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Daniel Dae Kim has built a career based on trusting his gut.
Kim returns to the big screen Friday as Major Ben Daimio in Neil Marshall’s R-rated reimagining of Hellboy, playing one of the few Asian comic book characters to appear on the big screen. Daimio teams up with the titular half-demon superhero, Hellboy (David Harbour), to battle Nimue (MIlla Jovovich), an ancient sorceress who’s hell-bent on revenge.
The role of Ben Daimio was previously held by English actor Ed Skrein, but after a social media upheaval regarding the whitewashing of Daimio’s Asian lineage, Skrein gracefully exited the role in 2017, penning a statement explaining why he was leaving. Kim, who fought for inclusion long before he was in the limelight, also left a secure television role in 2017 on Hawaii Five-0 after seeking salary parity with his co-stars. Fittingly, after these two highly publicized moves in the name of equality, the role of Ben Daimio quickly found its way to Kim. Within two weeks of Skrein’s departure, Kim accepted the role and embarked on 30-hour plane ride to Bulgaria, where he quickly learned his lines and dusted off his British accent.
“I just remember how much respect I had for what Ed did,” Kim tells The Hollywood Reporter. “His statement was so well-written and so passionate that the cynical part of me thought that it must be his publicist writing it. Once I met him, I found out firsthand that it was him who wrote the entire thing and that he meant every word of it. So, I was even more moved by that gesture as a result.”
Kim, who’s best known for his portrayal of Jin-Soo Kwon on ABC’s Lost, also reflects on the show’s early days and how he had to trust his instincts despite low test audience scores for his character and an uncertain future for one of the most unusual (and expensive) broadcast shows ever created.
“If, for instance, we got four or five episodes on the air and then we got canceled, the entirety of Jin’s character would be what you saw at the beginning,” Kim says. “To me, that was problematic because it represented a number of stereotypes that I worked so hard to avoid in my career. So, that was my concern. I had a lot of faith in J.J. [Abrams] and Damon [Lindelof] that if the show continued, the character would grow and deepen; they had assured me of that. So, it wasn’t a matter of trusting them, it was just a matter of trusting whether or not the show would be successful.”
Recently, Kim and his production company, 3AD, have enjoyed success as an executive producer of The Good Doctor, which averaged 15.6 million total viewers per episode in its first season (2017-2018). While the show was originally stationed at CBS, Kim again trusted his gut and bought back the rights once CBS passed on commissioning a pilot. From there, Kim took the show to a familiar destination where he first became a star — ABC.
In a recent conversation with THR, Kim also discusses his crash course preparation for Hellboy, his favorite in-between moments on the Lost set, as well as his reflections on his final scene as Jin on Lost. (Yes, there are Lost spoilers ahead.)
Fifteen years ago, you arrived in Hawaii to film Lost‘s pilot, and it sounds like you haven’t left since.
That is correct. If you would’ve asked me when I was a little kid growing up in Pennsylvania whether or not I would spend the majority of my career in Hawaii, I would’ve laughed. But, stranger things have happened, and they actually have. I’m here, and it really feels like I found home for me and my family.
Do you still feel Hawaii’s laid-back vibe despite living there?
That vibe really does exist, but like any other place, once you’re there for more than just a vacation, you learn a lot more about the people and the location that deepens your knowledge base. That can be both positive and negative. It’s still an amazing place to live, and the fact that I’m choosing to live here — even though I’m not working here any longer — says everything.
Is it tricky navigating Hollywood from afar? Are you flying back and forth constantly?
Yes. (Laughs.) It’s very difficult. I think I’ve gotten platinum status on two different airlines in the past year. I literally flew 200,000 miles in the last calendar year.
There’s a Lost “golden pass” joke that practically writes itself here, but I’ll refrain for now.
(Laughs.) Right! But, it’s worth it. My family loves it here. My children got to spend their entire childhood here. It’s a pretty special place.
So, at the end of August 2017, Ed Skrein departed Hellboy, and the role of Ben Daimio, because he didn’t want to perpetuate the whitewashing of another Asian character. From your vantage point, what happened from there up until the point where you were on set virtually two weeks later?
