In Part 1 of our focus on Lost and its Asian/Asian American characters and casting, we spoke with writer and producer Melinda Hsu Taylor. In Part 2, we sit down with the two men most entrusted with Lost's evolution and arc, lead writers and executive producers Damon Lindelof (who co-created the show, along with J.J. Abrams) and Carlton Cuse.
APA: When the show originally was conceived, to what extent were characters like Sun, and Jin and Sayid -- and also Miles and maybe even Dogen -- part of the original conception?
DL: I think, to start at the very beginning, the idea for Lost basically got green-lit off of a twenty-three page outline, which had a lot of the character ideas and the basic plotting of the pilot. From the plane crash to the idea that they would try to get a transmission out, to the polar bear and "There is a monster in the jungle" -- that kind of stuff was there. But on the character level, JJ and I were working very archetype-ly, so you have the "hero doctor," and the "fugitive woman," and the "con man," and the "comic relief." But we kind of realized that until we found the right actors, we weren't actually going to start tailoring the suit, as it were, to fit the particular actor. So in that outline, there was an elderly, Asian couple. They were defined as being in their mid 70's, and the idea was that the husband was really traditional, and the wife was really submissive, but the more you got to know them, the more you realized that the wife was the one wearing the proverbial pants in the family. And they were an unspecified Asian couple. They could be Japanese, they could be Korean, they could be Chinese, they could be Filipino. Whatever it was, that was the idea.
What happened was we started reading actresses for Kate, and Yunjin Kim came in and read for Kate, and she was incredible. Following that meeting, J.J. and I said we should made this elderly Asian couple a younger Asian couple, and Yunjin Kim should be the woman, which meant we have to now cast her husband. That's how we ended up casting Daniel, that was the birth of Sun and Jin, and they very quickly became major characters in the show. In fact, their flashback story was the 4th episode of the series, so we did them before Charlie, before Sawyer, before Hurley, anybody.
APA: Sun and Jin have also become real fan favorites given the arc of their relationship and romance. Did you guys have a general conception of what their story arc would be from that early point?
DL: I think we started from a very basic place, which was that every character had to have a secret, and they had to have a reason to be keeping their secret. In the showing of these flashbacks, we would slowly reveal who these people actually were. We knew that the woman's secret was that she spoke English -- her husband did not. Which would radically change the power dynamic in their relationship because they were on this island, and he would suddenly become alienated, and she would be his only connection to everybody else. That was kind of all we had.
APA: When you were casting for Jin, how did you end up selecting Daniel Dae Kim?
DL: Well, we were very limited in our scope, because it was really important to us that once we had Yunjin that we cast a Korean actor. We did not want to cast as Chinese or Japanese actor to play a Korean role, and we needed actors who spoke fluent Korean. And Daniel -- by his own admission when he came in -- said that his Korean was rusty at best -- he's Korean American -- and he knew that there would be a lot of work for him. But, I think it was just one of those things that as soon as he came in, he absolutely nailed it, and the rest is history.
APA: So much of Sun and Jin's flashbacks take place in Korea, in Korean. I would think, from a writing point of view, that requires some basic knowledge of Korean linguistic and cultural nuances. How did you guys as writers go about researching those aspects or getting those things, especially the dialogue?
CC: One of the things that we tried to do in the show was not only foster diversity in front of the camera but also in the writer's room. Damon and I were very aware that we had a very limited knowledge of Korean culture, but we hired a writer named Christina Kim who was Korean American but had a very interesting background. She had lived in Seoul for part of her life. She had two sisters, one of whom was in a very traditional Korean marriage, one of whom was in more of a modern American marriage. She had a broad range of knowledge of different Korean cultural experiences, from traditional ones to kind of progressive immigrant experiences. She was a really valuable resource for us. Also, Yunjin and Daniel were very collaborative in terms of working on the dialogue, and we have a Korean translator in Hawaii. We were very sensitive to the fact that we were not jamming anything down anybody's throat that was not culturally appropriate.
APA: Could we talk about Sayid's character and the casting of Naveen Andrews for that?
DL: There was a character in the original outline who we wanted to be sort of the professor on Gilligan's Island -- the person who has some area of technical expertise -- and we started reading a variety of actors to play that part. As we were seeing actors read, we were trying to get a sense of what was going to make this character special. I think the conclusion that we came to was: "Where would someone acquire that expertise? Is it possible that they acquired their technical expertise in some way that they were ashamed of, or not particularly willing to divulge? And what if they got it in the military?" The idea became: "If this were a Hitchcock movie, this person would be a Nazi, and then suddenly the Nazi is the person that you have to rely upon. What is the contemporary analogy? What if this person was an Iraqi character and they served in Saddam's Republican Guard?"
