-time job. And I was happy, actually, knowing that. So for this job to come out, my cup was already full, so it's almost like a hat on a hat. I've got an ice cream cone, it's got whipped cream and this job is the cherry on top. But my happiness isn't really affected too much by the acting career anymore.
And in the way that I think you said earlier, I think, for a long, long time of my acting career, I did consider - and I still do very much so consider - myself an activist, and there's a responsibility that comes to the work that I put out and I'm extremely specific about the kind of work that I'd like to be a part of. But I had to get to a place where I just loved the art and pushed everything else away, because it was starting to get in the way of my happiness and my enjoyment of acting itself. So I'm just at a place now where I love acting, like it's a little baby. I get to do it, great. But I don't need you to give me anything, I don't need this acting career to give me any more. I'm pretty happy as it is.
That sounds like you're in the best place possible then to give or share any advice that you have for younger Asian actors looking to follow in your footsteps.
I would say exactly that then: focus on your artist, because we all are artists, but if you can possibly understand that your artist is like a little baby. And you have to nurture it, you have to live with it, you have to care for it. You've got to train it, you've got to prioritize the growth of your artist and at the same time - like a child - you cannot ask the artist for money, or ask the artist for clout, fame, recognition. You can only give. So as an artist, just give to your little artists inside, and just navigate the career knowing that you just need to give and don’t take.
As a last question, I want to ask you: what would your dream role or project be in the future and is there anyone you're dying to work with?
Would I be a brat to say I've already worked with people that have been on my dream list? I mean, to work with Sterling K. Brown, it was a dream. And it even surpassed what I thought it would be like. And as for the future, I'd love to be on a set where there's multiple lead Asian actors. How about that? Not telling an Asian story too.
I love that answer, Tim. For our readers who want to follow your career and keep up with your moves, where can they follow you?
I'm also really bad at that, but as we're rolling out Season One, I'm finally being a little more active on Instagram. Then for the show, I try to hop on on Tuesdays to tweet along with whoever is tweeting the hashtag.
Thank you so much for having such a fun conversation with us at &ASIAN, Tim! I can’t wait to see what you do next on Reasonable Doubt.
Thank you, I really appreciate that.
Reasonable Doubt is now available on Hulu, with new episodes every Tuesday. Tim Jo can be found on Instagram and Twitter.