SULU'S DAUGHTER, XENA'S MENTOR:
An Interview With Jacqueline Kim
by Michelle Erica Green
After her roles on Star Trek and Xena, and in Volcano and Disclosure, Jacqueline Kim's face is very familiar to genre fans...but many of them still don't know her name. "It's funny, but everyone wants me to tell them what I'm in, because they know my face. And I start to tell them, and they say 'No, let me guess!' said the actress recently while at home in Los Angeles, just back from filming a movie in Texas hot on the heels of another in Manila.
Her stints as Captain Sulu's daughter Demora in Star Trek: Generations and as Xena's mentor Lao Ma in the highly-praised two-part episode "The Debt" brought Kim, who sometimes goes by the name Jacqui, to the attention of audiences. But what's most notable on her resume is her lengthy theatrical career in some of the finest repertory theaters in the country, including several years at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Guthrie in Minneapolis. She did everything from Shakespeare to O'Neill to avant-garde contemporary language plays before moving to Los Angeles to concentrate on film.
In fact, Demora Sulu was one of Kim's first movie roles: she had just moved to town a few months earlier and was up for another part when she auditioned for Star Trek. "I got this movie and that movie, and then Disclosure would come really soon afterwards, so it was terribly exciting," she recalled. "I chose to do Star Trek over an Ivan Reitman movie, I just thought it would be a blast." Kim had never watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, but she was familiar with the original series as the sister of a "huge fan," and was delighted to play Sulu's daughter.
She was only onscreen for the opening sequence - as the pilot of the new Enterprise, on which Captain Kirk gave his life to save the crew (or so everyone thought until he turned up alive in the Nexus). Yet Demora made such an impression that popular Trek writer Peter David penned a Pocket Books novel, The Captain's Daughter, about the younger Sulu and her father. "A friend of mine bought the book for me, I found that quite amusing," said Kim. "Everybody remembers the movie like we all died, but I saw it on TV the other day and I went, 'Oh! We didn't die!'" The recent Voyager novel Pathways suggested that Demora had a son who went on to become a captain. Because of the popularity and longevity of the franchise, the possibility always remains that she might be back.
It seems less likely that Lao Ma will return from the dead to Xena, Warrior Princess, but she too made an enormous impression over the course of the two-part episode as the woman who transformed Xena from a barbarian warrior to a woman who was capable of trusting and learning from Hercules when she encountered him years afterwards. Despite her unfortunate demise, Lao Ma was the most powerful woman in the ancient Kingdom of Chin: "The Debt" revealed that it was she, not her invalid husband Lao Tzu, who wrote the Tao Te Ching.
"Wasn't that great? Lao Ma was Lao Tsu!" Kim exclaimed. "It's not that far-reaching a concept that a woman would have thought up these peaceful brilliances. Some of the greatest men from Einstein to Stieglitz to Diego Rivera had great women supporting them. Even Camille Claudel did a lot of Rodin's sculpture, but he wrote his name on it because she was his student." Kim was drawn to the part because of that empowerment, but at the same time, "I liked that she was human above everything. I think sometimes people can dehumanize Asian women and make them sort of perfect or they can make them emotionless. And I thought Lao Ma was kind of a nice balance between someone who cared a lot and someone who'd grown wise."
Kim got the part without auditioning, but after reading the script, she asked to speak to the producers because she "had a couple of reservations - there was some out-there stuff about the women, not leaving much room for mystery or subtlety. I thought it was a romantic beginning, sort of like a birthing of someone's innocence in a way, but there were some intense dancing scenes. It didn't seem to me that their connection was only of a romantic level." The episode ultimately suggested an erotically-charged connection between the two women both during a floating-on-air dance sequence and a scene in which Lao Ma gave Xena artificial respiration, but Kim's concern was that in the initial script, "I thought it was a little too on-the-line."
The actress was aware the Xena was "becoming a kind of icon for people," but didn't know why; she hadn't really watched the show until she was offered the part, though "once again, my sister who was into Star Trek was into Xena." When she met with the producers, Kim "fell in love right away" with writer R.J. Stewart. "I think what was really important about this character for R.J. was that she was like a mentor to Xena, and that they had a trust - it was sort of the first trust that Xena built with anybody, because this was a time when she was a barbarian. And this woman would sort of introduce the idea of feminine intuition and peace."
