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Daniel Dae Kim talks about 'The Hot Zone: Anthrax' and representation

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to take you back 20 years now, just weeks after 9/11. The U.S. is on edge. The FBI is one of many government agencies tracking down leads connected to the attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HOT ZONE: ANTHRAX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What about the 3,300 flights already in the air? Who's got NORAD on their line?

CORNISH: And agent Matthew Ryker is troubled by a Florida journalist's sudden mysterious illness, and he calls the CDC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HOT ZONE: ANTHRAX")

DANIEL DAE KIM: (As Matthew Ryker) I have some tissue samples being flown up to a few labs from Florida. I need you to take a look.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Of course, Agent Ryker. We'll get right on it.

KIM: (As Matthew Ryker) Thanks.

CORNISH: And those tissue samples show Bob Stevens, the journalist, had been exposed to anthrax. And Stevens became the first of 22 known victims to be exposed to anthrax-laced letters in the U.S. that year. Agent Riker is not a real person, but he's part of a very real story told in National Geographic's latest "Hot Zone" series. Actor Daniel Dae Kim, who plays agent Matthew Ryker, spoke with me earlier. And I asked him if he saw parallels between the days after 9/11 and the pandemic we're living through now.

KIM: You know, what was interesting in both instances was that for a brief shining moment, we were all united against a common enemy. And, you know, what happened in the aftermath of both circumstances also seemed to parallel one another. The birth of the modern age of conspiracy theories happened around 9/11, and surely we know how many conspiracy theories there are now surrounding the pandemic. So it was a little eerie as we were shooting to see how history in some cases repeated itself.

CORNISH: So you have the lead role in this project, Matthew Ryker, who's an FBI agent who specializes in microbiology. He is the sort of force trying to investigate who's behind these anthrax-laced letters. And I understand there's no real Matthew Ryker, but he was, you know, one of these kind of amalgamation characters, right? How did you bring him to life?

KIM: You're absolutely right. He was an amalgamation. The investigation itself took a number of years, and so for the sake of storytelling, we compress that time. The events that real FBI agents undertook to solve the crime and the mystery were actual events, but they were personified through some semi-fictional characters like myself and my FBI team.

CORNISH: This is also a very strange story in terms of who ends up being behind the letters. Can you kind of remind us who that was and how you guys wanted to approach kind of a complex character?

KIM: It was complex because we saw, you know, a rush to judgment. We saw politics. We saw people working incredibly hard to find the actual culprit when there were pressures against them to find a culprit. And we saw the conflict between fact and circumstantial evidence. It was really, I think, a fascinating examination of the ways that we can potentially scapegoat people.

CORNISH: Right. There's this huge rush to - it's definitely al-Qaida, Is it a lone wolf character? In the end, it was found to be, I believe, Bruce Edwards Ivins, who was a scientist at the government's biodefense labs actually in Frederick, Md. He's since died by suicide.

KIM: That's absolutely right. First of all, it's important to note that Dr. Ivins was never convicted of this crime. He took his own life before that possibility could happen.

CORNISH: You know, I want to ask about the fact that this character is Asian American, and that fact is not ignored in a way that I feel like past projects would have. Was that on purpose?

KIM: The character was not originally intended to be Asian American, and so one of the things I'm most proud of about this show is that the producers and the network thought it was appropriate for me to be the face of the FBI. And I think at the time, in 2001 even, if you would have tried to put this show on the air, I don't think the person who was the lead FBI agent would look like me.

As we were thinking through that decision, it became clear that we needed to address it in some way. It couldn't just be a given considering the times that we were living in in 2001. And so we did work a lot on my character's backstory. I really applaud the writers for working to integrate my ethnicity into the story and making it a part of his character in a way that contributes to the story.

CORNISH: And we're also in this moment where certainly, you know, Asian American communities in particular, coming out of the pandemic, people have been speaking up about hate crimes. Do you feel like someone who who has been kind of touched in the last couple of years by these moments?

KIM: Absolutely. As an Asian American and someone who's been defined by my race in this industry from the time I started, I'm always subject to the winds of change or lack thereof. And so when people say to me, like, do you choose to see race and questions like that, it's - the premise of the question is wrong because I don't have the choice but to see race - because that that is how I am viewed.

CORNISH: I'm, like, terrified to ask what casting agents have said to you over the years.

KIM: I could tell some stories. And there was one agent that I was working with, and I hadn't gotten any auditions. Over a year's time, I think I'd gotten maybe three auditions, which is very difficult when you're a young actor with a baby trying to make a living and support a family. And so I remember going into his office, and he pointed to a poster behind him of a white actor starring in a movie at the time and said, this guy, he's a star. But you, you're always going to be a utility player. And I remember that very clearly. And in moments like that, you have a choice. You can let those words defeat you or you can use those words as fuel. I chose to use it as fuel. You know, there's a line in "Lost - not to bring up "Lost" but - it's, you know, don't tell me what I can't do.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, we should note that you are - a few years ago, I think, started your own production company, right? 3AD.

KIM: Yeah. I started it before the cultural shift took place in a significant way. But my emphasis, even during that time, was to try and spotlight marginalized voices because it was born from my experience as being someone on the margins as an actor. In fact, you know, 90% of the projects my company is working on right now don't include me in front of the camera because it's - this is much bigger than me. And it's been really rewarding to be a job creator and try and create worlds and populate them in the way that I see the world.

So that's why I think it's so important that we see people of color, you know, behind the scenes producing and studio jobs because those who are green lighting will green light according to what their experiences are. So the more we can be a part of that decision-making process and the creative process, I think, the greater our chances of creating meaningful diversity.

CORNISH: Well, Daniel Dae Kim, this was a really lovely conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to do it.

KIM: Oh, it's my pleasure. I'm a fan, so I'm happy to be here.

CORNISH: That's actor and producer Daniel Dae Kim. His new series, "Hot Zone: Anthrax," is out November 28. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.