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Growing up, Grace Park learned that if she didn’t have anything nice to say, then she shouldn’t say anything at all. “Sometimes it’s better not to talk,” the actress, 44, says. “I’m not interested in airing out dirty laundry.”

Especially not about what happened last year. In June 2017, Park and her Hawaii Five-0 costar Daniel Dae Kim departed the CBS series ahead of its eighth season after failed salary negotiations. Their exits became highly publicized — fans questioned why, after 168 episodes, the network didn’t pay the pair the same amount as their white costars Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. According to Variety, Kim and Park had been offered 10 to 15 percent less than their costars’ salaries and had not negotiated as a unit, with Park seeking a deal for less than half a full season’s worth of episodes the next year.

The headlines also fueled the ongoing conversation around Asian representation in Hollywood: As Vanity Fair writer Laura Bradley pointed out at the time, Park and Kim were “arguably the most prominent actors out of the four when the show launched in 2010,” with both coming off hits — Park from Battlestar Galactica and Kim from Lost. “In this case,” Bradley wrote, “it’s also worth asking why Park and Kim were ever cast in supporting roles in the first place.”

Ua Ho'i Ka Opua I Awalua (The Clouds Always Return to Awalua)
Credit: CBS

Amid the controversy, CBS said it had tried offering Kim and Park “significant salary increases.” Executive producer Peter M. Lenkov tweeted that Park had been “away from her family for seven years,” implying she’d left to reunite with them. Kim wrote in a Facebook post that “the path to equality is rarely easy.” But through it all, Park remained silent. “The whole situation was just a bit too charged for me,” she tells EW, though she notes that she did call Lenkov after reading his tweet. “I let him know, ‘That wasn’t cool that you made a statement on my behalf.’… I know he did it to be helpful, and I care about Peter as a person, but I didn’t leave for that reason.”

That said, she’s not about to reveal her actual reason. “There were a number of factors spanning the show that affected the non-renewal of my contract,” she says slowly, carefully choosing her words. “I’m grateful for the lessons learned, but I chose what was best for my integrity.

“I know that people are always trying their best, and everyone’s coming from their own backgrounds,” she continues. “Throughout the whole series, I kept trying to see the best in everybody.” She pauses. “Would I do it all over again? I wouldn’t be so quick to say yes.… I’m still figuring stuff out. Sometimes people are just really good at burying stuff, and I think I’m like that.”

In other words, Park wants to move on — and she has, at least on the small screen. This fall, she stars as Katherine, an ambitious lawyer whose marriage has begun to fall apart, on ABC’s A Million Little Things, a tearjerking, heartstring-tugging ensemble drama about a group of friends who rethink their lives after one of them dies unexpectedly.

Credit: Jack Rowand/ABC

She found freedom in playing a character like Katherine, who’s not exactly part of the friends’ inner circle, yet tethered to it all the same. “She doesn’t need to be likable,” Park explains. “She’s just doing the things she needs to get done. Not everyone might like her, and I thought that was actually quite a relief of pressure, that you didn’t need to make your character funny or likable or cool or sexy or the lead.”

Besides, she says, she was “moved” by the character-driven story. “These characters weren’t really living the lives they needed to live,” she says of the series, which also stars David Giuntoli and Ron Livingston. “That struck a strong chord with me. From the outside, people may think, ‘Oh, she’s really living the life she wants!’ ” she says, laughing. “I feel like I’m so far away from doing that.”

Well, maybe not that far away anymore. On A Million Little Things, Park has noticed an effort in working toward building a group mentality for every member of the lead cast. “They’re going through a lot of steps to make sure we have the ensemble vibe,” she says of the production. “We all have the same trailers, the same treatment. We don’t necessarily have the same salaries, because people came from all different places [in their careers], but maybe we’ll be at parity in a few years. If everyone’s bringing their A-games and being a team, those are the things that are more important.

“I’m good leaving the boys’ club, and I’m hopeful for the future,” Park concludes. “I just look at this time as something that I went through. I didn’t understand it while I was going through it, but…. You can’t always get back what you lost, but if you made it through, right now is a breathtaking time to watch the old structures fall, allowing the new life to rise.” On screen and off.

Correction: A quote in this story was updated on Monday, Sept. 17, at 2:20 p.m. PT to reflect the audio transcript of EW’s conversation with Park.

Credit: Benjo Arwas/Contour/Getty

A Million Little Things debuts Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

Hawaii Five-0
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