Daniel Dae Kim has made several television appearances on 24, ER, and Angel, but he's received the greatest attention as one of the co-stars on ABC's hit drama Lost. J.J. Abrams, the creator of Alias, and Damon Lindelof (Crossing Jordan) have created an action-packed adventure about plane crash survivors who have landed on a mysterious island. The band of friends, family, enemies and strangers must work together to stay alive. Now that the first season is over, we've seen that not only the island, but also the survivors have many secrets to reveal.
This is seen more than ever with Daniel Dae Kim's character Jin, a Korean man who first appears extremely overprotective and controlling of his wife Sun, played by Korean star Yunjin Kim. We later see more of Jin's history as a man who comes from a humble fishing family and needs to please his father-in-law to gain permission to marry Sun. Flashback episodes reveal that Jin is more than a brutish suspicious husband, but someone who loved his wife so much that he joined his father-in-law's secretly corrupt and violent business.
Though Daniel Dae Kim initially received criticisms for the negative portrayal of an Asian man, his character has grown into a much more complex and multi-dimensional person. The Los Angeles Times reports that the creators of Lost "assembled an ethnically diverse cast, then hammered out a show for them that favored humanity over tokenism...With its unmatched pan-demographic cast of characters who all defy stereotypical expectations, the show reflects the world as it is increasingly experienced by young people, who are less racially identified than older generations."
Lost is also groundbreaking in having non-English speaking people as central characters. Though we find out that Sun can secretly speak English, Jin can only speak Korean. So the two characters only speak to each other in Korean with English subtitles. Kim observes, "I think it is the first time in primetime network television that any episode of any tv show has been aired in over fifty percent a foreign language, let alone an Asian language. So I am really proud of that and I hope that the Asian American community can be proud of that."
Daniel Dae Kim was born in Korea and immigrated with his family to the United States when he was two years old. Kim, who earned an M.F.A. degree in acting from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, continues to work on stage in Los Angeles and New York. He has performed in plays from Shakespeare to Beckett to improv comedy. Recently Kim performed in an all-Asian American production of Chekhov's Ivanov in New York City.
Asia Society spoke to Daniel Dae Kim about his role on Lost, his observations about Asian American roles in the entertainment industry, and the importance of educating youth about the challenges of pursuing a highly competitive and creative career.
How and when did you become serious about an acting career?
It was my sophmore year in college. I went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania and I was a political science major at the time. A friend of mine asked me to act in a play that he had written and wanted to direct. I had never done it before and he only asked me because he couldn't find anyone else. So I said "yes," and that was my first taste of acting in a professional or semi-professional way. From there I started to take classes in acting in college and ended up adding a second major because I enjoyed it so much. I started acting in school productions and during my junior year I went to the Eugene O'Neill Theater to study. While most people were going abroad to glamorous places like Venice, I was going to Waterford, Connecticut to study. There was a freedom of expression on stage that I had never felt before. I think the ability to express yourself, tell a story, and not be asked to apologize for who you were in any way was pretty compelling.
You were born in Korea, but came to the US when you were two years old. I read it has been very challenging for you to act in Korean. How did you train your Korean language skills for your role as Jin?
When I came over I spoke nothing but Korean with my parents until I was about 6 or 7 years old. I started speaking English once I hit elementary school. Somewhere in between junior high and high school I started responding in English as opposed to Korean. My comprehension skills are still there but the actual formation of the sounds got rusty. So now as a result what I am doing is speaking a lot more Korean with my parents and seeking out friends and relatives to keep my skills up. It's been a big help. I feel a lot more comfortable now that the first season is over than when we first started.
Who writes your Korean dialogue? Is it written in English first and then translated or is there a translator on set?
We get all the scripts in English and we have a translator who comes in and works with us and translates it all into Korean. He speaks very little English so it is up to Yunjin and me to explain not only the actual dialogue but the nuance of the dialogue. It is a difficult job and one that is really important because when you try to transliterate from one language to another you can't do a direct translation. You have to figure out what the essence of what the person is trying to say, and put it in a way that flows in a colloquial manner.
