Daniel Dae Kim on the lessons of terrorism, racism and his TV series “The Hot Zone: Anthrax”


Daniel Dae Kim as FBI Special Agent Matthew Ryker — PHOTOS BY PETER STRANKS / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) describes it as “one of the largest and most complex [investigations] in the history of law enforcement. But in the wake of the series of coordinated terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a valid reason for everyone to be afraid when the anthrax attacks began a week after the World Trade Center collapsed.

In what would be known as the Amerithrax Alert, anthrax was turned into a weapon in powder form, its lethal aerosol pores that could be easily inhaled from letters sent to victims targeted by the assailant. At the time, the last natural human infection with anthrax dates back 30 years.

Inspired by real events, “The Hot Zone: Anthrax” is the six-part second season of the “Hot Zone” series. The first part on the Ebola virus epidemic in 1989 was produced by Julianna Margulies. This time around, the dramatic anthology follows the investigation that unfolds after letters containing anthrax were sent to unsuspecting victims in Florida, Washington, DC and New York.

Some of the famous recipients of the deadly mail were said to include broadcast reporters like NBC Nightly News’ Tom Brokaw (played by Harry Hamlin) and a series of Democratic Senators. The letters killed five people and consequently caused panic.

Was America facing a second wave of attacks, this time in the form of a biological weapon?

Given the widespread anxiety that led to the investigation that followed, lead actor Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost”, “Hawaii Five-O”, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, “The Good Doctor” ) said it wasn’t hard to see. the relevance and thematic relevance of a story that unfolded 20 years ago. “It was an event that was so important to Americans then – and even now,” Daniel said when we asked him during our one-on-one interview with the 53-year-old actor. “You know, September 11 was a tragic event that shaped a generation – everyone in America knows where it was on that fateful day.

“And the fact that the anthrax attacks occurred just weeks after this tragedy left more Americans than I can remember feeling vulnerable and scared, because we have never had attacks like the ones on American soil before.

“I think telling the story of that time in America is really important, especially in light of what we’ve been through recently. There are similarities to the way we have dealt with COVID, which is more of a global event. We had a country that had to unite, only to be separated by politics.

“So in a way, it sounds like what happened after 9/11. I found it really interesting. And I also love my character, how he progressed in this investigation and what he did to solve the crime.

Scene from “The Hot Zone: Anthrax”

Psychological Warfare Web

The show’s all-new season will premiere in a three-night event that kicks off at 10 a.m. tomorrow on National Geographic (channels 41/195 on SkyCable; channels 141/240 on Cignal).

Leading the case is Matthew Ryker (Daniel), a Korean-American FBI agent specializing in microbiology, who finds himself trapped in a complex web of psychological warfare as he and his team never claim to die, including agents Dani Toretti (Dawn Olivieri) and Chris Moore (Ian Colletti), track down the killer.

Equally deeply involved in the anthrax killer hunt, microbiologist Dr Bruce Ivins, portrayed with breathtaking flair and aplomb by the unrecognizable Tony Goldwyn, whose performance is as worthy of recognition here as his turn in the ‘Oscar by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Tennis-related drama “King Richard”.

Another crucial figure is bioweapons virologist Steven Hatfill (Justin Mader). In no time at all, Bruce and Steven are both propelled into the spotlight of the anti-crime narrative. But are they heroes or heels?

When we attended a “The Hot Zone” press event at a TCA (Television Critics Association) panel a few months ago, Tony explained to us what he did to “disappear” into the role. .

“I read a lot and chose (the showrunners) the brains of Brian Peterson and Kelly Souders as much as I could,” he recalls. “There was a very interesting biography – called ‘Mirage Man’ – that I discovered about my character, Bruce Ivins, who is a very complicated guy.

“The book served as my ‘bible’. This was extremely useful as it contained a lot of detail about Bruce’s life, his psyche, and the investigation itself. I’ve also spoken to experts in different fields related to microbiology and psychiatry, and some of the issues that impacted Bruce’s life.

In our exclusive interview with Daniel, we explained to the actor what, for us (after watching all six episodes at once), makes the show a real headache. While highly entertaining, the series is made even more compelling by the unforced approach it uses to balance its disparate themes, from the use of biological pathogens as weapons of mass destruction to the racism that ensues. More than that, he manages to shine the spotlight on mental health in times of crisis.

Tony Goldwyn (left) and Vanessa Matsui

‘Learn from one’s mistakes’

When asked what his biggest takeaway from the show was, Daniel replied, “I think all you just said… that’s it! You answered the question better than I did. But to add to that, I would say that it is really important to take away the lessons that we have learned during this time.

“We have to learn from the mistakes we made, not only in the investigation that took place, but also from the mistakes we made as a country… how we see people who do not believe in the same religion as the majority of Americans.

“Then there are lessons we can all learn when we make assumptions about people based on how they look or who they pray to. In this particular case, assumptions and mistakes were made which only underscore the idea that we need to be based on evidence and facts. We need to do our homework and research… all of these things are pretty applicable to our situation today.

During the TCA event we mentioned, Daniel revealed that his character, Matthew, was not a real person, unlike some major characters in the series. He said Matthew was “an amalgamation of different people” and then described his choice in the lead role as “a sign of progress”.

Did Daniel have a specific person in mind when he was creating his character “from scratch”?

“It was not a specific character per se,” he replied. “I’ve worked closely with the showrunners and directors to come up with this merger of many different FBI agents. I wanted to make Matthew universal, but I also needed to make him very specific.

“There was no one in particular to rely on, although I spoke to a number of officers, some of them from Asia. So I was also able to draw inspiration from their experiences.

Hate crimes

We highlighted how important Daniel’s starring role was because Matthew, as it is written, is an Asian American – a crucial role in a position of power created at a time when we hear a lot of hate crimes. anti-Asian in mainstream America.

“You know, I’m proud of the fact that I work really hard as an actor,” Daniel told us. “But this guy works ridiculously harder!” One of the things I learned about FBI agents after 9/11 was that most of them didn’t sleep for a week or two after the Twin Towers fell.

“They worked 12 hour shifts. And when their shifts were over they would go to Ground Zero and keep looking [for survivors or victims] or volunteer to do whatever they can to help. Like Matthew, a lot of FBI agents investigating anthrax attacks were actually doing this amazing job that 99% of us wouldn’t!

“In fact, they’ve looked at every letter that went through that particular mailing station… it’s tens of thousands of letters each! But that is exactly the kind of persistence needed to find the individuals who committed this crime.

“So it was really satisfying to know that there were those of us who were so dedicated to our jobs… and to helping others.

“But that wasn’t the only challenge for me while filming this series. This was filmed during the COVID lockdown in Canada – and it was really tough! Because when you are dealing with a subject as rigorous and consuming as this one, sometimes you need to take a break.

“You have to be able to let off steam on weekends. But not having that outlet was really tough and made it really tough as you deal with COVID, lockdown, and the weather!

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