Daniel Dae Kim is a versatile performer, as evinced by the stellar and wide-ranging credits to his name in his almost three decades in Hollywood. In the last few months alone, the actor has starred in Netflix’s space drama Stowaway and the Disney+ animated film Raya And The Last Dragon, and appeared in a recurring role on NBC’s medical drama New Amsterdam. Ten years after his standout performance in Damon Lindelof’s Lost, Kim has carved out his space in Hollywood. He tells The A.V. Club that it’s been a busy year so far, but he’s grateful to have an eclectic variety of projects, especially Blast Beat, which he stars in and produces.
In 2013, Kim founded his production company, 3AD, which produces ABC’s acclaimed medical drama The Good Doctor, based on a Korean series (Kim also guest-starred on the show). He recently donned his producer hat again to go with his role in Blast Beat, a coming-of-age drama about two Colombian brothers who move to Atlanta and struggle to assimilate. The film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was released on VOD on May 21 this year. Kim plays Dr. Michael Onitsuka, who becomes a mentor to Mateo (Moisés Arias). The indie film touches on immigrant culture in poignant ways while reflecting diverse, slice-of-life stores.
The Korean American actor also hasn’t shied away from using his platform to rightfully hold the industry accountable for the many Asian American and Pacific Islander stereotypes often seen in film and TV, even opening up in a recent tweet about how several of his characters have died onscreen. The A.V. Club spoke to the actor about the story behind his tweet, how he actively and vocally champions AAPI issues, and the significance of producing and creating projects like Blast Beat that speak to unique American experiences.
AVC: Blast Beat must be an interesting film for you because you’re not only acting in it, you’re also one of the producers. What was it that drew you to the movie and the immigration themes it tackles?
DDK: It was the heart of the story for me. I’m interested in stories about a different kind of America; of an America we haven’t seen before. I think the film’s story about these immigrants is one that deserves to be told because there is a misconception about immigrants in general because of a rhetoric by some politicians that they’re criminals or they’re dirty or are rapists. And I think the notion that what you see is not always what you get, and that we need to look beyond the superficial qualities of someone is a great lesson for all of us. The fact that Mateo’s character is essentially a genius when it comes to aerospace engineering is an underlying principle of how we built this country. There are so many of us that came over and contributed in meaningful ways as immigrants.
AVC: The film tells some significantly authentic and diverse stories overall, but, besides this larger theme of representation, what are some ways in which you could personally connect to it?
DDK: I like the idea that my character is a former astronaut; it’s also an interesting tie-in to Stowaway. I spoke to director Esteban Arango about changing my character’s name to Dr. Michael Onitsuka to honor an actual Asian American astronaut, Dr. Ellison Onizuka, who died in the Challenger mission in 1986. I thought it was a great way to make it personal to me and yet contribute to a piece of history that we haven’t really associated with Asian Americans as much before. As a dad, I can tell you that shepherding and nurturing someone like Mateo was really appealing. It’s important to me as a father to make sure the next generation is more prepared than we were.
AVC: What kind of input did you have as a producer on the character you’re playing, and how much did you collaborate with everyone involved in Blast Beat?
DDK: I want to give a lot of credit to those who did the heavy lifting, like my partners at [studio] Macro. The director did such a fantastic job. When this was presented to me, most of the developmental work was already done. So thankfully I did not have to say very much; I just really liked the story and came aboard. The areas where I had some input was in the storyline as it was being shot in relation to my character. They weren’t thinking of this character as necessarily Asian, so it really expanded the world of the film by hiring someone who looked like me.
AVC: In one of your recent tweets, you called out an industry trope of people of color dying on screen, and you referenced some of your characters as well. When did you first realize this and decide to move away from it in the projects you choose?
DDK: To be honest, after Lost. Just to be clear, because something that gets lost in the nuance of tweets—no pun intended—is that I would play the role of Jin and take the role on Lost a hundred times out of a hundred. I really loved this character, so I hope it’s clear I’m not trying to throw any shade on Lost whatsoever. I loved that job. It’s more about the dynamics in general. This is not my way of attacking any particular specific role, it’s really just talking about the situation that people of color find themselves generally in where they are considered more disposable than other members of the cast.
The full story of that tweet is that I was traveling and working on another project when my character died onscreen in Lost and my kids were really traumatized by it. They actually called me on the phone where I was and were in tears asking me if I was okay. Ever since then, one of the first questions I have asked when I’ve considered a role or offered a job is, “Does my character survive?” I didn’t want to do that to my kids anymore. It just highlighted for me how many times my character has actually died, and if you’ve noticed since then, my characters haven’t because it’s something that’s become a concern.
AVC: Do you feel like you missed out on opportunities or had to give up roles because they fell under this trope or under certain stereotypes?
DDK: I’ve turned down roles where my characters suffered similar fates but coincidentally, when I’ve been offered such roles, they haven’t been the kind of projects I might be attracted to for various reasons, and so it’s worked out for the best. But for Stowaway, for instance, I liked the script and was reading it very carefully expecting my character to die; so when he didn’t it was one of the things I appreciated. It was smart in the way it handled all of these issues, we had a diverse cast without hitting people over the head about diversity, and I think that’s a sophisticated way of approaching this issue.
AVC: As a producer and through your own production company 3AD, what are some of the things you’re implementing in your projects in this regard, whether it’s with Blast Beat or The Good Doctor?
DDK: In a lot of different ways, I’m trying to put people front and center who haven’t traditionally been front and center. It’s not just about race. In The Good Doctor, we have the lead who is living with autism. It’s really just about giving a space to shine to those who haven’t had it yet. That goes for behind the camera as well. It’s important to me to have people in upper-level positions who are people of color or who represent the show we are trying to make. Even in terms of shows we might still create and develop too, we keep these factors in mind at every stage and element.
AVC: You’re working on a heist movie with Randall Park and producing a dramedy with Ken Jeong. They sound like diverse Asian stories that are sorely missing from film and TV. Is that one of your goals, to fill that space?
DDK: Sure, it’s needed in all forms of media. In some ways, film is a bit more advanced in terms of diversity than television, and nowadays the line between film and TV is blurred when we watch everything at home, but I will do my best to make an impact wherever I can.
AVC: You often use your platform to raise awareness about Asian American and AAPI issues. Why is it vital for you to speak up?
DDK: Those of us who can say something should say something. If people who have the luxury of choice or have a platform in this business and are not speaking up for everyone else, then who can we expect to do that? It’s really important to not just forge our own individual paths but also understand and recognize we are in the position to help others achieve the same things, if not greater things, and so I just keep that in mind and I look to the future and not just the present.
AVC: Because of your advocacy work, you’re often asked about representation. We spoke about it too, but do you wonder when we might just get to a point where it just becomes the norm and the projects are celebrated for their creativity or vision?
DDK: Oh, absolutely. I hope we get to a point where people are talking about how great a film is because it might be entertaining or thought-provoking or nuanced and that representation and diversity is a foregone conclusion and so ubiquitous, it’s no longer an issue for anyone.
I didn’t become an actor to become an activist; it’s because I wanted to tell stories and I love the craft of acting. It’s first and foremost whenever I take a role, regardless of whether it’s on film or TV. There are other considerations that I have to make as a person of color and it would be great if I didn’t have to make those or think about how this role might represent all of Asian America. I don’t mind doing that, but it’s another layer of consideration that if you’re not a person of color, you don’t have to think about. I look forward to not having that for all of us.