Daniel Dae Kim Still Believes Hollywood Can Be Reformed

“If you’re not aware of politics in any industry, you’re missing all of the ways to navigate it.”

4/12/2021 5:40:00 PM

.danieldaekim built a career by picking his battles, walking away from a job only when the inequities got too big to ignore. Despite it all, he still believes Hollywood can be reformed. A conversation with e_alexjung

“If you’re not aware of politics in any industry, you’re missing all of the ways to navigate it.”

Do I have it right that the show you’re currently shooting, The Hot Zone, is the first time you’ve been at the top of the call sheet?It is. It’s the very first time in television, and I’ve been working in television for 31 years. So it feels like a nice milestone, especially because so many actors who are much more talented than I never get to experience this. That’s a matter of perspective, too. There’s one school of thought: Why did it take so long? The other school of thought is it’s not a given for anybody. All it takes is working in the New York theater to realize how many incredibly talented actors there are at any given moment.

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A lot of people may not know that you did a lot of theater in your career before Lost, particularly with Asian American theater groups, like David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child as well as the part of Prospero in The Tempest — which is funny given how young you must have been. How did those spaces function for you at the time?

[Laughs] I also played Torvald in A Doll’s House in New York when I was 23 or something. I’m grateful to theaters in the Asian American community, specifically East West Players and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, the National Asian American Theatre Company, Ma-Yi, because there were so few opportunities. There was no way to get reps — as they say, repetitions — because you cannot get better unless you practice it. If you don’t have the opportunity, then you’ll forever be at a certain level. East West Players and Pan Asian Rep both accepted me with open arms, and I was able to play roles I probably shouldn’t have played, like Prospero and Torvald even though I was too young. headtopics.com

But that also speaks to the pipeline of actors that were pursuing this career at the time. Once you were 40 or 50 in the ’90s, chances are you weren’t able to make a living acting. So you probably had a second job that limited your ability to pursue your craft fully. It allowed people like me, who were younger and had a lower standard of living and lower expectations, to play roles like that. It’s both an opportunity for me and emblematic of how difficult it was for older Asian American actors to maintain a career.

When Lost premiered in 2004, it was such a phenomenon with a huge ensemble cast. Were you afraid of your character, Jin, dying early on? Constantly. All of us were. There were maybe one or two of us that really had job security, and every other one of us was paging through the scripts as soon as we got them to see whether we survived. From what I understand, it was planned for me to be killed off in season one. I was not a very sympathetic character, so it would have been easy for me to get killed off without the show missing a beat. Through a lucky confluence of events, I was able to stay on and last the whole six seasons.

What saved you?There was a writer there named Monica Macer, who’s a friend to this day. She is African American and Korean American. She lobbied for me. I also like to think they didn’t think I was so terrible that I didn’t deserve to be on the show.Lost was ahead of its time with its casting and story line, but I was curious about what was going on behind the scenes. How did the Korean dialogue come together? Were there other Korean writers in the room?

There was Monica Macer and then one Korean American woman named Christina Kim. The way the dialogue was put together was they would write it in English and then I would go to someone in Hawaii and translate it together with that person. Then I would learn it in Korean. So that was generally the process. headtopics.com

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Do you feel like that placed more responsibility on you than there should have been?It was a lot more work than is typical. I worked harder on the preparation for that role than any other role I’ve ever done, especially on a day-in, day-out basis, because we were constantly getting revisions. So it was the work of going through the translation process and then thinking about the Korean of it, the pronunciation, and then going back and thinking about the character and his mannerisms as a Korean person as opposed to an American person, which, obviously, I am. I think it would be obvious to most Koreans watching if I didn’t do that work.

Early on, there was some criticism from Asian American viewers about how Jin’s relationship with his wife, Sun [Yunjin Kim], relied on the stereotype of an overbearing man and a submissive woman. Did you discuss that with the show’s creators?When I read the script for the pilot, I knew this was a land mine. My greatest fear was that the pilot of Lost would air but the series would not — because if you were to see the pilot as the totality of my character, you would have been left with that stereotype. While we were shooting, I remember sitting down with Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams and saying, “Guys, this character cannot progress in this same way.” They basically said, “Trust us.” I did, and it turned out for the best. As an Asian actor, you’re just looking to get hired. It’s about working within the system to try and change it when you have the opportunity. The character grew to a place where I don’t think you’d call him a stereotype by the end.