Were there other ways you had to research or prepare to play a man from Korea?
What I did find myself doing is looking at a lot of my father's friends because they are Korean and came over at the same time Jin was exposed to the Western world. I would look at a lot of their mannerisms and actually it would be funny because Yunjin and the translator would be on set with me and they would say at certain points, "You are doing that like an old-style Korean guy would do that." I realized it was because I was modelling it after my parents and their generation.
Historically Asian American actors had no choice but to play characters from Asia because those were the only roles being written for them. Now that there are more choices, how do you usually choose your roles? Is this your first time playing a character from Asia?
This is the first time I am playing a character from Korea, which is a unique opportunity. You would think that I would have done this many times in my career, but I really haven't.
When I first started this job on Lost, I received some criticism from Asian American groups about the negative portrayal of an Asian man. Though I agreed with them to certain degree, I did also ask them to be patient with my character because this is a medium where what you see in one episode is not what you are going to see ten episodes down the road. You are getting a snapshot of a character rather than a full picture. I think that is what made the character interesting to me.
Any time I look at a character to play I don't necessarily look for his heroic qualities or his negative qualities. I am very aware of playing stereptypes and trying to stay away from those. But I think that wanting to play a hero or always wanting to play the positive portrayal can be equally limiting. As an actor I look for interesting characters to portray. I look for people who have lots of different shades to them and different colors in their personality because that's what we are as human beings. I try to reflect what I see in my everyday life.
Though many jumped to conclusions seeing Jin as a stereotyped Korean man, it was incredibly refreshing to see your character fleshed out in subsequent episodes. Do you have any input with the writers and producers about your character development? What gave you the sense when taking the job that this was not likely to be another one-dimensional Asian character that we have all seen too many times?
I do trust them [producers] and trusted them from the beginning. If I didn't I wouldn't have taken this job, to be quite honest with you, because the pilot was problematic is many ways in terms of representation. At the same time I think it was important for them to hear how important this issue was to me. There was a lot of dialogue about the character and it continued throughout the season. Every time I got a flashback episode I chimed in whether I was asked to or not. There were some tough discussions, but I am really happy to report that they were very sensitive to the issue and not just in a way that was patronizing. I think they took my recommendations and my suggestions, and my criticisms and my questions to heart. They really did help form the character based on not only what I was saying but also what Yunjin was saying. I know that J.J. and Damon, the two creators and writers, are concerned about how the Asian community sees our characters. Where the character has gone is a reflection of their concern and it's positive.
The popularity of films from Asia has been on the rise for the past decade. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were able to attain mainstream popularity. However Asian American films have yet to reach that kind of popularity. Americans often mix up what it means to be "Asian" vs. "Asian American," so how do you feel the film success from Asia helps or hurts Asian Americans in the entertainment industry?
I think there are pluses and minuses to the emergence of Asian cinema in America. It's about time that a lot of these films got recognized because there are very talented people behind them - the directors, actors, writers. I don't think it is a coincidence that a lot of stories from Asia are being remade by American studios. They are really interesting stories and deserve to be shown here.
When Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and Jet Li first came over to America I was very, very encouraged because I thought, "They are going to start building movies around these characters and they are going to start to hire Asian Americans to fill the supporting roles." That has happened and I am really encouraged by that. Though I think the next step we need to take is translating an Asian star's box office presence to an Asian American person's opportunity to lead a movie. A lot of the times when Jackie Chan and Jet Li create roles for other Asians they are often supporting characters and many of those supporting characters are one-dimensional. So I haven't quite seen the translation of their presence into Asian Americans receiving higher profiles jobs as much as I'd like. At the same time, it's important that we be considered equals in worldwide cinema and I think we are becoming that and being perceived that way. I think the more directors we get over here like John Woo and a lot of the Korean directors, and if they start being concerned about Asian American representation, then that would be a big help.
