This is Daniel Dae Kim’s fourth time on the cover of this magazine. Or maybe it’s his fifth? At this point, it’s a little hard to keep track. But he remembers the first.
Hanging out in the offices of Character, formerly KORE Asian Media, he spots the vintage issue now serving as wall décor. A fresh-faced 31-year-old Kim shares the February 2000 cover with Rick Yune, Lindsay Price and Sophia Choi for a Valentine’s Day-themed feature, “Love, Korean American Style: KoreAm Asks 16 Celebrities to Reveal Their Secrets of Romance.” At the time, with only a handful of minor TV credits to his name—you may remember his star turn in a California cheese commercial—Kim’s inclusion arguably stretched most definitions of “celebrity.” But Korean American celebrities were a little harder to come by back then.
“That probably wouldn’t happen today,” Kim, 50, says with a laugh. Today, it would seem that Asian Americans are finally enjoying a Hollywood moment. But while studios count the Crazy Rich box office receipts, suddenly stirred by all the shouts for diversity and inclusion, Kim will remind you that some of us have been putting in the work long before diversity became the flavor of the month.
“Diversity is more than a buzzword to me,” Kim says. “It’s my life. The understanding and acceptance of It directly affects my livelihood. I want to do everything I can to foster that ideal from every angle I can.” Cover number five is a testament to Kim’s hustle. He’s been at this for more than a minute, and each cover marks key stages in his trajectory. Fame and fortune are great—let’s not pretend they aren’t—but he’s not interested in being the man of the hour. He’s trying to build something bigger than any one moment.
With a career spanning over 25 years, he’s surpassed a level of Asian Famous that still eludes most Asian American actors in the business, evolving from just “that Asian guy on ‘Lost’” to something resembling household-name status—or, in showbiz shorthand, “DDK.” But while red carpet recognition is nice, Kim has also been positioning himself as a behind-the-scenes player, too, recently making the leap to producer and scoring a certifiable network television hit, ABC’s medical drama “The Good Doctor.” And he’s just getting started.
In April, you’ll see Kim in the reboot of the “Hellboy” movie franchise, based on the supernatural superhero comics, as heavily scarred military man Major Ben Daimio, agent of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. It’s no secret that Kim wasn’t the first choice for the role, but considering the turn of events that got him cast, he’s OK with that.
In August 2017, it was announced that British actor Ed Skrein was cast as Ben Daimio, a Japanese American character. The internet’s response was swift and unsurprising with the usual accusations of Hollywood whitewashing. We’ve been down this road before. What was surprising, however, was Skrein’s response. Less than a week later, Skrein announced on social media that he was withdrawing from the project, citing a responsibility to represent the character “in a culturally accurate way.”
Kim, who had been following the “Hellboy” casting news, was offered the role. “I thought to myself, ‘Either this guy is exceptionally thoughtful, or he’s got a kickass publicist who wrote something really good for him,’” Kim recalls. “When he stepped down, I felt like there was something poetic about the fact that they came to me. I felt like this was supposed to be my next job.”
Later, while Kim was in London to shoot “Hellboy,” he made it a point to reach out to Skrein. “I wanted to personally say thank you to him for what he did,” Kim says. “Because no matter how hard we fight for Asian American representation, it’s very often that it takes someone from outside our tribe to really move the ball forward. Anyone who says, ‘Well, I can’t back out of it now,’ can only look to what Ed did to know that it’s possible. More importantly, producers and studios should be looking to prevent this kind of situation to begin with. I hope that’s a takeaway for the powers that be in this business.”
For better or for worse, there is an order and economy to stardom. Kim is a bona fide celebrity and he wields it like a pro. During this issue’s photo shoot, he makes everybody’s job just a little bit easier, flashing a ready smile, with those trademark cheekbones and the optimal swagger of someone for whom everything is going just right. In person, he is the most charming guy in the whole damn room.
But Kim also remembers a time, at the beginning of his career, when he was far less assured. “Terrified,” as he puts it. In one of his earliest roles, Kim guest starred on a 1994 episode of “Law & Order”—a rite of passage for any working New York actor—sharing a scene with series giants Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth. He was nervous, and it showed.
“I played the medical examiner talking about the results of the autopsy,” Kim recalls. “I was so nervous before shooting that the director came up to me, put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s going to be OK. You can relax. It’s going to be fine.’”
All these years later, Kim admits that there’s a part of him that’s still that guy, and it informs how he treats other actors to this day. “I didn’t know how Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth could just look at their small sides [that day’s script] once, be so confident, and do all their work without any nervousness,” Kim says. “I remember thinking, ‘One day, I hope to be like them.’ I’ll never forget that. Even now when I see guest stars come on a set, I remember what it was like for me. It’s easy to forget that everyone once started there, but I don’t.”
