Now the 34-year-old Korean American actor and writer is using his winnings to try to beat the odds in Hollywood, where leading roles for minorities are scarce and television writers’ rooms remain dominated by white men.
Kim has financed and produced a semi-autobiographical television pilot based on his journey trying to make it as an Asian American actor in Los Angeles. The half-hour comedy, called “Just Doug,” will be released Friday on DramaFever, a Warner Bros. video streaming platform created to bring Korean dramas to Western audiences.
About US spoke with Kim about the representations of Asians in Hollywood and the storybook ending he’s striving toward. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Historically, Hollywood has not been kind to Asian males. I remember cringing as a kid watching “Sixteen Candles” when Long Duk Dong appeared in Molly Ringwald’s bedroom to the sound of a gong. What messages are you trying to send?
Hollywood is taking its sweet time in getting Asian Americans front and center. My goal is to not only increase Asian American visibility, but to portray Asian Americans as simply Americans who happen to be Asian. A few years ago, I was frustrated at the way my career was going and took it upon myself to write a pilot for myself. I wanted to make a project that was from the lens of an Asian American both in front of and behind the camera.
We have to be more proactive in taking control of our narrative, in how we want to portray ourselves. But at the end of the day I didn’t make the show just for Asian Americans. It’s a TV show about identity. Doug is figuring out why he wants to be in Hollywood — a Don Quixote trying to forge his own identity while fighting these battles on his quest for justice and meaning.
When did you think of acting as a possible career, given the barriers?
In high school and college I was very interested in musical performance. But I never thought of going into acting because I didn’t ever see anyone who looked like me on screen. That would be the stupidest idea for a career. Not only is it hard for regular Americans but it’s infinitely harder for Asian Americans. And I’m a very practical person at the end of the day. I went to college with the expectation that I would be some sort of doctor, lawyer or engineer.
Well you must not be that practical, given your shift to poker and now, Hollywood. How does that journey even begin?
I got into poker the summer after high school, when a friend who had already gone to college said you could win if you follow these kinds of rules. I was skeptical. Growing up, I heard that gamblers were just degenerates who would lose all their money and become broke. I started off playing for pennies and then got hooked once I saw how people could make money doing this. By junior year of college I was making a steady income from poker, with a few thousand dollars coming in a month. But in the end, it wasn’t really intellectually stimulating for me or emotionally fulfilling. So in my senior year, I interviewed for jobs in management consulting in New York.
Before I graduated, I thought why not have one last hurrah in poker before I start in the real world. So I played in the World Series of Poker. I just expected an experience, a story, but things got really crazy when I survived each day and eventually made it to the final table. I won $2.4 million from that — after taxes, it was more like $1.5, $1.6 million. But I was still a risk averse, typical Asian American. If I had a good career in finance or consulting, I could be making many times what I made in poker. Why not put this aside as a nest egg and go on with my career as planned?
How long did you last in consulting?
I was laid off in 2008 when the financial crisis was in full swing. I took a step back to reevaluate my life choices. It was a few years after the first “Harold & Kumar” movie came out. That movie really resonated with me. It was the first time I saw myself actually being represented in Hollywood. That’s when I was like okay, maybe the mood is shifting and there are opportunities for Asian Americans. I ordered a ton of books on acting and show business. I decided to enroll in an acting conservatory in New York, hoping it would give me insight into not only acting, but how to break into the industry. I moved to Los Angeles in September of 2012 when I was 28.
Was your experience like what happened to Doug on your pilot — did you have to do a fake Asian accent?
I was really excited for this audition I had gotten for a series regular role on a TV show, calling for an Asian male, someone who could also sing. I put a lot of work into the script and the song. But the casting director told me I reminded her of a “Seinfeld” type of character and they were looking for more of a jock type so I wasn’t going to get cast. It was very depressing because these roles are just so few and far between. I wasn’t going to wait another three or four years for another one to come around.
So you just decided to do your own thing. How autobiographical is your show?
It is all inspired from my frustrations with the industry. Before, I was on the side of most Asian Americans who feel, f— anyone who sells out and does the Asian accent. But it’s not that cut and dry where you can just say f— the racist role, because acting is a hard business and you need to survive — especially if you haven’t had a regular role. It’s easy to judge but the choice isn’t that easy. It’s kind of like a Machiavellian question — does the end justify the means? That’s one of the ideas I wanted to explore in the show itself.
I love seeing Asian parents on TV. I think all kids from immigrant families could identify with that, navigating two cultures — like when Aziz Ansari’s parents appear in “Master Of None.” So how are your parents coping with your life choices now?
Those were my actual parents in the pilot. She and my dad came to LA, which was a really cool experience because I think they finally got what I was trying to do. My dad was disappointed he didn’t get any lines. They still give me hints here and there about when I’m going to get a job and get married. They say things like it’s never too late to go to medical school. They kind of get what I’m trying to do here, but at the same time they are naturally doubtful that it’s going to turn out well. My mentality at this point is if this pilot doesn’t do anything for my career, I should take that as a sign and get the hell out and do something else with my life.