Daniel Dae Kim has been acting for three decades, starting his own production company, 3AD, eight years ago. But his turn on National Geographic’s “The Hot Zone: Anthrax,” which premieres Nov. 28, marks the first time he has taken leading man status. As FBI agent Matthew Ryker on the anthology series, based on the real-life anthrax terrorist threats that began in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Kim is the face of the government organization in addition to the face of the show — which he notes is a “significant step in representation.”
“The Hot Zone” showrunners Brian Peterson and Kelly Souders have said you helped them shape the character of Matthew Ryker. Why was it important to have that agency, even without a producer title?
It’s always nice when an actor can have, as you say, a sense of agency in their character because we’re the ones who are going to be living in their skin for the duration of the project. What I thought was interesting about this character is that his last name was Ryker, and yet they wanted to cast me. I thought that was a fascinating jumping off point to figuring out who this person really is. And so, I was really grateful to both Kelly and Brian that they were willing to work with me to craft a story that would incorporate an Asian American with the last name Ryker as the lead investigator on one of the most important investigations in our country’s history.
What is the deciding factor in saying yes to a project where you are focusing on acting and not also producing?
It’s different things. This project was meaningful to me because it was based on a significant event in our country’s history. It appealed to me because I remember what was going on for me at that time and how I felt about the attack on American soil and the fear that we had collectively and the unity that we had as a country. And so, when I think about how polarized these times are, I think it’s really important to look back at a snapshot of America, where the country — at least for a short, beautiful period — was completely unified and everyone was very fiercely patriotic about being American. I think the second thing is that the producers wanted me to play the face of the FBI. Ten years ago, if this miniseries were made, there’d be no way that I would be cast in this role. I really appreciated and admired the fact that they made this choice and I wanted to be a part of those semiotics. This was the first lead I’ve been offered in a significant series, and that opportunity doesn’t come up very often for any actor, regardless of race. I really felt like I was in good hands with the producers, [including] David Zucker, who I worked with on “Andromeda Strain,” and I felt like it was an opportunity that I needed to take, not just wanted to take.
Is there a sense of pressure on the next project to continue that momentum?
I don’t really look at it as pressure; I look at it as a good problem. [Laughs.] I should be so lucky to have these questions in my career. I would say that it does allow me to be a little bit more selective, but at the same time, those same criteria will always apply. And I think if by my playing this part, it actually opens the eyes of other producers and studios and networks to the possibilities of this kind of casting, then actually it’s part of collective progress for all of us.
Ryker does struggle to get people to listen to his concerns about the threat being anthrax in the beginning. How did you balance whether he thought that dismissal was because he was one of few people of color or one of few scientists in the room, and how did that thought process inform the way he responds?
I think it’s a mixture of personal and professional. He comes from a science background, so he didn’t do the traditional “go straight to the academy right out of college” route. And the fact that he chose science first and then the FBI later makes him someone that isn’t typical in the alpha-male world of the FBI. One of the things about the FBI is that it’s filled with very intelligent, very ambitious, very driven people. These are not [people] who were just deputized after a couple of days of training. They went through extensive training, they went to top colleges, and these people are completely dedicated to their work. So, having someone come in as a scientist and compete with those alpha males was, I think, an inherent challenge. And I also think that because he is a minority in terms of race in a bureau that was predominantly white male, it presented a different kind of challenge. It’s a combination of both his science background and his ethnicity. That’s something that I could personally relate to growing up as someone who was one of the only Asian-American kids in my neighborhood. I know what it felt like to struggle to have your voice heard. And so, that was an easy translation into the character. And just to take it beyond the scope of my character, it’s also true for the special agent played by Dawn Olivieri: She’s a female trying to make it in a male-dominated FBI, so I think the two of us together present interesting for people for a show like this where it’s very atypical, historically.
How much research did you need to do to more fully get inside the background Ryker has, not only in the FBI, but also as a microbiologist?
Research was acquired for this role. I actually sought out some Asian-American FBI agents because I wanted to get their perspective on what their experiences were and what their backgrounds were — what propelled them to take a job where they’re serving their country when historically the country may not have served them. And also just to get an insight into the inner workings of the FBI, into the politics of the FBI, and what it takes to succeed in the FBI. I thought that their information was invaluable.
Did that also help shape portraying his Sept. 11 experience and the PTSD that came with it?
