"How do we avoid losing our story as the greater American culture moves on without documenting it?"
Douglas Kim is an actor and filmmaker. Frustrated with the television and film industry’s reluctance to cast Asian Americans, Kim took it upon himself to do something about it. Instead of moaning and winging about the situation, Kim decided to take matters into his own hands by investing $165,000 of his own money into his online film project, Just Doug.
Fortunately, his bet paid off, as Just Doug is arguably one of the best things you’ll see on Facebook all year. Showcasing Kim’s acting and writing talents, Just Doug captures the raw struggles faced by Asian American actors and portrays them in a relatable but entertaining manner.
The plot follows D-list poker celebrity turned actor Doug on his quest for the American dream. Encountering Hollywood’s endless plague of issues including stereotyping, injustice and discrimination, Doug progresses slowly but surely in the industry’s notorious uphill battle. Thanks to Kim’s witty writing, Just Doug offers audiences a rare blend of comedy and empathy.
Challenging Hollywood’s traditional norm by investing directly to Facebook video, Kim’s tenacity is certainly admirable and inspirational. Corresponding with Resonate, the Korean American actor comes across as intelligent, engaging and above all else, humble. Eager to find out more, we asked Kim a range of questions about himself, his project and his future.
Tell us about your ethnicity and background?
I was born and raised in Westchester County, NY, in a city called Yonkers. Soon after, I moved to Hartsdale, NY, and went to school in the Ardsley school district. My parents are from Korea, moved here in the late 70s and early 80s (my mom lived in the Bronx for a while as a graduate student at Fordham University before moving back to Korea to marry my father and then move back to New York together). I identify as Korean American.
Would you say you had a positive experience growing up as Asian?
Overall, I would say my experience was positive growing up. My parents were fortunate enough to raise my sister and me in a fairly affluent part of the country that emphasized education. They worked hard to provide us with economic and academic advantages to succeed, and were heavily involved in our educational lives.
Our area was also fairly liberal, so we didn’t experience that much outward racism growing up. That’s not to say we weren’t aware that we were another race and that we didn’t have occasional bouts with casual racism, or perhaps more subtle racism that accentuated white privilege, but it wasn’t as bad as other parts of the country that I’ve heard stories about (and have experienced myself living in the South for college, and the West for Hollywood, and visiting various other parts of the country).
One thing that did kind of suck was the pressure of growing up in a highly educationally focused family. My father went to Seoul National University (the best college in Korea), so when he came to New York, most of the people we would have family outings with would be his alumni friend that also moved to New York, where we’d have the inevitable comparing children’s achievements against each other (all of the kids in our family friends group went to top 10 colleges). But it also added to our friendships (my best friend came from this group of people), since we could relate to each other’s struggle.
Of course there’s stuff that I experienced that were kind of sucky just being an immigrant (being far away from relatives, communication issues with my parents and of the older generation), but I don’t think those are exclusive to being Asian.
What made you want to become an actor?
Throughout my life, I’ve answered this question in a variety of ways:
- Literally, as the chronological progression of my career path
- Some vague spiritual concept of destiny and the way my life has developed
- An inherent love of story telling and blah blah blah
But when I was asked that recently, I decided to give an answer I always subconsciously felt: my desire to be an actor was to validate my own life’s existence.
My childhood was always rife with feelings of inadequacy. Much of it was due to being an awkward nerd and universal growing pains through adolescence (re: typical emo shit), but I’d say a large contributing factor is the lack of a firm grasp of identity. This isn’t uncommon in the second generation immigrant experience, there’s a disconnect between how we’re geared to adapt to the society around us and the principles instilled in us by our parents, principles which have come from a different society altogether.
I was obsessed with American history and culture at large, soaking in American movies and books and claiming them as my own. In some ways, I lived American life by watching those stories and living them out in my imagination at home. Being a relatively social pariah until high school, I was ripe for consuming “underdog” stories, seeing myself as one that needed to prove my own self worth. But I didn’t want to be an actor in Asia, I wanted to act in stories that I watched and resonated with here in America, as an American. In a way, I wanted to be an actor in American media to show that we belong in the fabric of the greater American story.
What were the challenges facing you and the Asian American acting community?
The challenges that we face are systemic and based on the fact that the entertainment business as a whole is controlled by risk averse executives who do not like change. With any industry that’s been dominated by a certain group for a long time, the people at the top typically keep hiring the people who’ve “made it” because it’s the safest bet for them (if a white, successful, Hollywood director/producer/actor pumps out successful money making projects, of course they’re going to keep hiring said person, why would they give the opportunity to a new comer?)
Because of that, Asian Americans (and other minorities, to an extent) have to work twice as hard to prove that they belong and to get more opportunities to be in positions to succeed.
