Considering Hollywood’s historical preference towards Caucasian leading men, the ground Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim has covered in his career thus far is remarkable.
From 2004 to 2010, Kim played the role of Jin-Soo Kwon on the ABC series Lost, a role that he says allowed him to be recognised nearly everywhere he goes. Shortly after Lost ended in 2010, Kim joined the cast of CBS’s Hawaii Five-O reboot, playing Chin Ho Kelly. During the show’s run, Kim set up his own production company, 3AD. 3AD is now producing The Good Doctor, a medical drama based on a South Korean series that centres on a gifted surgeon with autism.
Last month, Kim was in Singapore to serve on the 29th SGIFF’s Asian Feature Film Competition Jury. His ‘In Conversation’ session was part of a series of talks hosted by SGIFF throughout the fest (28 November – 9 December 2018) to bring festival-goers closer to their favourite stars. This event took place on 6 December at Singapore’s preeminent independent cinema, The Projector, in front of a sold-out crowd of eager fans. In fact, showing up 10 minutes early, I was relegated to the backmost row—a testament to the enthusiasm of Kim’s fervent following. Here are some highlights from the session, moderated by award-winning Singaporean actress Serene Chen.
What was it like growing up in suburban Pennsylvania?
My family moved to Pennsylvania when I was 2 years old. I grew up in a town known primarily for steel manufacturing, back when the United States used to produce most of the world’s steel. There was a company, Bethlehem Steel, which was at one point the second-largest steel manufacturer worldwide, so everyone who lived in the town worked for the steel company. It was a very blue-collar town: A lot of people came from a working class background, and most people were white. Having an Asian family there, we stuck out very clearly. Most of my childhood was defined as being different.
What made you want to become an actor?
The fact that I was so different made me want to express myself. I felt like I had something to say and something to offer that I wasn’t given a chance to, because of the way I looked. I think that stayed with me for most of my childhood and it came out as a form of artistic expression. In fact, as my childhood friends will attest, I had no idea I was going to be an actor. When I told them that was what I was going to pursue at college, it came as quite a surprise to them all. I don’t think there was a profound moment where I definitively chose to be an actor… I feel like acting chose me.
What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
There’s so much beyond our control as actors. You can’t control your race, you can’t control your gender—well, now you actually kind of can. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control, worry about the things you can control. Worry about your acting ability and your work ethic. If you’re an actor, make sure you’re in acting classes. It’s less important how many Instagram followers you have and more important how you work at your craft. That should always be your first and foremost priority. There may be more talented actors out there, but work ethic will eventually outdo lazy talent.
Who do you look up to most and who have you learned from?
I looked up to a lot of the African American actors, perhaps most of all Sidney Poitier. When I first started out as an actor I worked on a movie called The Jackal as a very minor role. The movie starred Bruce Willis, Richard Gere and Sidney Poitier. The first day on set I met the stars and they were appropriately dismissive. The same day I was in the lunch line and Sidney Poitier was in front of me, I tapped him on the shoulder and told him what a huge fan I was. Instead of saying ‘thanks, kid’ and moving along, he actually engaged me. We started chatting about his film roles and we had lunch together. That story always stuck with me because no matter how iconic and big Sidney Poitier was, he had time to talk to me, a young actor. That was a hugely transformative moment because it was then I knew that was how I wanted to be.
How have you seen the industry change in recent years with regards to Asian casting?
Back at the time of Lost there would always be one Asian person somewhere in the cast, kind of on the side of the picture—very often a minor character that comes in solely to give information to the lead white guy before taking off. Things are different now, thankfully. Now we’re finally seeing shows where it’s not always so obvious who is the lead of the show. As a producer, it’s easier now for me to introduce projects that have all-Asian casts or Asian leads, and that wasn’t always the case. We were very recently able to sell a project to ABC with an Asian man as the lead and an Asian female as the secondary lead, so that’s an example of the progress we’re making.
Did your Asian background make it difficult to succeed as an actor?
It’s difficult for an actor of any race to succeed. It’s a very competitive field. Was there an additional burden because of race? Yes. When I asked one of the executive producers on Hawaii Five-O whether I could play the role of Daniel or McGarrett, it was never considered as a possibility. That was the world not so long ago, so I had to be content with whatever I could get. Which is why when Lost came around it was such a big event, because my character, Jin Soo, grew to be such an integral part of the ensemble and not someone that was just there as window dressing
Why did you choose to adapt The Good Doctor for American television?
I think culturally, The Good Doctor was poised for success in America. To me, the lead character’s autism was a metaphor for anyone who was an underdog, anyone who was overlooked or anyone who has had a challenge where people wanted to dismiss them. It’s not just about race, too, it’s about whatever your challenge in life might be. I think that’s a really great story to tell and I think the message behind it is universal. One of the things I’m the proudest about with The Good Doctor is that on screen you will see people from all races. You’ll see white Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, British people—it really is a reflection of the world. What’s even more important to me is that it’s not primarily about racial diversity. It’s simply good storytelling that happens to be told by people of varying races.
As 2018 draws to a close, what will your 2019 look like?
I would like to get a few more shows on the air and travel less. I live in Hawaii, my office is in Los Angeles, and The Good Doctor shoots in Vancouver, so for sure I’d like to travel less. And now that the production company is in a stable position, I’d love to perhaps return to acting again.
– Alphonse Loh