‘Hawaii Five-0’ Asian actors won’t be without projects for long

It’s been a little more than a week since word leaked that Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park were leaving CBS’s resilient hit “Hawaii Five-0,” and pieces of the story behind the story have begun to fall into place. The picture that’s emerging isn’t pretty.

As Kim himself confirmed in a Facebook post to his fans, the duo left because their request to be paid the same as their white co-stars, Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan, was rejected. The gap in what they were asking for and what CBS was willing to offer was tiny — reportedly a difference of as little as $5,000 per episode, which for the most-watched network in America is an amount that could basically be found under sofa cushions in their corporate offices.

Although, according to “Hawaii Five-0” showrunner Peter Lenkov, the raise in CBS’s final offer to Kim and Park was “generous,” money in Hollywood isn’t just about money. It also reflects respect for an artist’s importance to a show’s success. And that aspect of the negotiations clearly served as the sticking point for Kim and Park, the two prominent Asian American faces of a show whose very identity is defined by its Asian and Pacific Islander-majority locale.

Ultimately, the refusal to pay Kim and Park on matching terms with O’Loughlin and Caan was CBS’s formal declaration that they were determined to protect a disparity that has been a sore point since the show’s premiere: The assertion that O’Loughlin and Caan are “Hawaii Five-0” “stars,” and Kim and Park are merely “co-leads.”

It’s hard to avoid concluding that this is a direct reflection of Hollywood’s continuing legacy as a system where white actors and male actors are seen as more valuable than nonwhite and female ones, simply by accident of melanin and genitalia.

The hypocrisy of this stance is particularly appalling, because while O’Loughlin and Caan play updated versions of the original show’s protagonist roles, “McGarrett” and “Danno,” the initial billboards promoting the show featured Kim and Park front and center.

And why wouldn’t they? Kim had just spent six seasons on “Lost,” a show that was nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, and was also shot in Hawaii; Park was riding similarly huge public awareness from her stint as one of the most popular characters on the breakout hit — Syfy’s reboot of “Battlestar Galactica.”

They, and faint nostalgia, were the primary reasons why people were interested in watching the show. It was not O’Loughlin, who had a number of failed CBS shows to his credit (leading to some critics noting that the network seemed “determined to make him a star” ); and not Scott Caan, whose resume boasted a supporting role on “Entourage” and membership in George Clooney and Brad Pitt’s extended “Ocean’s Eleven” family — but let’s be brutally honest and admit that no one ever tuned into a TV show or bought a movie ticket with the explicit goal of seeing Caan.

Yet Kim and Park were initially paid less — a lot less, given the fact that CBS called the offer they made an “unprecedented” raise in salary. They were relegated to second-banana status on call sheets and in industry press releases. And not being seen as “leads” meant reduced leverage in other critical areas as well: Caan was able to negotiate a contract even while shooting five fewer episodes a season, allowing him to live in Los Angeles with his family. In his statement explaining Kim and Park’s departure, Lenkov specifically pointed to Park’s desire to spend more time in LA with her husband, real estate developer Phil Kim, and their son. Somehow, Caan was able to work out a deal giving him the flexibility to spend time with his partner and child — and Park was not.

Kim subtly but firmly referred to this persistent difference in how he and Park were being treated in a Facebook post he wrote to fans on July 5, stating that “the path to equality is rarely easy.”

Kim and Park certainly won’t be without projects for long. Indeed, even as he shot “Hawaii Five-0,” Kim was working on adding a new line to his resume. He launched his own production company, 3AD, whose first project is ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” one of next season’s most anticipated new shows.

He’s part of a wave of Asian American actors who’ve turned toward developing their own projects to create opportunities, including Ken Jeong, who fictionalized his own life story into ABC’s “Dr. Ken;” Steve Yuen, of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” who’s developing a feature film on North Korea’s political prison camps; and two actors who exited “Hawaii Five-0” ahead of Kim and Park — Brian Yang, producer of “Linsanity” and the forthcoming “Snakehead,” and Masi Oka, whose first project, the manga-inspired “Death Note,” is scheduled to premiere on Netflix later this summer.

So yes, the path to equality is rarely easy. But for Asian Americans who want roles of substance and commensurate success, it’s increasingly looking like that path leads in a direction beyond acting.

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