Don’t let his serious and intense demeanor fool you: Daniel Dae Kim is a joker. At least that’s the impression 8 DAYS had when we first met him six years ago.
Then, the Korean-born, American-raised Kim, best known for his breakout role as Kwon Jin-Soo on the mind-messing sci-fi saga Lost, was in town to plug Hawaii Five-0, the remake of a ̕60s-̕70s cop show of the same name, where he plays badass fuzz, Chin Ho Kelly. (Come to think of it, everyone on the eponymous task force is a badass, maybe not so much with Scott Caan. Kidding…)
During our one-to-one interview, we threw him a bunch of random questions, and one of which was, “How small is the Korean American acting community in Hollywood?” Kim promptly replied, “Like five-foot-two.” Cue rimshot. Turns out the tough guy is also, by his own admission, “the master of dad jokes”.
Cue to the present. Kim, 50, is back in Singapore, this time as a guest of the 29th Singapore International Film Festival where he's a juror for the Asian Feature Film Competition. The father of two sons has since left Hawaii Five-0 over pay inequity issues, and is now a producer, under his banner, 3AD.
The company’s first production, 2017’s The Good Doctor, a medical series — adapted from a Korean drama — stars Freddie Highmore as a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome. The show is now in its second season.
Now that Kim’s a producer, does he approach interviews differently? “Not really,” he says. “I answer whatever question I’m asked. People see me differently, that’s fine. I still consider myself both an actor and a producer. I don’t really make a distinction.”
On his acting plate, Kim, who holds a Master's Degree in Fine Arts from New York University, has the supernatural actioner Hellboy and the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe (yes, Kim in a rom-com!) coming out later this year. Before that, he’ll appear in the last four episodes of Season 2 of The Good Doctor, starting with Ep 15, directed by Highmore.
On a break from his hectic jury duty (“I’m watching three films every day…”), Kim joins 8 DAYS at a quiet corner near the VIP lounge at the Raffles City Convention Centre (we would meet again a few days later at a roundtable with a group of journos), where he shares his plans to create opportunities for fellow minority actors.
8 DAYS: The Good Doctor was one of the freshman hits of 2017. As one of its executive producers, what lessons did you learn going into Season 2?
DANIEL DAE KIM: One of the biggest lessons we learnt during Season One was that it’s important to deepen the storylines for all the characters, and not just Shaun Murphy [played by Freddie Highmore].
The Korean TV serial format only lasts one season, but American TV shows can run for multiple seasons, so we need to plan for a longer lifespan for the show. So, finding interesting storylines and relationships for all the characters was something that we focused on for Season Two.
Aziz Ansari once said that Hollywood has a racial quota on TV: “With Asian people, there can be one, but there can’t be two.” On The Good Doctor, there are not one, not two, but three Asians — Will Yun Lee, Tamlyn Tomita, Christina Chang. Did you push for the wider representation?
Absolutely. We also have an Asian nurse who’s a recurring character. It is something that’s very important to me because it’s affected me throughout my entire acting career. I’ve been very aware of how much or how little representation Asians have had on screen, so part of the reason I became a producer was to increase that representation. That said, it’s not just Asian representation that I’m interested in, it’s diversity in general.
If you look at the cast of our show, we have a Mexican-American. We have African-Americans. We have Brits. We have Asian-Americans. And at our centre, we have someone who’s got his own condition that is an obstacle for him in everyday life. So it’s about representation in every way, and I’m proud of the way the show’s handled all of that.
You once said that you look forward to the day that Asians just play characters. On The Good Doctor, the Asians are playing Asians; they don’t white names.
That’s right. The point of all of this is that we need to be able to play every colour on the spectrum. If there’s a role that is a gangster, that’s okay, as long as there’s another role on the other side to counterbalance it, a normal, everyday guy, who’s just doing the right thing. So we want to be able to play all the roles ultimately. But the reason why we’re talking about stereotypes so much is that there’s an imbalance of roles that don’t portray us three-dimensionally.
You’re now wearing the actor and producer hats. What was the transition from acting to producing like?
The needs of being a producer are different from an actor. Whether I have to expand my skill set, I’m not sure. I have something in me that allows me to be a decent producer. Even when I was starting off as an actor, I thought to myself, I would like to create and produce.
It was always something I had in the back of my mind. I will say that I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of years as a producer, about not only how the industry works but also how I see myself as an actor.
So how does the industry work?
