An Actor-Activist in Hollywood
In the roles he plays and now with his own production company, Daniel Dae Kim '90 is working to bring more diversity to the screen.
In what used to be the swimming pool of the Old Gym, now the screening room of the mod VCAM facility, actor Daniel Dae Kim ’90is having an intimate Q&A with four theater-phile students.
Three Haverford College seniors and a Bryn Mawr junior shoot questions at the Hollywood star best known for his parts in Lost and Hawaii Five-0 and for his stereotype-breaking roles. Dressed in casual-cool attire (gray, long-sleeved T-shirt, blue jeans, and black sneakers), Kim, 50, who lives in Honolulu, is visiting campus the day before Commencement, at which he will receive an honorary doctorate of fine arts.
The actor, who studied political science and theater at Haverford, gives honest, often self-deprecating answers about some of his career challenges. “I don’t hesitate to tell you,” he says, “that I wasn’t very good when I started. I still might not be any good, but I was less good.” He discloses a highlight of his time on campus (midnight runs to Wawa) and a lowlight (“I hated my freakin’ chemistry class.”).
Then Jimmy Wu ’19, a physics major and soon-to-be math teacher who dabbled in musical theater to de-stress, asks this: “Most of the stuff I read about you online is directly about race and diversity. Do you ever feel your identity overshadows your work as an actor?”
It’s true. In interviews with Kim, the subject often veers toward the lack of nuanced—or much of any—roles for Asian American actors, or the fight for pay parity and projects for marginalized voices, or most recently the “whitewashing” controversy that led to his role as Daimio in the 2019 supernatural flick Hellboy. “Diversity is more than just a buzzword to me. It’s my life,” he has said.
Despite all that, Kim’s response to Wu’s question is surprisingly blunt. “Yes,” he says, forcefully, “I do feel that way. … I often get frustrated that the questions I’m asked in interviews are always about race. I make it a point to try and talk about my body of work.” Kim adds, after a pause, “I’m not ashamed to talk about race. In fact, it’s super important to me. But it’s not everything that I’m about.”
That’s the pull and tug, the reality of his life from a young age and of show business for Asian Americans. But delve deeper, and there’s another factor behind Kim’s persistence on the topic.
During an interview later that day, he says, “At a place like Haverford, there is such an emphasis on cultural sensitivity and issues of gender, religion, and race. [Before college,] this notion of equality among people was just something in a textbook. But here, it was put into practice on a daily basis.”
Born in Busan, South Korea, Kim came to the United States as a toddler with parents who spoke little English. The family, including two siblings, eventually settled in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, his father an anesthesiologist, his mother a homemaker.
“Our own family unit felt like an island amid so many people who didn’t look like us or talk like us or eat the same food as us,” he says of growing up in Easton and Bethlehem.
Haverford, he says, “was really the first place in my life where there was such an emphasis on understanding experiences outside your own.” Kim welcomed the diversity, in classmates, ideas—and liberal arts requirements.
This last led Kim, who planned to be a litigator, to the course “Fundamentals of Acting,” which fulfilled one of the College’s then seven required dimensions.
Haverford roommate Tom Harding ’90, who flew cross-country to hang out with Kim during his Commencement visit, recalls a “theatricality” about his friend, who had an “exceptionally pliable face that he could contort for expressiveness” and a deep, resonant voice. Dropping his own voice an octave, Harding, executive director of the nonprofit Art Aids Art, imitates Kim as his buddy chuckles.
Kim’s acting debut, the story goes, was in D.D., a one-act play by fellow Ford Lane Savadove ’89 about a doctor and his schizophrenic patient, who (spoiler alert) turn out to be the same person.
“It was a huge part,” says Savadove, now the artistic director of Philadelphia theater company EgoPo. “I had to spend several days begging him to do it. He was very nervous about it.” What helped him eventually embrace the experience: “It took that first audience applause.”
Under the tutelage of Mark Lord, director then and now of the Bi-Co Theater Program at Bryn Mawr College, Kim was exposed to experimental, expressionist playwrights, performing in versions of Alfred Jarry’s irreverent Ubu Roi and Peter Handke’s intense The Ride Across Lake Constance.
“I had no idea who any of those people were,” Kim says. “I just knew Cats.”
Joking aside, he says, “I never quite felt I fit into the program, but I tried my damnedest.” Looking back, though, Lord’s focus on intellectual works that “hold a mirror up to life and society” have served as a useful counterpoint to some of the priorities of the entertainment industry, he says. “I actually carry his perspective on the things I do now.”
Lord also guided Kim through his doubts. He wanted to be an actor, but his parents objected, and he, himself, worried about his chances. “It was clear to him that there were not a lot of successful actors who looked like him,” Lord says. “I had tough conversations with Dan.”
