Interview with Daniel Dae Kim
December 16, 2004
Interviewed by Ada Tseng and Eyvette Min
Transcription by Ada Tseng
APA: So we usually start by having you introduce yourself to the APA audience.
Daniel Dae Kim: My name is Daniel Dae Kim. I'm an actor on the TV show, Lost.
APA: You guys shoot in Hawaii, so what is it like working there?
DDK: It's pretty great. If you're gonna have to have a job shooting somewhere other than LA, Hawaii is the place to be. The people are fantastic, the weather is fantastic, and it's nice to be away from LA actually, considering all the hype around the show right now.
APA: On the show, you guys are all stranded on an island, so how are your own nature survival skills?
DDK: Well, I used to be a boy scout. So I know how to make knots, and I know how to make fire. And I've seen Tom Hanks in Castaway, so I think I'm in good shape. No, it's really hard to imagine, cause when we're shooting, you start to think about the logic of the show and how you would survive on an island. What would you be really needing. And I'm glad the writers have been covering a lot of that, like what would you do for water? That would obviously be the first thing that you'd be looking for, a source of water. And food and shelter and those kind of things. You know, I think I could get by, but I'm glad there are a lot of us. [laughs]
APA: So your character on the show is kind of brooding...
DDK: No, no, be blunt, be blunt.
APA: [laughs] Well, one of the things that is cool about the show is that the characters aren't what they seem. Or they appear one way in the beginning but then you learn more about them. So I was wondering how much creative input you have in developing the character? How far in advance do you learn what happens to your character?
DDK: That's a really interesting question, because I just exchanged a series of emails with one of the producers on the show, and we were talking about that very thing. How much say do I have in this, how much of a plan is there for me? The producers really think about these characters long term. The last thing I want to do is represent Korean people in a negative light, but the producers have assured me that things are changing, and just like you said, what you see is not necessarily what you get. You're going to start seeing different sides of him. You're going to start understanding what his journey has been to get here. So that's what I'm looking forward to. And I think by season two or season three, he's going to be a very different character.
APA: You talk about not wanting to represent Koreans in a negative light. Is that something you're conscious of?
DDK: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, I don't know how much you know about my career in the past, but I've made very conscious choices to stay away from stereotypes and negative portrayals, and I've turned down a lot of stuff. So when this opportunity came around, I was a little wary of it, but again, it goes back to trusting the producers and the people you work with. We've had a number of discussions, both me and Yun Jin, who plays my wife, and they've been really, really encouraging. The producers have instilled a lot of confidence in me to stick it out, and that's what i'm trusting.
APA: Because he appears to be the dominant male, and she the submissive female...
DDK: Yeah, I've gotten a lot of flack. I really have. I've gotten emails from friends, and I've seen some websites that have started campaigns against my character. On one level, I tell them all to be patient, because things will change. When you talk about a series over four or five years, you gotta have some place for these characters to go. And even now, as you're watching the show, you're seeing that the people you think you like, you may not necessarily like, and vice versa. That's going to be happening to my character too.
On the other hand, I've worked hard not to play stereotypes and I don't think this guy is a stereotype. And here's why. First of all, we know that in Korea, these guys do actually exist. But more importantly, stereotypes exist in generalities. Stereotypes exist without any kind of justification or history, and you are going to see the history behind this character, and you're going to see his journey. If it becomes a fully fleshed character in that way, then it's the furthest thing from a stereotype. Whether it's a negative portrayal is a different issue. Right now, yea it's a negative portrayal. But that doesn't bother me, because everyone is complex. You know, eventually, once you start seeing all the different sides of him, you're going to understand that he's just a person. he's just a character. And some people will like him and some people won't, but that's life. And, I think we limit ourselves by saying, I'll only play good guys. I'll only play heroes. That's limiting for an actor. I want to be a complex three-dimensional character.
APA: Is he changing because he's putting up a front, or is it this experience that will change him?
DDK: I think it's a combination of both those things. As an actor, you can never believe your character is bad or evil. You can't judge your character that way. Everyone has their own set of circumstances that form their personality, so I'm just looking at those things. Sure, being thrown on an island is going to form who you are. I think the interesting thing about the show is that, who you were in the past doesn't matter anymore. That's one of the themes. That's going to be an interesting thing to explore.
APA: So, about Jin's relationship with his wife. He's very protective over her, but it seems to be out of love. But do you think that she, on the other hand, is starting to question her love for him?
DDK: That's a good question, and I don't really know the answer to it. What I can say is that his extreme reactions to situations are mainly due to fear and insecurity. I think all the characters had a life that they felt secure in, and my character in particular made serious sacrifices to be with this woman. And to come to an island where none of that matters, and his whole life, everything he gave his life up for, once that becomes meaningless, then you really have to re-evaluate who you are. And I think she's going through that too, and she's wondering, is this the man she really loves, or is it time to make a fresh start? And I think that's one of the questions that make our relationship intriguing right now.
APA: How well do all the actors get along, since it's such a huge ensemble?
