Emily Kuroda: The Trained Thespian behind Gilmore Girls' Mrs. Kim
So who is the actress behind this one-of-a-kind character? A respected theater veteran. APA talks to Emily Kuroda -- who in real life, thank goodness, doesn't resemble the intense, intimidating character that she portrays onscreen.
Published: Wednesday, June 08, 2005Gilmore Girls is no stranger to high drama. The season five closer was no exception with the seemingly unbreakable Lorelai-Rory bond was shaken before our eyes. Knife through Lorelai's heart as Rory drops out of Yale. Then, double daggers through any other organ capable of feeling anger and betrayal after the heart has been punctured as Rory moves into her grandparent's house, as Lorelei watches her daughter merge into the claustrophobic old-money world that Lorelai had rejected her entire life.
But in the same episode, there was a brighter subplot. In contrast to the Rory debacle, there was the less intense, but just as notable development of Lane and Mrs. Kim's strained mother-daughter relationship being unexpectedly mended. This is where Emily Kuroda comes in, playing the incomparable Mrs. Kim character, bringing humor, heart, and an element of reality to an otherwise insane character.
Recap Alert! So last year, Lane (Keiko Agena) had been kicked out of the house when her uber-conservative mother (Kuroda) painfully realized that Lane had been lying to her her entire life, living a secret identity where she was fraternizing with non-mother-approved boys who were not Korean doctors, watching TV (instead of reading the Bible), eating french fries and pizza (aka food of the Devil), and acting as a drummer in a rock band (aka music of the Devil). Lane had been living in sin in an apartment with her two male bandmates for a year. Eternal damnation and hellfire. At the end of this season, Lane realizes that the band is not going anywhere, and comes back to her mother, wanting to move back home even if it means going back to her strict rules. However, in a surprise turn of events, Mrs. Kim demands that Lane not give up on her dreams, organizes a tour for them to play on, and ultimately helps Lane inject the passion back into group members so that the band does not go the way of the trilobites. It's beautiful, really. Especially when Mrs. Kim literally breaks down the door of their apartment and storms it like a crazy person, scaring the crap out of everyone -- her specialty.
Although Gilmore fans love her, make no mistake, Emily Kuroda has had a steady career in theater, film, and television way before her Mrs. Kim days. A Japanese-American who grew up in Fresno, California, she's had roles on Doogie Howser, LA Law, and was recently on Six Feet Under. However, Kuroda is most known for her extensive theater work. She is a veteran of East West Players, Los Angeles' premier Asian-American theater, acting in over 35 of their productions over the years. She's received five Dramalogue awards, a Garland award for outstanding performance, and a LA Ovation nomination for Best Lead Actress. Kuroda has become a staple in Asian-American theater -- most recently in David Henry Hwang's M Butterfly and playing Wardina in Chay Yew's A Distant Shore. We can see her on the big screen soon in Shopgirl, the adaptation of Steve Martin's novel starring himself and Claire Danes.
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APA: When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
Emily Kuroda: I started out directing and performing in high school. And then I went to college, and I was in drama, and they said, "Oh well, you should be a teacher." And all I could do was get the little crap roles. But then, I saw East West Players come along, and I said "Wait a minute...." I went there for a summer to study, and I said "Oh my God, they were wrong. I can actually act and make a living at it." So, that kind of changed my life. And that was 1978 and I've stayed ever since.
APA: Would you say that theater is your first love?
EK: Yea, because I studied for a long time. Their thing was that you should study first, don't just try to go become a TV star or a soap opera star. So I spent the first few years working odd jobs, and studying and doing theater. So I think I am at home on the stage.
APA: How would you describe your character on Gilmore Girls?
EK: I started doing Gilmore Girls in March 2000, in Toronto. Over the five years, she has grown from being a mean mom, to a mom that has to deal with a daughter who wants to date white people, a daughter who wants to play music, who wants to dress like the other kids. So, the mother is having problems trying to keep up with the times. She still wants to do the right thing for her kid, but she's not sure what the world is like anymore, so it's a constant struggle.
APA: Do you feel like the character is softening, over time?
EK: Yea, I think the character is starting to soften -- even though she kicked her daughter out of her house, for lying to her about her band -- and I think the writers have done something really interesting for the last episode of the fifth season.
APA: How did you go about creating the character? Isn't Lane's character actually based on the life of one of the producers? How much of it is true to her real life and how much of it is made up?
EK: Yes, Helen Pai, who's one of the producers. So it was really great, because usually when they have an Asian family in a show, they put all this "Oriental" stuff in it. But this one doesn't, since it's based on a real person, and also because I think the writers and producers are so with it. When I read for it, I just automatically assumed that I'd have an accent, and the creator said, "What are you doing?! No!" [laughs] I mean, the character does have an accent, but it's not a Korean accent. It's her own specific "goofy mom" accent, which I thought was really cool.
Helen's involved in music, or her husband is. I met with her mom, who was like, [imitates] "Oh God.... What are you going to do? They fall in love. What are you going do do? I don't like it, but OK." [laughs] Her mom's helped me with my Korean, during the few times that I've had to speak Korean.
APA: What is it like working with Keiko Agena?
EK: Oh, she is the best. She's a wonderful actress. She's one of the most down-to-earth girls I've ever known. She's just the most giving, most supportive person. She's just terrific. I wish all stars were like her.
APA: Do you get recognized a lot?
EK: Yea I do. All over. I get people writing me from all over Europe, from Singapore. Gilmore Girls is really hot in Singapore. It's huge. So I get really good treatment in Singapore. Better than here. [laughs]
APA: What is it like being part of a successful TV show for five years?
EK: It's really great. It's like a big dysfunctional family. Everyone knows each other. One guy who was a camera guy is now directing. So, except for all the dialogue we have to memorize, it's great.
APA: Yea, Gilmore Girls is known for the characters talking really fast...
EK: Yea, it's very fast. And it's word-perfect. Letter-perfect. They demand it. So that makes it a little hard. But we're kind of used to it.
APA: How would you describe the differences between working in theater and working on the TV show?
EK: Theater usually has a big rehearsal period, so you can think about things. You can talk to the director and work out things. You can talk to the writer if there's any problems. You can really flesh out a character. Versus TV -- I get the script the night before, and it's about trying to memorize the lines really fast. And time is money, right? So they say, here are your marks. Go! Go! Go! Talk faster. Hit your key lights. OK go. And in between takes, if you mess up, you've got the script person telling you, "You said the instead of and," you got the make-up people there, the director's giving you acting notes, the camera person's saying, "You didn't hit your mark. Can you go there?" "Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh," and they say "Go on again!" and it's like, here I go.... So, it's really fast-paced, versus stage, where before you go on, you can actually take a moment and think about what you're doing.
APA: In terms of most the roles you get and also the ones you audition for, do most of them still want you to do an accent?
APA: Is that frustrating?
EK: Yes. But you know, it doesn't happen all the time, and in fact in a lot of my roles, I do the generic roles, where I don't need an accent. But whenever it's a family, they usually have the parents first generation
APA: Since the time you started acting, how has the industry evolved, in terms of Asian-American roles? Have there been vast improvements?
EK: There's been some improvements. I'm very excited about the things Lucy [Liu]'s been doing. She's been breaking through some of the barriers. My good good friend John Cho has broken down some barriers, and I'm just so proud of him. And he's at the point where he can actually help implement changes with the producers and the writers, and he's doing it because this is very important to him. So, it's slow, but we're getting there. [pauses] But it's very slow.
APA: What other things can we expect from you in the future?
EK: I'm doing some producing now, and some directing. Little things here and there. I keep myself busy.
APA: Thank you so much for your time.