‘The Mentalist’s’ Tim Kang making a mark in Hollywood


CHO KNOWS BEST — Bay Area native Tim Kang’s “colorful past” as Kimball Cho on CBS’ “The Mentalist” keeps audience guessing. courtesy of J Squared Photography

It might be hard these days to find someone who has never seen Tim Kang’s face. The Korean American actor has appeared on “Chappelle’s Show,” “The Office,” “Monk,” “Law & Order,” and in the 2008 “Rambo” film. He was in a pivotal, highly memorable episode of the “The Sopranos” and is perhaps best known for his primary cast role in “The Mentalist.”

The show follows a con man turned law officer, Patrick Jane, who uses his grifting skills such as cold reading — guessing information about a person through body language, manner of speech, etcetera — to solve crimes. Kang plays Kimball Cho, a fellow officer with a dry wit, who challenges Jane as a way of understanding his techniques and ensuring the accuracy of Jane’s conclusions.

Those who don’t watch film or television may still know the actor from a popular Shell Oil Company ad campaign. Kang got into acting at the age of 25, on a whim. Between graduating from UC Berkeley and attending graduate school for acting at Harvard, Kang worked at a stock broking firm andbriefly at a high-tech PR firm as an account executive. He told About.com the job was “the worst because I had absolutely no passion for what I was talking about… and I had to wear a suit and tie into work every day and I really don’t like that.”

He’s now living his dream as an actor, but, ironically, wears a suit nearly every day of shooting for his role as Kimball Cho. Kang took some time out from shooting season three of “The Mentalist” to talk with the Nichi Bei Weekly about his life, his career and his character from the hit CBS show.

Nichi Bei Weekly: First, a little background — you grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Tim Kang: I was born in the city, and I lived right on Golden Gate Avenue until I was five, and my parents picked up and moved to the East Bay. I lived in Walnut Creek until I was in eighth grade, then Danville until I moved out of the house.

NBW: And you went to school out here as well?

TK: Yeah, I went to Cal for college. It was a life-changing experience. It was a great education all the way around — both in terms of life education and academic education. It might be the same at any other school, but it opens your eyes, exposes you to all types of different people and viewpoints that help you become a freethinking individual.

NBW: And you majored in political science? What were you intending to do with the degree?

TK: I was on my way to do law school, but obviously that didn’t pan out.

NBW: Do you still follow politics?

TK: I’m disillusioned by politics of late — what it is today is not what I studied in school.

NBW: You didn’t get into acting until later in life, and you did so on a whim. I believe you took a beginner’s acting class in the city while you had a lucrative day job selling stocks? At what point did you know you wanted to give that up to pursue acting?

TK: I think it was when I realized I was thinking more about the monologue I was going to [perform in class] instead of the job I was doing at the time. I would be at work, this really fast-paced environment, but my thoughts and heart were more with a fellow monologue-er in the classroom. That was more important to me than selling stocks. It was something I truly loved and it was something I was searching for for a long, long time. I had finally found it.

NBW: It seems like by pursuing acting, you were giving up some financial security.

TK: My boss was making millions of dollars and he was grooming me to take over his accounts. I told him [I was quitting] and he laughed at me a little bit, and said, “Good luck.” But my dad had given me a piece of great advice that I still hang on to today: Just work hard and do what you love and money will follow. That’s what I did. I worked on my craft, day and night. I ate and slept [acting] and fortunately for me, it worked out.

NBW: So then your dad encouraged you to pursue this career change?

TK: No, not at all. My parents were typical Asian parents. They were supportive of me being an engineer, a lawyer or a doctor — one of those three professions. When I told my dad, his jaw hit the floor. But I really started to dedicate my life to it and he eventually came around. He came to a repertory theater show in Boston, in which I was playing one of the leads. There was a crowd of about 1,000 people and we got a standing ovation and positive notices for our performances in local papers.

NBW: Did you ever let him know he inspired you to make that move?

TK: It’s funny; I never mentioned it to him. Maybe I will, now.

NBW: So at what point did you really know you had made a go of it in acting?

