The hit CBS drama series The Mentalist follows Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), an independent consultant with the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI), who has a track record for solving serious crimes by using his unconventional skills of observation. His role in cracking tough, high-profile cases is greatly valued by his fellow agents, which include Senior Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), Kimball Cho (Tim Kang), Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman) and Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti), who all think Jane is a loose cannon, but admire his charm and knack for clearing cases.
Actor Tim Kang plays Kimball Cho, the straight-arrow, by-the-book agent who has a respect for Patrick Jane, but doesn’t quite understand his approach. Before joining the CBI, Cho was in juvenile hall as a kid and then in the military, giving him a different insight into the individuals they are investigating and the crimes they are working to solve. In this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Tim Kang talked about his unusual path to acting, how much fun he has working with the ensemble on The Mentalist, his enjoyment of the acting process and that viewers will get to learn a bit more about the supporting characters throughout the remainder of the season. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: Since you came to acting a little bit later in life, what was it that led you down that path?
TIM KANG: Literally, walking down that path. I was walking to work and I passed by A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theater) in San Francisco, and they had night education classes for adults. I said, “Yeah, why not?,” and walked in, just for the fun of it, to see what it was like. And then, one acting class turned into two, turned into four, and then turned into, “I love this. I could do this for the rest of my life. But, I don’t have a background in acting. I never acted in college, or did anything like that. How can I go about doing this?” That meant going to grad school and getting some training, and I did. I literally walked down the path. It was real fortuitous for me to walk by that school, that one morning.
And you had never thought of it before then?
KANG: No, it had never even occurred to me. I was working in financing. I was buying and selling stocks for a market-maker on the options floor at the Pacific Stock Exchange. He took me under his wing and was training me to take over his accounts. That’s the career I had embarked on, at the time.
How did you get involved with The Mentalist? Was it just a pilot season audition?
KANG: Yeah, totally. I got some pilot scripts and auditioned for a couple other ones, too. It was just a standard audition, where I kept going in to read and went up the ladder, in terms of people who you’re performing for during those auditions. Each step of the way, I was happy with that level of audition. And then, they ordered the pilot and asked me to do it. Even then, I was like, “Okay, after this pilot, I’ll move on to auditioning again.” Then, they ordered the first 13 and I was like, “All right, after these first 13 episodes, I’ll go back to auditioning and get a new job.” And then, they ordered the back nine and I was like, “Wow, what’s going on here?” Now, three years later, it’s like, “Wow.”
Knowing that you’d have to sign a multi-year contract, was there something specific about the show or the character that appealed to you?
KANG: Hats off to (show creator) Bruno [Heller] for writing such a smart show. That’s exactly what I gleamed from that very first pilot script. Throughout the shooting of the pilot, we made a lot of adjustments to the lines. I don’t know how many revision pages came out for that script. But, it really stemmed from his writing. What I saw and what attracted me to it was that it was smart and it was different, and the characters themselves were delineated enough that we could sink our teeth into it a little bit, but at the same time, he left enough room there for us to navigate on our own, and insert our own personalities and ideas into each character.
What I appreciated about the character was that he had a quiet intensity and focus about him that just really appealed to me. He wasn’t flying off the handle or making mistakes. He was just very focused on his job. That wasn’t necessarily in the script, but because of the way Bruno wrote the character, I gleamed that myself, off of his work. I saw that and made the leap. He gave me just enough to make a leap, make a choice and make a decision on how this character should be, wants to be and could be. It was a lot of fun, trying to fill out Kimball Cho.
Have you intentionally tried to make this character very different from you?
KANG: I obviously didn’t know who the character would be. I just wanted to make the character interesting for me to play and an interesting character to watch. It wasn’t any sort of a conscious thing. That’s just what I did, throughout the process of working on my character and doing my job. I’ve heard the jokes, but I’ve never even seen Dragnet. I know of the dry delivery, just from pop culture, but it wasn’t anything purposeful. When I read the character, I got a very focused guy who doesn’t fuck around. He just does his job, and he tries to do so to the best of his ability. Cho is what came out of that. With a lot of scripts, you really have to come up with that from scratch, but Bruno gave us a little bit of a push that was just enough to where we could really do something.
KANG: A lot of people are actually surprised when I do open up my mouth and smile a little bit, and crack a joke and drink a beer.
Is it surprising to you that this character has became a favorite for so many fans of the show?
KANG: Certainly, it is a surprise to me that we’ve gotten the response that we have, but I don’t really go into it with that in mind. As actors, we try to just do the character justice and try to make the writer’s intentions come to life. If you do that to the best of your ability, that’s really all you can do. All that other stuff, like a warm reception from fans and viewers, is just icing. I don’t go into it trying to be this or that because that completely taints and corrupts the work that you’re trying to do. But, I’m thankful and that definitely was a surprise. Hopefully, I’ll keep doing stuff that remains interesting and fun for the audience.
Since it usually takes some time for a show to find its footing, was there a moment where you really felt that the show had found its groove and that you knew your character?
KANG: Yeah. It wasn’t a big revelation, but I would have to say it was probably sometime during the second season, while we were shooting. By that time, we had a season of shows under our belt and we had developed this shorthand way of talking to each other and communicating. Before any of that, we were doing good in the ratings and people were still watching, thankfully, but it was nothing that really bonked us over the head and went, “You’re doing great, guys!,” or anything like that.
Part of the success of the show was that we just clicked, from the beginning, in the pilot episode. We are close enough, in our values and our personalities as individuals, that when we came together in the pilot, it just clicked. I immediately liked hanging out with Simon [Baker], Robin [Tunney], Owain [Yeoman] and Amanda [Righetti], and that’s still true today. When you walk into a room, you know whether you like a person or not. It was one of those things. The five of us walked into the room together and we just liked each other, and I think that translates. I think that’s a bigger part of why we are where we are. That’s that chemistry and that gelling that happened between the cast members, from day one. You can tell when the cast is having fun together and having a good time doing what they’re doing, and I think that comes out when we work together.