DDK: You know, it's a cliché when actors say, "Oh we all love each other! Everyone's so great!" but it's true actually in our case. We all get together at least once a week to watch the episodes at one of the cast member's houses. And you would think that in an ensemble as large as this one is, that there would be people who were kind of marginalized or aloof, but that's really not the case and everyone really gets along.
APA: What's the set dynamic like, because since the show is so tense and dramatic, is there a lot of comic relief to balance it out?
DDK: Yea, you'd be surprised. I think it's true of a lot of suspenseful or dramatic sets that you need something to break the tension. And like I said, we're all friends, so we'll play practical jokes, or do things to just make sure that we're all OK. It's pretty easy-going, and sometimes it's pretty funny to see people go from laughing and joking, and then Action! [makes a very intense expression] And my character is like that too [laughs] cause I'd like to think that I'm not so much like this guy Jin. So it's something that we sort of break into and pop out of.
APA: You mentioned that there's a lot of hype around the show in LA. Are you starting to get recognized on the street?
DDK: Yea, it's happening, I'd say, more than it's every happened in my career. There have been times where it's been interesting. For instance, I was at a gym once. I work out in Hawaii, and I was literally in the middle of pushing up a weight, and some guy goes "Dude! You're that guy on Lost!!" And I'm like, "Hold on a second..." [laughs] But most of the time, the Hawaiians are really cool about it. They're very welcoming people in general, so I've had very good experiences. I haven't been back in LA since the show started, so I don't know what the reaction has been like in LA. I only hear stories about Matthew Fox being mobbed on the street and strange things like that. But the other thing about my character is that he's not lovable, so it's not like people are going to be coming up to me and giving me hugs [laughs].
APA: Hollywood is very image-conscious. Is it a challenge for you?
DDK: Honestly, I don't look at it that way. When I was in college, I was pretty athletic, I played football, I played tennis, I played a lot of sports, so it's always been a part of who I am. I never work out to get huge or anything like that, I work out to stay fit, because I feel better. And I watch what I eat, not because I'm on a extreme carb diet or anything like that. I want to live a long life, you know? So I just generally like to be outdoors, and when you're in Hawaii, why not?
APA: I don't know if you watch the show Will & Grace, but there was a reference to you...
DDK: I heard about that!
APA: So I guess you're "the hot Korean guy on Lost," as Grace calls you.
DDK: I guess I am. [laughs] Unless there's another Korean guy on Lost, which I have to think about. But yeah, I've kind of entered the pop culture I guess, and that was a thrill. I'm flattered, and actually, we talked a bit about stereotypes, and anything that can promote a healthy image of Asian men and women is a positive thing. Because we know about the stereotypes of Asian men in this country. We're desexualized often, and we're gangsters, and we're a number of things, but we're not many positive things. So despite the character and the way he is right now, if he's entered into the culture in a positive way, that would be a thrill.
APA: So we have to ask you about his picture in Entertainment Weekly [where he's posing dramatically and looking stern]...
DDK: [laughs] Steroids do wonders!
APA: So did you pick your outfit?
DDK: [laughs] If I had picked my outfit, I think it would have been a G-string and... No, no, I did not pick the outfit. We had a stylist from Entertainment Weekly come over and the photographer had this whole elaborate layout worked out, and if you notice, he just said "This is how I want you to pose. I want you to be protecting your wife. I want you to be strong." And Harold over there is supposed to be looking at me suspiciously, like "You're a jerk. I'm going to steal her away from you." So there was this whole thing planned out, this whole story, and they didn't get the spacing right, so we're all kind of placed randomly. So you have people moving like they're walking away, but you don't know from what, and you've got me, looking like an Asian superman or something. [laughs] No, no, I got a lot of phone calls about that photo. Believe me. I am really glad that they included me in the photo and that both of us are central in the image. We've got a lot of minorities on the show and it's been a constant challenge to make sure we're all in the mix. It is a racially diverse show and that's one of the strongest points, and I think that should be encouraged.
APA: Often it seems like Asians are the minority of the minority in Hollywood.
DDK: Yea, there was a diversity report released by the Screen Actors Guild last month, and we are the only minority group that had less representation than the year before. Everyone else had more but us.
APA: How hard is it to break into Hollywood? What is the reality of that?
DDK: Well Asians have a really interesting, particular road to hoe, because one, it's really difficult to break into roles if they're not specifically written for Asian people, and two, we have the privilege of being discriminated against one another. For example, if you're Chinese, they won't read you Japanese. If you're Korean, they won't read you for... etc. Where, if you're European, they don't say "You're French, so you can't read English." But for Asians, there's a lot of that going on. But when it does happen the other way, there's a lot of controversy, like Memoirs of a Geisha, people talk about how they're not Japanese, so you know, any way you slice it, there's difficulties, so it's a very unique position to be in.
APA: Your character on the show speaks in Korean, so was that a challenge for you to master the dialect?
