By Michelle Woo
One of the travails of working on a hospital drama, as Daniel Henney has learned, is having to master words like “hepatomegaly” and “serum ammonia.”
“If you say it fast, you get caught on the ‘M,’” he explains of the latter term, which, for those curious, means ammonia in the blood. “Serum amom-ia. I got stuck, like, 30 times.”
Adopting new languages was never a forte of the 29-year-old actor, sitting on a patio table outside the Hollywood set of CBS’ organ transplant series Three Rivers. Five years ago, shortly after moving to South Korea, the only way he could remember the Korean greeting anyang haseo was by thinking of the phrase, “Own your house, say oh!” Luckily, then, nobody really cared what he was saying, as long as he kept flashing that adorably crooked smile and ending his sentences with a wink. The man, who got by on bad mnemonic devices, was the country’s biggest star.
The story, no, the legend of Daniel Henney consists of a whirlwind of events that suggest he was destined for a quick rise to fame. A Korean American model with a smoldering gaze and a body built for Calvin Klein ads gets hired to do a commercial in Seoul, which leads him to a role on a new television drama series, which becomes not just any drama series, but a shockingly popular one—in Korea and abroad. (The translated title is My Name is Kim Sam Soon and 40 percent of television viewers tuned in each week.) And just like that, he’s Henney The Heartthrob, one who can barely leave his house without making ajumas squeal like schoolgirls and love-struck teens coo, “Opaaaaa!”
“It’s cool, it’s real cool,” Henney says of his icon-status. “But sometimes you just want to go out and grab some orange juice. And that one time when you don’t shave and you look like crap is the time you’ll be recognized. Then you’ll have 20 people taking pictures. It’s insane.”
For the moment, life is much quieter in Los Angeles, where Henney has been living for the past three months. He’s a newcomer in Hollywood, and while his face is splashed across billboards for Three Rivers, in which he plays a smooth-talking surgical resident, he’s not yet on the paparazzi radar, and most Americans wouldn’t recognize his name. He has no entourage here except for his longtime Korean manager Martin Chung, a man who rarely leaves his side. (“Do you need a jacket?” Chung asks. “I’m fine—but thanks, sweetheart!” replies Henney, who then quips, “That’s my girlfriend.”)
Sipping a cup of coffee, Henney wears a tightly fitted gray T-shirt, distressed jeans and a newsboy cap. He’s handsome and charming, and speaks with a gentleness that puts even jittery reporters at ease. He says ever since he made his U.S. acting debut as villain Agent Zero in the summer blockbuster X-Men Origins: Wolverine, things have felt surreal. “It’s overwhelming,” he says of the magnitude of it all—the big casts, the stars, the productions. “I was on a studio lot staring at this mural of The Simpsons, thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s The Simpsons!’”
Still, when it comes to his work, he remains fiercely focused. He knows that in order to earn respect on the American red carpet, it’s going to take more than perfectly shaped brows and a poreless complexion. When asked how he landed the Three Rivers role, he says matter-of-factly: “I auditioned my ass off.”
“They can’t just give it to someone because they think, oh, he’s a cute guy with a fan base in Korea,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you can’t pull your weight on the screen, you’re not gonna go anywhere.”
Movie and television stardom wasn’t something Henney gave much thought to growing up in Carson City, a small farming town in Michigan. (Fun fact: He can milk a cow.) The son of a white father and a Korean mother, the 6-foot-2 Henney was a standout high school basketball player with his eyes on winning a college scholarship.
He succeeded, and went on to play ball at Michigan’s Albion and Alma colleges. But before earning a degree, Henney decided to move to Chicago. On a whim, he tagged along with a friend to a go-see modeling event, where he met an agent. “He asked if I’d be interested in making some money and I said, ‘Yeah, I would. I’m broke as hell.’”
At 21, he started booking modeling gigs here and there, which were fun, but didn’t do much to change the “broke as hell” problem. With a $14 a week budget, he survived on 50-cent muffins from 7-Eleven and 89-cent bean burritos from Taco Bell. “I would split them up with a knife so I could ration them throughout the week,” he says. What finally boosted Henney’s confidence—and bank account—was landing a runway show put on by department store giant Marshall Fields. The gig paid $5,000. “That was like millions!” he says.
From then on, Henney was in demand, striking poses on catwalks and in catalogues. His first overseas job was for a gay sauna in Hong Kong. “I was cool with it, I understood it, I mean, this is fashion,” he says. “But then the guy tried to get me to put on this thong and swim around in hot steamy water. I said, ‘That’s not happening.’ I walked out, though I think I still have the thong.”
Modeling led to commercials throughout Asia, and Henney eventually became the poster boy for products like beer, orange juice, cameras, cell phones and shaving cream. For many of the television ads, he didn’t have to speak. All it took was a smile or wink or guzzle to make female viewers swoon.
One day, while filming a commercial in Korea, he met a manager who told him that a new drama was in its casting stage, and that he might be a good fit for one of the roles. Henney agreed to meet the director, who asked him about 20 questions—not one having to do with acting. Two weeks later, he got the part. Not knowing much about the show, and of even greater concern, not knowing a word of Korean, he was hesitant. He was living in New York City at the time, and was set on becoming an actor in the United States. “I had to ask myself: Is this really what I want to do? I was focused on doing it the hard way, taking acting classes and auditioning,” he says. But at age 25, with nothing much to lose, he signed on, figuring “work is work.”
