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Wingman Wednesday

Joe Minoso

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Photo By: Brant Brogan

As firefighter Joe Cruz on the popular NBC series “Chicago Fire,” Joe Minoso has experienced every career first imaginable. The life-changing part was not only his introduction to a series regular role, but it is a job that has lasted for nearly a decade, paving unexpected pathways for the New York native both professionally and personally.

We recently sat down with Minoso to discuss where “Chicago Fire” has impacted his life the most, the mixed bag of social media, and how he found the love of his life at the job of his life.

TrunkSpace: The “Chicago Fire” universe has been a part of your life now for most of the current decade. How has your time as Joe Cruz – the work and everything involved with it – impacted your life the most?
Minoso: Wow! It’s really weird to hear most of the decade. But yes, definitely it has been incredibly impactful. I would say the largest way was that I met the love of my life and now wife working on “Chicago Fire.” She was a makeup artist for three seasons on the show and still does work there from time to time. But she’s currently moved on to her own business in paramedical tattooing, which is an incredible, emerging field that she’s just going to be phenomenal at. I’m super proud of her.

TrunkSpace: What has been the most enjoyable aspect of getting to play the same character for well over 100 episodes of a series? How has Joe changed since you shot your first scene to where you are today, and how has that changed the experience for you personally?
Minoso: I think what is most enjoyable about playing a character on episodic television is getting to learn new facets of the character year to year. As the writers discover interesting new story arcs for you, it develops more character nuances. Those are always fun to learn about when you come back every year. I would say since the first shot, Cruz has definitely become a firefighter who is more aware of his skill set and far more comfortable in a leadership position. He’s really made strides as a firefighter to be one of the best. And I think that that work ethic is starting to show up in his personal life. He just seems to be more put together. He’s really coming into his own and you can see that more readily, especially now with his new girlfriend Chloe.

TrunkSpace: The series is immensely popular with fans. How long did it take you to become comfortable with having the spotlight of a successful television series shined onto your own life, both in reality and in the social media world?
Minoso: I’m pretty lucky, I don’t get bothered most places I go, so any kind of fame or celebrity isn’t something that I really deal with often. Most of the time it’s someone who is very nice and asking if they can take a photo because they are huge fans of the show, to which I happily reply, “Absolutely!” I’m happy to do it. The fans helped keep us around. As for social media, that’s a mixed bag. I try to keep it as light and inspirational as I can. Whatever social media platform I may have developed over the years, I would like to use towards championing goodness, charity, respect, humanity and laughter.

TrunkSpace: What is the relationship like between the series and real world first responders? In particular, what is it like to hear feedback directly from those who live these types of experiences day in and day out?
Minoso: I would say mostly very positive. We come across a lot of first responders who absolutely love our show – across the world! There are definitely those who get on us about not doing things right, or not showing how things are in real life, but while I understand the issue, some of the things that we would like to show are almost too unbelievable or impossible for television. And firefighters or first responders love busting each others’ chops, so more than anything, I just think they’re looking for something to make fun of.

Honestly though, it’s mostly really great feedback. And they are some of the greatest, salt of the earth, bravest people you’ll ever meet in your life.

TrunkSpace: “Chicago Fire” seems to allow its performers the chance to play in various genre sandboxes, from heavy drama to lighter, more comedic moments, which we would imagine, helps to keep things fresh. Would it be more difficult to spend as much time on a sitcom where you’re always having to deliver on the same beats, as opposed to a show like this where each day brings a different approach?
Minoso: I consider myself one of the lucky ones on the show. I feel like I get to play in a lot of those sandboxes. Some of the other characters are limited to just drama or comedy, but I think Cruz is a character that seamlessly goes from one to the other. That’s been one of the great things about playing him is the opportunity to do so many different things.

TrunkSpace: To date, what are you most proud of with your work as Joe Cruz?
Minoso: I am really proud of my relationship work with my fellow firefighters. I feel like we really look and act like a family. I don’t know how much acting is actually involved. We pretty much are family at this point. But I think ensemble work is some of the hardest stuff to do and I think we are at our best as a show when we’re there as a group.

Photo By: Brant Brogan

TrunkSpace: Prior to on-camera work, you spent a lot of time on the stage. When it comes to performance, is theater your first love?
Minoso: There’s no way it can’t be. It introduced me to the great world of performing and storytelling. The immediate response you get from an audience is one of the most thrilling, adrenaline-inducing moments you could ever ask for. But I have really grown to love the camera medium. I feel that you can tell far more expansive stories this way. However, I’ll always love theater and I look forward to revisiting it someday.