I had been aware of the controversy because it had been all over social media for a couple of weeks. This was before I even heard from my agents that the producers were interested in me. It was something that I wasn’t going into blindly. Even before I had any affiliation with the project, I just remember how much respect I had for what Ed did. His statement was so well-written and so passionate that the cynical part of me thought that it must be his publicist writing it. (Laughs.) It was that moving to me. So, one of the things I did when I got the job was I sought him out, because we were shooting in London where he was at the time. I wanted to personally thank him for that statement. Once I met him, I found out firsthand that it was him who wrote the entire thing and that he meant every word of it. So, I was even more moved by that gesture as a result.
To go back to your question, I found out that the Hellboy producers were interested in having me Skype-call with [director] Neil Marshall, who was already in England at the time. So, we got on a Skype-call; we talked a little bit about the character and we talked about the controversy a little bit. I really respected and appreciated his take on the situation, and we had a great call. After that, I decided to come aboard. We began negotiations and by the time they were all said and done, I only had a couple of days to get on the flight to start shooting. So, I was furiously learning my lines in the air and working on my British accent at the same time.
That is such an extreme example of an actor’s life.
It is! It comes with the territory, and I’m sure you’ve heard many stories like that. Sometimes, that’s how things happen. I often find that good news happens really quickly and bad news takes a long time. So, I showed up on set, completely jetlagged, but as ready as I could be.
Was it more difficult coming up with a British accent on the fly, or reacclimating to Korean for Lost, a language you hadn’t used frequently since high school?
To be honest, the Korean was harder, only because I had grown up in America. So, I heard my share of British accents. In drama school, we actually had an accent and dialect class. I would sit in that class learning the British and Australian accents thinking, “When am I ever going to be asked, as an Asian-American actor, to use these accents?” Sure enough, cut to 20 years later, there I am on set using one.
An accent is different from learning a different language. I’m still using the same part of my brain for the accent that I would be for American English. For Korean, I felt like I was tapping into a different part of my brain. When I speak Korean, it’s never in the context of acting; well, it hadn’t been [until Lost].
A couple years ago, you sacrificed in the name of equality. That reminds me of the saying, “There is no reward without sacrifice.” Do you think there’s a connection between that event and your casting in Hellboy? In other words, had you not gone public with one issue, perhaps you wouldn’t have been on people’s minds when another related issue came up, resulting in your casting.
I think that’s fair to say. You never know what the ripple effects of any pebble that gets thrown in the water might be. In a way, I felt like there was a certain poetry to the fact that my next role would end up being something that had to do with the issue of diversity and one that had been vacated by a white actor because he felt as passionately about it as I did. To me, that represented a really significant step forward in changing the dialogue around diversity.
Ben Daimio is quite a character. What was your jumping-off point as far as developing the character?
I started with the scar. His defining characteristic, to me, was the fact that he had an indelible scar on his face. To me, that scar was a metaphor for race. It is something that is a part of your appearance that you cannot control; it defines how people view you and the judgements the make about you. Daimio has spent a lot of time hiding that scar, and it’s something that whether he wanted to try and hide or not, he couldn’t. So, because of it, people recoil while looking at him. So, I couldn’t help but see parallels between that and race.
Even though Daimio is a larger-than-life character, it sounds like you could relate to him on some level.
Yeah, absolutely. How people perceive you helps determine how you perceive yourself. As a young Asian-American kid growing up in a steel town in Pennsylvania, I can tell you that I felt ugly a lot of the time. I was directly told on many occasions that the way I looked was “funny” or “ugly.” So, I could relate to Daimio a lot. He probably had his self-worth and self-esteem directly affected by this event that left a scar on his face. So, that was a parallel I was able to draw. The course of his life changed once that encounter happened, and that was my entry point into the character.
Did you figure out who Daimio was before his fateful encounter, so you could better understand how to create the offshoot that is the “reborn” Ben?