I see how the decisions get made, as we like to say in the industry, [we get to see] the way the sausage gets made. Sometimes it’s not pretty; the ingredients of sausage is not necessarily things you’re gonna want to eat.
But somehow when it’s all put together, it tastes pretty good. I do see a lot of the business side of it. It’s not necessarily pretty. It’s not necessarily a genteel business, but it’s the one you have to be in if you want to make content.
Did you learn anything about producing from watching other producers when you were acting? Like on Lost, what did you learn from observing JJ Abrams?
That you can be successful and still be a good person. Because there are very few kinds of people in the industry. I think that combination is very rare. People like JJ show me that it can be done. He’s an incredibly hard worker; he’s a very smart man. I have a lot of admiration for him. I would call him a role model in this industry.
Who were your role models when you started out as an actor? And do you see yourself as a role model to the current generation of Asian-American actors?
My role models when I was growing up were not Asian actors for the most part, not because I was ashamed of them in any way; they weren’t doing the things that I was seeking to do at that time. My role models were people like Sidney Poitier, and Daniel Inouye, the senator from Hawaii. He was making progress not just for himself but for all Asian-Americans.
They were people that I looked up to when I was younger. Of course, Bruce Lee played a big part of my childhood. I had mixed feelings about Bruce Lee because he was not only an archetype but a stereotype as well, but I’m fiercely proud of him today. I look up to him a great deal.
And, as for your second question, I don’t know if I see myself as a role model, but I do know what is important to me, and I do know that I have the ability to use whatever experience I’ve had in the industry to try and create the industry that I want to see. And so, if others see me as a role model, that’s up to them. But I just know what my vision is for the industry and for the country in general.
You started out in a lot of sci-fi and fantasy genre projects.
To be candid, it was the place that’s most accepting to non-white actors. When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, he hired a diverse cast. [This was] in the late ̕60s and ̕70s, — he was 50 years ahead of everyone else. And because of that, there is always an Asian character in sci-fi projects. That was how he saw the world.
[That's why] the genre, in general, is a lot more open to diverse casting, I like the genre but I wasn’t specifically gearing my career towards it. But that was where I was being hired because that was where the opportunities were.
And of those projects was the 2005 horror flick, The Cave, which happens to be a guilty pleasure of mine. What were your memories making that movie?
What was great about The Cave was that I ended up working with a pretty great cast. There’s Morris Chestnut who’s still a friend; Piper Perabo; Lena Headey who went on to do Game of Thrones; and Kieran Darcy-Smith who’s a filmmaker now.
There were tough conditions, but I do have fond memories. And I’ll also say that it was during the shooting of that movie where I got Lost, so I went straight from The Cave to Lost. That was a very significant year for me, so I have good memories around it.
What’s the key to survival as an actor?
I think it’s the same key to surviving any industry. You have to have a belief in yourself. You have to have a vision for what you want to do. And you have to not let yourself be discouraged by all the obstacles and the people who might be your enemies and the things you might think are unfair. You have to keep going — no one will tell you when to give up.
Looking back, are there films and TV shows you regret doing?
It’s hard to say. I think I’ve been aware of representation from the beginning of my career, and there were roles that in retrospect, I think, were less appealing than others. But for a young actor who’s trying to make his career, you don’t have the luxury of choice and you need something to get on the radar of the industry.
So I don’t begrudge actors when they take roles that are less than ideal in terms of representation. When you have families and mouths to feed and rents to pay, and you’re really hustling to try and start a career, you make a lot of choices that maybe you wouldn’t have if you had a choice.
How do you pick your projects now?
It’s a number of things. I don’t say yes to every project for the same reason. But it always starts with the story for me. Is it a story worth telling? Is it a character that I feel has an interesting journey or an arc?
Does it offer a challenge that I haven’t done before? What’s the representation for this character look like? Am I an Asian among other Asians? And what statement does that make? And what is the statement I’m making if I am an Asian among non-Asians? What are the ramifications in what my character does for how Asian-Americans in general are seen?
How much are they paying me? Who are the people I’ll be working with? All these things are considerations. It’s not always equal; it’s not like a spreadsheet. It’s really just what moves me among those criteria.
I wasn’t aware of how seriously under-represented Asians are in Hollywood until I saw this 2006 documentary, The Slanted Screen.
It continues, but the good news is it’s changing, and I think with every year, it’s changing. Especially this year, this was a very special year given Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. There’s a momentum now that I haven’t felt in a really long time. I think there are a number of stars that are aligning in our worldwide culture and bringing Asian awareness to a peak level.
