Five years ago, Albert Tsai took on his first acting role as a doctor named Dr. Dan in a production of "The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley." He was 7 years old.
“What was funny about him was he was hard of hearing so he kept mistaking various patients’ names,” Tsai told NBC News. “There’s a lady called Mrs. Lambchop and he called her Mrs. Porkchop.”
“Believe in yourself, do what you love, always follow your dreams and never give up. My mom told me that. I just follow that and it’s helped me out a lot.”
Now 12, Tsai has experienced a career even the most seasoned actors would envy. He’s played laser tag with Neil Patrick Harris on “How I Met Your Mother,” he’s protected Betty White with a slingshot in a live episode of “Hot in Cleveland,” he’s taught table tennis to Rachel Bloom in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and he’s chatted finance with Johnny Depp in a “Funny or Die” spoof of Donald Trump.
Currently, he lends unwarranted advice to Ken Jeong as Jeong’s sassy, quick-witted son Dave Park on ABC’s “Dr. Ken" — all while maintaining straight As, managing a social life (he’s close friends with “Fresh Off the Boat” star Hudson Yang), and keeping up with his favorite show “Shark Tank,” which he actually pitched an idea to in a recent episode of “Dr. Ken.”
“It was a Hot Legs Duvet. It was basically a comforter with two holes cut out for your hot legs,” Tsai said.
Raised in San Jose, California, by two Taiwanese immigrants, Tsai — who speaks fluent Mandarin and is an only child — knew he was funny from a young age, cracking jokes around the dinner table and making his parents laugh.
He fell in love with acting after his first play and enrolled in classes immediately after. “After I did that school play, a lot of people came up to me around the neighborhood and said, ‘Great job. That was really funny,’” Tsai said.
At 8, Tsai and his family drove down to Los Angeles to compete in iPOP!, an annual international talent showcase, where Tsai took home the award for Child Actor of the Year. There, he also met his manager, officially marking his career as a professional actor. His parents were behind him. “They just wanted me to be happy and follow my dreams and what I love,” Tsai said. “I just loved performing in front of people and making people laugh.”
A few months later, while still in elementary school, Tsai nabbed his first television role: a guest spot on “How I Met Your Mother.”
“I was really excited the first time I saw myself on TV, like, ‘Yay!’” Tsai said. “Some of the teachers at my school, because they watch “How I Met Your Mother,” they were like, ‘Wait, I saw you! That’s my student!’”
Not too long after, Tsai snagged his first regular television role in ABC’s “Trophy Wife,” opposite award-winning actors such as Bradley Whitford and Marcia Gay Harden.
Starring as Bert Harrison, the snarky Chinese adopted son of a man marrying his third wife, Tsai immediately earned acclaim, with TV Guide raving he “singlehandedly” gave “‘sitcom kids’ a good name.”
For that role, Tsai became the youngest actor nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award at 9 years old. “I was just reading, looking on Twitter and suddenly it popped up that I was nominated,” Tsai said. “I was super excited. I knew what it was. I was just beyond excited.”
But Tsai’s “Trophy Wife” success was short-lived, with the show only lasting one season. He spent some time dabbling in other comedy series, like “Fresh Off the Boat” as Eddie Huang’s Chinese-Jewish frenemy Phillip Goldstein, and on the USA Network’s “Benched,” created by Tsai’s “Trophy Wife” costar Michaela Watkins.
In 2015, Tsai found himself back on ABC as a series regular on “Dr. Ken,” created and executive produced by Jeong. Having seen Tsai’s work on “Trophy Wife” and costarred with him on “Hot in Cleveland,” Jeong, who wrote the part with Tsai in mind, offered him the role without an audition.
“I didn’t know that until I read the script because the first time Dave appeared in the script, it said 'Dave' and then in parentheses, ‘Think Albert Tsai,’” Tsai said.
Tsai and Jeong quickly built an actual father-and-son-like bond, with Jeong teaching Tsai improv and physical comedy techniques as well as behind-the-scenes camera skills. They also bonded on their similar doctor roles.
“I always found it pretty funny because I played a doctor named Dr. Dan and he plays a doctor named Dr. Ken,” Tsai said.
Tsai said it took some convincing before he saw Jeong as a television dad.
“I don’t know if I would’ve imagined him playing a dad because of most of his roles previously. He played a professor on ‘Community’ and like a drug lord, I guess, in ‘The Hangover,’” Tsai said, noting he hasn’t seen “The Hangover” yet because “it’s rated R.”
Growing up with cartoons and Disney movies, Tsai didn’t think much about Asian representation on screen. But, now, as he and his cast mates portray a Asian-American family on television, Tsai says he understands the impact.
“I didn’t really think about that when I first became an actor,” Tsai said. “But I’m really grateful for the opportunity to represent Asian Americans on TV and to portray a normalized Asian-American family."
“They just wanted me to be happy and follow my dreams and what I love. I just loved performing in front of people and making people laugh.”
Tsai, who splits his time between San Jose and Los Angeles, is in seventh grade and enrolled in an online school. (He left public school at 8 to film “Trophy Wife.”) His favorite subjects are history and geography because of his love for traveling; Tsai has been to 12 countries and three continents.
While he says balancing school and work is difficult at times, he does as much as he can, like squeezing in homework between scenes to keep straight As. “I always finish my school work and keep my grades up while also doing acting,” Tsai said. “I really love school so I always make sure I have time for it.”
Tsai says he's already thinking of college (Stanford, primarily, because of its closeness to home) and although he'd love to keep acting — his dream role would be someone like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson in an action-adventure film, he said — he is contemplating other careers as well.
Being a doctor, however, is out of the question. “I don’t like seeing blood,” Tsai said.
But right now, Tsai — an avid reader of Forbes who spends every Friday night watching “Shark Tank” — is settled on business. “My parents were both in sales and marketing. I guess I learned from them. I always found that really interesting,” Tsai said.
As for the best career advice he’s received, Tsai says it didn’t come from Betty White, Johnny Depp, Ken Jeong, or any other star he’s worked with. It came from his mom.
“Believe in yourself, do what you love, always follow your dreams and never give up. My mom told me that,” Tsai said. “I just follow that and it’s helped me out a lot.”