Daniel Dae Kim in Lost. Photo: ABC/Courtesy of Everette Collection How did you feel about the criticism of your accent from Koreans at the time? It is a funny thing about my accent. It’s not standard Korean (표준어) because I speak Busan satoori (사투리). So when we first started, because Yunjin spoke standard Korean, it was decided that I was going to try and change my Busan to standard Korean. So that, plus thinking about the acting of it and realizing I did have an American accent — it became this weird mix of things. The greatest benefit of it all was that my Korean was never better. The opportunity to be able to learn Korean on an American TV show is once in a lifetime. So I’m grateful for it.

But there’s no doubt it stung when I felt like the people I was trying to respect and please the most were the ones who were critical of me. It was painful because, as my career since then has borne out, I take a great deal of pride in being Korean American. I know that not every representation is 100 percent something we can stand behind all the time, but I choose to look at things as whether they’re moving the needle of progress on a larger scale. I don’t think you can question the positive effect Lost had on representation. You could even argue it has had an effect on the way we cast now, if you look at the copycat shows that came out as a result of Lost. headtopics.com

After Lost, you signed on for Hawaii Five-0. Why did you decide to do that? I’m trying to square the person who is playing Prospero in theater productions doing a hard-core CBS procedural.It’s pretty simple, and it’s that my family is my priority. At the time, one of my sons was in elementary school, one was about to enter high school, and I really wanted them to grow up with a continuity of experience. I also really appreciated what Hawaii had to offer an Asian American family. I grew up in a steel town, and I felt very much like the Other for most of my upbringing. But my kids blissfully had never had to experience that. I did not want to put them in a situation where we went back to the mainland and they experienced that for the first time in the halls of high school.

Though I knew what a CBS procedural was, whether this was naïve or not, I had hopes that Hawaii Five-0 would be different because it was a show set in Hawaii, where the majority of people are not white. I thought it was going to be more of an ensemble show, and if you look at the early marketing and promotion for the show, where Grace Park and I were featured equally as prominently as anyone else, it led me to believe that it could be. I was proven to be wrong. And also, let’s be honest, I was able to make a good living.

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When did you realize Hawaii Five-0 wasn’t the ensemble show you had thought it would be?By the middle of season one.Was that how it had been pitched to you?I specifically asked if this was going to be an ensemble, and I was told that it would be. But once you sign a contract, you’re onboard. In the way that Lost transformed that helped my character, this didn’t have the same trajectory. At a certain point, it becomes how much are you going to try and buck this system or how much can you work within it? Understanding that my family was the priority dictated that I was going to stay with it because, look, I’m not mining coal. I’m not digging ditches. I was getting paid well to live in Hawaii, and I was getting paid to act, which is ultimately what I always wanted. So was it perfect? It wasn’t. But was it good enough? Clearly, it was.

When your contract was up for renegotiation, did you see that as an opportunity to have this conversation around equal pay?Yes. But to be clear, I’d renegotiated before that as well, and that’s how I was able to direct and start my production company, 3AD. I’ve always tried to be forward looking, and I thought, Well, since Hawaii Five-0 hasn’t turned out the way I was hoping as an actor, what more can I do here? I thought maybe I can parlay my time on the show into trying to direct and produce. I asked for both of those things, and that’s how I was able to start my company. CBS was kind enough to give me a space on the lot and money for an executive. It was the second negotiation where it became clear to me that I needed to get to a place that would make it acceptable for me to go on financially.

What did that mean for you?Let me put it this way: One thing that has never really properly been reported is the amount of pay cut I took to do Hawaii Five-0 from Lost. It was drastic, and it was never made up.How big was the difference between your pay and that of your co-stars Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan?

Significant.So what was the goal at the negotiating table?Make us all equal. Make us all the ensemble that I thought we always were, and get me back to where I was with Lost. And I didn’t think that was an unreasonable position to take.Not at all.And the thing is, it wasn’t a source of conflict for me. It was very clear and simple. I was very transparent about it with my castmates, with my showrunner, with the studio from the start. It became much more dramatic because of the way that it didn’t come together.

Is it something you discussed with Grace Park, who left the show for similar reasons? Were you two in solidarity?I really feel like actors hurt themselves by not working collectively, but there’s a lot in the system that deters actors from working collectively and it works against the studios’ interest for the actors to band together. So it’s discouraged. That said, I was transparent with Grace about my goals, and Grace had her own goals. And in some ways they coincided with mine, and in some ways they didn’t. But the two things we had in common were that our contracts were up at the same time and we were both Asian American on a show in Hawaii, where the Asian American population is significant. And I would also say I was proud of the fact that we as a show hired a lot of Asian Americans. I think we need to talk about the good with the bad. In terms of representation, we probably hired more Asian American actors than any other show over the same time span.