I think any patriotic American felt some sense of trauma on that on that day, and it was not a stretch to tap into my own feelings and the feelings of my family and friends when we watched the towers fall. That was the baseline for how I approached his trauma in that moment, but there was also a lot of research in that area to for me: What did the first responders go through? What have been the long term effects for them? All of that kind of homework really informed how Ryker carried himself in the wake of what he saw.
Is there a sense of catharsis or healing that comes for him as he’s proven right about the anthrax threat and works to eradicate it?
The heart of what the series is about, for Ryker, is about his quest for closure — his need for closure. Whether he gets it is really a matter of perspective. And what I like about that is it’s like life. Most things in life are not objectively good or bad; they are good or or bad depending on how we deem to view it. Let’s just say that Matthew has specific intentions to specific goals, and whether he achieves them depends on whether or not he changes his outlook by the end of the series.
Central to his character is his unwillingness to concede. He goes to great lengths in this in this story, as did many of the real FBI agents, to find the culprit in these attacks. And so, the fact that he is relentless in his pursuit of the truth has been his greatest ally and his greatest liability. So in the conclusion of it, he has some reckoning to do within himself.
The timeline of the show encompasses many years. Did they have to do anything physically to age you up in production?
I will tell you that the six months in Toronto with a COVID lockdown in sub-freezing temperatures did a lot to age me! [Laughs.] It may not have been 10 years, but it certainly at times felt like it.
Going back to what you said a few minutes ago about this time in the country’s history having moments of unity, we are going to watch this show at a time when people are so divided politically and over the science of the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you feel like that time of unity is solely in our past?
I would say that our time as a species on this planet seems to be cyclical. There are periods marked by great progress and then periods marked by the opposite. I do believe we can get back to that place of unity and it’s ironic to bring up that time of unity after 9/11 because that was a brief shining moment before anti-Muslim sentiment reared its ugly head and then conspiracy theories kind of started coming out, out of nowhere. And so, in that sense, it’s actually very similar — a precursor to what we’re experiencing today.
And to bring this full-circle a little bit, B.J. Novak has said you had influence on shaping your character in his anthology, “The Premise,” as well. Was that in regards to the ending and how your character chose to respond to his childhood bully?
We had lengthy discussions about what the ending was going to be and what it should be, what it might be. And once it was determined what B.J. ultimately wanted in the ending, it was really a matter of how I would navigate that emotionally. In other words, whether he would take great delight in the final choice, ultimately, or whether he would have mixed feelings. My contribution to those final moments was that I felt like he should have very mixed feelings because these kinds of issues are not not black and white. I think that’s one of the things that that anthology series points out so well. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but very often, it can leave people with a very empty, hollow feeling — that it’s not the satisfaction that they thought it would be. And I can tell you from experience, from being bullied when I was a kid, I’ve had those thoughts about revenge against those who treated me badly. What is it that you do with them, how do you process them and then if you really got revenge would you feel good? I don’t know that I would, and so, that was a lot of what I was able to contribute to that character and those final moments.
What did it take on-set to find the right level of that emotion? How many versions did you get to try?
We did try a number of takes with different approaches to those moments, and I trusted Jake [Schreier], the director and B.J. to calibrate it finely because what was really important to me was that it didn’t seem too imbalanced between Eric’s character being the protagonist and my character being portrayed as the antagonist. We were trying to toe the line between the audience bearing sympathy for both characters. One of my favorite takes that didn’t make the cut was when Eric, after he’s rejected, leaves the office and says, “Thank you” to my character, and then I say, “Thank you” right back to him. That didn’t make the final cut. It makes me wonder how would that affected the audience’s feelings about both characters had that remained. If you tell the story right you can put yourself in either character’s shoes.
Thing you didn’t know about Daniel Dae Kim:
Born and raised: Kim was born in Busan, South Korea but grew up in New York and Pennsylvania
Cause he cares most about: Kim is one of the co-chairs of The Asian American Foundation’s advisory board — “It’s the first national organization of its kind that supports Asian Americans and their inclusion in the fabric of our society. They are an enabler for local community organizations, both financially and in other ways.”
Character he would love to play again: The King in “King and I”
Up next: “There is another anthology series that I was fortunate enough to be a part of called ‘Roar.’ It’s from the creators of ‘GLOW’ and I am lucky enough to be in an episode featuring Betty Gilpin, who I think is a fantastic actor. I play a supporting role to her lead, but it’s a story that’s really worth telling in an anthology that I can get behind thematically.” Also, he will be in the live-action Netflix version of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”