When the question of the show's lesbian subtext and the producers' balancing act concerning Xena's sexuality came up, Kim sounded sumpathetic to the dilemma, but added, "I don't think you should dictate your show by what people want. I think you should create heroines who stimulate your imaginations, particularly since you're going to be writing for a long period of time. I think the writer needs to keep really inspired, and I think R.J. had thought up this character a long time ago. The character had an arc. We didn't think it was so much a romance." Still, the finished product had a very romantic feel, with an unusual look for Xena that Kim describes as "very related to Hong Kong cinema."
The actress also resisted a desire on the part of the producers to make the character a generically exotic Oriental woman. "They wanted me to make her have an exotic accent, that's pretty much how they put it - they didn't want an accent from a particular part of China, they didn't want to work with me with a vocal coach, they just wanted an accent, so I said no, I couldn't do it." Kim added that she doesn't think Asian actors mind being cast across nationalities - she herself has played Chinese, Japanese, and Thai characters though she is of Korean ancestry - "but I think we mind when we're asked to portray somebody Asian according to white people's perceptions of Asian people."
She labeled this "Orientalism in a bottle," lamenting that Asian actors "all know it, we all know how to do it, it's been done so badly for so long. I think actors should be used to their fullest extent, and they shouldn't be hired to imitate something that's not even based on something real. I love all the license that Xena takes, I love the campy aspects and the huge margin of disbelief, and it's just so thrilling to see history written in terms of a woman. But one of my points in this exotic accent thing was, Xena's not speaking in a Greek accent. It's usually asked of somebody who has a 'different-looking' face that they sound foreign or different, and I've got a problem with that."
Once those issues were resolved, Lao Ma "was terribly enjoyable to play." Kim was interested in the controversy among fans over the Chinese woman's sacrifice of her life in the name of maternity, particularly since both Gabrielle and Xena were faced with similar dilemmas this season. "I think she saw her son with this absolute love, and she wasn't going to kill or hurt that being. But I think that there's a dialogue in terms of the show, if you pan back and look at the wide shot, they're making a dialectic between peace and war, or ways of war. Xena had as much influence on this young boy as I did. You move on from me and you go back to Xena: Xena has to question her own violence again, she created that violent aspect in the boy, and she kills the boy anyway. It's kind of interesting to be able to see the manifestation of Xena's ways."
The actress noted that "New Zealand has got to be one of the most beautiful spots on the earth - I was there about three and a half weeks, then I traveled myself to Australia and Tonga." She was overseas again recently to make a movie called Broke Down Palace in Manila. "It's a Fox 2000 film that's starring Clare Danes and Kate Beckinsdale; Bill Pullman and I play a husband-and-wife team of lawyers in Thailand who try to save the girls when they get involved in a very ugly, complicated drug scandal. I play a Thai lawyer, which was fun - Thai people are fascinating."
A first-generation American, Kim's parents raised their daughters to be musicians; one is currently a classical saxophonist married to a French horn player, while another is a former pianist who's now in the music business. Jacqueline Kim "sort of splintered off into singing," and singing led to musicals. "There was a little theater down the street and I started to see their stuff when I was thirteen, and I got really excited. This little old lady took me on and said, 'Here, we're going to start doing Shakespeare.' And I found it was challenging, and I love language, I was raised bilingual and I just loved language itself. So I just kind of got bit."
The actress graduated from the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago (which she attended with X-Files star Gillian Anderson, whom she describes as "wacky" in those days). She spent six years in Chicago, then performed onstage in New York and Washington D.C., ending up in Minneapolis at the prestigious Guthrie Theatre. Her two all-time favorite roles are classical masterpieces: Electra from The Oresteia and Nina from The Seagull. She also played the Princess of France in Shakespeare's Henry V and Lady Mortimer in Henry IV, and has played numerous other roles from Shakespeare, Chekov, and the Ancient Greek playwrights.
Kim isn't one of those actors who left stage work because movies were more lucrative: "I was making a living in theater, but I found that I wanted to try something different, a different discipline of acting." She described film acting as "just about as different from theater acting as ice skating is from running. In theater, you get six weeks of rehearsal and everyone's creating in front of each other, everyone's creating with each other. You have to work with other people, and other people keep you honest constantly. And you have to work on your tools, your voice and your body and you have to work on ways of getting whatever you found with other people out there."
