Photo: Singapore International Film Festival
Korean-American actor-producer Daniel Dae Kim is not just a hot-bod. He’s humble, has 26 years of experience under his belt and runs a production company, called 3AD. No wonder he was selected to be a part of the Asian Feature Film Competition Jury for the 29th edition of Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF).
It hasn’t been an easy journey for Asian American actors to strive in Hollywood. For Kim, he faced his own share of struggles in the past, particularly with the salary controversy when he was filming for Hawaii Five-0 — Time Magazine reported that he was paid 10 to 15 per cent lower than his Caucasian counterparts, Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. Despite these challenges, he managed to overcome the obstacles and went on found his production company, 3AD, through which he became an executive producer for the critically-acclaimed popular medical drama series, The Good Doctor.
Visiting Singapore as a member of the Asian Feature Film Competition Jury at this year’s SGIFF, he reveals how his life has been since Hawaii Five-0 and the challenges he faced as an Asian-American actor in Hollywood.
Q: Congratulations on being a part of the Asian Feature Film Competition Jury for SGIFF. How has it been so far?
A: It’s been excellent. I’ve been busy as I am the member of the jury, so we were reviewing all the films in the competition. We had to watch three films a day, and that’s a lot of movies to watch in one day.
Q: Does it get tiring for you?
A: Yes, absolutely. I’m not used to seeing three movies in a row, so it’s a long time sitting there [reviewing the movies].
Q: Tell us, what are the things that you look out for when you’re critiquing the films?
A: It’s a combination of things, such as the story plot, how it is being told, how are the directors using the camera, the actors’ chemistry on screen, whether or not there is a narrative, an innovative way that they deployed when trying to tell the story, the cinematography, even down to sound design and music. It’s everything but ultimately it is about whether these ingredients can come together to move the audience. That’s the bottom line [that I look out for when judging].
Q: How do you feel about being a part of the judging panel?
A: I’m honored. I’ve been a judge before for film festivals. But to be asked to travel from Hawaii to come here (i.e Singapore) to judge this film festival, I feel very fortunate.
Q: How was the experience of judging at the SGIFF important to you as an actor-producer?
A: I think Asian cinema in general is important to me, and I like this festival because it encourages young filmmakers. I like Singapore too, so it’s all good.
Q: When we’re talking about Asian cinema, many would associate it with Korean, Chinese and Japanese films, and not so much those from Southeast Asia. So, when you’re here for SGIFF, what are your opinions about Southeast Asian movies?
A: I was really impressed. In fact, I enjoyed one of the movies from Singapore. I have also seen some good films from Thailand. I have some filmmaker friends in Vietnam and I really feel like there’s an emerging market and talents here.
Q: Were there any highlights that you’re particularly intrigued by?
A: It’s been very nice to meet Stanley Kwan, who’s the head of the jury. I have been a fan of his [works] for a number of years. It was really nice to sit down and see my old friends like Joan Chen and filmmaker Terence Cheng, as well as meeting new people. I think that the organisers for this festival have been gracious and accommodating, which made the experience really pleasant.
Q: Let’s go back to the time when you’re on-screen. You starred as Detective Lieutenant Chin Ho Kelly, who was part of the main cast for seven seasons in Hawaii Five-0. It was a big part of your life for a long time. Can you share how life has been after you have left the show?
A: Well, I have a lot more free time, which is something that I really needed because I was running a production company for a couple of years while I was doing the show. And so, leaving the show gave me a lot more time to devote myself to my company. My company’s based in Los Angeles and I’m in Hawaii, so it allowed me to travel more to where I needed to be at work. So as a result, my company developed a number of projects relatively quickly because I had the time.
Q: Do you miss acting?
A: Yeah, of course. I plan to continue acting, just selectively. In fact, I have a couple of movies coming up. But, I don’t necessarily feel that I have to take a job for the sake of it. So, I’ll be a little pickier in what I do.
Q: What keeps you going despite facing rejections in the past in your acting career?
