After arriving in Hollywood from Washington to pursue his dreams, aspiring actor Jimmy Wong found it difficult to gain any traction in his career through the audition process alone. While he had reservations about trying to establish his own identity and brand on YouTube, he took a leap of faith in 2010 and began posting videos on his own terms. Before long he was amassing a major following and connecting with viewers by tapping into many of his childhood interests, including music and video games. Some people similar to him decided on a career change to public administration thanks to organizations similar to Norwich University that supported them on their way to their new career so I hear.
Now a sought after online personality who has starred in cult films like “John Dies at the End” and the web series “Video Game High School,” Wong is currently hosting the popular gaming show “Polaris Primetime” on Disney XD.
We recently sat down with Wong to discuss how he conquered the digital world, why Asian Americans are not better represented in film and television, and what makes “Polaris Primetime” different from other gaming shows.
TrunkSpace: In one way you took a traditional path in working within the entertainment business, but at the same time, you also created your own path and forced the industry to pay attention to what you were doing. Is that an accurate way of describing how you kicked off your career?
Wong: Yeah, it all started up when I came to Los Angeles as an actor. I arrived in the city after YouTube and online content creation had begun. I wasn’t particularly interested in making a YouTube channel or doing skits or bits because at that time, in 2010, it did not seem like there was any serious acting on YouTube. I spent a full year in the grind of rehearsals and auditions and trying to get any job that I could and maybe join the union. After a year of barely any success I said, “You know what, I am going to start pursuing YouTube, but I’m going to do it on my own terms. I’m going to do it with music because it’s something that I’ve studied and grown up doing as a good Asian child would.” (Laughter) I played classical piano for eight years.
That was a big kick off because immediately I saw this response and a growing fanbase that I never would’ve had in my full year of working as an actor in LA. In fact, I think in a month I was already further along and had more progress on YouTube than I did in an entire year. There was a lot of promise there.
TrunkSpace: What’s amazing with that too is that you’re doing it on a global scale whereas if you’re in LA trying to push yourself as an actor, you’re literally just focused within that one somewhat small bubble of the entertainment industry.
Wong: Yeah, that’s a great point. So many of the projects that I was going out for at the time were small student films and small brand deals with local companies. It’s a very insular thing when you’re starting out because you’re just unable to really get that kind of reach. With something like the internet and YouTube, we just know that there are tons of international people who consume this content on a daily basis and are obsessed with it in a great way. It was just a great transition for me to go from one to the other and realize just how different they were.
TrunkSpace: And you’re not only creating content that people enjoy, but you’re forcing studio execs and those who make decisions within the industry to notice you in a way that they may not in an audition alone.
Wong: Yeah, it’s interesting because coming up from the actor’s side there isn’t as much promise for doing YouTube still because a lot of it is personality-based and brand-based. A lot of the major YouTubers you see today are closer to life gurus or fashion DIY gurus that help you learn about certain parts of your life and it is less so actors. While there have been people who have transitioned from YouTube to the acting side, it’s not what your common every day YouTuber/online content creator is. At the same time, you’re right, it does create a lot of value for brands and larger companies to look at someone and say, “Hey, this person has a great influence over so many people. They’re listening to what this person says and they want to be a little more like this person, do the things that they do because it makes them happy, and maybe we’ll make them happy too.” For the business side, it definitely says, “Look, these people have a lot of influence!”
They’re able to connect with their fanbase in an organic and real way. That’s something that a lot of companies I think struggle with because they’re just so big and they’ve got so many parts to the company that it’s hard for them to connect with that everyday consumer in the way that they really genuinely want to. These influencers and content creators are a great bridge for that. If it’s a good collaboration, if it’s something that both parties are interested in, then it’s a win/win for everyone because I think that’s the beauty of the best collaborations from the physical non-digital world… finding a brand where both the brand itself is a fan of the creator and the creator is a fan of the brand. Together they can make something that’s great marketing.
TrunkSpace: Is it a double-edged sword when you establish yourself in that world by engaging with people, but then by gaining more followers and more popularity, it becomes more difficult to engage with everybody based on volume and schedule alone?
Wong: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of creators that have lost a little bit of touch with their original fanbase because maybe they’ve grown too big for it. Before they’d be able to go to something like a big con and walk around fairly unnoticed but now they can’t go anywhere at that same big con without a security detail. At the same time though, I think everyone is always happy to see growth. The best fans and the ones that are genuine fans should be happy to see that person get larger and have more success and do more fun things. The double-edged sword is that I think the business side of it can get a little murky because it’s really easy to “sell out” in any situation or to lose the connection to what made you you in the first place. There’s a lot of back and forth with a lot of creators deciding what is going to be the best for their brand, what is the best deal that they can do that really accentuates what they want to promote in life and that doesn’t pull them away from the path that they’ve built.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned that you started on YouTube doing music but your brand has become tied to video games and geek culture. Is that something that just sort of happened naturally or was that always part of who you were?