Another challenge is that as a minority group, much of Asian Americans in our generation come from immigrant parents. Not only does this hinder us in terms of training and ability, (I’m sure I can count on my fingers the amount of second generation Asian Americans who were encouraged by their parents to pursue a career in entertainment, let alone sign them up for acting classes), but also in terms of connects and mentorship (how many of us can call on Uncle Bob, who’s a grip or Aunt Carol who’s a makeup artist to ask about the film industry).
When Asian Americans go into entertainment, a lot of them come into the business with no idea how to get to the finish line, and have to figure it out for themselves. This doesn’t lead to a recipe for coordinated success.
From that nascency of our culture, it’s hard to tell meaningful original stories
Finally, we are still figuring out what it means to be Asian American. As a minority group, around 5-6% of the US population. But even then, there’s Indian American, Korean American, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, the list goes on. With all this fragmentation, it’s hard to truly define an Asian American identity or culture that encompasses and unites the entire group, whereas other minority groups (such as black or Latino) have firm communities and a sense of culture that just comes from being in America for hundreds of years. As a result, we’re still in the process of building our identity and our culture, which begs the question, what does our story look like? How can we tell it in the most universal way possible that relates to all Asian Americans, and the wider American public as a whole? How do we avoid losing our story as the greater American culture moves on without documenting it?
I’ve heard people more putting on us a spectrum of Asianness, from a FOB to a whitewashed self hating Asian. But personally, I believe it’s a lot more complex than that. Because most of our people come from immigrants, a lot of our culture is one foot in America and one foot in our native land, which makes defining who we all are as a people very complicated. And from that nascency of our culture, it’s hard to tell meaningful original stories (our history as a culture is probably around 50 years or so, whereas European actors can play the whole gauntlet of American/English history, we as a race can’t even play any movie that’s set in America prior to the 1950s outside Chinese railroad workers in westerns)
What inspired you to create Just Doug?
My inspiration came from a few things that happened when I came to LA. When I arrived in 2012, things were looking pretty good, I had gotten a commercial agent and a manager the following year and I seemed to be making progress. But then in 2014, a few things happened personally and professionally where I became cynical about the whole industry.
One instance that stuck out was when I auditioned for a series regular role on a new TV show. The part was for an Asian American male that sings, and I thought that was right in my wheelhouse, so I was pretty excited for it. When I got to the audition, the casting director allowed me to choose which to do first, the scene or the song. While I prepared for both diligently, I was more confident in my song so I wanted to do the scene first. After I read it, the casting director told me that she liked my read and saw me as a “Seinfeld” type of character, but that she already knew I wasn’t going to be cast because they wanted someone more “jock”, so she didn’t have me do the song at all.
My first reaction was disappointment, because I had spent all this time preparing the song. But then I felt frustration because looking back at the waiting room, there were all these Asian dudes waiting to be read, and the vast majority of them weren’t “jock”. Why were they wasting all of our time for what essentially was an LA-wide search for all the Asian American male actors in town? Finally, I felt despair that this was my fate, that I would have to wait every few years for a role perfect for an Asian American to come to even play a lead.
So I did what anyone depressed and with lots of time to waste does, I binged Netflix. And while I was doing so, I came across the show Louie, by Louis C.K. I realize that this is an unfortunate thing to reveal in light of recent events, but I do believe that Louie tapped into something that hadn’t been done before, a type of story telling that really delved deep into hyperrealism and surrealism. I binged all the seasons of the show in a week, and was inspired, thinking that I needed to create something for myself like this. I watched a ton of shows that came after as well as those that came before to research, such as Girls, Togetherness, Bojack Horseman, Everybody Hates Chris, etc.
My reason for using this type of story telling was two fold: as an Asian American actor, I looked to even the most successful ones and realized that even they were supporting characters in what was essentially the “white hero” lead’s stories. John Cho in Star Trek, Steven Yeun in the Walking Dead, even Han in the Fast and the Furious.
Rarely were stories told from our point of view. What was the cause of that? It was simple, we didn’t have people on the other side of the camera, writing from our point of view what an Asian American life looked like. Even shows like FOB and Dr. Ken don’t have Asian American showrunners, was there any show or movie that really had an authentic Asian American voice?
So much of the time, Asians are seen as “other” or “outsiders” looking in. My goal with my show was to take the realism of life from the “Louie”-type format and use it to highlight and show what an Asian American life really looked like. And through that process, Just Doug was born.
What were the challenges you faced in creating it?
The challenges were many, first came the writing aspect. Although I love to read and write, and took a screenwriting summer intensive in 2013, I wasn’t a professional writer. So after writing some material, I teamed up with an Asian American writer, Brian Shin, in 2015 to write the project. It took us a few months to even decide what the project was going to be, was it a web series, a short film, or a feature itself? After finally deciding on a TV show, my main concern was making my character relatable yet unique.
Part of the recognition is that I’m not Louis CK or Aziz Ansari, it’d be hard to hook an audience without establishing some sort of interesting aspect of my character’s struggle. Fortunately, we found that through my dichotomy as being a true Asian American stereotype and the opposite of one simultaneously.
I appreciated everyone’s belief in the project
Then came the challenge of producing it. Being an unknown, it’s not enough simply to have a killer script to sell a show, (and as I’ve found, it’s not even enough to have a killer produced pilot!) so I knew that going through traditional channels would never work. I made the conscious choice early on that I was going to have to probably finance this myself. At first the budget was 50k, then 100k, then finally ballooned to much much more. While I could afford it, it definitely hurt going in that deep. But I knew that Asian American content sometimes doesn’t get respect because it’s not up to “industry standard” production quality wise, so it was important to me that this project look legitimate.
Finding the Asian American talent was another, and really proving that they’re out there waiting to be united. I spent a while finding the director I liked for this project, because it was important to me that he be Asian American. However there aren’t that many Asian American directors who are up and coming (read: not a mega blockbuster directing budget Justin Lin type). Through some contacts, I found Dan Chen, a director who I believe will be a visionary in the industry not just for Asian Americans but at large.
I spent time in the casting room in several rounds of casting to find the perfect cast we wanted for the project, probably seeing every Asian American actor in their 20s and 30s for the show. When we were unhappy with the music, I managed to find a talent Asian American music composer to make killer tracks for the show. Although it was a gruelling search finding everyone, I appreciated everyone’s belief in the project, that everyone on board believed it was a game changer when they signed on to work on it.
Finally, came the production part. This was my biggest acting project yet, and it was a surreal experience to be thrust into such a demanding part as a first time, but also have a ton riding on it at the same time. It was a bit stressful, but it was also in a way, exhilarating, embarking on such a crazy quest. Of course, being the perfectionist I am (or Asian), I’m not 100% satisfied with my performance, but that’s why I hope to have the opportunity to make more, because I know I can improve.
How has the show been received?
The show has been well received by the Asian American community at large. Many people have commented and especially within the industry that they believe in what I’m trying to accomplish. That part is the most encouraging, to know that people are rooting for you and that you’ve spoken to them in some way through your work.
However, I’ve also gotten comments from non-Asians, including a conservative 60+ year old white man who said they thoroughly enjoyed the show as well. This pleases me as well, because I didn’t intend to make this a show about race and getting on a soapbox about how Asian Americans are oppressed. My goal was to simply show what my life looks like, and by extension, it would show what an Asian American’s life looks like. I want the general American public to watch the show and learn that we’re the same as they are, we have the same kind of fears, dreams, struggles, doubts and anxiety, and at the end of the day, we’re all American. I just wanted to show what our slice of the American life looks like, before it gets erased from our history books.
My struggle is that currently, we’re still trying to build an audience for the show. I believe that this show would resonate with a lot more people, but it’s difficult to market a show when you’re on an independent budget. So we’re still trying to get this out to our core audience out there, and believe that the more people see it, the more of a chance we will have to making additional episodes!
Where do you see it going/What kind of impact are you hoping it will have on the Asian American acting community?
In the best case scenario, the show would get picked up by a studio/distributor, and would help us produce a season. I think this would have a huge impact on the Asian American acting community, in the immediate term there would be undoubtedly a lot of roles for Asian American actors in my show. But if this show does gain traction it would probably open the flood gates in terms of acceptance of media that is from an Asian American point of view, and possibly more shows and movies in the same vein.
I want to emphasize that many movies that star Asians in Asia do NOT represent me (movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or even a movie like Crazy Rich Asians except for the Constance Wu role), because I don’t identify as Asian, I identify as an Asian American, and so this category is very sparse right now (Better Luck Tomorrow was probably the last studio backed Asian American made movie).
What’s your next project/what do you have going on at the moment?
I have also produced a short film with Dan called “Ella” this year. We’re waiting to hear back currently from the Festival rounds to see if we’ve gotten in, but we’re pretty optimistic about its chances of success!
I’m also in the middle of writing a couple features for myself. One is kind of about a more personal topic, the other is kind of a more fun type of project based on my love of music. I don’t want to spoil the ideas just yet!
I’m also considering starting a podcast and am in general now just being more focused on content creation. I believe that as actors in the industry, it’s paramount to be creating your own stuff, or you’ll just get lost in the sea of faces that are trying to get cast in a role. I will hopefully be working on many different projects in 2018!
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In 5 years…man I’ll be almost 40! So I see myself hopefully as…not single, unemployed with no career! All kidding aside, I want to have a career where I am a producer/actor/writer, and have a production company by then. I want to be in a position where I am able to have a hand in making content not only for myself, but for stories that I believe are worth telling.
As far as location, it would be ideal for me to be able to live in both New York and LA if I could have the option. I do miss my family back home and my parents are getting older…