Clearly, Naveen is of mixed cultural lineage, and he is not Arabic by any stretch of the imagination. But when he came in, there was such a kind of soulfulness in his performance. He read the scene where he says to Hurley that he was in the Republican Guard. He kind of played it in a way where he didn't regret it, he wasn't ashamed of it. It was basically like: "This is kind of something I did, and it's a part of me." That just completely drew us to that character, and we were basically like, "Here's another opportunity to take someone that you would never think would emerge as a hero on this show." And we wanted to cast actors who were flawed and vulnerable, but also heroic. It felt like Naveen delivered that.
APA: I'm going to fast forward a little bit to talk about Miles Straume, played by Ken Leung. I couldn't help but notice that his surname was not a conventional Asian surname, and I was wondering if Miles's character was originally conceived to be "color blind" character. In other words he could be filled by an actor of any particular background.
CC: After we knew that we wanted to introduce this character into the show, we approached casting backwards, which is we find actors that we admire, have rough ideas for parts, and try to marry those two ideas together. We knew that we wanted this character with this kind of interesting psychic ability. We also wanted to have this character ultimately connect back into Pierre Chang, who was our island authority. And we just loved Ken. Particularly, I think the thing that finally sold us completely was the episode of The Sopranos. So we literally tracked him down, and we offered him the part, and fortunately, he agreed to do it. We just loved what he brought to the table as a performer. It was a very different vibe from anybody else on the show. It would just be a really interesting element when we thought he would actually blend well, and it turned out we were right with characters like Hurley. His acerbic observational nature was just a quality that we wanted to add into the mix.
APA: Is that similar to how Hiroyuki Sanada was cast for Dogen?
CC: One of the great things about [how] this show has achieved a certain measure of success is that we get access to actors that we might not normally get access to. Hiro was sort of our prototype, and the guy we most wanted, but he had never done television before. We were amazed and astonished and delighted that we were able to get him to do the show. We didn't want the Temple Master to just be some sort of stereotypical Japanese or Asian martial arts kind of a guy. We wanted him to convey strength and authority. He is the spiritual center of The Others on the society. He also had to exhibit an immense vulnerability as we came to understand his own back story and how he, like our other Flight 815 survivors, was brought to the island perhaps. It's a way for him to achieve redemption for a dark deed in his own past. So we needed a character who had strength, presence and vulnerability. I mean, Hiro is a movie star for good reason because he has all those qualities.
APA: Back to Miles, or more specifically, to his father, Pierre Chang. How did you guys end up casting Francois Chau for him?
CC: We had every conceivable type of person come in to read for this narrator; young women, old women, African Americans, White characters, and basically, Francois was the one we thought was the most intriguing. I mean, he had a certain kind of quality and magnetism, and intelligence! And we were like, "That's the guy." So he won that part in a completely broad open audition. That was a situation where we didn't approach who the narrator was going to be with a preconception. Like, "Let's see if someone actually wins this," and Francois won it.
APA: One of the things that came up in my conversation with Melinda was looking at the kind of history of casting and television and how it seems that sci-fi series have tended to show a more inclusive casting philosophy. Since Lost plays with elements of that genre, I'm wondering if you'd agree if there was anything inherent to science fiction that embraces a broader casting call?
CC: I think some of it has to do with "What is the perspective of the people on the show?" I take a lot of pride in my own history of casting Asian actors on my series. I created Nash Bridges, and two of the six original series regulars were Asian: Kelly Hu and Cary Sagawa. And then Martial Law which stars Sammo Hung. I won a MANAA award for that, and at the time, I was told that when Sammo Hung kissed one of the female leads, it was the first time that it happened in prime time television. And I worked on a show called Black Sash which starred Russell Wong as the lead.
I think it's just really a question more about "Do you as a producer or director try to look expansively in your views as to who you put in your shows?" In the case of Lost, I think we felt that there were these really tremendous Asian actors who were underserved out there on the landscape and that they would bring things to Lost that just weren't being seen on other shows.
DL: I think what fundamentally makes the premises of those shows unique is that they are not necessarily set in the United States. It's not a law firm, or a hospital or whatever. If it's a star ship or an island that anybody who was on an airplane traveling internationally might have been on, it opens the door for a real international flavor. For us, I think when you have a premise like this, we would have been neglectful to not have a cross-section of international flavors in it. To say, "Hey, why have Asian Americans, when you can have Asians?" Then go all the way and have these big Korean characters. We know it'll be challenging for the audience to have to read the majority of their dialogue, but it'll also something that they've never really seen on television before, and that made it enormously appealing.
Back to Part 1: interview with writer/producer Melinda Hsu Taylor