Still, I think it was meaningful to Asian actors in the industry that you and Grace walked away. Would you say that’s true?Yes. I think that was definitely a part of the decision process. If people like Grace and I cannot make those kinds of decisions, how can we expect anyone else to? We had the luxury of being able to say no.

Did you feel like your castmates were allies to you in this?I think any time you have an ensemble of actors, everyone’s objectives are unique and individual. So it’s hard for me to collectively say whether they were allies in this. And I do know that the way things got spun by the end changed my relationships with them.

That’s a very diplomatic answer. Can you be more specific?[Shakes head] I’ve spoken more about it here than I ever have, so … Photo: Jingyu Lin for New York Magazine I want to return to your upbringing: What was your own experience growing up in Easton, Pennsylvania, that you wanted to be different for your kids?

I just didn’t want them to always feel like they were on the margins. I wanted them to feel like if they were going to succeed or fail, it wasn’t because of what they looked like. I wanted their personalities to grow in such a way that was free from the standards of beauty or standards of physicality that I grew up with that affected me in ways that I wish they didn’t.

Can you talk a little more about those standards? I don’t think this is necessarily just about race, but I grew up thinking I was really ugly because I did not look like the traditional standards of what was considered beautiful. I knew what my high-school prom king and queen looked like, I knew what all the popular kids looked like, and I knew that wasn’t me. There were times when I would just ask myself, What’s wrong with me? I don’t think it’s uncommon for people of Asian descent living in America to go through a period of self-hatred or self-denial. And it’s completely understandable given the space we occupy because we all have to figure out a way of coping with it.

How did you cope with it?I tried to be very gregarious. I think most people who knew me in high school would not have known I was going through this because the way I presented was very much as one of the gang and someone who was easy to get along with. And I think there were some ways where I worked harder to prove myself as American by leading. I was class president. I’m sure that had a lot to do with my finding a place to fit in.

Were the demographics mostly white?Yeah, it’s a heavily Eastern European population and very blue collar. When we first moved to Easton, I was in first or second grade, and that time was actually pretty idyllic. I made a lot of friends in the neighborhood, and we formed this posse that was fairly multicultural. But in sixth grade, I moved to the next town over, which was Bethlehem. And then I was an outsider and an Other, and my entire experience changed. Nobody knew me, so I was easily labeled the “chink.” Good at math, nerdy, not an athlete. Those things had never applied to me before that point. And that’s the time when hormones start to rage, and you start looking at girls and then automatically you think about your appearance more. You think, Why am I not considered attractive?

What helped you pull yourself out of that adolescent self-hatred?One of the biggest things was after my senior year of high school, I went to the Yonsei program. Are you familiar with it?I also did Yonsei.It was an inflection point in my life because it was that feeling of community that I’d never had before and that feeling that I’d met people who went through the same thing that I was going through. I was used to apologizing, and this was the first time I never had to. It’s no coincidence that I met my wife there as well.

Wow, so how long have you been together?Since 1986. What is that math?Holy shit, that’s 35 years.Yeah. We got married in 1993.What did you want out of your career at that point?When I first started acting, I always envisioned a community of actors and artists much like Andy Warhol’s Factory, where Asian American actors, writers, directors, poets, playwrights, visual artists, and musicians come together and have a place to work collectively. And it’s always been my dream, literally since 1991.

Where were you in 1991? I had just finished doing A Doll’s House at Pan Asian Rep, and I realized at the time that I had been given a great opportunity to work onstage by Tisa Chang. I still am grateful to her for giving me that chance. I was struggling to find any work. I think I made a total of $13,000 for the entire year living in New York City. I was also really naïve to think I had any real chance of making a living as an actor because I didn’t realize how much the deck was stacked against actors of color and Asian American actors at that time. Aliens 3 was casting, and I remember thinking, Why can’t there be an Asian American in that group of people who get killed by the alien? It could be me! I didn’t realize how far off that idea was from the reality of the business. I’m glad I didn’t know because, had I known, maybe I wouldn’t have continued to pursue it.