Absolutely. He’s a military guy. What I thought was interesting is that from my friends who’ve been in the military, there are no excuses. The hand that you’re dealt is the hand that you play. No one wants to hear any whining; no one wants to hear any moaning about your lot in life. So, that’s something that I took to Ben Daimio. There’s a certain stoicism that he has when it comes to how he goes about his business. He is not necessarily a touchy-feely person, and I think that has more to do with his military background than anything else.
In the trailer, Ben transforms into a jaguar of sorts. How did you film that transformation process?
There was not a mocap suit, but we did have a mocap session where they had sensors on my body. During the actual shooting of the transformation, there was just a lot of different angles and a lot of different plate shots that they used for reference.
So, you actually got down on your hands and knees and performed all those actions?
Oh, yeah! That was a long day. (Laughs.) It was very physically taxing. The idea was that it was a very painful transformation. There was nothing pleasant about it. So, working through that was a challenge, and it left me pretty exhausted at the end of the day.
When you reflect on Lost, what are some of the smaller memories or in-between moments that surprisingly stick with you, such as Terry O’Quinn playing guitar offscreen?
That’s a good question. The first things that pop up are the moments in between takes. Because we were all friends, our time together — between takes — was as special as the time that we were actually shooting. The moments where the guitars would come out, all of our set chairs would be in a circle, so we could all see each other and talk to each other. There were several of us who play guitar and a lot of us who sang. So, spontaneous sing-along sessions would just kind of break out, and certain times we would get so passionate about them that we would delay shooting because we needed to finish a version of “Roxanne” that we were all singing. (Laughs.)
Co-showrunner Carlton Cuse used to talk a lot about how Jin and Sawyer tested at the bottom of cast in the early days of the show. After all you were both antagonists, so you’re not supposed to be liked. By the end, your characters were beloved by test audiences. Since you probably didn’t know the entirety of Jin’s massive arc as of season one, did you lament Jin’s reception at first, even though you were fulfilling the role as the writing intended?
Yes. Absolutely, I did. I was very concerned about it. Though I was reassured that the character was going to grow and develop, what I wasn’t sure about was how the show would be received. If, for instance, we got four or five episodes on the air and then we got canceled, the entirety of Jin’s character would be what you saw at the beginning. To me, that was problematic because it represented a number of stereotypes that I worked so hard to avoid in my career. So, that was my concern. I had a lot of faith in J.J. [Abrams] and Damon [Lindelof] that if the show continued, the character would grow and deepen; they had assured me of that. So, it wasn’t a matter of trusting them, it was just a matter of trusting whether or not the show would be successful.
Many fans consider Jin and Sun to be Lost‘s greatest romance. Their conclusion on the submarine affects me each and every time I see it. Since the show has now been off the air for almost nine years, has your rationalization of Jin’s decision to leave his daughter behind changed at all?
I can see both sides of that decision, but the thing that I keep coming back to is that he had wronged his wife in many ways. The decision to stay with her was part of his atonement. That’s the emotional place where that decision came from. I think there was the rational question of whether or not he would’ve made it out alive, and I think all of those combined for him to make the choice that he did. To me, it was a very powerful statement about love and making that sacrifice for an ideal and a feeling that is undeniable.
Your production company, 3AD, has enjoyed tremendous success via its first production, The Good Doctor. I presume you’re still on cloud nine?
Honestly, this phrase gets thrown around a lot — and it’s super cliche — but I really do feel fortunate. There have been a lot of producers who’ve worked in this business for many, many years and have not been able to enjoy the success that The Good Doctor has brought my company. So, I’m very grateful, and I’m completely aware of how special it is. It was great to be able to do a role on it as well.
With the success of Crazy Rich Asians, Marvel’s reported development of Shang-Chi, Kelly Marie Tran as Star Wars’ first woman of color in a leading role, as well as the turn of events surrounding your casting in Hellboy, do you feel as optimistic as ever about the future of Asian representation on the big screen?
I feel like there are still significant challenges. All you have to do is look at the culture around us and the rise in hate crimes to know that we are not where we should be. At the same time, I do believe that there has never been a better time to be an Asian-American working in this industry. The emphasis on inclusion, diversity and the #MeToo movement are all positive steps. So, it really gives me hope for the future.
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