In a 2000 interview you said, "The next step for us as Asian Americans is to claim ownership of an entire creative process. In the same way that August Wilson, Spike Lee and John Singleton, among others, helped pioneer the way for African Americans in the '80s and '90s, we need to develop visionaries of our own to help us find our way through the 21st Century." Five years later, have you felt more Asian Americans have achieved this creative ownership? If so, who do you see as visionaries - or even potential visionaries - for Asian Americans in the entertainment industry?
I am starting to see a lot more Asian Americans in positions of power in studios and in networks. There are vice presidents of casting who are now Asian American. There are studio executives who are Asian American and there are prominent Asian Americans in agencies and management companies. That's a big step. We also have emerging directors such as Chris Chan Lee and Justin Lin, and there are a handful who are coming up through the process now. We also have really talented actors who are emerging. Sandra Oh is fantastic, and so are John Cho and Yunjin. So we have all those ingredients and the key now is to find a way for them to work synergistically together, to come together as a community and say, "Look we are beginning to get this power, what can we do about it?"
Lost made the historical move of presenting non-English speaking characters in central roles in a TV series. We can see it was a great success as you and Yunjin Kim have been equally engaging to viewers as the rest of the cast. What has made the television industry shy away from this in the past? Are Americans ready for non-English speaking characters?
I am happy to say that from what I've seen they are embracing our characters and that is saying a lot about what the American audience is willing to accept. I am sure there were uncertain executives who thought, "We can't really have non-English speaking people on the show and we can't do an episode that is fifty percent in another language, no one is going to watch." That attitude was reflected somewhat throughout the season. For instance, before my episode aired they ran promotions for next week's episode. In those promotions, though it was my episode and I was featured in maybe 80 percent of the work, I was in the promotion for about a second. The explanation I was given at the time was that they didn't want to alienate any potential audience members by saying it was an Asian-themed show or the dialogue wasn't going to be in English. So yes there is that attitude out there.
At the same time the fact that our characters are getting traction with the audience is saying a lot. It says a lot about the storytelling because it's a big leap of faith on the part of the writers to be able to give us these kinds of characters to play and these kinds of storylines because no one has done it before. So I really have to give a lot of credit to J.J. and Damon and the network for allowing all of this to happen. I think it is the first time in primetime network television that any episode of any tv show has been aired in over 50 percent a foreign language, let alone an Asian language. So I am really proud of that and I hope that the Asian American community can be proud of that.
What were some of your favorite TV shows growing up?
I was always attracted to shows that reflected an American slice of life. Thirtysomething was a really big favorite of mine. I am not sure why because it didn't reflect my experience at all. Maybe it was because I thought I was seeing a part of America that I didn't know or wanted to be a part of. So that was a really remarkable show for me in that regard. I remember liking Steven Bochco shows a lot. When I was a kid I loved Japanese anime, I loved Speed Racer, Marine Boy, Ultra Man, and Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. Those were my shows. I think Star Trek was big for me because that was the first time I ever saw an Asian person on television. I don't think I ever registerd it consciously at the time. I never thought, "Oh my gosh, I have to watch this because George Takei is on it." But there is something about the show that I wanted to watch. When you think about that show now, it was incredibly groundbreaking. It would be considered even groundbreaking now because of the diversity of casting. But when it was on TV in the '60s you had a cast that reflected different cultures and nations of the world, that was really something.
You have also done a lot of roles in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Do you feel that this genre has been more open to having Asian roles than other genres?
I do think as a genre they are the most diverse in terms of casting minorities and women. I think Star Trek had a female captain. Gene Roddenberry deserves a lot of credit for that. He created the template and other sci-fi shows have followed suit. I don't know what it says about America that Asians exist in the future in deep, deep space! But I think that is changing and Lost is a reflection of that.
How has Lost been received in Korea?
It's been mixed. Before the show ever aired there was a very large article in Joong-Ang Ilbo or Hanguk Ilbo. It was a pretty scathing article about my character and Yunjun's. Koreans are fiercely nationalistic and I am not saying that in a pejorative sense. They are protective of how their culture is perceived abroad as we all should be to a certain degree. So there was an uphill battle from the beginning. I think the producers and writers were also aware of that. That being said, Yunjin is well known in Korea so there was some hype and recognition that helped the show. As far as the ratings go, it is hard to say because there are so many different factors. It airs on Saturday afternoons in Korea which is not exactly primetime viewing. There were some complaints that the Korean characters were not featured enough initially. But the show does have a fan base in Korea because people like the show. I've been told that there is a cable company that is going to start to air it at primetime so I am curious to see how that changes things.