DDK: Yes! [laughs] Yea, I came to the States when I was two, and my parents are from Pusan, so I speak with a Kyungsangdo accent like crazy in real life. So Yun Jin speaks Pyojunmal, so I've been trying to smooth out my accent, and it's been so much work to smooth it out. So even though I'm conversational in Korean, my vocabulary is very limited, cause I never really spoke it with anyone besides my parents. I don't if you know Konglish, but I use Konglish all the time with my parents. I've said this before, and I'll say it again, it's one of the biggest acting challenges I've ever had. It's one thing to speak a language, and it's another thing to act a language, and it's been extremely challenging.
APA: Has it helped you keep in touch with your roots?
DDK: Yea it has. I speak to my parents in Korean, and I'm getting in touch with the Korean community in Hawaii. And I've always wanted to speak more fluently, and this has given me an opportunity to do that. So honestly, it's a real honor, a privilege, cause I've worked so hard assimilating into the American culture, and to reach back and touch base with the Korean culture is really unexpected. I don't know if I'll ever get this chance again, because I don't have any plans to work in Korea, unlike Yun Jin, but I get that chance here.
APA: So you have a movie out called The Cave. Can you talk a little about that?
DDK: Sure, it's a movie about a team of expert scuba divers who specialize in technical diving, which means exploring cave systems underwater. It's like extreme scuba diving. And I play one of the team members, and we're sent to explore this unchartered system of caves, and while we're down there, we get trapped. So it's a story of how we try to escape, and while we're down there, we find an entirely new ecosystem. In the ecosystem, we find out that we're not the top of the food chain, so it becomes an escape/monster/underwater adventure, and I'm actually really excited about it.
APA: Was the part written for a Korean-American actor?
DDK: Well it was written as a Japanese part, the character's name was actually George Himasaki, and they cast me in it, and the producers were cool enough to change the name to fit my ethnicity, which I thought was great. And that's the other thing I find about Hollywood is that most of the time, people aren't blatantly racist. A lot of the time, people just don't know, and if you just make a suggestion, they're very open to changing things and adapting a role to you, and that's very encouraging. So it's not all negative, there's a lot of positive things happening.
APA: You were very close to accepting several positions for major Wall Street banks. So what made you choose acting?
DDK: I was in college and a friend of mine asked me to do a play, and I did it, and I thought it was fantastic. And at my school, I went to a small liberal arts college, for the third year, you spend a semester either abroad or at another school or doing something else away from our college, so I decided to go to the Eugene O'Neill theater center in Connecticut, and after that, it was a done deal. I interviewed at Wall Street firms and toyed with going to law school, but honestly I knew I wanted to be an actor. At the time, my parents were really against it. My dad's a doctor and both my parents went to very good universities in Korea, and it wasn't an option for me to not be a professional. So, I did interviews, cause I wanted them to know that I wasn't closing off those avenues, but I knew I had to do this, or at least try it. And I went in with the attitude that, I'll try it for a few years and see how it works out, and if not, I can always go back to law school, but once I was in it, I knew I wasn't coming out.
APA: So you did a lot of theater.
DDK: Yea, that's where I've gotten all my training. In New York, I got my masters degree in NYU, and it's what I love to do. And as a matter of fact, when this show wraps, I might go to NY to do some Chekhov.
APA: You've directed too. Is that something you plan to explore more of?
DDK: Yea, I don't know how much time I'm going to have for that, but I want to diversify as much as I can, because like I said, if you're in it for the long haul, you've got to find ways of extending your career and paving your own way, cause no one hands it to you. It's my way of trying to take control of the process, because as an actor, there's so few things that are in your control. You're always at the mercy of the casting director or the producer or the director who wants to do certain things or wants to cast it in a certain way, so especially when you're starting out, you're always in the position where you're begging for something. So, I think if we're going to succeed as a group, we need to take control of as many parts of the process as possible. That means writing, that means directing, that means producing, that means acting. And acting is just one small part of what it takes to put together a show or a movie. The more we can take control of all the aspects, the more we don't have to ask anyone for anything, and that's the position you want to be in.
APA: I know you're married and have two children. How difficult is it for you to balance your profession with being a dad and a husband?
DDK: It's the hardest job you'll ever love, is the way I put it. I love my family, and I love my career, and I love what I get to do every day. I'm really lucky in that I'm able to spend a lot of time with my family, because when I'm not working, I'm home. That's not to say there aren't challenges, for instance, I had to move my family to Hawaii when the show started. But thankfully, my kids are young enough that they're adaptable, and they happen to love Hawaii. And my children know now what I do for a living and they're kind of interested and fascinated, and I'm glad I can share it with them. My wife, bless her, has been so supportive. When we first met, I was going to be a lawyer. I met her even before I had acted in my first thing or even wanted to be an actor. So she stuck with me through everything, and you don't find that very often in a woman or a man. People have their own paths they have to go on, and she made a lot of sacrifices for me. And that's one of the reasons I love her. [smiles]
APA: Well congratulations on everything.
DDK: Thank you very much. I think it's an opportunity for Asian Americans to have a presence on television. I'm really really hoping that the community embraces it, and the producers embrace it, and do something to maximize the character's potential. It's a very privileged and fortunate position to be in, and I realize that every day, as I drive to work amongst rainbows and beautiful sunsets...
APA: Thank you so much for the interview.