Daydream Believer: Interview with Ironside's Kenneth Choi

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Kenneth Choi as Ironside's Captain Ed Rollins

It is rare that an actor has a chance to walk in the well-worn shoes of a character already familiar to TV audiences. Kenneth Choi is one such actor. He can currently be seen as Captain Ed Rollins in NBC’s remake of the long-running police procedural crime drama Ironside, which aired on the same network from 1967 to 1975. Choi’s character (who held the rank of detective sergeant in the original series) is a member of the New York City police force and works with Detective Robert Ironside (Blair Underwood) and his team as their commanding officer. When it comes to booking the role, it was very much an eleventh hour-type of deal for the actor.

“I came into the casting process fairly late in the game, so it was a whirlwind experience,” says Choi. “I believe they had all the main roles cast except for Ed. My first audition went very well, and I was informed a few days later that I would be [network] testing. So I had to go back in and tape a second audition. The powers that be watched the tape that afternoon, and I was offered the role a few hours later. They were having a cast table read the following day, so I got on a plane that night, arrived in New York City the following morning, and went to the table read on a couple of hours of sleep. That was a rough table read,” jokes the actor.

“As far as my role on the show — Ed is a cop who loves being a cop and has tremendous respect for the job. As the captain, he’s the guy who acts as a buffer between Ironside and the higher-ups. Sometimes it can cause friction between the two, but most of the time, he’s up for the fight because of his faith in Ironside’s ability as a detective. I have a great deal of respect for those in law enforcement. These are people and modern day heroes who run into dangerous situations when everyone else is running the other way. So for me, the greatest challenging in playing Ed has been portraying him in a way that is authentic and honors them. I hope I succeed with that.”

Was the actor at all familiar with the original Ironside before booking his role in this updated version? “Aside from hearing the name of the show over the years and that Raymond Burr played Ironside, I was not at all familiar with the original series,” he notes. “I’ve been asked if I researched or watched the original show in preparation for our series, and the answer is no. Aside from borrowing the name and original premise of the show, our Ironside is going to be completely different, including a different time period, different characters and a different Ironside.”

Like the original series, Detective Robert Ironside has spent the past two years in a wheelchair after a bullet shattered his spine while he was working a case in the field with his then-partner, Gary Stanton (Brent Sexton). He has not, however, let this physical setback deter him from his duty. In the Ironside pilot, the detective investigates a suicide that is somehow connected to a cover-up in the financial district. Working with Ironside is his handpicked team of fellow detectives: Virgil (Pablo Schrieber), Holly (Spencer Grammer) and Teddy (Neal Bledsoe). His professional as well as personal history with their boss, Captain Rollins, provides Ironside and his colleagues with necessary and important back-up.

“Ed and Ironside have a relationship based on mutual respect,” says Choi. “They came up together through the ranks as cops, have worked together as well as known each other for years and have become friends. For the most part the same holds true for Ed’s relationship with Gary. As for Ironside’s young team of detectives, Ed is slowly getting to know them. I think he trusts the fact that Ironside has good reasons for choosing each of them. He just doesn’t know what they are yet.

“My first day on set I had a scene with Blair Underwood that’s at the end of the pilot. We’re having a drink and discussing the case that’s just been closed. It’s an important scene because it establishes our onscreen relationship not only as coworkers, but friends as well. It’s our first scene together, and everybody is hoping we’re going to have chemistry so that it feels as if these two characters have known each other years. So Blair and I did the scene, and it was just easy-peasy, man. Afterwards, we looked over at each other and went, ‘Yeah...,’ and that was that.”

Having grown up in the Chicago suburbs, Choi was bitten by the acting bug at a very young age. “I was always fascinated with movies, television, and I was a habitual daydreamer,” he admits. “I’d sit in class or at home staring at the pages of a book I was supposed to be studying, but my mind was constantly in some sort of make-believe state. I was always fantasizing and imagining.

“When I started to comprehend what acting might be, I had this strong feeling that we would be right for each other, but becoming an actor seemed like such an impossible feat growing up the way I did. It was some sort of pipe dream that would never be realized, but I always kept that hope inside of me. It was stuffed way, way down there, but it was there. Now that I’ve realized that lifelong dream, I respect it, love it, nurture it, and I worked my ass off for it,” enthuses the actor.

In 1998, the actor made his debut playing a Hip Sales Creature in the Disney made-for-TV movie Halloweentown. “That was my first paying acting gig and the movie airs every October,” says Choi. “I’m in a full prosthetic face mask to make me look like a ghoul or something like that, and I’m a broom salesman. I sell brooms to witches. It’s pretty horrifying, but not in the scary sense. The silver lining, though, is that I received my Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card from it, and Debbie Reynolds is in the scene with me. Not too shabby, I’d say.”

Along with several other TV movies, Choi has also guest starred on such series as The West Wing, Roswell, Becker, Heroes, Glee and Longmire, as well as had regular or recurring roles on 24, Samurai Girl and Sons of Anarchy. On the big screen his credits include Woman on Fire, The Terminal, Only the Brave, Walk the Talk, Street Kings, Five Thirteen and the upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street. The actor also played Jim Morita in the superhero blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger.

“I can’t say enough good things about my experience working on Captain America,” says Choi. “I was in London for four months and met some amazing people on the job that are now close friends. I was a comic book kid, so this was a childhood dream come true. I mean, think about it. I was a kid who read Captain America comics, and one day, I’m in a forest essentially playing pretend and chasing after Red Skull’s [Hugo Weaving] henchmen. I look over to my left, and there’s Captain America [Chris Evans]. That’s a 'holy crap' moment.”

Choi remarked earlier that growing up he used to be daydreamer, and while some might consider that to be a waste of time, for him it opened a door to what would one day become a very fulfilling future. “You get to dream big in this industry, and I’m talking huge,’ he says. “If you dream big enough and work hard enough, you can live your dreams and they can become your reality.”

Please note, all Ironside photos courtesy/copyright of NBC. Ironside airs Wednesday nights @ 10:00 p.m. EST.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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