Daniel Dae Kim in 'Hellboy' is the rare happy ending for Hollywood's whitewashing problem
Daniel Dae Kim is going to be one of the first Asian superheroes on the big screen. And he had to find the man who made it possible.
Kim plays grizzled military man Captain Ben Daimio in the new "Hellboy" reboot. The film, which came out this weekend, sees Kim co-star alongside David Harbour ("Stranger Things") under the direction of Neil Marshall ("Game of Thrones"). But the "Lost" actor wasn't the first choice for Daimio.
Ed Skrein, a white British actor, was tapped to play the role on Aug. 21, 2017. But Daimio was originally written in the comics as a man of mixed Asian heritage. Just a week later, Skrein announced on Twitter that he had been "unaware" of the character's background and that he "must do what I feel is right," and stepped down. Producer Lloyd Levin also acknowledged the initial casting was a "mistake," and that when they saw Kim on the list of possible replacements, "we went pretty much directly to him."
"What he did meant so much to me personally, and more importantly on a cultural level," Kim said of Skrein.
Kim accepted the gig as Daimio, and only had the flight to London to practice his lines and British accent. But his other priority was finding and thanking Skrein. He asked the producers for Skrein's contact and invited him out to lunch.
"Within 10 minutes of our conversation, I knew how genuine he was, and that he had written that statement," Kim said. "It meant a lot to me to talk to him in detail about where his heart is and what he meant by it."
Kim has been on the other end of fighting for representation, stepping down from his role in the CBS show "Hawaii Five-0" along with co-star Grace Park, after it was reported they were seeking more equitable pay but failed to reach a contract. Kim said Skrein has deep empathy for actors of color.
"The issue bonded us immediately," Kim said. "I'm happy to say we've seen each other a few times since then, and I genuinely call him a friend. It's one thing for actors of color to be fighting for diversity. It's much more meaningful when people of other races think about this issue. That's when real change happens."
Skrein's actions were notable in light of how other players have fumbled similar whitewashing incidents, such as Tilda Swinton suggesting the anger at her role in Marvel's "Dr. Strange" was residual of other offenses like Scarlett Johansson's role in the Japanese tale "Ghost in the Shell."
Kim's career began long before the broad conversations about ethnic representation in media took hold of the industry. His role as Jin-Soo Kwon, a Korean fisherman-turned-hitman in "Lost," required him to speak only in Korean.
Kim says "Lost" deserves credit not only for how it popularized the serial TV drama format but also for the diversity in its cast right from the first episode.
"To have a show like that ushered in a new era of diversity," Kim said. "Had 'Lost' been on the air today, our performances would probably be a bit more recognized. But that's not to say I'm unhappy at all. Every building starts with a single brick."
Kim says he often thinks of Sessue Hayakawa, the first prominent Asian American actor whose career was stifled once his popularity and sex appeal was deemed threatening, and other pioneers such as James Hong and James Shigeta. As historically important and influential as they may be, they are sadly not household names.
"They all toiled in times that came before us," Kim said. "These are people who, in a different time, would be stars."
In an ideal future, people can look back to last year's groundbreaking "Crazy Rich Asians," only the second Hollywood film with a majority cast of Asian descent, and wonder what the big deal was, Kim says.
When he hears casting directors say things like Asian actors are a "challenge" to cast because they're not "expressive," Kim can only laugh.
"It just means they're operating off stereotypes," Kim says. "They really don't know the cultures they're talking about. Nothing could be further from the truth, if you know Koreans."
And for other Asian American hopefuls in entertainment, Kim says "don't let the industry define you."
"If you have something to offer, regardless in what arena, don't be daunted by what people say you should do or what you cannot do," he said. "If I accepted no for an answer, I can pretty much guarantee I wouldn't be the subject of this article right now."