I hope it’s not the highest level and that it’s just the beginning. But there’s an awareness of Asian arts, cinema, culture globally that hasn’t been there before. And so I think it’s the start of something good.
Anyone who knows little of Hollywood’s whitewashing legacy should watch that documentary. I can’t watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Mickey Rooney plays a Japanese.
I can’t watch it either. But it is helpful to know where we’ve come from in order to understand how far we’ve progressed.
Neither can I watch The King and I, with Yul Brynner as the King of Siam. You played the Thai monarch on Broadway. In a way, you got to right a wrong…
What’s nice is that in the latest production, every actor who played the king — starting with Ken Watanabe, followed by Hoon Lee and then me — has been Asian, and I think again, part of the signs of progress is that that play won’t get done in the near future with a white man in the lead role.
You have Hellboy coming out in April. That movie caused a firestorm of controversy when it cast Ed Skrein as an Asian character. Skrein left and you came into the picture. What else did I miss?
I’d known about the controversy because it had hit the headlines, and I’d learned about it before it had anything to do with me. But when the producers called, my representatives said they were interested in having me meet the director [Neil Marshall].
It seemed like an opportunity that was somehow poetic, [after my departure from Hawaii Five-O]. And the fact that Ed Skrein did what he did was more monumental than me taking the role. I think there could’ve been a number of people who took the role, but there could’ve only been one person to give up that role, and that was Ed.
Everything he wrote in that statement [explaining why he left Hellboy] is genuine and from the heart. He’s since become a good friend because we have such shared values. I was so relieved and encouraged by the fact that he is the real deal. I sort him out after I got the role; I invited him to lunch in London when I was in Europe shooting Hellboy because I wanted to tell him face-to-face how much I appreciated what he did. Because what I did wasn’t so significant; what he did was very significant.
Diversity is a word thrown so much in the US. Have you thought about how it’s viewed in Asia?
In America, diversity is such a hot topic at the moment, something to be desired. But I hope that the focus on diversity and the idea of diversity in America spreads throughout the world. Because I know Asian countries can be nationalistic and Asian countries are not necessarily the most diverse countries either.
So this is not just something that should be talked about in America — it should be discussed around the world, especially we have conflicts in the Middle East and in parts of Asia, between ethnic groups. It’s something we should be mindful of because ultimately we all have to learn how to live together.
Sometimes I think people feel obligated to support diversity for diversity's sake. What’s your take on that perception?
I don’t believe that [diversity] should be of more importance in whether or not the project is a quality one with talented people. This is not a charity. We are not here to take untalented people and lift them up into places of prominence.
But what we are here to do and what is changing is that we're taking talented people who haven’t had the opportunity to do what they are able to do and give them a chance — that’s very important. It’s a very important distinction. The other part of the equation is, if you are talented in any activity, say, you are a baseball player, you may have all the talent in the world, but if no one lets you play in a game, you are not going to get better.
It’s the same with showbusiness. There have been many Asian-American actors, writers, directors I’ve known throughout my career who had as much talent as anyone else I know regardless of race. But they had not been able to get better because they didn't have the chance to get better.
For instance, if there is a romantic lead who’s an Asian male, how many actors do you know have had a chance to do even one of those projects, let alone two or three and build a career like Hugh Grant, whom I love and I have nothing against Hugh Grant. But when there are no opportunities, how do you get better? So it’s about identifying those opportunities and giving them that chance. And now it’s starting.
Speaking of Hugh Grant, at a recent Netflix trade show, I saw a sizzle reel of their new rom-com Always Be My Maybe where you play a Daniel Cleaver-esque character who gets between Ali Wong and Randall Park.
It was a lot of fun doing that project because I haven’t been able to do a lot of comedy before, and I really like comedy and it’s something that I want to do more of. So the fact that I got the chance to do it was really great, and Ali and Randall couldn’t have been nicer.
The entire environment on the set was so welcoming, so relaxed, and so fun. And I needed that. I can’t wait to see it and if it leads to more comedy projects. I’m all for it. I have a couple of kids and they always groan at my humour. I’m the master of the dad jokes. But I find them funny (laughs).
This is a sensitive question. Are you still in touch with the Hawaii Five-O cast?
People have moved on, I would say. I’m in touch with several people, but I wouldn’t say I’m in touch with everyone anymore. But that is natural, that once you depart a project, you don’t necessarily stay in touch with everyone.
