Daniel Dae Kim reflects on his path to Hellboy and beyond
In July 2017, Kim departed his role as Det. Chin Ho Kelly on CBS's crime procedural Hawaii Five-0 after seven seasons; contract negotiations broke down when Kim reportedly asked for pay parity with the show's leads. At the time, he said he made the difficult decision to "maintain a steadfast sense of your self-worth." Then in August 2017, Deadpool actor Ed Skrein was cast as Maj. Ben Daimio in Hellboy, a choice that drew severe backlash since the character is Japanese-American in the Dark Horse comic series upon which the movie is based. In the wake of the whitewashing controversy, Skrein stepped down. Three weeks later, Kim was Daimio, an uptight monster hunter who works for a secret government organization that monitors the supernatural. Even though Daimio despises creatures, he's forced to work with the rule-breaking half-demon Hellboy (David Harbour) to stop Nimue (Milla Jovovich), the Queen of Blood, from kick-starting the apocalypse.
"I feel like Hellboy was supposed to be my next job, given how things ended with Hawaii Five-0 and what Ed Skrein so admirably did when he exited," Kim says. "I was incredibly grateful to Ed, and I have such respect for what he did because, as much as I can fight for diversity, it's equally important for people like Ed, who are white and male, to understand the issue as well and take action."
The Korean-American actor, who has an MFA from NYU, has worked steadily for the past 27 years, particularly in the sci-fi world, with notable roles on Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise, Crusade, and Angel. "I have a special place in my heart for this genre because it gave me a home," he says. "When I first started working in TV, all my roles were science fiction because, thanks to [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry, that's where Asian-Americans were accepted."
In 2004, Kim nabbed his meatiest part to date on Lost, ABC's revolutionary mystery drama, as Jin-Soo Kwon, a stern Korean traditionalist who scraped out an existence on a mystical island, along with the other survivors of a plane crash. Initially, Jin was controlling toward his wife, Sun-Hwa (Yunjin Kim), but the writers were so drawn to Kim's magnetism and thoughtfulness that they elected to alter his character's trajectory. "We fell in love with Daniel and, as a result, wanted to make the audience take that full journey from seeing him as a villain to seeing him as a hero," says Lost co-showrunner Carlton Cuse.
That ability to bring palpable humanity to off-putting characters is what attracted the Hellboy producers to Kim when they began recasting Daimio. This is a character who oozes self-loathing due to a prominent facial scar and the fact that he can transform into a jaguar, meaning he's the very thing he hates—a monster. "The character, for a good part of the movie, is almost dislikable, and then there comes a point where you finally understand him, and that transition that Daniel did such a good job with is where you finally get underneath his skin and understand the way he is really effective," says Hellboy producer Lloyd Levin.
Kim was drawn to the role for two reasons. First, he becomes one of the few Asian-American superheroes on the big screen. Second, and more personally, he felt a kinship with the character. "[Daimio] carries with him a great deal of shame because of his appearance, and that's something I could relate to as a young Asian-American boy growing up in America," says Kim, who distinctly remembers times from his childhood in Pennsylvania when he felt unjustly defined by his race. "One year I dressed up like Elvis for Halloween, and I remember kids saying, 'You can't be Elvis.' " He adds, "I used to love superheroes when I was younger, but I never felt like I could actually be that superhero while playing with my friends, because that superhero didn't look like me."
Whereas Kim never had a way of expressing the anger that came from experiences like that, Daimio does because of his ability to transform into a jaguar. "I feel like the parallel for Daimio and his pent up rage is very akin to what I felt as that minority kid growing up," says Kim. "There was never an outlet for that kind of rage. You know, we were always taught to just eat bitter, as they say, to just swallow all of your anger. But, it's this kind of bottling up that can manifest itself in crazy ways, and for Daimio, this jaguar is the release of all of those feelings."
He's actively working to ensure that others never limited because of their race. In 2013, he launched his own production company, called 3AD, to increase minority representation in media. "What I hope for is that when [my kids] get to be my age, they're gonna look back and say, 'There was a time when African-Americans and Asian-Americans weren't given lead roles because of what they looked like? That's some bulls—.' I want them to not even be able to imagine it," says Kim, who resides in Hawaii with his wife and two kids. It's a logical career move to those who know him. "It does not surprise me in the least that he's become successful as a producer, because he's a quietly driven guy who is very intelligent and very creative," says Cuse.
Kim's first venture as an executive producer proved his good instincts. He spent three years developing the medical drama The Good Doctor, an instant hit for ABC when it debuted in 2017. The adaptation of a Korean drama follows Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), an autistic surgeon who begins his residency at a prestigious California hospital. The show, which will return for a third season in the fall, boasts a diverse cast—women and people of color make up 80 percent of the ensemble.
Kim approaches producing the show with the same level of care he does acting. "He knows that character comes first," says Good Doctor showrunner/EP David Shore. "He's very much an actor's producer, but he also knows that what actors want more than anything else is quality." In season 2, Kim finally stepped in front of the camera as the hospital's brash new chief of surgery, Jackson Han.
Beyond Hellboy and The Good Doctor, Kim can next be seen in the Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe, directed by Nahnatchka Khan and starring Ali Wong. "[Seeing] a rom-com toplined by Asian-Americans and with an Asian-American female director just warmed my heart," he says of the film, which is expected this spring, almost a year after the mega box office success of Crazy Rich Asians.
If he gets his way, this won't be his last comedy. "I would love to do more comedy," he says, adding with a laugh, "Hopefully people won't think I'm awful at it."
Hellboy opens in theaters April 12.
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