The show was My Name is Kim Sam Soon (called My Lovely Sam Soon on English DVDs), a 2005 Bridget Jones-esque melodrama about the plump, romance-challenged title character (played by Kim Sun-ah). Henney was cast as Henry Kim, an American doctor who falls in love with his patient, Sam Soon’s pretend-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend (just go with it).
To prepare for the role, Henney was immersed in Korean language courses, which he loathed. He just couldn’t pick up the words and phrases. So, he simply stopped going. He then wrote letters to the president of the television network, begging them to let his character speak English. They eventually agreed.
Kim Sam Soon was a runaway hit, and Henney was its biggest surprise. Viewers adored his sweet, love-struck character, and didn’t mind the subtitles. Suddenly, Henney mania was in full force. “Korea is a very extreme culture,” he explains. “They’ll jump on a trend like no country I’ve ever seen. Whether it’s music or fashion or acting, you’re in or you’re out. I was very lucky to be a trend. Once that show became popular, it was no longer a question of me being a foreigner. It was: He’s Daniel Henney and he’s amazing. The whole country just automatically believes it.”
His success carved a new niche in Korea’s entertainment industry: romantic roles for mixed-race Korean American men. (Various actors such as Dennis O’Neil and Ricky Lee Neely have both been coined “the next Daniel Henney.”) After Kim Sam Soon, Henney snagged starring roles in other Korean productions, including the television series Spring Waltz and the romantic comedy Seducing Mr. Perfect. In 2007, Henney took on his first dramatic role in the film My Father, in which he played an adoptee searching for his birth parents, only to find that the man believed to be his father was a murderer on death row. That year, for his gripping performance, he swept all the major cinema awards in the Best New Actor category.
“I’m definitely a Korean actor until the day I die,” declares Henney, who now understands the language almost fully. “Korea gave me my career. Korea is where I made my mistakes, where I had my highs, my lows, where I learned the ropes. If it weren’t for Korea, I wouldn’t be here.”
Henney knew he would eventually make his way back home. He’s very close with his parents, who still live in Michigan, and always hoped they could one day watch him in an American movie theater. He achieved that goal earlier than expected when he was selected, sans audition, for the cast of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Producers wanted a Korean actor, and Henney fit the bill. (On Wolverine star Hugh Jackman: “He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met. I have a man-crush on Hugh; it’s ridiculous.”)
Henney never thought he’d take on another television role since he’d been doing mostly films lately and wanted to “keep that theme going.” But when he read the script for Three Rivers, he was struck by the multi-dimensional character of Dr. David Lee. “He was me as I grew up in the States,” Henney says. “He wasn’t a martial artist. He wasn’t a sidekick. He wasn’t only dating Asian girls. He’s strong, handsome, intelligent, witty. He’s a playboy. I’m not necessarily a playboy, but I’m just saying—when’s the last time you saw that played by an Asian on television?”
Set in a preeminent transplant hospital in Pittsburgh, Three Rivers, which premiered October 4, offers a twist to the modern-day medical drama. Each episode centers around three stories based on the organ donors, their recipients and the surgeons involved. Executive producer Carol Barbee (Judging Amy, Swingtown) says she wanted someone “fresh” to play David, who wasn’t necessarily written to be Asian American. Henney was perfect. “Daniel is comfortable with the sarcastic humor as well as the heartfelt drama,” Barbee says. “He’s friendly, hard-working, just a lovely, lovely guy.”
Earlier this year, the cast sat in on a real-life heart transplant operation, which for Henney was “the most incredible experience.” A 22-year-old kid had overdosed on heroine, granting a heart to a 44-year-old heart disease patient who likely would have died two weeks later. “I watched everything,” Henney says. “I watched them literally rip his heart out.”
Henney’s work schedule, which includes developing a sketch comedy show to pitch to the networks and flying to Korea about once a month for various projects (he’ll go back and forth indefinitely), hasn’t left much time for a personal life. On rare days off, he’s usually hanging out with his golden retriever named Mango, driving around in his new black Jeep or house hunting. (For now, he’s staying in a “beautiful little Spanish home” in Hancock Park.) He’s not dating anyone, but says, “I wish I was. I think I’m gonna start. I don’t know how. It’s hard to find a girl who would stick around if I say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be gone for two months, is that cool?’” The type of girl he’s interested in: “Someone with a good sense of humor, who’s game to go out and do anything, who doesn’t mind just hanging out and drinking a beer.” (Sorry gals, we can’t give out his number—or give him yours.)
Within five years, he hopes to get married and settle down, in part to please his folks. “I want them to have grandkids. And I like the idea of having someone for life.”
When reflecting upon his fairytale career, Henney frequently uses the word “lucky.” “I’m no dummy. I know I’m so lucky. I just happened to be blessed with some sort of specific look that people seem to find attractive.” But with that luck, he says, comes responsibility. Life is now about taking what he’s been given and turning it into something bigger.
“I want to establish a role model for young Asian Americans to look up to and be proud of,” he says. “We have an African American president. Times are changing. There’s no better time than now.”
Be sure to check out our exclusive video of Daniel Henney where we go on the set of Three Rivers!