According to studies, Asian Americans remain significantly underrepresented in American media, and when visible primarily relegated to flattened and stereotypical roles in support of a white lead’s personal journey.
It was therefore noteworthy when in 2015, Chicago Med — a spinoff of the popular Chicago Fire series situated in Dick Wolf’s Chicago universe — premiered with a multiracial cast of characters that included Korean American Dr. Ethan Choi (played by actor Brian Tee) as a series regular. Although it was possible to write Ethan Choi as stereotype — he is a doctor, after all — series writers chose instead to write a character that defied conventional stereotypes: Ethan Choi is presented as a principled military veteran and a National Guard reservist, and a dashing romantic love interest.
Chicago Med is airing its 100th episode this eveing, in a storyline that features Dr. Choi. To mark the occasion, I asked actor Brian Tee to reflect on his time playing Dr. Ethan Choi on Chicago Med.
As Dr. Ethan Choi on Chicago Med, you play one of only a few Asian American series regulars in cable television, at a time when Asian Americans remain underrepresented both on-screen and off-screen. As an Asian American actor, what does it mean for you to play the role of Ethan on Chicago Med and to have the character endure as a fan favorite into the series’ 100th episode (and hopefully beyond)?
Great question and I’d say you are correct in every way, but not just in Cable TV, but on all outlets, streaming services and Network Television which Chicago Med is on.
Being the only Asian American series regular on NBC’s Drama lineup, I am a prime example of underrepresentation, so I know, with the caliber of this role and its reach, comes great responsibility. It is something I do not take for granted, but take great pride in representing a positive non-stereotypical character for the mass audience to enjoy, appreciate, relate to, and especially learn from.
So, for me, Dr. Ethan Choi is so much more than just a role, because I understand what he/I represents. And for this character to endure as a fan favorite into 100 episodes — and yes, hopefully beyond — I have nothing but gratitude.
In many ways, the character of Ethan Choi defies the stereotypes of how Asian Americans are typically portrayed in media: Ethan is a Korean American US military veteran whose strong moral code guides him through difficult decisions in the ER. He has grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as issues of adoption and addiction related to his sister, Emily. What does it mean to you to play an Asian American character who is so complex, and who so frequently grapples with these timely and difficult subjects?
Never have I ever had the incredible opportunity to play and create a character with such depth and development. I feel we really broke new ground without hammering it, but just writing him as a human with both flaws and morals that are tested with things we can all relate to. It truly means a lot to play a character with all of these complexities. But more importantly, to have a group of creatives, a studio and a network that stand behind you and your work as an artist, and who are defying stereotypes, means everything.
Historically, Asian American men have often been stereotyped in American media as non-sexual and unattractive. By contrast, from the beginning of the show, Ethan Choi has been presented as an attractive and sexy man — who’s not afraid to go shirtless to build a baby crib! Most recently in his relationship with nurse April Sexton, he’s shown as a solid, caring romantic partner and a hopeful father. How has Ethan’s current character arc — which focuses heavily on issues surrounding love, sexuality, and (hopefully) parenthood — been impactful for you?
I’d say Dr. Ethan Choi is hands down the opposite of any character I’ve ever played in the past. He is a hero, a family man and if I may, in our show, the masculine sex appeal, that is rarely seen in roles for Asian American men in the industry.
Beyond that, Ethan represents everything I’ve been working so hard to break, and everything I am working on creating and becoming. As a parent myself, being able to portray a positive role model not just for my daughter but for all the younger generation Asian Americans who are looking for someone to look up to means the world to me.
Growing up, I never had those figures, and if I did, they didn’t look like me. So on all those levels, Dr. Ethan Choi has absolutely been truly impactful.
What does the future have in store for you outside of Chicago Med? Any upcoming projects we should be looking for?
I’m actually working on several projects as a producer. I feel it is a responsibility to promote and support other underrepresented voices and cultivate stories from minority writers and directors with Ethnically diverse leads. My goal is to tell stories through the lens of diversity with fully developed characters like the one I am portraying.
Chicago Med airs on Wednesdays on NBC at 8 EST/PST. Here’s the description for tonight’s episode, “The Ghosts of the Past“:
Marking the series milestone 100th episode, Dr. Manning and Dr. Charles assist in a complicated case helping a 4-year old who they quickly learn is no stranger to the ED. Dr. Crockett and Dr. Choi tend to a police officer with a mysterious gunshot wound to the abdomen. Relationships are put to the test as secrets are revealed.