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You’ve probably seen Brian Tee guest star on at least one of your favorite shows.
In the past five years alone, the actor has played a member of super-villain organization HYDRA on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” a jackal-like creature on “Grimm,” and a famous chef on “Baby Daddy.”
But despite his numerous roles and current spot as a series regular on NBC medical drama “Chicago Med,” Tee is still recognized by strangers as a character he played over a decade ago.
"[With 'Tokyo Drift,'] you’ve never seen a movie with so many Asian faces in it. We were pretty conscious that we were a bunch of outsiders, so there was this camaraderie and blissfulness we all shared."
“‘Fast and Furious’ continues to be alive, which means ‘Tokyo Drift’ is still alive, which means DK is very much alive,” Tee, who played the Drift King, the main antagonist in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” told NBC News. “But I do find it odd that people can still recognize me, because it’s been years, and I look vastly different now.”
Tee was born in Okinawa, Japan, as Jae-bum Takata — a Korean and Japanese name reflecting his multi-ethnic roots.
His Japanese-American dad was born in an incarceration camp during World War II, and his mother is from South Korea. The two met in Okinawa while Tee’s mom was seeking employment as a reporter, and his dad was on vacation. His dad’s two-week holiday turned into seven years, and after having two sons, the couple moved back to the U.S. and raising their family in the LA suburb of Hacienda Heights, California.
It was while taking an acting class for non-actors at California State University, Fullerton “for an easy A,” Tee said, that a light bulb went off in his head: In the first week, he knew he was destined to act for a living.
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He dropped out of Fullerton and attended a community college, much to his mom’s dismay, and later graduated from UC Berkeley’s dramatic arts program.
“I connected to the craft on a soulful level, and that feeling was something I can’t explain in words,” Tee said. “But it’s only happened twice in my life: the first time, in that acting class, and the second, when I met my wife. You just know.”
It was in his 20s, after graduating and moving to LA's Koreatown, that Tee began to understand the values of hard work and determination that the women in his life — his mother, grandmother, and aunt — instilled in him. He adopted his professional, nondescript name, which he said “has definitely given me more opportunities in auditions, whether it’s a conscious or subconscious decision.”
Tee worked various odd jobs to pay his rent — including waiting tables, bartending, and at one point passing out samples of Dial soap — while he did non-union extra work and shot short films at local colleges.
In 2002, Tee was cast as a soldier, Private Jimmy Nakayama, in the Vietnam War drama “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson. Tee said that movie was the one that made him realize he could not only walk the same path as the rest of the star-studded ensemble, but perhaps pave his own.
Then came “The Fast and the Furious.”
“You’ve never seen a movie with so many Asian faces in it,” Tee said of “Tokyo Drift,” which was directed by Justin Lin. “We were pretty conscious that we were a bunch of outsiders, so there was this camaraderie and blissfulness we all shared. We all wanted it to succeed, so we just embraced the situation together and had a great time. It was more than a movie; it was a community.”
Although playing the bad guy in one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises garnered Tee attention, it didn’t give him the “big break” that few actors are lucky to experience.
“It wasn’t like, ‘oh, Brian made it,’” Tee said. “I still had to go on countless auditions; I still took classes; I still worked my butt off for every role I got after that. It was another stepping stone.”
Tee has been laying stepping stones ever since. While he’s earned roles in movies like “The Wolverine” alongside Hugh Jackman and the recent “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” more than just a few of his characters have been Asian or Japanese mobsters lacking fleshed-out stories, he said.
“I connected to the craft on a soulful level, and that feeling was something I can’t explain in words. But it’s only happened twice in my life: the first time, in that acting class, and the second, when I met my wife.”
“For the most part, the roles Asians can get aren’t necessarily well-rounded, and more often than not they’re stereotypes,” Tee said. “But that’s all we have. And then we see each other all the time at auditions, because we’re all going for the same role. I’ve made a lot of friends that way.”
Two years ago Tee joined the main cast of “Chicago Med” as Dr. Ethan Choi, a former Navy flight surgeon with expertise in infectious diseases. One day, he hopes to play the leading man in a major box office movie. After that, he dreams of being able to choose his own roles in telling the untold stories he’s drawn to, like that of the 442nd Infantry Regiment and 100th Infantry Battalion, the Japanese-American combat team that served during WWII.
“The 442nd and 100th did some of the most amazing things that most of America doesn’t know about,” Tee said. “No matter how hard it’s been for me, that story reminds me that it’s no comparison to what the generations before us had to go through. I can’t do what they did, but what I can do is continue to work hard and pave the path for the next generation.”