Bringing Characters to Life
Tim Jo ’06 talks about representation among successes such as This Is Us
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Tim Jo sits on stool with video camera recording him in front of brick background.

Tim Jo has worked as an actor in Los Angeles for just over 10 years. It’s a great place to be—but not where the 2006 Trinity University graduate initially expected to end up when he first stepped onto campus. “I thought I was going to be a computer science major,” says the Dallas native. “But then I found myself in a C++ class, and I just could not understand it, nor could I focus, nor could I stop playing solitaire.” He enrolled in an introductory drama class with professor Stacey Connelly, hoping for an easy A; instead, he discovered he was challenged, focused, and falling in love with theater. For the next few years, he acted in plays, hosted the TigerTV show Studio 21, and ultimately graduated with majors in drama and communication.

As a child, Jo had modeled for catalogs and even was featured in a Chuck E. Cheese TV advertisement. In college, as acting classes brought him out of his shell, he once again started to book commercials—including a regional Super Bowl spot. That gave him the necessary experience to join the actors’ union and, in turn, laid the groundwork for landing his first role in a feature film, Bandslam. “People say that it typically takes 10 years to get your first speaking part,” explains Jo. “But 10 weeks after I moved to L.A. I found myself on a set in a speaking role with Lisa Kudrow and Vanessa Hudgens.”

Bandslam, premiered in 2009, and although the job was thrilling, Jo recalls feeling like it was almost too much too soon. “I remember wishing then that I had a decade of experience!” He spent the next several years in acting classes, picking up guest spots on shows here and there, then started landing recurring roles in television series, including ABC’s The Neighbors—his first network sitcom—created by Dan Fogelman. It would be the first of several times the two worked together; in 2018, Jo got a call about a four-episode arc that Fogelman had written for him on NBC’s hit drama This Is Us. Now, Jo is set to enter his third season as a recurring character on the show.

Tim Jo ’06 plays Jae-Won on the NBC drama This Is Us.

Jo, who is Korean American, says that his views on representation in media have evolved over the course of his career. While he’s mindful of the roles he pursues—avoiding stereotypical characters and always striving to bring greater depth to every person he plays—Jo has a nuanced view of his duty as both an actor and a person of color.

“Representation comes with the territory,” he says. “The number of Asian American faces on television is dismal, so it's hard to not deeply consider what these roles mean—not only to me, but to the community of people watching.” However, that can be an unfairly heavy burden, he says. “I think that as artists, our only responsibility is to bring life to a character—to get down to the core of who he is and how he can best serve the story.”

Like so many other industries, the world of television and film has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but Jo finds himself uniquely prepared for the professional challenges facing actors. “I’ve heard other actors say, ‘I’m going crazy over here, I haven’t auditioned in months!’ But as an Asian American actor, that’s my norm,” he says. “I don't feel that same desperation of needing the work to help define me. I don’t need a stream of auditions to remind myself that I'm an actor. I don’t need to be on set to remind myself that I have value, or that I am being productive.”

At the end of the day, “the most important thing is to honor your inner artist,” he says. “There's no need to try to push my strong advocacy for representation, because that shines through inherently in everything I do.”

Miriam Sitz Grebey '10 writes about architecture, urbanism, sustainability, and more. She majored in Spanish and environmental studies at Trinity, then earned her master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter at @MiriamSitz.

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