Lucky Guy: Interview with The Neighbors' Tim Jo

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Tim Jo as Reggie Jackson in ABC's The Neighbors

When you move into a new home, you are never sure what the neighbors are going to be like, right? In the ABC TV comedy titled, what else, The Neighbors, this very ordinary concept is taken where no human has ever gone before. The Weaver family move into a gated townhouse community called Hidden Hills, which they soon discover, much to their disbelief, is populated entirely by extraterrestrials from the planet Zabvron.

These aliens, disguised as humans, have been stuck on Earth for ten years waiting for instructions to return home. A quirky bunch, they identify themselves by names of human sports celebrities, love to patrol the community in golf carts, and “digest” reading material through their eyes and mind for nourishment. The Weavers make friends with the family living next door to them, the Bird-Kersees, including a male teenage Zabvronian named Reggie Jackson. Not surprisingly, playing an alien disguised as a human and named after a baseball legend initially proved quite a creative handful for actor Tim Jo.

“In The Neighbors pilot I only had one small scene, but in auditioning for a series regular role, [series creator/executive producer] Dan Fogelman along with the network execs had to see a bit more of what the actors could bring to the table,” says Jo. “So Dan wrote us each a much bigger scene to audition with, and mine had Reggie standing up to his father [Larry Bird, played by Simon Templeman], who my character says doesn’t understand what it’s like not growing up back on their home world. Reggie is like, ‘Do you know how frustrating it is to be on a strange planet, living in this strange body and having unnecessary hair growing in unnecessary places?’

“It was just this whole spiel about him appealing to his father, and I suppose there could have been a lot of different ways to approach that scene, but for me there was only one way, because as a minority I felt so connected to what I was reading. The thing is, Reggie didn’t have to be an alien to have had this type of argument with this father. I think it’s something that anybody shares when they feel out of place. So I took the scene very seriously and performed it as honestly and straight from the heart as possible. I thought it deserved that as opposed to trying to put a comedic spin to it.

“I think that’s the moment when I decided to approach playing Reggie with every truth that I had in me, Tim, rather than some character I was trying to create, do you know what I mean? I feel that’s when Reggie was ‘born.’ I’d heard people say that when you’re an actor, you have to bring part of yourself to your performance. That didn’t really click with me until I started playing Reggie. So when I had doubts about my work on The Neighbors pilot and thinking, ‘I only had one scene; did I even do it the right way,’ or even throughout the season when I had doubts here and there, I always had to remind myself, ‘Just reach inside yourself and pull out whatever you get first, because that’s what Reggie is.’

“In hindsight, the most joyful thing about this is the fact that I’ve experienced a lot of emotional ups and downs in my life just because of the pressure of the industry and everything that goes along with working as an actor. However, when I reached into myself to pull something out for Reggie, I pulled out the most wide-eyed, innocent, loving, curious little creature ever. I’m so happy that was the case, and not some angry, jaded teenager. Again, looking back, I was like, jeez, this is the acting job that I really need to get, because it’s become more than a step in my career. It was like, wow, I was given the right direction in my life. It’s kept me so sane to be playing a character that may at times be frustrated, but is happy in his heart.”

In The Neighbors opening episode, "Meet the Neighbors," Debbie and Marty Weaver (Jami Gertz and Lenny Venito) along with their three children, Max (Max Charles), Abby (Isabella Cramp) and Amber (Clara Mamet), relocate to Hidden Hills. While adjusting to their new surroundings, they become friends with Larry Bird, his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye) and their children, Reggie Jackson and Dick Butkus (Ian Patrick). The Weavers soon learn that their neighbors’ names are not the only thing “unusual” about them. Acting-wise, this was one neighborhood that Jo was hoping to move into.