So about 20 years later, you’re on the other side producing with 3AD, which eventually led to the hit adaptation of The Good Doctor on ABC. What does the name mean? In 1991, I wanted to call that collective the Asian American Arts Directive. And it’s not that my company is necessarily about Asian Americans now. It’s really about all the people who exist in the margins and telling their stories. But it really is an homage to — gosh, homage is such a pretentious word — it’s a callback to one of my original goals when I started in this business and the fact that I’ve been able to get to a place to have that dream actually become a reality.

How did you come across The Good Doctor? Do you watch a lot of Korean dramas?I’ll sample a lot, but it takes a big commitment of time to go through them all. When I saw The Good Doctor, I thought it was unique in that it had all of those soapy elements that we love in K-drama, but it had an engine to it that was very familiar to American audiences. Everyone loves a good medical drama. And so I felt like it was a bit of a unicorn.

I remember you had originally tried to sell it to CBS, and they passed on it.CBS was nice enough to give me a production deal, but they never green-lit anything I produced. The first time I had developed Good Doctor, it was 2015 with Adele Lim. I thought she would be a great person to shepherd this. We pitched it to CBS, where I had a first-look deal, and they passed. Usually, in that circumstance, the project just dies, but I still believed in it. And so I paid out money from my own pocket to re-up the option, and I redeveloped it for the following year. And that’s when showrunner David Shore came aboard and it [ended up at ABC].

How did the casting for the lead come about? Were there conversations around casting a white actor versus a nonwhite actor or an Asian actor?I wanted an Asian lead. The first time we developed it, it was with an Asian lead. And the second time, when Shore came aboard, we had a conversation about it. When you start working with a showrunner, it has to be a proper meeting of the minds because he’s the one that’ll be running the show every day. And so he had to have a level of comfort with it. I’m not going to say he was the one that wanted a white lead, but I will say that it became less clear to him how an Asian lead would work. And then the studio came in with Freddie Highmore, whom we both absolutely loved. And so it shifted the focus to creating a diverse ensemble.

Can you talk about how those conversations went?It was 2017. It wasn’t 2020.Sure.I will say this: Now, whenever I develop a show — and since The Good Doctor, I’ve developed maybe 20 — I specify right off the top what ethnicity the lead is. And when I go to a writer, I say, “This is what it is.” I have ownership of the project only until a showrunner comes aboard. And then, at that point, the power dynamic shifts. And then when your lead actor comes aboard, the power dynamic shifts again. And then when the ratings come, the power dynamic shifts again because there’s a studio and network involved. The only time that, as a developer, I have real control is at the beginning.

And did you feel that was just not a hill you could die on at that point?Yeah. I felt like we were so close to getting a show made, and ultimately that is the goal. You can develop every show you want, but if none of them ever see the light of day, what’s the point?

Are you trying to move toward race consciousness rather than color-blind casting?Yeah, I don’t really love that term colorblind casting because it connotes this idea that it doesn’t matter, but it’s actually the opposite. So that extends to being color conscious about your showrunner — and I don’t mean arbitrarily. I mean, who contributes best to the authenticity of the story you’re telling? And let that race or gender or sexual orientation be reflected in those choices right off the top.

Are you producing dream projects that you want to act in yourself? Yeah. In fact, there’s a heist movie we’re working on that I’ll be acting in with Randall Park. I hope it’s going to be an all-star Asian cast. I had such a good experience on his movie Always Be My Maybe with Ali Wong, and I thought to myself, There’s no reason why this can’t continue. The tone is set from the top down. And when you see your leads relaxing and comfortable and not being divas, then everyone else relaxes and focuses on the work. That’s the kind of environment that I enjoy the best because I’ve had plenty of the opposite.

Like? There’ve been sets I’ve been on that have been miserable and lead actors I’ve worked with who I don’t feel were kind people. I’ve probably worked with more difficult lead actors than good lead actors. I’m talking about kindness and displaying leadership ability.

I remember working with Jimmy Smits on an episode of NYPD Blue. He was having a hard day on set because he got a monologue that was written for him 30 minutes before we were scheduled to shoot it. Understandably, he struggled, and he got frustrated. I never faulted him for the situation he was in. When I was done a few days later, I got a knock on my door by a PA on NYPD Blue, and he said Jimmy had a gift for me. There was a card that said, “Daniel, I’m so sorry about what happened on set the other day.” The PA handed me a garment bag with the $2,500 Armani suit that my character was wearing in that scene. I remember that gesture even though it was 20 years ago. We have hard days on set, but he went that extra step to make sure I knew he felt bad about it. Those are the stories I will tell till the cows come home because they inspire me to keep going.