I think you’re fortunate if you come away from a project with a few good friends because like any other work situation, you don’t like everyone at work necessarily or not everyone at work is your best friend. But if you can make one or two close friends, that’s a good thing.
You’ve been on two long-running shows on Hawaii. It must be nice to finally get off the island…
I love Hawaii. I still consider it my home, and I’ve been very fortunate to have done two shows that have gone over 100 episodes. I don’t think there’s any actor in history who's done that in Hawaii. But as I look to producing and creating new roles for myself, I want to cover the world, and that’s my scope. That’s my perspective.
As a producer, what excites you for the next few years?
I think the globalisation of entertainment excites me. It’s something I am betting on through my company [3AD]. I was just in Korea and I just sold a show to Korea, so it’s just a pipeline going from Asia to America and also the opposite direction.
As I was telling the audience in the panel the other day [at The Projector] that would go for talent as well. I went to Seoul looking for Korean actors who can speak English for an American project and I told the audience, get ready because people like me are looking at Singapore too.
If you can speak English, then maybe there’s a chance for you. Because we are looking [for talent]; I’m actively looking and I’m not the only one.
You must be watching a lot of TV these days, especially Korean TV.
I keep my eye out there. We actually just signed a deal with ABC Studios and ABC Network to develop another K-Drama called Exhibit A, but the original title is My Lawyer, Mr Jo. It was a pretty big hit in Korea, and it’s actually one of the first dramas to get a second season in Korea. Usually, there’s only one season.
We’re excited about it because it will feature two Asian-American lead roles on broadcast television. It hasn’t been greenlit for a series yet, so it’s still in development, but again, it’s progress. It’s not a series yet, but the fact that ABC bought it for development is significant.
Any plans to act in a project originating from Asia?
In fact, there’s a project I can’t speak too much about that I would be shooting in Asia, and I might be doing a role in it. If that comes to fruition, I would be spending more time here.
I asked that because Steven Yeun went to South Korea to make Burning. Have you seen that movie?
No. I have a lot of respect for what Steven did. He didn’t just go to South Korea and say, Put me in your project. He stayed in South Korea. He lived there. He learnt the language. The language requirement for Burning was significant. He made the effort, he put in the work and I’m sure he struggled. Again, it’s just another example: If you really want to succeed, you have to do what it takes. So I’m happy to see his success.
Is there a character you’re dying to play?
I always want to play Henry V. My training is in Shakespeare. There’s something about his leadership and his charisma, the obstacles that he faces that I can relate to. I’m also interested in politics, so I also like the political elements from that play. Again, it’s back to who is going to give me that opportunity.
Have you considered running for public office?
Why do you say that? Because I’m a good bullshitter? (chuckles)
No…you’re a strong advocate of equality and equity. These are pressing issues…
These are important issues. I really resent it when people say actors should not get political. No one tells a plumber he shouldn’t have a political opinion, so why shouldn’t an actor or a producer have a political opinion as well? If I believe strongly in a position, why won’t I speak my mind about it as any other citizen would?
I do follow politics, I care about [what’s happening] in the culture and society. That’s not something I haven’t heard before. People have actually asked me to run for public office in the US. If Donald Trump can do it, I guess other people can do it (laughs). I’m not saying that I’m running for public office. I’m merely saying that what we consider to be a politician is changing as well.
As a producer, what advice would you give to budding actors?
Don’t do it. I’m only half-joking. This is a very difficult industry, don’t’ go, Oh, I feel like I want to try this but I also really good at this other thing. Do the other thing. Because it’s probably easier.
This is not something where you just kinda go in and say, This is just a hobby and I’ll just give it a try. If you are lucky to succeed that way, I bow my head to you. But the amount of effort that it takes, the long-term effort is significant, so consider that.
And if you do decide to pursue it, pursue it with everything you have. Be good at what you choose to do. If you’re an actor, be a good actor. Take classes, watch cinema, get your iPhone out and make a short film — do all of these things and be less concerned with how many Instagram followers you have and more concerned with developing a technique of being an actor. That will be my advice.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
The Good Doctor airs Tue, Fox Life (Singtel TV Ch 301 & StarHub Ch 501), 10pm; it’s also on Fox+. My Lawyer, Mr Jo is streaming on Viu. Hellboy opens Apr 12 in the US; at press time, it has yet to be picked by a local distributor.
Main Photo: Kelvin Chia
Others: Fox+, TPG News/Click Photos; Lionsgate, Viu