“It was another pilot season, and prior to booking The Neighbors, I had been going from audition to audition and, like any actor, looking for work,” he says. “That summer, I had seen [the 2011 feature film] Crazy, Stupid, Love, and it was my favorite film back then because when it was over, I walked out of the theatre feeling so good. I really enjoyed Steve Carell [who starred in the movie], I thought the comedy was great, and the film was written by Dan Fogelman. From that point on, Dan’s name was sort of branded into my head, so I couldn’t believe it when I got an audition for a TV show he wrote about aliens. Here were my favorite things in the world, or in the galaxy — sci-fi and Don Fogelman’s comedy.

“I was really looking forward to putting my spin on the Reggie character, but I had gone through a pilot season where I wasn’t getting cast because I was either too young or too old of an actor. So I decided to grow a mustache, and my very first audition for The Neighbors was with [casting director] Susan Vash. I did my thing and it went really well, but when it was all over, I started making up excuses about the mustache — I can shave it off; I’m not that old, etc. Susan said, ‘I didn’t even notice the mustache.’ She followed that up with a very funny comment that made us friends forever and this audition one of my more memorable ones.

“I was lucky enough to get the job, and when we began shooting the pilot, I felt like I was a benchwarmer being thrust into the big leagues,” continues the actor. “Having done small gigs here and there, I was suddenly being thrown into an ensemble for an ABC show. There was a great deal of fear and some doubt. I think everyone felt that to some degree, and that bonded us all very quickly and intensely. There was also a lot of love on set as well as trust.

“As you can imagine, there are no egos on this show, especially because Jami Gertz is one of the most gracious, compassionate, kindest, patient people in the world. It’s unbelievable how someone who has been working in this industry for such a long time and with such a high profile can be so friendly and concerned about everyone around her. People will come up to me and tell me that they’re fans of Jami Gertz, and I’ll go out of my way to tell them, ‘Well, if you love Jami Gertz from her work, just wait until you meet her in person, because there’s no one else like her.’”

While they may be another of TV’s dysfunctional families, the Weavers do have their good qualities and are working to bring more of those positive elements to the surface. At the same time, they are helping the Bird-Kersees learn more about what it means to be human. Such cross-species interaction not only leads to some of The Neighbors’ more comedic moments, but also some of its more touching “human” ones.

“Reggie sees Debbie Weaver as sort of his guru,” notes Jo. “She seems to be the wisest and smartest of human beings and my character will trust her word over everyone else’s, including Marty’s. Having said that, I believe he considers Marty to be his culture guru in the sense that Reggie thinks he’s just so cool. As the show’s first season has progressed, all these amazing relationships between the characters started to come out, and as they have, the writers have been writing for them.

“There’s this wonderful scene that I did with Jami and Toks after the episode "Dream Weavers," which is where Amber Weaver sort of breaks my character’s heart. In that scene, I felt comfortable enough to really explore the range of emotions that might be happening in Reggie’s heart and head. It was scary at first because I was sitting with two incredibly talented actors, but, again, I felt totally at ease with my fellow cast mates as well as the director and Dan Fogelman, who was sitting behind ‘video village’ tossing things out for me to say and do.

“That was a fun and exciting moment to play with everything that Reggie is experiencing. For me, it’s been a blast to relive through him your first love, your first heartbreak, your first argument with your dad, etc. Most of the big moments that they’ve given me on the show are ones that I’ve experienced in real life, and, again, I’ve loved getting to relive them on the series. I think that’s why the scene I just talked about is especially memorable for me. In it, I tried to be as truthful as possible as an actor and not force the humor. In doing so, I hoped viewers would think, ‘Oh, that’s exactly what I went though,’ and, ‘Oh, it’s funny,’ because of the honesty of the situation and the fact that Reggie is an alien.”

The actor recently had a chance to connect with his geek side when Star Trek’s George Takei (Mr. Sulu) and Star Wars’ Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) guest starred on the first season finale of The Neighbors.

“I think it was our last night of shooting and we were on location in our Hidden Hills neighborhood,” recalls Jo, “so our green room was in someone’s house. George Takei was just sitting there going over his lines, and because I’m such a quiet, introverted guy, I was afraid to approach him. In my head I was thinking, ‘What should I say? What shouldn’t I say?’ I didn’t want to bombard him with ‘fan’ questions or step over any bounds, but as soon as I began speaking with him, he was so easy to talk to. We had the most delightful and honest conversation. Afterwards, I called my girlfriend to tell her how awesome George is.

