Synopsis : A night of passion leads to love between con man Charlie and undercover CIA officer Emma, who are unknowingly on a collision course professionally. While Charlie ramps up the family business with sights set on getting out for good, Emma works to close in on the vengeful criminal who holds Charlie’s family debts in hand — forcing them to reckon with the lies they’ve told so they can save themselves and their families from disastrous consequences. The series is based on the Korean Broadcasting System series entitled “My Fellow Citizens.”
TV Network: ABC
Premiere Date: Feb 19, 2023
Executive producers: Julia Cohen, Phil Klemmer, Milo Ventimiglia, Russ Cundiff, Jon M. Chu, Caitlin Folto, todd Harthan, Lindsay Goffman.
Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Catherine Haena Kim, William Fichtner, Tim Chiou, Freda Fohshen
Exclusive Interview with Actress Catherine Haena Kim
Q: You are originally from Queens, New York, and went to University of Virginia to study Psychology and minor in drama. At what point did you decide to be an actor? What are the things that triggered you to become an actor?
CHK: To be honest, I think because I’m the first generation born here. My parents immigrated from Korea. My dad was an engineer in Korea and my mom did administration and she worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They came here and they spoke no English, and they were selling whatever they could peddle at flea markets, they were selling umbrellas in Times Square — just chasing that American dream. So they weren’t around a lot when I was growing up because they had to work a lot.
I had my first lead in a school play in fourth grade. I got to play a princess in a children’s adaptation of “The Tempest”, which is a Shakespeare play. I don’t know why — I went to a public school — why we were doing something so fancy. I think it’s one of the first times I felt really seen, and special in a way that maybe I hadn’t before. I think that’s what initially hooked me into being onstage and acting. It would make sense why I would go on to major in Psychology and Drama. I was actually trying to study Business in French, but I kept sneaking into the drama department and I ended up with more credits in drama than my two majors combined by the time I had to declare.
But people are fascinating to me. I think everybody has a story to tell if we’re willing to listen. So as I’ve gotten more into acting, that’s where it’s evolved. And my hope is that I keep telling stories that have never been told before.
Q: We saw that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won a lot of categories at the Oscars, and we saw significant change in Hollywood industry. When you started off with appearing in shows like “Gossip Girl” and “90210”, what kind of struggle did you go through as an Asian actor?
CHK: Yeah. It’s interesting because I grew up in America, so I’m probably as Americanized as a blond, blue-eyed girl. When I was coming up, it was actually very hard for me to play Asian roles. They didn’t think I was “fresh off the boat” enough — whatever that’s supposed to mean. Or they would have me do an accent, and so I would just work with my mom on doing an authentic accent. Then they would tell me that it was too thick and they couldn’t understand me. You can’t win, you know?
It’s a funny thing sometimes in this business. You kindof have to laugh at it, because there’s always going to be something — and most of the time, it’s not personal. It’s just how it fits or services the story the best. But someone’s always going to be taller than you, or more blond than you, or skinnier than you, or fatter than you. There’s always something.
Q: Now you have a lead role in TV series ‘The Company You Keep”. Can you take us through the process of landing this lead role in a significant ABC series?
CHK: Yeah, from my understanding, they actually they looked all over the world for the part. When I read the audition sides, I completely fell in love with it. I’ve been calling it my dream role ever since. It took an entire month to audition for it. Because of the pandemic, I had not done an in-person audition of any kind for the last, what, two-plus years. I was on another show, so honestly, in almost three years I hadn’t done an in-person audition. We send in our self-tapes, you send them off into the ethers, you hope for the best.
Most chemistry reads and callbacks were done on Zoom. I was like, okay, so I have a callback and it’s a chemistry read for this part and it’s all in person. Okay, got it; I did that. At that point it was maybe about six of us up for the part, and eventually it would come down to me and one other actress. So they asked if they could have a coffee with both of us — separately, luckily. That was the most important coffee of my life! It was like a date. I felt like I was on “The Bachelor”. I was like, “Who’s going first? Who’s going to be there?”
My friends were all really wonderful, because I was so excited about this part, I couldn’t stop talking about it with — honestly, anybody I encountered in that month — so they were there for the entire journey of it. Even when I had their coffee, they were like, “What are you wearing? Send a shoe option.” By the time I booked it, I had generally a good idea the day I would find out, and I didn’t want to sit at home on pins and needles or pacing around, wondering when — or if — I would get that phone call. So I actually packed my day with mundane stuff, like a doctor’s appointment, errands. It was actually so packed that I missed the call that I got the part!
I have a voice message still saved from Milo [Ventimiglia, as Charlie Nicoletti] and our creator, Julia [Cohen] and they’re like “Hey, it’s Milo and Julia. Call us back, it’s not spam. It’s funny.
