Korean actress and model Claudia Kim is having an American moment. In the last 10 days, Kim’s first Hollywood film, Joss Whedon’s pithy superhero sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, has taken in over $312 million at the box office. Her first international series, Netflix’s 13th-century drama Marco Polo, is about to start shooting its second season in Malaysia. Later this year, Kim will make her American independent film debut in Drake Doremus’ Equals alongside Kristen Stewart, Nicholas Hoult, and Bel Powley. As of February, she is also one of the faces of the All-American makeup brand Bobbi Brown.
In Avengers, Kim plays Dr. Helen Cho, a Seoul-based geneticist who is developing a machine to build human tissue. We recently spoke with Kim via phone from Paris.
NATIONALITY: South Korean
FAVORITE MARVEL FILM(S): The first Iron Man series was so interesting to me. He’s a superhero, yet he’s not perfect as a person. He’s always making mistakes and yet he comes out and says, “I’m Iron Man.” The first Avengers was also one of my favorites.
ACTING IDOLS: One of my role models is Marion Cotillard. I was at the Dior show in Paris for Fashion Week and I saw her briefly; I didn’t get to talk to her really. It’s great to see how well she’s doing in French films and what she’s doing in Hollywood. I think it might be fun to work with some of the other Korean actors who’ve made it to Hollywood. For instance Yunjin Kim from Lost, she’s doing a great job and I think it would be fun to work with her.
JERSEY GIRL: I moved to New Jersey when I was five and I lived there for about six years. My dad was allocated to the New York branch of his company. Looking back, I’m so grateful because I got to learn both English and Korean at the same time, and it was just so natural for me, and it made it so much easier to study English afterwards. When I came back to Korea, I had culture shock, but I was able to overcome it. I’m thankful for that, too, because I know where I’m from and I know my own culture well.
ARTS EDUCATION: My dad especially was always interested in arts, and I heard he was very talented in drawing. During my childhood, every week he would get me about 10 CDs and two videos. He really opened me up to the artistic side, but then a lot of Koreans are very academic and very conservative, and so I’ve been lead to study a lot and never encouraged to do something related to art. [My parents] kind of struggled with it at first when I went into the industry, but now they’re very happy with where I’m going with it.
MODEL STUDENT: I entered the Guess modeling contest in Korea back in 2003 or 2004. I just did that for fun. I got an offer to be a model and I actually refused because I thought, “I don’t have time for this, I have to study.” Then it was the first Korea-China supermodel contest in 2005, so I thought, “Okay, it’s international, maybe it’s worth doing it.” And I had good memories, so I got into it again.
CHOOSING A CAREER: Since I made my acting debut, it’s been 10 years. I actually took about three years off. I got into modeling first, then acting came along pretty soon and I landed my first role in a Korean drama without education, without any acting experience whatsoever. It was great—I loved it—but I really needed to take time to decide for myself, am I really going to do this for life? Am I going to be able to do this? I really needed to find myself. I felt like all the standards I had, any core values that I had, were being shaken or tested, and I needed to get that straight before anything else. That took about three years. I had to graduate from the university I was in—I was an international relations major. I made the decision that I’m ready, I’m going to do this, and that’s when I got my next project. It kind of found me again, and I thought, “This isn’t just coincidence that I got to work in this industry as an actress.”
INTRODUCTION TO HOLLYWOOD: The first audition I did for a Hollywood film was in 2012, I think. Then I did the audition for Furious 7, but they were originally thinking of another person when they first wrote it—it wasn’t for an Asian originally—so I didn’t get it. But the casting director is actually the casting director for Marco Polo.
I personally love auditioning. It’s not just about that part, it’s about getting to meet new people and really introducing myself to them—getting my name out there more than getting just that project. Sometimes the chemistry with the director just isn’t that great, but almost every single audition—maybe one I didn’t feel so good about, but the rest, I always enjoyed.
THE GUESSING GAME: I did my first video audition for Avengers in Korea—I guess Disney or Marvel had a list of actors who they wanted to videotape. I met the casting director in L.A. and I traveled back to Korea for the final audition. I watched all of the Marvel films that I could find. When I auditioned, I thought it actually might be for Ant-Man. They didn’t tell me about my role; they didn’t tell me what movie it was for. I had to guess through just the script that I had. I thought, “Okay, she’s creating something new, it has to do with science, so she’s probably creating a new character or something like that. Ant-Man is the only new movie that Marvel has that they didn’t release yet.”
MARCO POLO: I found out about Avengers first, and when I got the offer for Marco Polo, I thought, “I can’t do this. I’ve committed to the Avengers.” Luckily, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Feige were able to work something out, so I got to do both simultaneously. I would be surprised if people recognized me from Marco Polo—how I look every day and how I look in Marco Polo, it’s such a huge transformation. A lot of people tell me—even Korean fans—that it was so hard to recognize me. Hopefully more people will see Marco Polo. I heard we’re getting Netflix in Korea in June.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON IS OUT NOW.