You recently spoke in front of the House Judiciary Committee about the importance of hate-crime legislation and designation in the wake of ongoing attacks against Asian Americans. Could you talk a bit about why it’s important to name something a hate crime?

In many cases, the standard is just unreasonable. For people to have to yell a racial slur before they physically attack someone in order for it to be designated a hate crime is a little ludicrous. It ignores the various levels of aggression that come before that. Anyone who wants to commit a hate crime can easily avoid it being designated a hate crime just by understanding the law and how high the bar is for it to be required to be labeled that way.

So it is antiquated and outdated as a definition. And it needs to be looked at, not from the perspective of the perpetrator but from the perspective of the victim. The laws are considered from a perspective of, well, let’s be frank, white men, which is why the criminals who murdered Vincent Chin in 1982 never served a day in prison because “these are not the kind of men you send to jail.” The judge said that. So I think it’s really important just to see how a common system affects all the people of color and not focus on how communities of color are against one another. That’s a false paradigm.

How do you see your role as a celebrity in this arena with politicians, community organizers, and activists? I don’t see myself as an expert in any of these endeavors. Politics is not my full-time job. Advocacy is not my full-time job. There are much smarter people than I who have dedicated themselves to these efforts full-time. At my best, I can serve to be a mouthpiece for a lot of these issues that don’t often get noticed unless someone with a following on social media amplifies it. These attacks against Asian Americans shouldn’t be a political issue. These are human issues. And I feel much more comfortable speaking out regarding those issues than I do necessarily talking about liberal versus conservative politics.

So what happened to the $25,000 reward you offered with your fellow actor Daniel Wu for the attack against the man in Chinatown? Those of us in the Asian American community have known about these attacks for over a year. If you look at my very first video, when I contracted COVID and revealed my diagnosis, I mentioned to please stop the attacks against Asian Americans. And that was March of 2020. There had been a steady drumbeat of incidents since then, and it just seemed to fall on blind eyes and deaf ears.

And so when I saw the murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee and then the incident involving the man who was pushed on the street, both within a couple of days of each other, I really just got angry and exasperated and frustrated and hurt. I thought the stakes needed to be raised somehow. What we were doing wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough to bring attention to the subject. So I texted Daniel and said, “Brother, let’s draw attention to this issue in a way that we just haven’t before.” That’s when we came up with the idea of the reward. And sure enough, there was a greater awareness that came about of Asian American hate.

Did you pay the reward to anyone?It turns out that the police department already knew who the suspect was and then arrested him. So there was no reward, per se, to be paid out. We each took that money for the reward and gave it to community organizations throughout the country.

Which ones? I gave to Stop AAPI Hate, Hate Is a Virus, the GoFundMe that was the AAPI Community Fund. I also made a donation to NextShark because they were doing such great work journalistically.You received criticism for calling for police involvement. I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are and if they have shifted at all around policing. There are community organizations that believe in the need for alternative safety measures rather than introducing more cops. Would you have done anything differently in hindsight?

I honestly don’t think I would have done anything differently because it worked. And really, the question is, now that we have that attention, how can we further refine the solution? I’ve learned a lot since then, but it hasn’t changed my basic outlook that, in order to solve these issues long-term, it’s going to require a combination of things: investment in our communities through community organizations, education, and deterrence in some form. I do believe that the police have a role to play. The real question is, how are we looking at the nature of policing now, and how can we change policing so that the stigma attached to it isn’t what it is? What is the role of police, and how can we make policing effective? Is the answer no police? To me, I’m not so sure. At the same time, people shouldn’t fear the police. And the fact that they do says something negative about our society.

Does the fact that the victim turned out to be Latino change anything for you?The victim turned out to be Latino?Yeah, according to the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, his name is Gilbert Diaz.That’s the first time I’m hearing that. It brings up a number of thoughts, one of which is that these kinds of attacks can only be seen in the context of the greater problem that we have in society. We have a lot of income inequality, we have a lot of underprivileged communities who are struggling, and that struggle often becomes manifest in criminal behavior. So it also touches on the issue of mental health. A lot of the perpetrators are suffering from mental-health issues. One has to ask, What are the policies that are leaving people like them on the streets? What are the social services that are available or not available to them? These are really nuanced questions, and you’re right in that a reward isn’t the be-all and end-all. But it was something to spark the conversation. That reward might have been a Band-Aid; it’s certainly not a cure for the systemic problem.

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kenjeong danieldaekim e_alexjung Great actor. Probably had the best character arc in Lost.