Now that the first season of Lost is over and viewers have seen many more sides to Jin, what are your hopes for your character in the coming season?
I think if he can continue on the trend he is on now I will be really happy. Once he started getting over his overprotective xenophonic stage, I think it became crucial for him to start integrating himself into the main storieslines. That is where the language barrier was the biggest obstacle. Once he decides to learn English and participate, I think the possibilities for his character grow exponentially. So I am really looking forward to seeing how that happens and develops. I am looking foward to him speaking English, I am looking forward to seeing where his relationship with his wife goes from here, and I'd really like to see what his role on the island becomes once he decides to participate.
You performed this summer in a New York production of Anton Chekhov's classic Ivanov. What role did you play? What do you like about doing work in theater?
I played Dr. Lvov. Ivanov is a man who is depressed and fallen out of love with his wife who is dying of tuberculosis. I played the doctor who comes in and treats his wife and serves as a foil to Ivanov's way of thinking. Ivanov is unsure of what he should do and feels lost. My character is very certain about the way life should be and the way Ivanov should be living his life and treating his wife. They are set on opposite ends of the spectrum.
I was trained on the stage and I got my MFA from NYU. It's an all classical theater program. That's really my first love. I love Shakespeare and Chekhov and when I was out in Hawaii I kept thinking about working on something like that again because I guess the weather was too nice and things were so perfect I needed to get back to a cramped black box theatre in New York to start working again. It was really rewarding to work in such a way where I had a long rehearsal period and I could really find the character over a period of weeks in an enclosed space without outside interference. I was working with a lot of people that I knew well and trusted and believe to be very talented. So it was really that process that I wanted more than the performances. I tell my friend all the time who I was working with on the show that once the rehearsals are over I feel like the show is over for me. The performances are a bonus. That's what drew me back and that's what I missed.
Why is it important to you as an actor to stage an all Asian American production of a Chekhov play?
That's what I feel strongly about and what I support. This particular company, The National Asian American Theate Company, only does classical plays and does them with Asian American casts. I think it is one of the only places in the country where Asian Americans can work on classics without having to self-consciously think about their ethnicity and how it relates to the play and what it means vis-a-vis the other characters who are not Asian. Any time you have that kind of a cast it begs certain questions. But here we are free to work on a text because we are actors. It's a really valuable opportunity.
The entertainment industry has been focused on so-called mainstream America, but shows like Lost are starting to reflect what real mainstream America is today, that is multicultural and multilingual. You have two kids. In your opinion, how important is it for American students to learn about the world and to learn other languages?
I think it is very important for my children to know that we exist in a community that goes beyond the borders of our neighborhood but goes to the borders of the world. I think it can only help to inform their lives if they know we exist among different cultures, languages and people. I hope they grow up with a sense that there is something to be learned and respected from each of those cultures.
Asia Society does a lot of work with K-12 education to promote teaching about Asia and Asian America in every school district in the United States. What advice would you give to young Asian Americans who want to explore creative professions like you did?
When I was in Hawaii I actually went around to high schools on my own and talked to budding acting students of all different races. It was important to me, especially because there is a high population of Asian Americans there, to talk with them about my experience and share what I have gone through to help them if they decide to become actors or writers or anything creative.
I would tell them that it is hard and if you can do something else, do it. If you feel compelled however to do this, be prepared. Do everything you can to prepare yourself. That means get trained, be studious, develop a sense of business savvy because there are so many things in this industry that are beyond your control. It behooves you to take control of everything you can or else have a sense of the playing field. Know what you are getting yourself into so that you can do the best work that you can. I think that is really it. Create the circumstances under which you can work the best that you can.Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of Asia Society.