Kim got his Hollywood start in the late-1990s, post-Dustin Nguyen, post-Russell Wong era, as part of an informal fraternity that often develops among actors all vying for the same small handful of roles available to Asian American men.
“There were only, like, five of us in the beginning,” says Kim’s longtime friend and “The Good Doctor” star Will Yun Lee. He can’t remember when or how he first met Kim, but is willing to bet it was at an audition. “There was a good small group of us that you’d always see in the finals, basically. Everybody was competing for the five roles for the entire year that were significant enough to put food on the table, turn on the lights and pay your rent. Everybody was gunning for those five jobs, so we all got to know each other really well.”
Kim cites the “Law & Order” gig as his first screen credit, but a deep dive into IMDb reveals that his first role, chronologically, was in a 1991 feature called “American Shaolin.” I’ve tracked it down and can confirm that Kim is indeed in the movie. I can also confirm that the movie is laughably awful, and wouldn’t hold it against anyone for conveniently omitting it from their resume. Hey, everybody got their start somewhere.
Enter the fall 2004 TV season and the role that changed everything. Kim was cast as a regular on ABC’s “Lost,” a mystery-laden drama following a group of plane crash survivors on a deserted island. The series was a hit out of the gate, offering a compelling (and sometimes maddening) narrative, showcasing an attractive and diverse international cast that quickly built a rabid internet-fueled fanbase.
“It changed my life in so many ways, in what I thought was possible for Asian Americans, and what I thought was possible for TV,” Kim says. “It really was a groundbreaking show.”
But the role of Jin-Soo Kwon, a South Korean national, came with some early hurdles for Kim. Introductory episodes painted Jin as a domineering and borderline abusive figure to his wife Sun, played by Yunjin Kim. It didn’t help that his character didn’t speak any English. Early viewer reactions to Kim’s performance were harsh, and he took the concerns seriously—particularly the criticism from his own community.
“I was hyper-aware, and remain hyper-aware, of how the Asian American community—specifically the Korean American community—views the roles that I take,” Kim says. “I wouldn’t want to see a stereotype on screen, so why would I want to portray one? The criticism of my Korean was really hard for me to take because I felt like the group that was most important to me were my harshest critics. That was something I carry with me to this day.”
Despite early concerns, over the course of six seasons, Jin eventually grew to become one of “Lost”’s most beloved characters. (Jin and Sun’s watery death scene—sorry, spoiler alert—remains one of the most devastating TV moments of all time.) As the show wound down in 2010, news broke that a remake of the cop classic “Hawaii Five-0” was in the works at CBS. Kim saw an opportunity to stay in Hawaii, where he and his family had planted firm roots. He pursued and landed the role of Detective Chin Ho Kelly.
“My priority has always been my family,” says Kim, who sports a large tattoo on his torso featuring their names in Korean. “The fact that I could keep my kids in school in Hawaii so that they could have a full education and their entire childhood there was the number one reason that I did Hawaii Five-0. I don’t regret that for a second.”
The life of an actor is nomadic, but if you can get a steady gig on a TV series, it’s the closest thing to a regular 9-to-5 job you can get to in the business. In retrospect, Kim is pragmatic about his role on “Hawaii Five-0″—what it was, what it wasn’t and what it would never be.
“When you’re on a broadcast network TV show, it’s important to fully understand what you’re getting yourself into,” Kim says. “Many of them have a distinct brand identity and don’t generally veer from it. You may think because of what a producer or executive may tell you that it’s going to be different, but there’s a very real chance it won’t. It’s really just a question of what an individual actor wants from that job in terms of their career, and whether that aligns with the expectations of the network.”
For Kim, it was an opportunity to leverage the steady gig and think holistically about his career. When it came time to renegotiate his contract for “Hawaii Five-0,” his specific terms included an opportunity to direct on the show, and the formation of his very own production company, 3AD, laying major groundwork for the next stage of his career.
In 2017, after seven seasons, both Kim and co-star Grace Park parted ways with “Hawaii Five-0” over a much-publicized contract dispute. CBS claimed that the actors were offered “large and significant salary increases,” but Kim and Park stood firm, seeking pay parity with series stars Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. It was a deal breaker.
“The path to equality is rarely easy,” Kim told fans on Facebook. “But I hope you can be excited for the future. I am.” With “The Good Doctor,” the first show produced under the 3AD banner, which premiered in September of the same year, the future was already here. It instantly became the most-watched new show on television.
