Viewers of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards have come to expect the show’s dark turns, whether involving murder, sex, or just the everyday political machinations of life inside the Beltway. But they might not have expected the moment this season featuring an intimate church worship service and a soulful praise song. Even more surprising is the story of the one who was chosen to bring the holy moment to life.
Jae Jin works for Humanim, a Baltimore-based nonprofit focusing on workforce development, human services and social enterprise. He is neither a professional actor nor musician. Yet this 29-year-old who survived a life-threatening illness as a teenager is accustomed to a life of unexpected outcomes. CaPC contributor Helen Lee spoke with Jae about his experiences on the show, and discovered what he learned from both the encouragement and the criticism he has received.
Let’s start with how you were cast on the show, and how you were given this particular role, as a worship leader for a church scene.“I remember feeling that this is what life should be for us all, aiming to be worshipful wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Not just in a church on a Sunday, and not just when we are surrounded by fellow believers.”I’ve always loved music, but I have never seriously pursued opportunities to sing. Last May, an actor friend who has been in several episodes of House of Cards came to me and said, “The show is looking for a guitar player for a scene. You should audition.” I thanked him but kindly declined. I didn’t have much interest in being on a television show.
But my friend went out of his way to set up a meeting for me with some of the casting directors and producers. I finally agreed to go and played a blues song for them. Then the director asked me, “This will be for a church scene. Can you play something that might work?” I couldn’t believe it. I have led worship in some capacity since middle school. “In Your Hands” by Hillsong came to mind immediately, a song I could do without even thinking twice about it.
They were impressed enough to record a quick video to send to (executive producer) Kevin Spacey and (creator/writer) Beau Willimon, who apparently loved it. I was brought on board as a principal performer/actor, which meant it was an actual credited role. I would not only play, but also get the chance to sing! Within just a few weeks, I was on my way to the set.
Tell us more about the day of filming. What stands out to you as being particularly memorable about your time on the set?
Before we shot the scene, the director came over to greet me and then asked, “Do you have any of your own thoughts for your scene?” We had decided on using the “In Your Hands” song for the show, and I wondered how we could utilize all the other people who were in the room. I suggested, “What if I taught the extras the chorus of the song? I could sing the verse, and the extras could join in at the chorus to provide added energy.” He loved that idea. It felt just like leading worship, as I taught this praise song to a room full of about 60 extras playing churchgoers for the scene. Although some of them already knew the song, many of them copied the words of the song down so they wouldn’t forget the lyrics.
Leading up to the day of filming, I continued to be prayerful about my scene, and I told myself, “I am going to be worshipful about this, sing the song from my heart, and not worry about cameras or anything.” We shot the scene about 20 times, until the director was satisfied. And each time, I was using those moments to actually worship. I remember feeling that this is what life should be for us all, aiming to be worshipful wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Not just in a church on a Sunday, and not just when we are surrounded by fellow believers.
It was amazing to see how God was at work even in this filming of a short scene on House of Cards. That I happened to know the song that would eventually be used in the scene itself. That there was a cross so clearly positioned in the background, right behind me, in an industry that many would say is irreligious. God still made the scene about a worshipful moment to him. That’s something you could not have even scripted. The moments we were all singing together, those were my favorite parts of the whole experience.
Did you have the opportunity to get to know any of the cast and crew better while you were on the set? What were those interactions like?
I spent quite a bit of time with Rachel Brosnahan, who plays the character of Rachel in the show. I had the chance to share about myself and even about my faith. That week alone, she had been on four red-eyes due to the filming, going between the West Coast and the East Coast, and we talked about the challenges of what that was like. I had a chance to share about how my past struggles have given me a perspective to live life with passion. She seemed encouraged and moved by my vulnerability, that I was willing to be more real than what she might be used to on a day-to-day basis.“Instead of putting me on a show like The Voice where people might say, “You’re such an awesome singer!”, God gave me a different experience.”After we finished filming my scene, I went over to the sound guys to thank them for their work. One of them said, “I go to church in Virginia Beach, I haven’t heard that song you sang since the 90s!” A few others joined the conversation, which touched all kinds of random topics ranging from music to church and even to God. I was definitely struck by the fact that there are Christians interspersed everywhere, just doing their jobs, and that includes sound guys who are working on a show like House of Cards.
After I came home, I was tired; it was past midnight. I actually was moved to tears as I looked back on the day. It had gone so differently from what I had imagined. I was overwhelmed by the sense that God truly worked through every second of the day, meticulously crafting every single interaction and conversation.
Did you ever have any moments of doubt or uncertainty about being a part of the show?
Actually, when producers first mentioned a church scene that develops the storyline of Rachel’s character, I wasn’t quite sure how House of Cards would depict the “church.” If you watch the show, you know that they do end up darkening the story-line of one of the churchgoers quite a bit. However, when I received the script for the episode, I was relieved to know that I wasn’t being asked to sing blasphemy or to say anything I wouldn’t be comfortable saying in reality.
Have you experienced any pushback or criticism from those who feel there is no value for a Christian to take on an experience like this, on a show like HOC, which upholds very few redeeming values?
I’ve received mostly positive responses, but I have heard there has been some criticism from fellow Christians. Some have even questioned my heart as a believer. Initially, I’ll admit that this critique angered me. But honestly, all it confirmed is that we all fall short and are all sinners in need of saving grace. I continue to look at this experience with humility and consider it an expression of God’s unmerited favor.
I feel that in some weird way, because of how dark the show is, the church scene really captured God’s essence. That’s how God works. He allows His light to shine in places where you would least expect it to shine. The world can be a dark and broken place. As followers of Christ, we aren’t called to live comfortably, away from darkness. We are called to be the salt and light of the world.
What does the future hold for you? And did this whole experience help to shape any thoughts you have for your next steps?
A few months after I had gone through chemotherapy for a second time, seven years ago, I reached a very low point. Although I did have a sense of peace about the future, I experienced a deep, dark depression for many months and was even angry at God. All I longed for was to go to my eternal home.
Soon after, I came to a turning point. I realized that God had not brought me through the things He did just to bring me closer to Him. Now I know that God has been using me and will continue to use me to bring both nonbelievers and believers of Christ closer to Him, and to connect with people wherever I end up. Every night, as I lay in bed, I think about moments where God was present, and I say to myself, “Ah, this is why you had me alive for this specific day.”
So that’s why I don’t dwell on the House of Cards experience too deeply in terms of my future career path. But as I continue to hear from people who saw me on the show, I’ve been so encouraged by how God has used even that short scene to speak to others. Instead of putting me on a show like The Voice where people might say, “You’re such an awesome singer!”, God gave me a different experience, reminding me that He is in control, and that humility will be necessary as He continues to open doors for me. I’m excited for how God will move in my life next. Whatever is ahead, it’s so important to me that I continue to inspire, challenge, and connect with people. The House of Cards opportunity gave me a chance to do just that.