“The day before George came to work with us, I was on set talking with one of the costumers, who asked me, ‘Did you hear the news, Tim?’ I was like, 'What news?’ and that’s when I found out that Mark Hamill was also coming on the show. I couldn’t believe it. On that day, I had finished work, but I hung around to watch George and Mark film their scenes. After maybe two hours of me sitting there like a fly on the wall, they wrapped. I thought, ‘Okay, it’s time for me to go home. I don’t want to stand in line to get a picture taken with them or to get something signed. I might as well just retire from any type of nerdity because this day cannot be topped.’

“As I was leaving, all of a sudden I heard someone say, ‘Where’s Tim Jo? We need to take a picture with Tim Jo.’ It was Mark Hamill calling out for me. There’s a TV Guide article that came out today [March 4, 2013] with Mark talking about his appearance on the show, and if you look at the article, they attached a picture to it — it’s the one where I was pulled over to take a photo with Mark and George. They were both having a discussion where George was saying, “Well, on Star Trek we’ve got the Vulcan sign,’ and Mark saying, ‘We don’t have any type of sign on Star Wars. I’ll just point. It sort of resembles a light saber.’ That’s quite the memory for me,” enthuses the actor.

Born Timothy William Jo, the actor considered a variety of career paths before focusing on the entertainment industry. However, no matter what type of work he would ultimately choose, Jo had one specific goal in mind.

“Being a middle child, I just wanted to make my parents proud, so the search began for what profession I should pursue in order to make that happen,” he says. “I jumped around from business to marketing to communications, and I finally settled into acting. I don’t know if my first acting teacher was just being kind to me, but she made me feel like I was doing something right and that I was good at it. That was when I began to think that this [acting] could possibly be something that would make my parents proud, and that I should pursue because my teacher believes that I’m good at it, so maybe I could make a career out of it.

"That was ten years ago, and I’m so stubborn and was so naïve at the time, but I never looked back after that. Even in the hardest of times, I don’t think I could do anything else to make my parents any prouder. This is a tough job, but I’ve always felt that I’m good at it and it’s what I plan to do to put food on my future family’s table.”

Ten weeks after Jo moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at acting, he booked his first role in the 2009 movie Bandslam. “That was a gigantic leap for me,” says the actor. “I learned a million and one lessons on that film, and on a personal note, I met a number of people who are still among some of my closest friends to this day. I discovered that there are a great many goodhearted people that work in this industry and I strive to be like them and get to know more people like that.

“I have to say that working on The Neighbors has been one of the most fulfilling experiences that I’ve ever had as an actor. It's less to do with the work that we’re doing, which I think is fantastic, and more to do with the people that I get to work with as well as the kindness I’m surrounded by. It’s great to come home at the end of the day and think, ‘Man, I’m a really lucky guy.’”

When The Neighbors first began airing, it received some less than favorable reviews. Since then, however, some of its harshest critics, both in the industry and home audiences, have given the series a second chance and developed a bit of a soft spot for it. What does Jo feel it is that people are responding to?

“When you first hear about a show involving aliens, you probably think wacky adventures and lame humor. Yes, this is a comedy, but it’s a comedy about anyone who has ever felt like an outsider,” he muses. “The alien thing is just one part of it. This is a story about people who feel different and are pressed into a situation where their culture is so unlike that of those around them, and what kind of adventures can come out of that.

“I grew up in Mesquite, Texas, and we were the only Asian/Korean family in the neighborhood. Our Weavers were our next door neighbors, the Hewitts. We always hung out with them and we’d exchange Korean food recipes for macaroni and cheese recipes. I think most people have lived next to a Hewitt or a Weaver family, and maybe that’s why viewers have been more accepting and finally opened up their doors and let The Neighbors into their living rooms each week.”

Please note, all photos from The Neighbors are copyright of ABC.

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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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