TrunkSpace: When you started to do more work in front of the camera, did you have to take a different approach to your craft than you did with your work in a live setting? Did it take some fine-tuning for you to get comfortable in that new world?
Minoso: There’s a lot of similarities, but I would say the biggest change I had to make was understanding that the audience was not 100 feet away in a seat up in the balcony, but two inches away from my face. I think once I started thinking of it that way, it helped bring my performance down to an acceptable level for television. That being said, I can still be a pretty broad and bombastic actor. I work hard to try and keep it in a believable place.

TrunkSpace: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Minoso: “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Fire.” Everything that has come with the show has been a first and new for me. My first red carpet, my first premiere, my first photo shoot, my first pilot, my first series regular role, my first stunt sequence, my first autograph… and the love of my life to top it all off. It has changed my life in immeasurable ways and I will forever hold it as one of the most special moments of my life.

TrunkSpace: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
Minoso: I wouldn’t. Half the fun of the story are the surprises that come along the way. Just like a great film, you wouldn’t enjoy the peaks if you didn’t suffer the valleys. I feel like knowing would take away from that.

Chicago Fire” airs Wednesdays on NBC.

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Wingman Wednesday

James Chen

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Photo By: David Zheng

This is shaping up to be a defining year for James Chen’s career. Outside of his ongoing work on “The Walking Dead,” where he plays Hilltop resident Kal, the Yale School of Drama graduate also joined the Marvel Universe as Sam Chung in Season 2 of “Iron Fist” for Netflix and will be recurring as Ian Lentz in the new Dick Wolf-produced drama series “FBI,” which premieres September 25 on CBS.

And somehow that’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

We recently sat down with Chen to discuss how “The Walking Dead” prepared him for his super future, why the introduction of Blindspot is so topical, and the reason on-screen Asian stereotypes may finally be a thing of the past.

TrunkSpace: As far as Septembers go, yours looks like it will be one for the history books!
Chen: (Laughter) My man, it’s been an amazing year, I’m not gonna lie. You’re correct, September has been very busy and productive, and we just recently added another gig… I’ll be playing a billionaire race car driver on “Madam Secretary.” So yeah, I’m very grateful. It’s been very awesome. It’s the product of a lot of hard work and not giving up.

TrunkSpace: With so much of that hard work being released into the world this month, is there a different type of personal excitement at this stage of a project as opposed to your first day on a set?
Chen: Oh, it is, it is. Yeah, that’s a good distinction. I think like any first day – of school, first day at work, first day at a TV show – there’s excitement. I guess you could say it’s nerves, but I just like to call it excitement, because you’re meeting a lot of new people and going into a new space. Invariably it’s always wonderful, because everyone’s extremely collaborative, and at the end of the day we’re just playing. So that kind of thing facilitates just sinking into a good ease. There’s also a lot of technical things you’re doing in addition to meeting a bunch of people. You’re kind of just getting the lay of the land, and having conversations with the director about the scene structure, and stuff like that. But, something like the past couple weeks, “Iron Fist” being released last Friday, “FBI” coming out next week… yeah, you’re still working hard, having conversations with great people like you, just to basically tell your stories about what it was like on set.

TrunkSpace: When you joined the Marvel Universe for “Iron Fist,” obviously it must have been an exciting thing, but at the same time you kind of have to keep that excitement in check . Marvel projects are so shrouded in plot point secrecy that you’re really in a conversational holding pattern about it until it’s released.
Chen
: That’s right. I got to be honest though, I’ve been on “The Walking Dead” for four years, and they’ve got the best secret police game going on. They put the fear in you with those NDAs and stuff. (Laughter) So I was kind of trained and had some experience with that. But, it was tough, because you’d be gone for a while, and  I would run into my co-workers from set outside of work with other people, and it was like we’d be catching up and we’d have to kind of shield the conversation from people who are not in the know. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: With a show like “Iron Fist,” which releases all at once, that must help ease that loose lips sink ships vibe, because once it’s out, everything is fair game. If the audience is willing to put in the work, they could view the entire season in one sitting.
Chen: That’s right, yeah. I like that idea though, that the viewer has to put in the work too, but it’s true. That wasn’t around four years ago… five years ago. I like it, personally, I guess from a sharing point of view, because we can talk about bigger picture stuff, like arcs, or how different parts from different episodes connected or didn’t connect, or what it means. I like that part of the conversation as opposed to it being drawn out over several months from installation broadcast. I like people having the full context of Sam Chung, talking about “Iron Fist,” to see how he and Colleen work in a bunch of different scenarios.

TrunkSpace: While the viewers understand the full context of Sam Chung, those who read the comic know that there’s so much story to tell there, should Netflix choose to go down that road.
Chen: Right. We know for sure that there’s just tremendous, exciting, tremendous, one more tremendous, potential in the development of Blindspot and his back story. And it’s so topical these days, illegal immigrant, right? Also, it’s extremely topical with him being an Asian male character, an Asian male superhero. I mean, after Asian August, with “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Searching,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Awkwafina is getting her show green lit – it’s time!

