Daniel Dae Kim: Hawaii Five-0 exit about 'self-worth'

Executive producer David Shore, actor Freddie Highmore and executive producer Daniel Dae Kim of The Good Doctor speak onstage during the Disney/ABC Television Group portion of the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Beverly H
Executive producer David Shore, actor Freddie Highmore and executive producer Daniel Dae Kim of The Good Doctor speak onstage during the Disney/ABC Television Group portion of the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES - Actor Daniel Dae Kim found himself in the hot seat recently as reporters grilled him about the pay dispute that led to his exit from Hawaii Five-O last month.

Kim and actress Grace Park, who are Korean-American, reportedly asked to be paid the same as their white co-stars Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan, who are the two leads on the police drama.

But when TV network CBS refused, insisting it had "tried very hard" to retain Kim and Park by offering them "large and significant salary increases", the pair bowed out of the series' upcoming eighth season, sparking an outcry from fans and critics.

CBS was condemned for not doing more to keep the two actors or further develop their supporting characters on the series - especially as the network's shows have been criticised for a lack of ethnic and gender diversity on both sides of the camera in recent years.

Kim explained in a Facebook post last month that he had made "the difficult choice not to continue" because "CBS and I weren't able to agree to terms on a new contract".

Noting that it is rare for Asian-American actors to get to play "well-developed and three-dimensional" characters such as his Hawaii Five-O alter ego Chin Ho, he added: "The path to equality is rarely easy."

But reporters have been itching to press him for more details, and at a Beverly Hills press event for Kim's latest project, a new medical drama he is producing, they got their chance.

The first question lobbed at him asks why he will no longer be a part of Hawaii Five-O, the police procedural he had been a part of since its 2010 debut.

The soft-spoken 49-year-old, who also appeared on the supernatural drama Lost (2004 to 2010), smiles serenely and says of Mr Kelly Kahl and Mr Thom Sherman, the two senior CBS senior executives overseeing Hawaii Five-O: "I know them and like them."

"That said, it's possible to be grateful for the opportunity and have respect for your colleagues, and still maintain a steadfast sense of your self-worth," he pointedly adds.

In a one-on-one chat with The Straits Times shortly thereafter, the actor says he intends to chip away at Hollywood's diversity problem through his production company, 3AD.

The first material it sought the rights to was The Good Doctor (2013), a Korean medical drama about a young surgeon who struggles with autism. It was a hit in South Korea, where Kim was born before moving to the United States with his family at age two.

Kim's company pitched an American version of the show, which the star is now developing with David Shore, creator of the popular medical series House (2004 to 2012). CBS passed on the project but rival network ABC ordered a full season of it, which will debut in the US in September (it has not yet been picked up for a Singapore release).

In recent years, American medical dramas have done well with reflecting ethnic and gender diversity on screen - something Kim was "absolutely conscious" of when casting The Good Doctor.

The show stars Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel, 2013 to 2017) as the autistic surgeon, alongside newcomers Antonia Thomas and Chuku Modu and veteran performers Hill Harper, Richard Schiff and Tamlyn Tomita.

"If you walk into any hospital in America, you're going to see doctors of all races and genders. When I used to watch medical dramas from the 1970s and 1980s, I used to wonder: 'Where are all the Asian people? Where are all the African-American doctors?'" says Kim.

"And our show is set in San Jose, California, where there are so many people who are non-white. So I'm glad our show is reflecting that diversity, and it's something that we fought for."

Overall, he believes Hollywood is gradually becoming more outward-looking, especially when it comes to celebrating and adapting stories from non-American cultures.

An example of this is the so-called Korean Wave - or surge in the global influence of Korean popular culture in recent decades. Kim thinks it "has a lot to do with the increasing globalisation of entertainment in general".

"There's an awareness now of territories outside of the United States more than ever. It's not just Korea - there'll be other countries where we will be looking for good entertainment, like Israel, France, China and India. They all have incredible stories to tell."

Asked about the outpouring of support from fans over his departure from Hawaii Five-O, Kim expresses surprised at how international his fanbase is, and that it stretches all the way from Portugal to Singapore.

"It's a real testament to the power of television, and I'm grateful that people have really positive reflections and connotations of me when I travel around the world," says the star, who lives in Honolulu with his wife of 24 years, former graphic designer Mia Kim, and two children.

"The last time I went to Singapore, I was very surprised at how recognisable I was there.

"I love Singapore. I was there a year ago and I might be back in the fall - I was invited to be a part of the film festival there, and if I can make it, I will."