LOST AND FOUND. As the star of Lost, one of the most popular TV shows in the world, Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim, is in the prime of life. He’s the father of two boys, lives in tropical Hawaii, where he recently started a new gourmet burger restaurant, and looks especially dapper in high-fashion suits.
At some point, we have all experienced it, the stomach turning, emotional flutter accompanying a realization that you don’t know where you are. You look around and think ‘this doesn’t look right. Where am I?’ You are lost. Anyone who has had to start over in a new career, a new house, a new city or even a new country knows that emotional rush all too well. Handling these situations and waking up a little lost are subjects in which Daniel Dae Kim must be well versed, and not just because of his role on TV’s “deserted” island, time-travel phenomenon, Lost.
From a small town in Pennsylvania to New York to Hawaii, the Busan, Korea-born actor can call many places home. Oddly enough, his response to a question that no member of the cast of Lost can avoid, “do you have any good real-life ‘getting lost’ stories?” is a bit comical. “The thing that freaks me out the most (laughing) is when you wake up and for a split second you don’t know where you are. You look around and you think ‘this is not my room. Where am I?’ (Laughing, again) I still have that happen to me once in a while and that utter confusion for the first few seconds…that is something that I don’t experience in any other way.”
Most successful actors, high-powered businessmen, and other jet-setting types have shared this panicked experience of waking up in an unfamiliar place. To our question of feeling lost, Daniel could have brought up the fact that when he was less than two years old, his parents decided to leave his birthplace in South Korea and emigrate to the United States. He could have also talked about the subsequent move as a grade-schooler from New York to a small industrial town, which in those days, undoubtedly, lacked the comforts of a more diverse demographic. More recently, he had to make the difficult decision to uproot his own family and move to Hawaii for his role on Lost.
True to his easy-going nature, Daniel focuses on none of the potentially harrowing stories of those moments in his life and instead relates a universal human experience. When pointedly asked if he would have preferred to grow up somewhere more diverse like New York or Los Angeles, he could say nothing negative.
“You know sometimes when I was a teenager I would think ‘yeah, it would be nice to live somewhere where I don’t feel like an outsider all the time.’ But in retrospect, I think growing up in an area like that gave me an extra motivation to do something with my life. So as difficult as it was, at times, during my childhood, I don’t think that I’d go back and do anything differently. I’m happy with where I am today. If it would have changed the trajectory of my life, then I would rather not do it.” The ability to take life in stride and make-do with what you are dealt are enviable traits.
Clearly motivated by the manner and environment in which he was raised, Daniel’s journey into acting started in college. “I was a political science major and I had taken all of my core requirements, so I was starting to take some electives in things that I just wanted to explore. One of the things I took was an acting class. Once I took that class I realized how interested I was in it. It woke something up inside of me that made me want to explore it further.” While most of his classmates spent a semester studying abroad in Europe, Daniel studied at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. After graduating from Haverford College with degrees in political science and acting, he enjoyed a successful on-stage career in New York and eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in fine arts from NYU.
While many actors may not even complete a bachelor’s degree, earning a graduate-level degree is not a path many of his contemporaries choose to follow. “It has made me stronger as an actor; there is no question,” Daniel continues, “for some…pursuing an advanced degree is the worst thing they can do. For others it is the only way they can achieve their goal.” In Daniel’s case it was more than just a means to an end.
For many young Asian people in America pressure to pursue a career in medicine, law or science is heavy and persistent. Often their parents, or grandparents, gave up long-established careers as professionals to move their families to the U.S. The Kim family was no exception and Daniel’s career decisions certainly strained his relationship with his parents.
Why wouldn’t two professionals be worried about their son pursuing a career as an artist? It is hard enough to succeed in show business as a Caucasian American; doing so as a Korean or Asian-American probably has a success rate similar to that of winning the lottery. To appease his parents and his own desire for a safety net, Daniel initially applied to both law school and drama school. Consistent with his nature, and as time and kids have a way of changing perspectives, he looks back on his parents’ concern and harbors no grudge.