TrunkSpace: And to be a part of this moment in pop culture, influencing the next generation, it has to be an amazing feeling.
Chen: It is, yeah. It’s so true. It’s interesting also, because growing up and initially my first phase in the biz, that wasn’t around, so it’s almost like… it’s hard to describe what it’s like. A part of me almost can’t believe it’s happening, because the stereotypes have been and are really awful, and degrading, and they’ve been so solid for such a long time, so it’s so refreshing. It’s so invigorating. And, kind of like what you said about as far as the next generation, I mean, you really feel like you’re making a meaningful contribution to the image of your people, which is so satisfying. It’s not like I’m selling soap for a commercial.

Photo By: David Zheng

TrunkSpace: The path of actors as a whole seems to has changed as well. If we went back 10 years, it would be a rarity for an actor to be talking about so many different television projects at once. It just seems like there’s more freedom to spread your wings and be involved in more projects than there used to be.
Chen: Right. I think with so much programming out there, there’s a lot of opportunity. I’ve seen an increase in both the quality and quantity of auditions in my particular demographic, for Asian men, which is kind of what I see as far as the auditions that come down the pike. But, it’s been encouraging and exciting too to see that they’re opening up casting and auditions for roles that aren’t specifically written to be Asian. There were a few of those back in the day, like a couple a year, but now it’s like we’re getting closer to that place where ethnicity doesn’t have to define who you are. You’re a person and you happen to be of a certain ethnicity.

TrunkSpace: Jumping back to Sam as a character, what was it about him in the early stages, the audition days, that you liked on the page?
Chen: Well, I loved kind of how Sam’s dialogue was very… this is going to sound weird, but it’s very casual and conversational. It was very everyday. He’s just simply having a conversation with someone, as opposed to… he’s not talking about something super Asian or stereotypically something or other, if that makes any sense. He’s just having a conversation with another person who happens to be Asian as well. There’s no commentary on the fact that we’re both Asian. Colleen is Asian and I’m Asian and we’re just talking about helping her solve a problem. So I love that aspect of the fact that we don’t need to comment on it, it just is.

I love how there is history in that opening scene in Season 2/Episode 2 of “Iron Fist,” when we first meet Sam. There’s just some great history, and backstory, and rapport between Sam and Colleen. It’s not heavy, but you can tell that they’ve worked together for a while. They’ve got great rapport. They tease each other. I’m fishing a little bit, and they share a little bit about their private lives and what they’re doing, just some teasing. So that’s exciting, and I think you can see that in the series. Obviously certain plot emergencies come through that maybe don’t make it a priority, but it’s one of the layers of their relationship, which I think is great.

TrunkSpace: And that is one of the things that Marvel Studios is so great at, which is building out the world so that the viewer feels like they’re a part it as opposed to being on the outside looking in.
Chen: Right. And I like that idea, because Sam has more of a management, supervisory responsibility for the community center and it shows, because I know where everything is and what’s going on. I feel like I have an ear to the ground and a hand on the pulse of what’s happening in the community, because the community center is like a hub, more or less. So I thought that was pretty exciting to kind of be right at the brain of the nervous system of what’s happening in Chinatown, or in our community. I thought it was great how the community center became a hub for us to meet a whole bunch of other characters who also happen to be Asian, like Mrs. Yang, or Danny’s boss at the moving company, played by my buddy James Lai.

So I thought that was great, the inclusion of more Asian faces, and culture, and depth in the series.

Chen in “The Walking Dead.”

TrunkSpace: From TV superheros to superheroes of TV, your next project is Dick Wolf’s “FBI.” Obviously Marvel is a big brand, but in the world of television, Dick Wolf is a brand unto his own.
Chen: Sure, it is. That man is a genius. He’s kind of like the Stan Lee of procedurals. (Laughter)

This is not a joke. I grew up and “Law & Order: SVU” was my favorite show on TV. God, man, everything about that, from just the “dun dun,” it was so just clicked for me. I loved it. I loved Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni. Then I actually got a chance to play a recurring character on SVU for Dick’s show a few years ago, CSU Adrian “Andy” Sung, and I got to meet and work with Mariska, and Chris, and Ice, and it was just fantastic. A lot of the directors on that show are repeat directors, so it was just awesome to build the rapport, to be on that set, to work on a show that I loved so much for so long. That said, I kind of feel like I’m returning home in a way. Maybe like the same family/different house, kind of feeling. You’ve got the feel of all the same things, and obviously, Dick’s running the ship, it’s just with a twist… an FBI twist.

Iron Fist” is available now on Netflix.

FBI” premieres Tuesday on CBS.

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