From Angel and Lost to NYPD Blue and Hawaii Five-0, Daniel Dae Kim has been putting in the work as a scene-stealing supporting player for over three decades on our television screens. With National Geographic's upcoming event series, The Hot Zone: Anthrax, the Korean-American actor has an all-new role: leading man. It's an overdue promotion that Kim humbly celebrated on Twitter when he nabbed the starring role of FBI Special Agent Matthew Ryker in January of this year.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the show's Nov. 28 premiere, Kim is still pinching himself over his good fortune. "It's not guaranteed to anyone," he emphasizes. "I know a lot of actors who are much more talented than I, and that have never had this opportunity. So when people say, 'What took so long?' I don't really look at it that way. I'm just happy it happened." (Watch our video interview above.)
Kim also acknowledges that there's an extra resonance to this particular star turn. The Hot Zone's second season dramatizes the anthrax attacks that followed the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, when letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to government offices, as well as major media organizations. Agent Ryker — who is a fictional composite of several real-life experts — heads up the investigation and explains the hard science of the case to the people who most need to hear it.
In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Asian-American communities experienced rising rates of prejudice and violence, as prominent individuals like former president Donald Trump referred to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus." By establishing an Asian-American leading man as the primary scientific authority, The Hot Zone: Anthrax functions as a direct answer to that shameful period in recent American history.
"The irony was not lost on me," says Kim, whose sister was the victim of an anti-Asian hate crime. "It says a lot of positive things that when they think of [who can play] an FBI agent who is leading the charge against one of the most significant terrorist attacks on our soil, he looks like me. That's a testament to who we call an American, and what we consider an American to look like."
Earlier this year, the actor took time off from shooting The Hot Zone to offer Congressional testimony during House Judiciary Committee hearings addressing Asian-American violence. Asked if he's seen a change in the ensuing months, Kim says that he's noticed a "raised awareness" among the general public. "We all know that awareness is one step toward solving the issue. And it's not just about Asian-Americans: it's about polarization in our country in general. What's happened to Asian-Americans is only one symptom of a disease that's larger, and I'm hoping we can figure out the larger issue."
The Hot Zone: Anthrax wrestles with larger issues beyond the anthrax scare, as well. The series effectively recreates the paranoid mood of the country in the aftermath of 9/11, when misinformation was rampant and conspiracy theories spread even without the aid of social media. "The weeks after 9/11 were kind of this crazy blur," Kim remembers. "We were all watching the same newsfeeds, which is very different from today. But it was also the first time I remember conspiracy theories spreading in a huge way about an event that I thought we all agreed upon in terms of the narrative."
As the one tasked with recreating post-9/11 America onscreen, co-showrunner Kelly Souders says that she and her collaborators tried to bring the past to life in a "non-opinionated" way. "At that time, a lot of the misinformation was just knee-jerk," she explains. "People were scared....I mean our own media was literally under attack. It was a really unfortunate period for the American public just across the board."
That non-opinionated approach extended to some of the real people that become characters on the series, including NBC News anchor, Tom Brokaw (played by Harry Hamlin), and former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani (played by Enrico Colantoni). "We kind of ignored the last couple years of Giuliani," Souders says, referring to his deepening involvement with the Trump administration. "We tried to remind ourselves of what our experience was of him at that time. He definitely [has] a very different role in America right now, one I would not want to portray on television. I kind of wish that was the version we still had of him, but it's not."
Tony Goldwyn plays another real-life figure in The Hot Zone: Anthrax, microbiologist Bruce Ivins, whose exact role in the anthrax attacks becomes more complex as the series goes on. "Stay away from Wikipedia until after the show, because there's some really amazing surprises," the actor jokes. Like Kim, Goldwyn remembers how time seemed to blur after the Twin Towers fell, and misinformation spread. "I live outside New York City, and we were all traumatized by 9/11 and then, three weeks later, the anthrax letters. A postal worker near where I lived died, and we didn't open our mail for a month."
Hamlin also his vivid memories — and lasting mementos — of the real-life anthrax attacks. "9/11 had just happened, so we were all primed for some disaster or terrorism," remembers the Clash of the Titans star. I think it was [then-Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld who said something about getting duct tape just in case a crop duster came over our town and dusted the place with poison gas or anthrax. So we all went out and bought duct tape — I still have some of it!"
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee
The Hot Zone: Anthrax premieres Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic