Korean actress rising: Juilliard grad Kahyun Kim

June 18, 2014
Kahyun Kim (left) and Taylor Hawthorne in "Hit" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. (Photo Ed Krieger, courtesy of LATC)

Kahyun Kim (left) and Taylor Hawthorne in “Hit” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. (Ed Krieger / Courtesy of LATC)

By Tae Hong

In the two years since her graduation from the prestigious Juilliard drama school, Kahyun Kim has taught Chris Evans how to speak Korean and watched herself on TV doing a recurring gig in a Disney show.

And stood in the middle of Hollywood Blvd. wondering just how she got here.

The stage-trained 24-year-old, who recently finished a three-week run as the lead actress of playwright Alice Tuan’s “Hit” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, is looking to make it big in Tinseltown, one step at a time.

One step at a time — that’s important to Kim, who says what she sees for herself is a long-term career, not instant gratification.

The story is different for her on-stage persona in “Hit,” a Kim by first name, whose life as a young, energetic but emotionally fluctuant half-Korean adoptee relies on instant gratification brought on by not knowing what she wants. She eventually walks down a messy, tangled road.

But Kim, who was born and raised in Korea, has known that performing arts is her calling since she was in middle school. What began as children’s ballet lessons led to a love affair with the musical theater classes offered at the same studio.

A singer’s nodule eventually halted her singing, but she knew by then that she’d be an actor.

Carolyn Almos (left) and Kahyun Kim in Alice Tuan's "Hit." (Courtesy of LATC)

Carolyn Almos (left) and Kahyun Kim in Alice Tuan’s “Hit.” (Courtesy of LATC)

Kim, whose English sounds as American as apple pie despite her having come to the U.S. at age 16, attended a boarding school for the arts before starting at Juilliard in 2008.

Her days in New York were some of the most intense in her life, but Kim headed west, as many do, after graduation.

She’s since ventured onto television and film through appearances on “Austin & Ally” and through small roles in films like “A Many Splintered Thing,” for which she taught “Captain America” star Evans and Michelle Monaghan small bits of historical “sa-geuk” Korean, and “Obituaries,” a short film narrated by James Franco.

“I love, love TV. It’s starting to pick up now,” she says. “I see so many possibilities in that route, and I’m getting closer and closer.”

She’s testing for pilots, going to auditions and constantly meeting new people — excitement is an understatement, she says. From comedies to dramas to quirky sidekicks with memorable one-liners, she wants to do it all.

Kim, though, knows the stage is home.

“I forget theater sometimes. You’re in this business and you think, I want to do TV, I want to do film. And then once a year I do theater, and there’s the audience and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ Every single time. I’m so surprised that I’m not doing it more. I forget, and then I remember,” she says.

Ultimately, the dream is to one day have her own television show and to be able to go back to New York to do theater on stage, she says, and calls “Grey’s Anatomy” star Sandra Oh’s success a coveted career model.

Kim grew up loving Korean dramas (“”Once you start watching Korean dramas, you can’t stop. I think that’s such a skill that says something about Korean writers.”) and is a self-professed Hyun-bin fangirl (“I mean, Hyun-bin is so cute. Oh my God, this is being recorded. But Hyun-bin is so cute.”) but she says working in Korea isn’t a priority.

Justin Huen (left), Taylor Hawthorne and Kahyun Kim in "Hit" at the LATC. (Courtesy of LATC)

Justin Huen (left), Taylor Hawthorne and Kahyun Kim in “Hit” at the LATC. (Courtesy of LATC)

“To be a celebrity there, there’s a certain type of look you have to have. A lot of the shows, it’s very hard for a newbie to put a foot in, especially because I’m not the drop-dead-gorgeous type. And I admire that. Every time I go back, I’m like, ‘I wish I could fit in and be prettier and take care of myself in a superficial way.’ But then what I think to myself is, I went to Juilliard!” Kim laughs. “I can’t think of [Korea] right now because it’s another industry. What I want is to get established here.”

Her parents’ decision to send their 16-year-old daughter who didn’t speak great English and who would be away from them for years to the U.S. was a huge one, but it was also initially suggested by her mother, she says.

“Even in college, [Korean arts schools] pick based on looks. Looks are very important. It’s Korea. It’s because that’s how the industry works. They know that those are the people who are going to eventually work,” Kim says.

She’s since realized her mother’s wisdom.

“My mom always said, ‘You don’t want to be a hit star and disappear and never come back. You always want to be a long-term actor. Don’t try to find that instant gratification.’”

On her way down the proverbial road to hopeful stardom, everything is a challenge, and everything is about just trying it, she says.

“I want to be an actor that people love to watch. I want to be diverse, I want to jump through all mediums,” Kim says. “I want not only for people to like me, but people to be drawn to me — that’s the kind of actor I want to be. I want to make interesting choices, no matter what that means.”