In movies, "I've seen a lot of actors be able to work alone, where you work out of continuity, and you can rehearse alone. There's an amazing thing about movies, though: you have to be as open as possible, because you could be ready at the beginning of your first take and do three brilliant takes, but if the steadycam guy doesn't have the move down yet, you have to be patient to do it ten more times. It's kind of about embracing the moment. So in a way you kind of have to give up the control." Very often when actors do a studio picture, there's no rehearsal time: "they don't have time for the actor to get there, which is why very often an actor has to just be there - at the audition, you have to be the role. And you have to be ready to just give it away, when you haven't even explored it yet! So it requires that you have a very solid way of getting there on your own, whereas theater requires that you let other people into your process and make them a part of your work. Everything is process."
Kim cited actresses like Judy Davis and Vanessa Redgrave as people she admires, and deplores the new "cult of personality" which glorifies "a cute, smart kind of bimbo - it's not at all about raising the level of the craft of acting." She has directed about several stage pieces in the past couple of years, but said her focus is shifting to film, though she's adamant about wanting to do quality work. "For the past ten months I've been working in film nonstop, and I'm missing theater a lot, but I'm also changing. I was in straight theater for so long that I don't know that I want to return to O'Neill and the classics." She's collaborating with some writers on screenplays and has directed new writers' plays, but doesn't think she's "anywhere near ready to write" her own scripts.
Still, she has strong opinions about the sorts of roles she'd like to see created, particularly since performers of Asian background are not always considered for parts which don't specify the character's racial background. "I've seen openness on producers' and casting directors' parts, and I've also had to fight for certain things I wanted to get in on and lost the fight," Kim noted. "It would be really great to see a sexy, smart Asian doctor on E.R.. When I did research for Volcano (in which she played Dr. Jaye Calder), I was at Cedars-Sinai for two months. One out of two doctors there is Asian-American, and three out of three nurses are Filipino! I think E.R. has almost made a point of not having Asian-Americans on it; the Asian-Americans they've had have been sort of foppish."
Volcano was a film Kim auditioned for and got an offer within a day. In addition to Generations and Disclosure, she appeared in The Mighty Ducks, Dario Argento's Trauma, and several television and cable films and series. She described the film she just finished shooting in Dallas, The Operator, as "a wicked little Zen thriller - I call it little because it's under a million budget." The film was written and produced by Jon Dichter, and will probably be released next year.
"It's a cautionary tale about a guy who's a lawyer who has everything going for him, who's sort of attached to all the material values of the postmodern society - he bets all his money away and cheats on his wife, he's doesn't care about who he represents as long as it gets him a lot of money. And one day he can't find a phone number," she laughed. "I play the operator. You know how we all sort of have a tendency to take out our anger on an anonymous voice? He basically just reams this operator, tells her that she should be replaced by a computer chip because she's worthless, and it's because he couldn't get a number before she even opens her mouth. And it turns out that she was the wrong operator to have done that to!"
The operator has "almost X-Files-like access to his life, and she turns it upside down," Kim explained, revealing that she exposes all of the man's vices - his affairs, his gambling, his bad dealings. "She serves as a big mirror to him, and he has to let go of everything. And there's a little twist at the end, right when you think she's bad and awful. People always ask that, and they always ask that about Xena - they want to know if I was good or bad."
A firm believer that "artists have to keep stimulated or they start filling orders, they become a product," she suggested that it's important for actors to work elsewhere before coming to Hollywood, "because there's so much time when you don't do anything out here. L.A. to a great degree is about timing, the way you look...I think people should always work on their stuff, because Hollywood is so fickle. It's frighteningly fickle right now." Kim spoke to the graduating class of her acting school this year, and her advice was to get out of town. "I told them, get out of here! Go learn about what you just spent four years learning. My advice is to study, and study with someone who cares about your work and can watch it over a period of time and then make sure you get to work on it, solidify what you've learned, because you could be a star flooded to us through every orifice, and then how do you keep up that hype?"
Though she's not online, Kim has a web page devoted to her which was created by a fan, and is beginning to get used to celebrity, which she said she finds "a little weird. I don't know that they know I'm real sometimes - I've heard people making a bet, about ten feet from me, staring at me in a restaurant: 'Is it her? I don't know, let's wait till she turns around!'"
She's real, even if her best-known characters are larger than life. Give Jacqueline Kim a few years, and she may be, too.