TK: I still don’t think I’ve made a go of it. I’m nowhere near where I want to be or where I need to be. I’m constantly refining my craft and it’s a journey that will take my entire life. In terms of career though, I felt like I got a foothold in the business, during the tail end of my time in New York, maybe ’06. I think I had been on probably every single TV show shot in New York at that time.

NBW: During your time in New York you worked with director Greg Pak in “Robot Stories” and then, more recently, you worked with him again in “Mister Green.”

TK: Greg is so amazing. He’s a director and he also writes; he’s done “The Hulk” for Marvel Comics among many other things. I had a chance to work with him right before and right after September 11. I had just moved to New York, I was fresh out of grad school. We started shooting “Robot Stories” and September 11 happened. So that [became a special relationship,] right from the get-go. By the time he did “Mister Green” I was living in L.A. He asked me if I would do it and I was like, “Great!” I’ll do anything for him and with him. I flew up to New York over a couple weekends, just for the opportunity to work with the guy again.

NBW: Have you faced any particular challenges as an Asian American actor? Roles are really limited.

TK: At the end of the day, there are 100 Asian American actors out there competing for five roles. If you’re Caucasian you have 100 roles, but you’re competing against 1,000 other Caucasian actors. Certainly, though, the range of roles is more limited for Asian American actors, but opportunity wise, I try not to think about that side of it. It’s a slippery slope.

NBW: What about stereotypical roles?

TK: It’s definitely out there, but I haven’t come across a lot of it. I think that’s a testament to my agents steering me in a good direction. For the most part I’ve avoided those kinds of roles.

NBW: The roll you are probably best known for, Kimball Cho on ‘The Mentalist,’ is certainly not stereotypical. I think he initially appears to be very serious and skeptical, but he has a very colorful past.

TK: That colorful past shapes who he is today — his focus and his dedication to his job. We haven’t had much of a chance to take a look at it, but we’re slow to peel away the layers. Kudos to Bruno [Heller] who created the show. He gave us enough description to sink our teeth into the role, but he also gave us the freedom to inform the character the way we wanted to and shape them. It was a real treat. The character I came up with was really different for what Bruno originally envisioned. Just the other day, I looked at the old character breakdown for the pilot we shot. He was a family man and a real bookworm and Cho is certainly anything but those things.

NBW: So you were able to contribute to the character’s back story?

TK: When we were shooting season one, I had meetings with Bruno and asked him about Cho’s background. He turned it around on me and asked, “What do you think?” He challenged me to think of something. I had friends who were in law enforcement and the military. I wrote a bio for Cho and Bruno kept some stuff and left some of the stuff alone.

NBW: Cho was gang affiliated in his youth. There are a lot of Asian gangs in the Bay Area — did that inform your choice to include that in his background?

TK: I ended up moving to the East Bay, but my cousins were still living in the city. They were very familiar with the gangs and knew people who were affiliated with Korean and Asian gangs. I was in Walnut Creek, but it was certainly in my head in terms of what was going on in the world. And that was really from growing up — the law enforcement and military friends I met them in my adult life.\

NBW: Do you know a lot about Cho’s character that hasn’t been revealed on the show yet?

TK: The thing about episodic TV is that you need to parcel out information on characters as much as possible. For supporting characters especially, if the audience knows everything about them, it’s not as fun. There is definitely a lot that the audience doesn’t know about Cho that we will learn in the coming seasons. He’s sort of a secretive, cryptic kind of guy and I think that makes it interesting.

NBW: Earlier you said that you aren’t where you want to be yet. Where do you want your career to go?

TK: TV is fantastic because you’re making a mini-movie every week, but the production schedule is much tighter. I like the detail work you can do in film, spending time on individual moments. As long as the scripts are good, though, it sort of doesn’t matter whether it’s TV or film and I’m really happy with my roles. I think I was talking about big picture; I just want to keep working on acting. That’s what’s important to me. Developing my acting is a lifetime commitment I’ve jumped into.

One response to “‘The Mentalist’s’ Tim Kang making a mark in Hollywood”

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