by HELIN JUNG
For twenty years, from fleeting roles on film and TV, to Lost, to his new show, Hawaii Five-0, Daniel Dae Kim has meticulously mapped out his rise to stardom.
I. The Mistake
You remember the mugshot, don’t you? White polo shirt, slightly wrinkled at the collar, open at the neck. Furrowed eyebrows, ambiguously pursed lips, but most of all, that crazy hair, like someone took a crimping iron and had at it with the dude.
“It’s really a quality mugshot, isn’t it?” he says. “How does one exactly pose for a mugshot? I remember thinking that, at the moment before it was taken.”
Of all the lasting images Daniel Dae Kim wanted to leave behind, this wasn’t it. He can joke about it now, but the time around the 2007 DUI was a rough patch for the 41-year-old Lost actor. A particularly humiliating year, especially within that small town called Hawaii. He was caught weaving erratically through Oahu streets late at night, with twice the amount of alcohol in his system than was legal. It was the first time that the outcome hadn’t been intended, the first huge mistake in decades of careful, careful planning.
“I try to live my life in a particular way, and that was a very serious mistake. There are always extenuating circumstances, but the bottom line is, it’s something that I wish I could take back.”
II. The Plan
He’s always had it mapped out; he was a missile set for this. The guy took a PowerPoint presentation to his parents, or whatever the equivalent was in 1990, and told his white-collar, anesthesiologist, immigrant father that once he graduated from Haverford, he was going to ditch his LSAT score and his Wall Street interviews, and instead give the theater a shot. He said he would think about becoming a lawyer or a banker if after two years his plan failed. It didn’t. He wouldn’t let it.
“I realized the ramifications and the consequences of my choices—to my parents, as well,” says the Busan-born Kim. “Their circle of friends in Pennsylvania is all doctors and high-profile business people. I understood that when they went to cocktail parties and everyone was bragging about how their kids were at Goldman Sachs or attorneys at Skadden Arps or doctors at Brigham, that my parents would have to sit there and say, ‘Well, my son is working as a temp at an office while he’s working to become an actor.’ Making them proud of the decision that I made remains a driving force in my career.”
It was in college that Kim became an actor. A dorm mate, Lane Savadove, was putting together a production of a play he’d written and was directing.
“He had this kind of strong, intellectual, confident side, and we had talked about theater together, and I knew he was interested in trying it,” Savadove says. After some prodding, Savadove convinced Kim to audition for the part of a psychiatrist who turns out to be a schizophrenic patient.
Kim couldn’t resist the tug of acting, no matter how much he wanted to do right by his Korean parents as the eldest son. He had spent his life doing everything right, and he wanted to keep doing everything right. There was just this one thing.
He thought about what he needed to do to prepare himself. He thought about all the variables, the x-factors, and decided, even if it was only by force of will, that he needed to do everything within his power to increase his own odds.
“If I wanted to give my career as an actor my best shot, then I knew I needed to be as well-trained as possible.” So he went to grad school and got an MFA in acting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His parents started coming around after that, and so did the work.
III. The Professional
“Dan was hyper-professional,” says Lane Savadove, recalling Kim’s first acting gig. “Incredibly confident for someone who’d never been in the theater before, and just very rigorous about his work. There are definitely lazy actors, and Dan isn’t one of them.”
“He’s such a consummate professional person,” says Michael Emerson, whose portrayal of Benjamin Linus on Lost won him a 2009 Emmy. “I would feel comfortable with him being our cast lawyer. He thinks before he leaps.”
Kim certainly doesn’t go around flashing his idiosyncrasies in public.
Emerson describes Kim’s work ethic as no-nonsense when it needs to be. He gets to the set and, minus a horoscope reading for the cast, is very “let’s get to work, let’s get this thing done, let’s get it done right.”
There’s this other recurring theme in the Daniel Dae Kim mythology that insists he’s good-humored and not that serious! And it’s true, he’s always smiling in interviews. You can hear him smiling over the phone. The undercurrent is undeniable, though. He’s got goals: The Plan, continued.
Kim has already started the transition to a life after Lost. He has been shooting the pilot for the CBS reboot of the 1970s cop drama Hawaii Five-0, shot on location in Honolulu. Kim is playing one of the leads—a newly-imagined, way-less-fat version of police detective Chin Ho Kelly—and Grace Park is playing his ass-kicking, ocean-surfing niece. Still, there’s no way of knowing where it’ll go, so Kim is developing several other projects, including a movie, a play and another TV show.
IV. The Islander
Whatever oceanside utopia you’ve imagined Hawaii to be, Daniel Dae Kim lives it better. Richer, happier, sunnier, more idyllic. His existence: you dreamed it, and so did your mother for you.
On working days, he wakes up at 4:30, give or take, and drives to some closed set somewhere on Oahu. If he’s doing scenes at the castaways’ camp, which is on the North Shore, he will start the morning by standing in the pale white sand, looking out onto the rolling turquoise waves, and he’ll say, “Thank you for letting me be here.
“This is what I consider my office. It’s where I would be everyday if I had a desk job. And the fact that I get to look out on the Pacific Ocean on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, I just give a little thanks for.”
There won’t be much more of that, if it isn’t over already. It’s been six years since he joined the cast of Lost, and the most befuddling, intoxicating show on television is coursing toward the end of its final season. With it, one of the most romantic storylines on television, that of Jin’s marriage to Sun-Hwa Kwon, will finally see “a kind of climax.” Not that anyone has any idea what that means. Who knows? Jin may be dead by now.
Oh, did you want more?
“An ending that is representative of their new relationship would be the best thing that I could hope for, I think,” says Kim. “They started the show with a very specific dynamic, and I’d like to see them end the show in a way that symbolizes how far they’ve come from that dynamic.”
Kim wants his real-life family to stay in Hawaii, where they’ve put down some roots. His wife of nearly 20 years, Mia, is a full-time mom to their two sons, now 8 and 13, who are thriving. He likes that his kids can stay younger a little longer in a place that isn’t as frenzied or neurotic or show business-obsessed as Los Angeles. His elder son, Zander, is one of the top-ranked junior tennis players in the state—though his father, himself a former competitive tennis player, still hasn’t let his kid beat him.
“They’re a good family, just regular people. They’ve got a lot of aloha,” says D.K. Kodama, a restaurateur and Kim’s business partner in a burger franchise called The Counter. “He’s got an 8-year-old who’s pretty big, but the hugs he gives his mother are just amazing.”
The Kims throw big, loud, food-filled parties, with kids splashing in the pool, grown-ups enjoying lively conversation. They have a new dog, a very obedient, spunky little 5-month-old Shiba Inu puppy named Kona. (“We were looking to get a Jindo out of nationalistic pride, but the dog selection isn’t so great in Hawaii.”) They watch American Idol and Modern Family and The Dog Whisperer together. It’s all so happy and beautiful, and it’s also real.
“I see Dan as kind of a community builder. He lives and dies for his family,” says Lost cast mate Ken Leung, who plays Miles Straume. “But he finds ways to extend that devotion to friends, colleagues and the community at large. He is beloved here in Hawaii, which you can sense anytime you’re out with him.”
V. The Authentic Man
Several years ago, when Lost was at the height of its popularity, Kim traveled back to Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and where his parents still live. He called a close friend from NYU, actor Joel de la Fuente, who lives outside New York, and said, “Hey man, I want to come see you.”
De la Fuente, being a reasonable man, assumed that Kim, a world-famous television actor, would drive a car, or rent a car, or hire someone to drive him. Instead, de la Fuente received another call from Kim, one in which Kim said, “Hey, can you come pick me up from the bus station?”
“There are all these people on the bus, and then there’s some guy with a backpack and a hat on who looks a lot like the guy from Lost,” says de la Fuente. “I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you rent a car?’ And he says, ‘Dude, do you know how expensive renting a car is? That’s ridiculous.’ He got up really early in the morning to take the bus to New York, just like he would have when he was in high school.”
Hawaii has afforded him that air of normalcy, to a large degree. People pass over his celebrity there and greet him at his kids’ school like they would any other parent.
“This whole notion of fame and celebrity and dealing with the media has been an interesting one, because I’ve learned first-hand how images are shaped and how images are willed into shape. For better or worse, I have no desire to cultivate an image that isn’t who I am, lumps and all. These are all choices that I make. They don’t go by me naively.”
“You see the star-ness of him in his ease and facility with press events, celebrity events,” Michael Emerson says. “He seems more, than maybe anyone else in our cast, at ease. He actually relishes this business of being recognized and looked to by the public. He seems so very comfortable in it; as if it had always been his expectation.”
VI. The End
The thing that Josh Holloway remembers about his friendship with Kim is a fishing trip they took together on Holloway’s boat a few years back. The water wasn’t turquoise then; it was rough and unforgiving, and 30 miles offshore, the boat seemed doomed.
“Everywhere we looked there were walls and walls of water and nothing else,” says Holloway, who plays James “Sawyer” Ford on Lost. “It took us over two hours to cross the channel and make it back to land. I remember both of us being very quiet on that crazy ride. We were thankful to get home to our families.”
It feels like a good metaphor, in some ways, for Kim’s time on Lost. All of the criticism he endured for his terrible Korean, for his portrayal of a seemingly stereotypical Asian character, for his essential Korean-ness—(but yet, it also wasn’t Korean enough)—he had worked so hard to get to that point, and the hate, it all seemed so awful at first. He didn’t say much to defend himself then, but he took it personally. Now that he’s made it home, and with so much gained, what to do? How will anything ever top this?
“Don’t get me wrong, I do consider the fact that this could be the apex. And if it is, you know what? I’m already lucky. There are so many actors more talented than I that have never gotten to this place, regardless of race, so I will always look back on my experience with Lost as positive.”
So how will he feel on the last day? On that final walk down the sand, on the last day that those busted, grimy tents will be at his back? Will he feel the absence?
“I think being on this show for the entire length of its run is an achievement. It’s something that I’ve worked hard before, and during, to do well. Though I’ll probably be feeling sad and nostalgic, I hope the overwhelming feeling will be a sense of accomplishment.”
ABC, Tuesdays 9|8c
The two-hour series finale airs May 23.
This article was published in the April 2010 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).