Q: Often when TV series represent a CIA character, they have the character doing undercover work or infiltration right from the beginning. What’s engaging about this show is that it has a slower process so at first no one knows the characters are a con artist and a CIA agent. What did you find fascinating about the script when you first read it?
CHK: Yeah, it’s interesting because, first, with CIA officers, we see them on the screen and so often we don’t get to just see them being people — and they’re human beings like all of us. It’s an interesting idea to think that they’re in this high-stakes, insanely important job, but on their way to do something like go to an important meeting, they also get stuck in traffic sometimes. And sometimes they are stressed out because the babysitter didn’t show up.
In the same way, Emma has this job, she cares way too much about her job, and how could she not, right? It’s national security at stake, it’s millions of people’s lives at stake. But then she gets to go home and she has a mom that’s a lot, and she has a younger sister, and she’s falling in love with this guy and this one feels different. So it’s exciting and terrifying in a different way. I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition, seeing her just being a human being.
Q: This show pretty much relied on the chemistry between your character Emma and Milo’s character Charlie, and definitely there’s a sizzling tension throughout the show. How do you work with Milo to create that chemistry?
CHK: Yeah, we’ve been talking a lot about what chemistry even is, and it’s been very flattering to hear that people love our chemistry. Beyond the physical, I think it’s your emotional connection, because it’s something that’s intangible. but I think it’s a trust that you give to each other. We did have a couple of rehearsals before we ever stepped on set, but it wasn’t like “Hi, nice to meet you. I guess we should make out now” — which is awkward. We got to build trust just as scene partners. It’s also nice having a producer who “gets” your job and also is an actor on set. [Ventimiglia is also an executive producer.]
Q: The family dynamics are interesting in this show. Charlie is coming from the con artist or grifters type of family, and Emma is coming from a highly respected former senator’s family that is very strict. Quite opposite types. How do you collaborate with James Saito or Tim Chiou to create the dynamic of family?
CHK: Yeah, it’s really interesting because as far as I know, we haven’t seen an Asian American family like this on network TV, maybe ever. Where you have the mom [Freda Foh Shen as Grace Hill] who is third-generation Chinese American and the dad [James Saito as Joseph Hill] is first-generation Korean American. The interesting thing is, when they met, Grace, the mom, came from some money and Joe, the dad, was very poor, so Grace’s family actually didn’t approve of her marrying this guy because he wasn’t Chinese and he wasn’t rich. You see them now being very successful, but they didn’t come from very much. They built up their success by pulling up by their own bootstraps with the sweat of their own backs.
I think that’s really exciting to see a success story like that — where it wasn’t just handed to them. We’ve talked a lot because we want to represent, we want to represent well, and the best way we can do that is to tell this one story really well. It’s not meant to represent all of the Asians. Now, there’s no way that it possibly could.
Q: When your character first met Charlie, she lied about being a pageant queen. But you were actually Miss Virginia in the Miss United States pageant. Was that an improvisation or written, are there scenes that were improv to create the chemistry?
CHK: That was actually already written into the script, like this role is meant to be. But a lot of the meet-cute and a lot of the falling in love, a lot of the moments in the pilot that you see — where we’re in the bubble bath, or you think we’re about to have a hot, steamy sex scene but all of a sudden we order room service and we’re watching TV. A lot of that was improvised, and it was really fun.
Q: This show tackles the ordinary life of a CIA agent including the love life, not just investigation, but if it’s tilted toward more love, it loses its tension. What conversations did you both have with the director or producers about the balance of those elements?
CHK: I did a lot of research before I started this role, because I’m a total nerd and I love to read a million books, and watch shows and movies. I specifically wanted to read books about female CIA officers. It turned out, actually, that our director from the pilot is good friends with a former CIA officer, and I read her book. So she has come on as an informal consultant, which is really helpful. She’s the one I feel that really reminds us that CIA officers are people, too, and they deal with all the good and highs and lows that all people do.
This has been a wonderful experience because our producers and our writers are very collaborative, and it’s very important to me that Emma is portrayed as a very strong, smart woman. Even as she clearly doesn’t see that she’s dating a con artist. I joke and I say love really is blind.
Q: What kind of research of the CIA surprised you the most, and what are you taking away from that?
CHK: Honestly, I think there’s something in all of us that wants to feel like we belong to something bigger than us, that wants to feel whole. It’s so fascinating to me that CIA officers do not really want to find out the answers, but they want to be a part of the solution. It takes such an extraordinary person, because in a world where I think we over-share about everything — especially on social media — it’s like, if you work out twice that week, then you want everybody to know. You have CIA officers who, if they do their jobs right, nobody will ever know, and they purposely want to be invisible. I think that’s so interesting in this modern world.
Q: What do you want the audience to take away from this wonderful show?
CHK: I think Milo says it best — he says “We want to be your Sunday night.” We want to be your escape from the world, but we hope that we also make you think a little bit about the world.
Q: Thank you.
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Here’s the trailer of the series.