Adapted from a popular K-drama with the same name, “The Good Doctor” stars Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism spectrum disorder and savant syndrome, who is recruited into the surgical unit of a prestigious hospital. Kim saw an opportunity to remake a show that could translate well to an American media landscape: the medical drama, one of TV’s most tried-and-true genres. But the real hook was the character of Shaun Murphy.
“We’d never seen someone like him on network TV before, and I felt like his was a voice that needed to be heard,” Kim says. “It was something that I felt, thematically, could resonate with a lot of people. Because it’s not just about autism. The show’s about anybody who feels marginalized, who feels like they have something to offer but may have been denied the opportunity to contribute.”
The show’s themes sync up with Kim’s own calling as a producer. He formed 3AD (when you hold it up to a mirror, the logo spells “DAE”) with an explicit mission of giving a voice to the underrepresented, both in front of and behind the camera. “I’ve always believed that every story has been pretty much told, but the perspective from which they’re told could use a little broadening,” Kim explains. “As actors, we can only work when people have jobs for us, but if I can be a job creator and a world builder, then I can populate these shows in the way that I see the world.”
So far, being a world builder is working out nicely. David Shore, executive producer of “The Good Doctor,” says Kim has actively pushed the show to have a diverse cast.
“Diversity is such a fundamental issue to him,” Shore says. “He’s helped shape the show in that regard, reminding us how diverse this world is, and at the same time, ultimately, how much we have in common. We’re all pushing that agenda, but he pushed it harder than us. He moved that needle, and I think we’re all the beneficiaries of that.”
“The Good Doctor” has become, in a low-key manner, one of the most Asian American shows on TV, with a cast that includes Tamlyn Tomita, Christina Chang and Will Yun Lee as series regulars. Lee says Kim was looking out for him when he landed the role of Dr. Alex Park.
“It’s interesting to have him be a friend and, technically, one of your bosses, but he’s always rooting for everybody, which is rare in this business,” Lee says. “Especially coming from the era when we started, when there were like five of us. When you’re young and hungry, I’m sure it’s not the easiest to root for everyone. But seeing him settled into so many titles, from producing to acting, I can tell you he’s everybody’s biggest champion.”
That includes championing his latest project, a small role in the highly anticipated Netflix romantic comedy “Always Be My Maybe,” starring Randall Park and Ali Wong. When he was offered the part, Kim jumped at the opportunity to work on the film—a rare foray into comedy for the actor—because he knew it was something special. It didn’t matter what he did or how much he got paid. “I just wanted to be a part of a project like that,” he says.
Directed by Nahnatchka Khan, “Always Be My Maybe” centers on two childhood sweethearts, Sasha and Marcus, who have a falling out and don’t speak for 15 years. Sparks fly when they reconnect as adults. Park says Kim was their first choice to play Sasha’s boyfriend, a leading man-type who exudes charm and confidence. Sounds about right.
“He’s just very talented, on top of being very good looking, and being this great family man, and being this great advocate for the community,” Park says with a laugh. “It’s kind of infuriating. He is just a perfect package of a human being.”
Wong, best known for her standup specials “Baby Cobra” and “Hard Knock Wife,” says Kim was just what the role needed, despite his lack of comedy credits. “He’s a great actor, and we really wanted someone to just be able to play it real, and not push the jokes too far.” But much to Wong’s surprise, he’s also funny.
“There is definitely one scene where I could not stop laughing because his delivery of this one line was so perfect, unexpected and funny,” Wong says. “Talking to him between takes was such a joy. Everyone on set was so sad when his scenes were over and he was gone.”
“It was so great to be on that set because of the environment the two of them created,” Kim says. “There was a very all-for-one and one-for-all feeling. There were no divas. It reminded me how it could be. I’ve had plenty of sh-tty experiences on a set, and it was nice to be on one that was not just pleasant, but where I saw Asian Americans as department heads, as crew members, and as lead actors.”
Representation matters. It’s always mattered. It’s only in the last few years that Hollywood seems to have seen the light—and all the potential money that can be made in the name of diversity. In a post-Crazy Rich Asians world, Kim says he’ll take the industry’s change of heart in whatever way it manifests.
For now, Kim plans to keep making change in his own way. There are still stories to tell. “It’s not just about you or me,” Kim says. “I’m a dad, and I think about my kids. When they grow up and are able to say, ‘What is the frickin’ big deal about an Asian American lead or an Asian American rom-com? Why is that an issue?’ Then all of this will have been worth it. Because we will have been fighting these fights for them.”
This article appeared in Character Media’s April 2019 issue. Subscribe here.