Actor Daniel Henney, who first shot to fame in Korea in the hit drama My Lovely Sam Soon, is now ready for his Hollywood close-up.
story by ADA TSENG
photographs by MITCHELL NGUYEN MCCORMACK/Corbis | styling: JULIET VO grooming: ERICA SAUER @ The Wall Group | stylist’s assistants: LAURYN STONE and TESS OAKLAND
For the past eight years, Korean American actor Daniel Henney has been juggling roles on both sides of the Pacific. Adored as a heartthrob in Korean dramas and films, Henney shot to stardom after playing Dr. Henry Kim in the drama My Lovely Sam Soon, and soon after that, became a household name in Korea, with leading man roles on the small and big screens, as well as high-profile ad campaigns, like the 2005 one for the South Korean fashion brand Bean Pole International that co-starred Gwyneth Paltrow.
The Michigan-born Henney had decided to relocate to Korea in the first place because he wasn’t getting the acting opportunities he wanted in the U.S. But when he got to Seoul, he realized he had a lot to learn before he could even be competitive in Hollywood. Now that he has fame and clout in Asia, many of Henney’s American fans, who have caught glimpses of him on X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the recent Schwarzenegger flick The Last Stand or even the short-lived CBS series Three Rivers, have wondered when the actor might be coming home to America for good.
Well, the answer is: he’s home. This doesn’t mean he’s given up his jet-setting lifestyle—his next two films include The Negotiator, an action film in Korea, and F*** I’m Pregnant, a romantic comedy in China—but he has a place in Los Angeles and is preparing for the right opportunity to break into the U.S. market.
“It’s very different for me [in the States] than it is in Asia,” Henney says. “In Asia, I get [offered] a lot of great leading roles, whereas here, I get a few, but I’m not quite where I want to be yet.”
You might say a little Asian American indie film called Shanghai Calling came along at exactly the right time. In Shanghai Calling, Henney plays Sam Chao, a Chinese American attorney who is transferred from the Manhattan office to Shanghai against his will and complies only because he wants to make partner. He—and everyone else—assumes he’ll be a natural working in China because of his heritage, when in reality, he’s less “Chinese” than any of the Caucasian expats he meets abroad. His arrogant assumptions often get him into trouble, and it takes some humility (and help from the locals) to dig himself out of a potentially career-ruining mess.
Vince shirt and pants, Generic Man shoes.
The film, which was released at select theaters in the U.S. last month, earned a slew of awards at film festivals last year, including a Best Actor nod for Henney at the Newport Beach (Calif.) Film Festival. It was a confidence booster for the actor, and he is now much choosier about the American roles that he takes. Although he joined the CBS hit show Hawaii Five-0 for a guest spot in late 2012 (on one of the series’ highest-rated episodes) and has been asked to come back for their season finale, he is hesitant.
“It was a lot of fun,” he says, of the tattooed ex-con character he played, “and I was excited that the ratings were good when I was on. But I just don’t want to go out in this crazy fight scene where I get killed, you know?”
When it comes to roles in his future, he’s thinking bigger, deeper, richer. What Henney wants now is to be a leading man in Hollywood. He is not naive to the fact that, even though there are many more Asian American male actors getting meatier roles than in previous decades, they aren’t necessarily considered “leading men” just yet. He’s careful to not assume he will be the first, but is also fully aware that he certainly could be.
While Henney has had top billing in Korea for many years, Shanghai Calling is not only his first lead in an English-language film, it’s also his first comedic role.
“I’m going to do this scene, but you have to reel me back if I go too far,” Henney recalls telling director Daniel Hsia. “Remember, [I have to be an] asshole, but [a] likable asshole.”
While filming the movie, Henney says he learned there’s no such thing as a sense of humor, but senses of humor. “I have a very dry, sarcastic sense of humor,” he explains. “I get that from my father. A lot of people don’t get my jokes. If someone asks me, ‘How was your morning?’ I might say, ‘It sucks. I ran over my dog this morning, had to take her to the hospital before I came in.’” He laughs. “And it’s not even funny. It’s really not funny. But it’s funny to me.”
Sarar suit, shirt and tie, Mezlan shoes.
Hsia’s humor is more straightforward, according to Henney, as Hsia is a seasoned television comedy writer who knows how to deliver an effective punch line or sight gag. Therefore, they had to find a way to merge their two styles.
“I think it worked out really well,” says Henney, “Daniel [Hsia] came up with the scenes, like the one with the tea cup,” referring to a perfectly-timed joke where Sam awkwardly slurps up some tea leaves at a business meeting and tries to play it cool. “That’s all Daniel. But I was the one that came up with the amount of asshole that Sam is.”
Though he doesn’t possess Sam’s cocky self-entitlement, Henney says he identified a great deal with Sam’s character. Having been an expat in Korea for so many years, he understood what it was like to be plopped in the middle of a culture you don’t understand. However, Henney’s experience was likely magnified because his own fish-out-of-water story transpired with the entire nation watching.
Martin Chung, Henney’s friend and longtime manager, had a front row seat to Henney’s overnight rise to fame, having known the actor since his modeling days in Asia.
Around 2005, Henney landed an Olympus camera ad opposite Gianna Jun (Jun Ji-hyun), a Korean actress well-known for her roles in My Sassy Girl and Il Mare. During the shoot, her manager told Henney about a TV show that was casting, and he set up an impromptu meeting with the casting director and director of My Lovely Sam Soon.
The role of Dr. Henry Kim, the dashing American surgeon, was small at this point—Henney still couldn’t speak Korean, so how prominent could an English-speaking role in a Korean drama be?—so he packed one suitcase, thinking he’d stay for a couple months. However, that changed once Henney was introduced to Korean drama fans.
“Literally, right after the episode aired, my phone started ringing,” remembers Chung. “They were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Magazines, reporters, commercial clients all started calling. I thought, ‘What the heck is going on?’”
“It was pretty surreal,” says Henney. “But I never took it seriously because I didn’t realize the clout or the power of the Korean drama. As a foreigner, I thought that the quality was pretty bad. At that time, it was shot on tape. Sam Soon was one of the first dramas filmed on HD film, which was brand new at the time.”
The writers started adding scenes for Henney to capitalize on the newfound fan flurry surrounding him, but imagine being given English lines that were written by native Korean speakers. In addition to his acting duties, Henney would often stay up nights rewriting the awkwardly phrased dialogue.
“After the 14th episode, I started to realize that 40 percent of the country was watching [My Lovely Sam Soon],” says Henney. “I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. People were freaking out, and it kept getting bigger and bigger, to the point where I was meeting the president. One day, I was meeting the president, and next, I was flying to London to work with Gwyneth Paltrow.”
This was an excerpt of the cover story from the March 2013 issue of KoreAm.
To read the rest of Daniel’s story and see the rest of his amazing photo spread, purchase a single issue copy of the March issue, by clicking the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).