For Claudia Kim, acting found her first. Hers is the quintessential story of being in the right place at the right time.
Kim spent a considerable amount of her young adult life pursuing a career as an international anchorwoman. But on a whim she entered—and won—the first China-Korea Supermodel contest in 2005. It was only a matter of months before she was catapulted into the limelight when a director scouted her for a hit Korean TV series.
She scored her first role and suddenly found herself soaring on a plane halfway across the world to New Zealand—and hasn’t looked back since.
After some time in the Korean acting world, Kim made her crossover to Hollywood. Not many Korean actors have been able to make the jump successfully with the same critical acclaim and attention; to date, she has been a part of big international hits like Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Dark Tower and most recently, the Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald as Voldemort’s famed snake companion, Nagini.
The breadcrumb trail leading to her flourishing acting career is the stuff of happenstance and fairytales. But we have quickly discovered, as many others have, that the South Korean Actress’ unyieldingly curious mind and gumption would have eventually awarded her with a large platform, whether on screen or elsewhere.
Here, we chat about her brief goth-phase as a teenager, her formative time at the world’s largest all-female university, the interesting challenge of auditioning for the role of Nagini, and how she hopes globalization will help blur the lines of representation in media.
Where do you call home?
Home to me is Seoul, Korea, where my family and dog, Winter, is. But I must admit that I can never see myself having a home in just one place.
What was your childhood like? Can you describe how you were as a kid?
I was outgoing and curious as a kid. I loved to learn as much as I could: math, Chinese characters, Roman numerals, jazz dance, baton, watercolor and oil painting. I was also part of an orchestra as a flute player for a long time, played classical and jazz piano, dabbled in cartoon drawing, and the list goes on and on.
But I would have to say that my favorite things to do were singing and watching films. I sat in front of the stereo all day singing along to my favorite songs and recorded myself reading books, like a radio DJ.
As a teenager, I was admittedly a bit of a goth child. Academically, I did well in school but I definitely carried the darkness and confusion of being unsure of where I belonged. I felt conflicted about my identity: Was I Korean? Or American? Or something else even? I was also obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer during this time. I used to print the script and memorize lines from the show.
I remember how much I loved reading biographies, namely ones about influential women, because I was very inspired by people and their stories. I also became passionate about issues regarding existence, racism and feminism as a kid. I used to scribble my thoughts onto my wooden desk in school. I guess that was my escape or an expression of rebellion.
At a young age, who would you say inspired you to begin acting and why?
I think acting just found me first. I always knew I had a passion for media, I was just searching for what field it would be specifically.
Initially, I thought I wanted to be an anchorwoman because of my childhood idol Karuna Shinsho, who is an world-renown anchorwoman. So I interned for English newspapers and Arirang (an English news network) in Korea and was a reporter at my University for 3 years.
But by a stroke of luck, I entered and won the first China-Korea Supermodel Contest in 2005. After my win, a director saw me doing an interview on TV and cast me for his upcoming Korean series.
I was flown to New Zealand for my role and from there I quickly fell in love with acting. It was challenging at first, but I definitely loved the emotional involvement that acting required and loved traveling for work. I think it gave me a sense of freedom.
You attended Ewha Womans University, which was founded in the late 1800’s as the first modern education institute for women in South Korea. As the world’s largest all-female educational institute, it’s quite a prestigious and progressive university. What did you study there? What was your experience like going to an all-female university?
I always wanted to go to a female university, so I'm still very happy and proud that I did. My goal since I was in middle school was to go to Ewha—specifically for International studies. All of our courses were conducted in English by amazing professors scouted from Ivy Leagues and prestigious schools around the world. Of course, globalization was the overarching topic of our education, but we studied international relations, law, economics, statistics, communication, and history, among other subjects.
When I became an actor, I thought all of that studying would go to waste, but now I believe that anything you learn eventually will prove to become useful. It’s funny that my career path is really proof that there aren't boundaries anymore due to globalization.
Also, as a female actor, building my identity at what was the biggest woman's University in the world gave me plenty of opportunities to think about the representation of women and female rights.
Considering the time you spent studying at Ewha, was there ever a time that you considered a different profession?
As I mentioned earlier, I was happy being a reporter. I loved interviewing people because I was inspired by their individual lives and the stories they posed through them. We were the only students to exclusively cover stories about Women’s Worlds, a prominent global feminist conference. Those moments as a reporter gave me the most joy during school.
You began a successful acting career in South Korea, winning some distinguished awards for your roles on television. Was there a reason for your departure from the Korean entertainment industry into more Western roles?
I was simply longing for something different. The types of roles I was seeking weren’t typically available to Korean actresses in their 20s and 30s. So I decided to stop and wait for something new, and it was during that time I received the audition sides for The Avengers. I wouldn't call it a departure though, as I'm still trying to juggle both. Korea is where my roots are, where I started my career, and where I’m based.