A: I think vision and the belief in oneself is necessary, no matter what field you’re in. If you want to achieve something, there’s going to be obstacles. It’s up to you to decide if you want to give up or not.
Q: Being an Asian American actor in Hollywood has its challenges. Can you share what are some you’ve faced?
A: I think that the challenges of being an Asian American actor are not new. I’m pretty sure that many [Asian American stars] would probably say the same few things, such as fewer roles, roles that are not necessarily leads and are not three-dimensional. Also, you have a number of friends and colleagues competing for the same few roles. Furthermore, if the creators are non-Asian, they would not understand the Asian American experience and have problems writing it [on script]. It’s important to have creators, producers, directors and writers who are also Asian.
Q: How did you cope with these challenges and is there anything you would have done differently?
A: For me, I tend not to focus on the obstacles, but rather on the goal. Sure, I can identify them, but it’s more useful to know how I want to navigate [the challenges]. Steve Jobs once said: “You cannot connect the dots in your life looking forward. You can only connect them going backwards.” So, if I look at my career and where I am now, I don’t think I would have done anything differently because all of the decisions and choices that I’ve made led me here.
Q: Do you think Hollywood has changed its perspective on Asian American talents recently?
A: I do think that change has been made. If you see the recent phenomenon of Crazy Rich Asians, which Singapore has a unique relationship with, and the fact that it was nominated for Golden Globes, it is a symbol of change. This has never happened before for an Asian-themed movie in a way it has for [Crazy Rich Asians]. It has made stars of people and that used to be reserved for white people. I hope that this is a chapter that opens the door for many others to go through.
Q: Right now, you’re running a production company. As a producer, how do you find the balance between creating quality content and making sure that it appeals to the broader audience?
A: There is no magic formula unfortunately. If there were, everyone would be doing it. So, it’s really about having a vision for the kind of stories that you want to tell, the shows you want to make and having an awareness of the market. It’s also about understanding what the audiences are looking for and their culture. Many great projects have failed because they came out at the wrong time, even though they have every other ingredient. It’s a combination of all of those things, but ultimately we’re all just guessing. (Laughs)
Q: But it seems like you make a conscious effort to ensure that you convey important and meaningful messages in your work. One prime example is The Good Doctor. What do you think was the reason for its success?
A: Thank you, I take that as a compliment. In my view, there are so many people who contribute to junk culture. I don’t feel that this culture alleviates and enriches us, but instead I believe it divides and cheapens us. It’s a way to past time mindlessly. That’s not the kind of entertainment I’m interested in making. It’s fine for other people and there’s a place for it, but it’s not what I want to do. So, hopefully the materials I create are entertaining, as well as all of those things that I described.
Q: So you’ve gotten both good and bad experiences during your acting journey in America’s entertainment industry. From these experiences, how do you hope to shift the climate for Asian artistes in paving the way for their success?
A: I think we all make decisions and choices. It’s like a rock that falls into a pond. You’re not focusing on the rock but the ripples instead. And so, I don’t necessarily think that when I make a decision, I’m making a decision for all the Asian people. But, I know what’s important to me and I think that we share a number of things in common. It’s not surprising to me that the value I see in the choice that I make is shared by all of us.
Q: Do you plan to include lead roles for Asian actors and actresses in your future shows?
A: I’d like to. I think the world is getting smaller and I’d like to start integrating Asian actors and actresses from all over the world into American entertainment and vice versa. I think the pipeline goes both ways. Like what I said to the students the other day (Editor’s note: He spoke at the dialogue session “29th SGIFF: In Conversation with Daniel Dae Kim”): When you’re ready and you’re working on your craft, opportunities will come. But, if you’re not ready and the opportunity passes you by, then there’s no one else to blame.
Q: Lastly, could you give us one advice that you’d like to share with budding Asian American stars hoping to make it big in Hollywood?
A: There are a lot of variables that is beyond your control in Hollywood. The only thing you can control is your work ethics and ability. And so, you should do everything you can to do the best in whatever you do.