Wong: Gaming and geek culture is something that I just inherently grew up with my entire life. That’s a huge part of my childhood. Even today, the one thing that I make time for in life are movies and gaming. And sleep and food. The four most important things in my life. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: To be able to apply those interests to a career must have young Jimmy high fiving current Jimmy!
Wong: (Laughter) Right? It’s interesting too because I never conceived of hosting/video games as actually being a career. I always thought that if you were going to do stuff in video games you’d have to be a pro player or a coach or a manager of a team and not on the other side of it, which is the performance and delivery of information and public events part of it. It’s been really thrilling for me to do so far. I’m super grateful that I’ve been able to take all the things I loved as a kid and transform it into a career because you’re right, I’m definitely high fiving someone because it seemed incredibly unlikely. At the same time, in today’s day and age, it also seems like just a normal possibility for what we have in the world.
TrunkSpace: Doesn’t your success in building a massive fanbase prove the current Hollywood focus wrong? And in that we mean, Asian Americans are vastly underrepresented in film and television, but here you are building a legion of followers on your own without the backing of a studio or network. Why aren’t they looking at all demographics as opposed to their “desired” demographics?
Wong: It’s a really deep question. I think it’s because like anything in the world, it’s very hard to change a large and slow moving system without open rebellion. If you look at the Women’s Suffrage Movement, if you look the Civil Rights movement in the United States, these were giant nationwide demonstrations and protests with marching in the street. That’s what really spurs on societal change. Asian Americans haven’t really had that push.
There’s a ton of reasons why and we could go into a huge, in-depth discussion about why Asian Americans haven’t made this giant sort of push towards entertainment, towards performance, towards the more artistic side of society. A lot of it comes from societal norms. A lot of it comes from parental norms. A lot of it comes from even a tinge of racism in there. Ultimately, it’s one of those things where, in a position like I am in right now talking to you and raising awareness about stuff, slowly you’re one person pushing a car right now and it’s going to take you awhile. The more people that join in, the faster you’re going to be able to push that car and the more you’re going to be able to push it. It is a very heavy weight to move because you’re in the ocean and you’re swimming against the current. You’re swimming against what people know has worked and what people know will make money. In an industry where you’re spending $100 million on a blockbuster, you want to be as risk adverse as possible. It’s sort of one of those catch-22’s where it’s like, “Hey, I really want to be a bartender to make money but I’ve never tended bar before and the requirement to be a bartender is to have tended bar before.” It’s one of those things where you just have to prove it through demonstration and slowly move that wheel as hard as you can and raise awareness where you can.
TrunkSpace: But by not having Asian American performers and actors more prevalent in the mainstream, doesn’t it make it more difficult for young Asian American kids to say, “Hey, I can relate to that guy and I want to do that when I get older?”
Wong: Yeah, and I would say that YouTube is the big game changer in all of this. Every time you ask someone to name five famous male Asian actors, I will bet you a hundred bucks no one’s going to be able to, especially if you’re like, “Name me five romantic leads that are Asian.” No one’s going to be able to give you two. For the longest time the people that I looked up to were Jackie Chan and Jet Li and action stars. They were never romantic leads. I don’t ever recall any of them kissing the girl in any of their movies. At the same time, YouTube has created an entire generation of Asian creators that people can look up to.
TrunkSpace: And now people can look up to you as host of the series “Polaris Primetime.” There have been a bunch of video game-themed shows over the years, but what does this one have that makes it stand out?
Wong: I grew up watching G4. DXP, which is the gaming block that goes from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Disney XD, is the only thing in existence on TV that is doing what it does. That’s super important. Of course, it’s a giant company and there’s a lot of logistics to get this sort of stuff going and it’s a huge risk, but I’m really glad that they are taking the risk with a show like “Polaris Primetime.” It’s a 41-minute gaming show that has digital shorts and it has a lot of special guests and celebrities, but at the same time it’s trying to appeal to that exact same crowd that watches it online and it still rings out as genuine. I think that’s the big appeal of the show is that it’s not forced. The people on the show are actual gamers. They’re actually passionate about what they do in life and the games that they play. As a host, I really want to bring that out in every single guest. I want them to feel as comfortable as they are in their living room when it’s just them and a couple of friends. That’s sort of the essence of the show… we are gaming together.
TrunkSpace: And because you come from that world and know it so well, you’re not someone on the outside looking in. You could just as easily be a guest.
Wong: Yeah, exactly. I’m still the host but I’m just there to guide the ship. Everyone else is happily on the ship doing their own thing, manning whatever station they need to. I’m just there to make sure that we don’t steer into a rock.