What do you think are some cultural differences between the entertainment industry in Korea and the U.S.?
It’s been such a blessing to work in both industries. But if I were to talk about some differences, I would say that Korean people are crazy passionate and are extremely hard-working people in general, and the people who work in the entertainment industry are no exception. They are very flexible when it comes to work while also upholding an extreme standard of efficiency. Things move fast with a lot of energy and spirit.
On the contrary, the entertainment industry in the U.S. has a very well-established system. Each person has a clearly defined role and many departments work together efficiently to work together as a team. I’ve always been grateful that the production focuses on providing the best creative environment for the actors and crew.
How does it feel to know that you’ve made a significant mark in both countries?
That’s a huge compliment. I feel honored to have the privilege of working in both markets but in terms of acting, there’s still so much I want to do. I really want to continue to explore many more interesting roles in Hollywood and maintain a balanced career in Asia. Korean films are really on my heart too.
You have been on what seems like a non-stop acting spree in the Western entertainment world since your role as Khutulun in the Netflix series Marco Polo, going on to act in a multitude of huge movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron and now the highly anticipated Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. How do you keep from burning out and moving forward creatively with gusto?
These projects have all been such valuable learning experiences for me. Rather than feeling burnt out, I feel as though I've gained a different set of skills through each one.
How do you usually prepare for a role? Are there any methods that you live by?
First, I do all the necessary research needed to know more about the role. Research is also something I just naturally love to do because I feel the need to know more about anything that interests me.
Then I try to go through the emotional process of how the character came to be, whether it’s making up the backstory or picturing significant moments the character would have gone through in the past. I also place importance on preparing for the physical aspects too, usually starting with the walk.
Tell us a little bit about your role as a Maledictus in the upcoming movie, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. How was your experience auditioning for the role?
It was probably the most interesting audition I had to do. Everything about the it was top secret. I could only access the sides through an app and I wasn't allowed to read or work on the audition with anyone.
The most memorable part of the audition was in London when I met David and Ezra. David asked me to do the transformation in person and it was videotaped. I freaked out a little inside and felt the pain of an instant heartburn, but it was also cool that I had to do something so outside of the box. Relying only on my instincts, I collapsed on the floor and moved like my spine was breaking and arms were being pulled back and ended up in a cobra-like movement. I think I hissed a bit too, (Laughs).
It was slightly embarrassing but also weirdly rewarding. David would say things like, “could you try to add 2% more snake...” It’s brilliant how David gives direction like that!
What was your favorite part of playing the role of a Maledictus? What would you say was the most challenging aspect?
Getting to play such an iconic character, first of all, is a huge blessing. The great part is, she is a character that carries emotional complexity. Nagini is fragile but powerful, beautiful but cursed, hopeful but tragic at the same time. These contrasts always make the character both challenging and interesting to play.
Were you a fan of the Harry Potter books growing up?
Yes, I’ve been a Harry Potter fan since the first books came out. It was the first book that had the most impact on me because it was so shockingly wonderful and creative. I was into Greek mythology as a kid so reading about magic and this wizarding world got me hooked.
There has been a slow but steady movement in the U.S. entertainment culture where, more and more, we are seeing underrepresented groups of people (namely women and Person of Color’s) getting more exposure through roles. What would you say is the reason for this progression and where do you see yourself within that movement?
I think there have always been voices that have spoken out about the need for this kind of change. At least for Asian representation in Hollywood, I feel like the movement has really gathered steam, due in part because of the rapidly growing entertainment industry in Asia. It’s becoming more and more common to look to all of the Asian Entertainment industries as cultural tastemakers of our time, whether it be film, music, or fashion, all of which has been largely influential on a global scale.
However, I think that this is just the beginning. There is so much more that needs to change and many more opportunities that need to be created. Look around us… we live in remarkably diverse cultural and ethnic ecosystems. Rather than just having diversity for the sake of avoiding criticism or merely fulfilling a business plan, films should be a portrayal of our lives and the worlds we live in. My hope is that one day all boundaries will be so blurred that no one will even have to talk about representation anymore.
From your start in Korea to your steady ascension in the U.S., you’ve covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. If you had to take a sweeping look at your life thus far and look ahead into the future, where do you hope that this journey will take you in the coming years?
The beauty and horror of being part of this industry is being unsure of what’s next. I just know that I want to continue to expand and do films both in Korea, the U.S., and in other countries. I would love to take part in art films. I love watching French independent films in particular so maybe that could be an option one day.
I want to be able to take on more roles that weren't available for Asian women in Hollywood. I hope to be involved with more projects like Marco Polo, in which I got to collaborate with many talented Asian cast members from all over the world but also want to be able to do more projects that are very caucasian dominated. Successfully crossing over from Asia to the U.S. and vice versa is still a huge task I have.
Angelline Lau, Natalie Yip, Andre Hendrata, Adeline Yeo, Gaby Aw & Yuki Tan