“You know, I realize now that everything they did was just out of concern for me. So, things were tense for a little while between my family and me. When I decided to go to graduate school and pursue my master’s degree in acting, I think they started to change their perspective on my career because they saw how serious I was about it. At that point, (he chuckles) they knew that if I graduated with that degree, I could always teach (laughing, again). So they knew I wouldn’t starve.”
Starving artist is certainly a label Daniel has never had to wear. As acting careers often do, his started with small roles in everything from comedies to science fiction to dramas, appearing in series such as Seinfeld, Star Trek: Voyager, and NYPD Blue. On the big screen, his early credits include The Jackal, For Love of the Game, Hulk, Spider-man 2, and the Academy Award-winning Crash. He has even lent his voice to a number of video games and animated series.
His on-screen success took off in earnest as he landed a number of recurring guest roles on shows like Angel, ER and Fox’s hit thriller 24. Since, we have known Daniel as the conflicted, but proud and dedicated, husband Jin-Soo Kwon on Lost. Daniel’s success has not stopped there. In his next big-screen exploit, he works with Matt Damon on The Adjustment Bureau, a sci-fi/romance/coming-of-age story set to be released later this year.
Despite his achievements, Daniel has certainly not been immune to the limitations that Hollywood writers and executives seem to place on the roles available to Asian actors, a topic he tackles head-on. “I take a little bit of pride in that I don’t feel like I’ve taken any roles that I regret in terms of cultural representation. I’ve never done the stereotypical Asian nerd or anything like that. But that’s not to say that there isn’t that kind of dynamic in Hollywood…There is definitely a categorization of Asian males, in particular, (pauses) what I mean to say is though the roles might not be overtly offensive, they are definitely secondary and exist only to serve another character. For instance, a lot of roles that I have played have been in support of the leads and I was there to deliver exposition. They’re not stereotypical roles but they are representative of a ceiling that a lot of us face.”
He readily admits that these decisions are not due to racial issues, and that any production requires supporting roles. However, the realities of the current situation in the industry have mainly relegated Asian actors to these smaller roles. Aware of his position to influence future generations of Asian artists, Daniel is hopeful that one day the dynamics will change such that Asian-Americans “are the ones being talked to and the ones making the decisions” in Hollywood. Optimistic, but realistic, he goes on to say that it is up to future generations of aspiring artists to look at their influences, the way he did with George Takei and Bruce Lee, and think ‘wow that is someone who looks like me, doing something really cool.’ Then, like any successful artist, they have to find the conviction and passion to make it happen.
Passion is something Daniel must have in abundance. Even with a wife, two young boys and an immensely popular TV show, he has found the time to pursue other interests. Recently he managed to headline in a production of the King and I at the Royal Albert Hall in London and open a gourmet burger joint in Hawaii, The Counter. His reasons for both endeavors speak to things that he cares about in life, his family, the community that has embraced him and his craft. He describes his restaurant as the kind of place you can take your family to get upscale comfort food and “not break the bank.” As a classically trained actor, the “immediacy” and “energy” of a live performance are things he finds “irreplaceable” and has no desire to give up.
Knowing his audience, Daniel even took the time to offer some sound advice to aspiring actors in Asia. “There are so many things beyond your control in show business; it behooves you to do everything you can do, to the best [of your abilities], at the things you can control. If that means getting training, then that means get training. If that means learning English, then that means learn English flawlessly. All of those things that you can control that can help you get your job, your break or your next job; you should do, without question. That way you won’t look back and say I could have done this…I should have done this. Sometimes it may not happen for everybody, but at least you won’t be an obstacle in your own path.”
Interestingly, Daniel faced the opposite language barrier when he had to relearn Korean for his role on Lost. Sharpen his language skills he did, and for five seasons we have watched his character grow and develop. As the sixth and final season of Lost approaches and the time warp of TV history prepares to swallow another victim, rest assured that Daniel Dae Kim is one standout actor who will not be disappearing anytime soon.
Photographs: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
To see the full feature with more full-size images, click here for the DA MAN February/March 2010 back issue.
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