Rome MIA: Daniel Dae Kim Takes a Front Seat Role in Changing Hollywood's Lack of Diversity (Q&A)

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Daniel Dae Kim

After executive producing 'The Good Doctor' on ABC, Kim is actively developing new projects with his company 3AD.

Daniel Dae Kim has been working as an actor for more than 25 years, most recently as Chin Ho Kelly for seven seasons of the hit show Hawaii 5-0. This summer Kim and co-star Grace Park made headlines after deciding to leave the show when CBS failed to match their salaries with the series' white male leads.

Behind the scenes, Kim has not only been working hard to fight for equality in Hollywood, but also actively working to change the types of stories that make it to the screen, searching for stories with strong diverse leads. This fall he launched an American adaption of the popular Korean show The Good Doctor on ABC with his production company 3AD.

The new primetime drama stars Freddie Highmore as a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome. Beau Garrett, Nicholas Gonzalez, Hill Harper, Irene Keng, Chuku Modu, Richard Schiff, Antonia Thomas and Tamlyn Tomita also star. After just three episodes, it has become the most-watched show on TV, incredibly surpassing The Big Bang’s audience numbers with 18.2 million viewers.

Kim is currently shooting the role of Daimio in Neil Marshall's Hellboy, after fan outrage over whitewashing the Asian-American comic book character led actor Ed Skrein to drop out. Kim took a break from the filming in Bulgaria to attend Rome's MIA market where he spoke with attendees on the importance of representing diversity in TV and his experience finding stories that resonate with global audiences. Having just signed a first-look deal with ITV Studios America, he is eagerly working on developing a slew on new projects.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Kim about what it means to play an Asian-American superhero, his goals as a producer, and the aftermath of his taking a stand on salary parity.

What does playing the role of Daimio mean to you?

I don't really think there has been a hero of Asian descent from a comic book in an American movie before. I think that's pretty significant if that is true. That's kind of the macro of the casting of this.

And I do feel a certain identification with the character. Daimio is marked by his appearance: literally marked. So he's someone who has to navigate his world despite the obstacles of how people react when they see him. And that's something I can relate to. I grew up in a steel town, and at the time when I was a kid there weren't any Asian families in the area. So it had its challenges.

How can we get Hollywood to tell more diverse stories?

It's complicated. I'll say it's complex. It's also incumbent on us as Asians, as minorities in this country to speak up, to speak out, take positions of leadership. I think it's time for frankly the conversation to move beyond inclusion to leadership, because if you start to lead it's already understood that you are included. So I'd like to raise the bar a little bit higher.

I also think it's really important that all of us do something to participate. It's easy to point fingers and say well, it's because of this, that. To get involved in the nitty-gritty is sometimes a daunting task, but a necessary one.

How are you doing this on a day-to-day level?

Something I often say is, I stand on the shoulders of the people who came before, and I'm ready to lift up people to stand on my shoulders. And one of the ways we can do that is to hire them. And that's why it was so important for me to be a job creator, because there is no substitute for on-the-job experience. A lot of us, and I can tell you from experience, just didn't have the kind of opportunity it required to get better at the same rate as others.

So it's really important to me to create those opportunities. And as a producer I think The Good Doctor shows that I'm not in it to create roles for myself, although I won't rule that out, but it's not my primary focus.

How conscious are you of this when you are producing?

I consciously think about the ethnicity of every character that I create and cast. But one thing that is equally important, is quality representation. It's not enough to put an African-American in there, a female in there, a gay character in there: How significant is their contribution? Can they drive the story? Can they be in a position where they are leaders as opposed to the ones providing all the exposition? These are questions I ask myself regularly when I am producing a show. Because that's what real inclusion is, not window dressing.

Were you big a fan of the original Korean Good Doctor?

Yeah. I saw it in 2013. In fact, it was the very first project that my company developed. Generally, in a broadcast development cycle, it goes about a year and if it is passed on, the project goes away. I felt strongly enough about this project that when it didn't go forward in CBS, I bought the rights back myself and tried to redevelop it. So that should say everything you need to know about how passionately I feel about the show.

Why is this show timely?

It actually makes me feel prouder of the show to know that we can still aspire, we can still hope, we can still find heroes that are pure. Not everything has to be sullied the way that our political climate has led us to believe is the norm. I like the fact that if you watch the evening news and you read about what is going on in the country and the world that 10 o’clock on a Monday night you can escape that and hope again.

I've read some criticism of The Good Doctor that says it's overly sweet and syrupy. I'll take that criticism, given the world that we live in. I'd much rather be on that side of the equation than the opposite.

Talking about salary parity, do you think the industry is at a turning point?

Oftentimes when there is significant change, it comes in a wave. It's not an isolated incident; it's a group of them that happen to converge. Whether meaningful change comes from my personal situation is not something that can be judged in the moment, it can only be judged looking backward. I try to make the right decisions based on my own moral compass. It comes with consequences, and it comes with controversy, but many decisions of these kinds come with those things.

Was there one incident that made you say, "OK, I'm going to stop and draw the line here"?

I don't know how to put this because I don't want to go into to much detail about it. At a certain point, everyone needs to ask themselves, "What am I?" In Hamilton there is a great line about this, "If you stand for nothing, Burr, what'll you fall for?"

That's ultimately it. I think there are a lot of parallels. Hamilton speaks to a lot of people because of these kinds of themes.

There is another part of Hamilton about being on the right side of history that really resonates with me. People who were going through the Civil Rights Movement didn't know what was going to happen 20 years in the future. They just knew what they were experiencing here in this moment that it was intolerable. Again, we look back to connect the dots, not forward.

Have any actors come to since you for advice on salary negotiations?

I've had the privilege, the mixed blessing of being called a role model, and I think it's partially because I'm so old now. But I'm aware of the larger ramifications of these kinds of stories in the culture at large, let's put it that way.

Would greater pay transparency help the situation?

I think that awareness is important. And if there is a full disclosure of things, I wish it were a full disclosure and not a selective disclosure. Should salaries be open? That's a really good question.

You mentioned you'd like to produce a project in Hawaii. What would that look like?

There's a local culture there that operates by a very different set of rules than what is typically known as American, and that's something that I think is unique and worth telling. There's life in Hawaii that goes much deeper than what tourists see, and most cultures are like that. I think people's perception of Hawaii, and understandably so, is one of relaxation, of paradise, and it is all those things, but it's much more complex than that. And to tell those stories that we haven't heard before, from people we haven't heard before, that's what is interesting.