New York Magazine
Daniel Dae Kim knows how to work the system
Daniel dae kim’s career is a study in the steady accumulation of power. His dream role, as a budding actor in NYU’s theater program, was to play Henry V, Shakespeare’s sure-footed military king. Instead, he made his way in the ’90s with small TV jobs and meatier parts with Asian American theater groups before becoming sexiest-man-alive famous through ABC’s blockbuster show Lost. He confirmed his status as a TV staple with a role on the CBS reboot of Hawaii Five-0, which he left after seven seasons when the network wouldn’t raise his salary to match his white co-stars’. Still, he was able to use that time to start his own production company, 3AD, which is responsible for the ABC hit The Good Doctor. (Kim developed it from a Korean drama.) Now, at age 52, he has his first lead role, on The Hot Zone: Anthrax, an anthology thriller on the National Geographic Channel, and has evolved into a Hollywood spokesman, testifying in front of Congress on Asian American issues during an acutely violent year. “If you’re not aware of politics in any industry, you’re missing all of the ways to navigate it,” Kim says.
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. All it takes is working in the New York theater to realize how many incredibly talented actors there are at any given moment.
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? Was there a Korean writer in the writers’ room?
There was one Korean American woman named Christina Kim and then a half-Korean, half–African American woman named Monica Macer. So 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. I worked harder on the preparation for that role than any other role I’ve ever done; we were constantly getting revisions. I think that it would be obvious to most Koreans watching if I didn’t do that work.
Early on, there was some criticism of your character, Jin, from Asian American viewers about how his relationship with
Sun [Yunjin Kim] relied on the stereotype of an overbearing man and a submissive woman. Did you discuss that with the show’s creators?
While we were shooting the pilot, 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 of the sixth season.
After Lost, you signed on for Hawaii Five-0. Why did you decide to do that?
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.
What was your own experience of 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. I don’t think this is necessarily just about race, but I grew up thinking that I was really ugly because I did not look like the traditional standards of what was considered beautiful. I don’t think it’s uncommon for people of Asian descent living in America to go through a period of selfhatred or self-denial.
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 that 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 [a popular Koreanlanguage school at Yonsei University in Seoul]. 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.
So when did you realize Hawaii Five-0
wasn’t the ensemble show you had thought it would be? By the middle of season one. But once you sign a contract, you’re onboard. 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?
When your contract was up for renegotiation, did you see that as an opportunity to have this conversation around equal pay?
Yes. 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? Maybe I can parlay my time on the show into trying to direct and produce?
And so during my first renegotiations, I asked for both of those things, and that’s how I was able to direct and start my company, 3AD. CBS was kind enough to give me a space on the lot and money for an executive. It was a combination of my asking and their being generous enough to give it. And it was the second negotiation where it became clear that I needed to get to a place that would make it acceptable for me to go on financially.
How big was the difference between your pay and that of your co-stars Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan?
Significant. I’ll just say that.
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.
One thing that has never really properly been reported is the amount of pay cut I took to do Hawaii Five-0. And I didn’t think that was an unreasonable position to take. 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.
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. We had the luxury of being able to say no. If we couldn’t do that, then how could we expect anyone else to?
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 …
So you were able to begin producing with 3AD, which eventually led to the hit show The Good Doctor. 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 showrunner David Shore came aboard, we had a conversation about it. I’m not going to say that he was the one who 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?
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. The only time that, as a developer, I have real control is at the beginning.
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. 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. I think it’s really important just to see how a common system affects all the people of color and not to focus on how communities of color are against one another. That’s a false paradigm.
I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are and whether they have shifted at all around policing. There are community organizations that want to address root causes and community standards around safety as opposed to introducing more police.
I will say that I’ve learned a lot since these attacks started happening, and it is a very complex and nuanced issue. And that’s not my way of copping out of it, no pun intended. One side says that it should just be less policing, and I’m not so sure I believe that. But I do believe the way that policing is done needs some reform. I also believe that the role of community organizers cannot be overvalued.
My basic outlook is 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. There are many communities who feel uncomfortable with more policing and would rather have fewer police in their neighborhoods. This is an important question for us as a society to examine. What is the role of police, and how can we make policing effective? Is the answer no police? 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. ■
“Now, whenever I develop a show I specify right off the top what ethnicity the lead is.”