Vic Chao:
Engineering a Lifestyle Upgrade

Vic Chao traded a secure career based on a Stanford engineering degree for more money, more free time and better-looking co-workers.

by William Nakayama



Vic Chao:
Engineering a Lifestyle

ic Chao may be the best looking Asian American actor whose name you don't know. You've probably spotted him on some of his dozens of episodes as a guest-star or a recurring character on TV shows like The Division, JAG, Boston Legal, Monk, The Practice and The Agency. And you'll see him as an FBI agent with Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality 2 (2005) for which Chao recently finished six weeks of shooting. Before that his all-Asian-American good looks grabbed appreciative eyeballs on Pearl Harbor and Rat Race.

     To the countless viewers who've wondered, “Who is that good-looking Asian guy?”, Vic Chao answers, “A nerd with a muscular torso and bird legs.” His inability to take anything seriously may well be Chao's most distinctive trait.


Vic Chao as a guest-star in an episode of JAG.
     You can't blame him. Chao took his Stanford engineering degree seriously and it almost got him consigned to a lifetime of serious drudgery. Chao died a thousand deaths while designing medical devices. “Engineering sucks,” Chao elaborates. As soon as he saved up enough, he took a huge gamble on the exciting insecurity of an actor's life.

     And he paid his dues. For the first few years of his acting career, Chao earned a living by drawing on a long list of special skills that include Tae Kwon Do, stilts, cheerleading, balloon twisting, juggling, Mandarin and Spanish. His high school gymnastics skills led to a two-year stint as the Chicago Bulls mascot Da Bull.

     “My co-workers suddenly got much taller and much richer,” Chao recalls of those years.

     Five years ago he shucked off the bull suit and moved to Los Angeles. The professional attitude that's run-of-the-mill in the engineering world gave Chao a serious advantage in the flakey world of Hollywood casting calls and pre-dawn shoots. Combined with his looks and acting skills, Chao's professionalism led to having bit parts — many of them not even written for an Asian actor — upgraded into recurring, guest-star and even occasional lead roles.

     The gamble has paid off. Chao is making a much better living than he had as a highly-regarded engineer, and he enjoys the kind of serious free time that recently let him take a four-week tour of Southeast Asia.

GS: Give us the 411 on your personal background, including some Kodak moments.
VC: My father passed away when I was four, so my mother raised three children completely on her own. Yeah, she's incredibly tough. I grew up in a town that was almost entirely Caucasian and in fact 90% Jewish, so I didn't really have much sense of my ethnic identity. I was the smartest kid in class; I was also the smallest kid in class. Bundle that with being the only Asian in class, and it's a recipe to be loved and adored by all your classmates. And by "loved and adored," I mean "picked on and called 'chink'."
     I got into gymnastics when I was 14, because at the whopping size of 4'11", 94 lbs, I figured I might as well get into a sport for small people (and doing flips sounded more appealing than wearing funny pants riding a horse). Thank goodness puberty kicked in around 16, and I started developing muscle.
     In high school, I was busy being the super-student--National Honor Society President, Math Team President, Gymnastics Team Captain, etc. I majored in engineering at Stanford University, apparently because I must have thought it would be fun to stay up all night calculating thermodynamic properties of compressed gases. At Stanford I became a cheerleader (much easier on the body than gymnastics and the girls are cuter!). I also got on the show American Gladiator where I proved to be very good at climbing rock walls and dodging cannon-fired tennis balls. Turns out I'm also slow on my feet and got completely crushed in the Powerball event.
     After graduation I engineered medical devices. Boy that sucked. On my very first day of work, I told my mother, "I'm only doing this long enough to save up enough money to become an actor." And finally after I saved up enough money, I quit my job to act full-time. My mom stopped talking to me for two weeks. Ahh, nothing like the support of your family... (btw, she's proud of my acting career now.)

GS: What about your family background and upbringing brought out the actor in you?
VC: Ironically, it's my mother's fault since she used to make me perform in Chinese skits when I was young. She did it to prevent me from being too shy. Boy that plan backfired on her...

     I started acting full-time in Chicago, highlighted by a stint as the Chicago Bulls Mascot (and yes, I got one Michael Jordan Year). Being a mascot is the most fun job ever! It's the only profession that I might choose over acting. The anonymity of the mask liberates you from all your inhibitions and allows you to perform completely free.
     I'm now acting in LA, and am repped by fantastic agents that have gotten me great opportunities, some of which I've been able to capitalize on. I've been blessed to make a great living in this really difficult profession. I'm not quite an international star just yet, but give me another week or two. Hmmm... I've been saying that for a few years now...

GS: What was the Eureka moment that made you go into acting?
VC: I always knew that I wanted to be an actor. Unfortunately, my Traditional Asian Upbringing mandated that I become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I became an engineer solely in order to avoid graduate school. Really, that's it. If brain surgeons didn't have to go to grad school, I would have done that to save up enough money to act. I guess being a medical devices engineer in order to act was my Traditional Asian Equivalent to waiting tables. PAGE 2

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“I'm now acting in LA, and am repped by fantastic agents that have gotten me great opportunities, some of which I've been able to capitalize on.”


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