Kim took the leap after two experiences: studying for a semester at the National Theater Institute in Connecticut, where an agent told him he held promise, and writing, directing, and performing the well-received Killing Time, his senior thesis about the death penalty.
After graduation, Kim hustled for auditions in New York and found a home at the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. “I felt completely whole when I was working in that moment,” he says. But reality—at times he could not afford a deli sandwich—often interjected.
What kept him going? “Naïve persistence.”
By 1996, Kim had earned his MFA from New York University’s Graduate Acting Program and was raising the first of his two sons with wife Mia. Despite loving theater, he made the practical jump to better-paying television.
Smaller parts on popular shows (Law & Order, Beverly Hills 90210, NYPD Blue) led to recurring roles in series such as 24, Angel (a spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and sci-fi shows Crusade and Star Trek: Enterprise. (Sci-fi, says Kim, is one genre where Asian Americans have found greater acceptance.) The mysterious drama Lost gave him his big break as the stern Jin-Soo Kwon. (Kim had to brush up on his Korean for the show, which had him conversing in the language with the actress who played his wife.) Lost also proved the catalyst for a real-life role: a leading voice on diversity.
“I have been very careful not to take stereotypical roles, and this had the potential to become that,” he has said. Instead, Kim crafted a layered character so successfully that the writers altered Jin’s arc, taking him from villain to hero. “The role is one of the things I’m proudest of,” he says.
Lord, who introduced Kim at Commencement as a “citizen artist,” notes that he has always exuded a certain thoughtfulness.
“Before he does something on stage or on screen, there’s a moment in which I feel like you can see him thinking about it before he does it,” he says. “That’s the way I connect up the strength of his acting work and how I remember him as a student and imagine him as an activist.”
Kim brought that same consideration to the multifaceted Detective Chin Ho Kelly in seven seasons of Hawaii Five-0 before leaving in 2017 when negotiations, reportedly over pay parity, broke down.
Likewise in Hellboy, Kim drew upon his own outsider experience to portray the humanity of the scar-faced Daimio. “He carries with him a great deal of shame because of his appearance, and that’s something I could relate to as a young Asian American boy,” he said in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview. “One year I dressed up like Elvis for Halloween, and I remember kids saying, ‘You can’t be Elvis.’ … I used to love superheroes, … but I never felt like I could actually be that superhero while playing with my friends, because that superhero didn’t look like me.”
Actor Ed Skrein was originally cast as Daimio, but exited after an outcry over the white actor playing a character conceived as Japanese American. Kim has offered praise for Skrein’s decision, saying that “it’s equally important for people like Ed, who are white and male, to understand the issue as well and take action.”
Recently, Kim played the bad guy (a caddish fiance) in the Netflix romantic comedy film Always Be My Maybe, released in May, which has a majority-Asian cast that includes comedians Ali Wong and Randall Park. Next up is an outer-space thriller, Stowaway, in which he plays one of three astronauts. “In a way,” he says, “it’s Sartre’s No Exit in space.”
Kim’s many roles—and particularly the nuanced expression of humanity he demands—have earned him his prominent reputation on diversity, no doubt.
“Daniel came into fame just at a time when Asian American actors were rightly so fighting for mainstream acceptance,” Savadove says. “[He] has actually been really instrumental in changing the way that America views the potential for Asian American actors.”
Kim’s six-year-old production company, 3AD, provides another crucial vehicle toward that aim, starting with the hit TV show The Good Doctor, based on a Korean show about a surgeon with autism, which began its third season in the fall. The company now has 10 projects in active development—all part of the mission “to create the entire universe,” he says, “and put on the screen the diversity I see in the world.”
Interestingly, the show’s lead is Caucasian—not Korean as in the 2013 original—and that has drawn some criticism. Executive producer David Shore has said he cast his net wide and was open to Asian actors but in the end decided Brit Freddie Highmore was the best choice. The Korean version, Shore has said, “wasn’t a Korean story. It wasn’t an American story. It was just a very, very human story.”
Highmore’s character, Kim has noted, reflects autism with the same sensitivity as the original. “Beyond Asian representation, I’m just proud of the show’s idea of representation in general,” he has said, noting a diverse cast that includes African Americans and Mexican Americans. “It’s a reflection of how our producers see the world.”
In some ways, that’s the epitome of his life for now, that mix of artistic creativity and stereotype breaking, even as he looks to a day when diversity is so commonplace he no longer has to talk about it. “That’s really the goal for me,” he says.
At Commencement, Kim never dwells on the D word, diversity, perhaps because these soon-to-be graduates get it more than most.
“The lessons that we learn here truly go beyond the walls of a classroom,” he tells the Class of 2019, “and teach us a more nuanced, caring way of interacting with one another. … If you can embrace these ideals, I believe the path of your life will reveal itself in its most authentic way—and sometimes in ways you may not imagine.”
Certainly, the would-be litigator turned actor and activist can attest to that.