By Corina Knoll
Photograph by Eric Sueyoshi
Inside a tiny Italian restaurant just a skip from the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, one very familiar face is eulogizing the work of classic playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.
“There’s so much going on in there,” he says above the sizzle of the nearby kitchen. “And just before I moved here, when I was still living in New York, I had a chance to produce The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter, again, another amazing playwright. A short one-act and the words are very sparse. I don’t know if you know Pinter very well — he says a lot of things through his silences. … When there’s silence, you’re able to really fill out the character and not have just a mouthful of words all the time, but do things by a look or a movement.”
Abstruse stuff, those Pinter plays, and not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear lauded by Tim Kang. The 35-year-old actor is, after all, known for being incredibly, uh, commercial.
You’ve probably seen his work: He’s the technician sporting goggles and a lab coat testing gasoline quality for Shell. He’s also the dad easily duped by his wife and daughter into a future shopping trip to Home Depot. And for three consecutive years, he was the deadpanning dude whose Cingular cell phone always worked during March Madness.
So while Kang studied acting at Harvard and speaks fervently about obscure dramatists, he’s more likely to be known to the general public as “that Asian guy in all the commercials” (as one blog puts it).
One would be hard-pressed, however, to get Kang to see himself as the marketable Asian American Everyman.
“I don’t even know that I’m that high-profile when it comes to commercials,” he says. “If you‘re telling me that I am, I guess it’s good because as they say any publicity is good publicity. However, I don’t really feel it.”
He will admit that the ads have prompted recognition from strangers (usually, “Hey, you’re the Shell guy!” Or, “I know you. Did we take a class in college together?”) and that commercial work can be a nice breather from taking oneself too seriously. “When something like Cingular comes in, it’s just fun to go out there and be a goofball.”
Anyway, Kang wasn’t always a theater maven. Born Yila Tim Kang in San Francisco, the son of a nurse and a journalist (his father was the publisher of the Korea Daily News) and the eldest of three brothers, Kang graduated from Berkeley with a degree in political science. Shortly afterward, he moved to Hawaii where he surfed days and bartended nights. It was there that he discovered scuba diving, a diversion that has taken him to Thailand and the Phillippines.
“When you’re in a dive group and you see a school of Jack fish and there’s 300 of them just swimming right by you and they’re weaving this way and you’re in the middle of it — it’s a pretty amazing feeling.” (Kang also dabbles in skydiving, taekwondo, golf and makes visits to the gun range.)
He moved back to the Bay Area after a year and shuffled between odd jobs until becoming a runner on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange. On his way to work one day he passed the American Conservatory Theater and saw a notice for night acting classes. He signed up on a whim, but then took additional classes and realized he wanted to pursue acting as a career.
“I had a pretty good thing going with this market banker and he wanted to start to train me and take over his accounts. He was making something like $3 million a year. It was a good opportunity for me to get into the financial world. I dumped it and went into graduate school.”
Entering the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard, Kang felt pretty green.
“I think it was day two in grad school where the drama history teacher was giving a lecture and he was talking about Stanislavski,” he recalls. “I leaned over to my friend and said, ‘Who’s Stanislavski?’ And he’s like, ‘The father of modern acting.’ I’m like, ‘OK, great, let’s hear about the Stanislavski guy.’”
After Cambridge, Kang lived in New York for five years where he followed the de rigueur struggling actor route of eking out a living waiting tables and performing in the theater. He also built up his IMDb page with a handful of TV roles and indie flicks, including “Robot Stories,” a sci-fi film that won acclaim from film festivals worldwide.
“Throughout the casting process, we were always looking for people who ‘popped,’” says the film’s director, Greg Pak. “Tim just has a quiet intense presence that immediately draws attention. He played the younger version of Sab Shimono, and that’s a tough thing to do because Sab is one of the great Asian American actors of his generation. We were lucky to find someone who could match Sab’s presence and gravitas.”
Today Kang is a resident of Los Angeles, having moved here two years ago and recently purchased a house in Studio City. He just finished shooting a pilot for CBS titled “The Mentalist,” and then there’s the recent DVD release of “Rambo,” in which he plays En-Joo, one of the mercenaries hired by the big guy himself to rescue Christian-aid workers in war-torn Burma.
There are also still a few billboards and ads with his likeness floating around, although Kang will tell you that without a steady gig, he feels jobless. Looking at his watch, he declares, “As of 1:03 on a Thursday, I’m unemployed.”
Having just worked his way through his entire bowl of mussel-filled Cioppino, despite over-eager waiters attempting to prematurely clear it away, he then checks his phone (Yes, his service is AT&T, the former Cingular Wireless) and mentions having to run a few errands. After thanking his interviewer for her time, he exits the restaurant and walks casually down Sunset Boulevard. With his unassuming attire of jeans, black shoes and a black tee, he disappears into the backdrop of ongoing construction. And with that, a commercial guy fades into obscurity.