KANG: Yeah, I did more research into the police procedure. I worked out with SWAT guys and ex- and active military guys, and consulted with them and read books. As far as the character itself, I don’t know how you can research being a focused guy, aside from just being a focused person and knowing what that’s like. Outside of the character background and all that, there wasn’t a whole lot of other stuff to really delve into. You just do what you do.
Due to the fact that you only get glimpses into the characters’ personal lives and backgrounds because they’re solving cases every week, do you think there’s anything that viewers would be surprised to learn about Kimball Cho?
KANG: Yeah, and we’re going to be finding out a little bit more of what that is, in upcoming episodes. We had to take care of a few storylines and some character things, in the first 10 episodes of this season. In the second half of this season, we’re going to take a good look at not only Cho’s background and what makes him tick, but certain other characters as well. There’s going to be some friction between the characters. It’s going to be really interesting stuff, and I think it will inform where these guys are coming from, more than what we’ve gotten.
You are absolutely right when you say that we’ve only been afforded glimpses of these guys, partly by design and partly because the show is called The Mentalist. We needed to take care of a lot of those aspects of the show before we move into some of the supporting characters. That parceling out of information is what keeps it a little bit fresh. As much as we want to know a ton more about each supporting character, we’ve got to be careful about how much of that we show. For me, that’s agonizing and sometimes it’s a little bit frustrating, but I understand the need for it. It is what it is, in episodic television. But, it’s going to get very interesting and we’ll have an opportunity to do a little bit more than we have.
How do you see Kimball Cho’s relationship with Patrick Jane (Simon Baker)?
KANG: Because of the necessary things that we needed to do, I haven’t been able to work with Simon, almost at all, in the first half of this season. Last season, me and Simon would have some cool scenes together in each episode, which I thought was great. There is that idea that Jane and Cho are perfectly matched, in terms of the way they each go about getting the job done. Jane uses his antics and wild shenanigans and thinks outside the box, in his approach to solving these crimes. Cho is very well within that box, but is not afraid to go outside the box, in order to get the job done.
I think there is a mutual respect between the two. There’s a lot of eye rolling going on, in Cho’s mind, but he’s going to give Jane the benefit of the doubt because he recognizes that Jane has a gift that Cho doesn’t quite understand yet. Basically, Cho just wants to be a better cop and improve his skills, and he’s going to do anything that gets him closer to that goal. If Jane’s craziness gets him closer to that goal, he’s not going to discount it, at all. The one or two times that Cho has smiled, it’s because of a joke that Jane said or a point of view that he expressed and, in his own way, Cho agreed with that point of view with a little smirk. But, we parcel out the smiles for Cho.
Is it difficult to be so deadpan? Does that ever lead to a lot of cracking up on set?
KANG: Not a lot, partly because of the subject matter we deal with. You walk up to the set and you open up the side of the van and there’s this bloated dead body and you’re like, “Wow, that’s really gross looking.” But, there certainly are times when we crack up. It’s hard because, when you get out there, you want to get the job done. You don’t want to goof around too much. There’s a focus that people maintain throughout the working day. That’s not to say that we don’t laugh and joke and try to keep it light, but as soon as the cameras are rolling, we try to do the job. But, there have been times when you just can’t help it and that stoic veneer is definitely broken.
Did the fact that Cho is the only member of the team who’s come from the other side of the law help to inform the character for you?
KANG: Yeah. As soon as we started to develop that characterization of Cho, that certainly did contribute a bit more. Yes, he is this straight and narrow, by-the-book guy, but because of that past and knowing that he came from the other side of it, it informed me, in terms of who this guy is. He does want to get the job done, by any means necessary, outside of breaking the law. Because of his gang involvement in the past, he’s willing to bend the law and do whatever it takes, short of breaking the law. The ends do justify the means, as long as no laws are completely being broken. What makes the situations that he’s in interesting for me is wondering where that line is for him. It’s a fluid thing. There’s no right or wrong. Each situation is dealt with, on a case by case basis. You can’t really go, “Yep, that’s exactly how he would react in this situation.” Because of that experience, that’s who he is.
What’s been the most fun thing about being a part of this show?
KANG: The most fun thing has really been the process that we go through to make a television show, every week and every day. The challenges of the repetition of that is tough. We’re together almost 10 months out of the year, day in and day out. But, as grueling as 16-hour days might sound, I love it. That, to me, is a lot of fun. We have a lot of fun in the acting portions of our day, but a lot of it is waiting. We hurry up and wait. The acting portions are, of course, why we got into the business and why we do what we do, and that process is what’s really fun for me.
I enjoy collaborating and talking with Bruno [Heller]. We work out problems on the fly. We work out problems before we even get to set. I’m calling the writers all the time going, “What did you mean by this? What did you mean by this situation?” Those things are that process of churning out these episodes and making it interesting, and making the last one different than the one before it. It’s tough because, with anything, you get a couple years in there and the tendency is to rest on your laurels and let it coast, and I try to not do that, ever. It is challenging to not coast and to elevate each script that we get. We get a script every week and a half. But, there is always something in the script. You’ve just got to do a little searching. What may seem like a standard interrogation scene – and I’ve done a lot of those – can have little things, here and there, that makes it a little bit different than the last interrogation scene.
KANG: These guys are great. I’ve done other episodics in television, and there’s always one or two in the bunch that just make it a horrible day, especially for the day-player, going in. You don’t know anybody and you’re basically the new kid on the block for that week, and invariably there’s always one person that just completely ruins it and makes it hard to do your job. But, fortunately for us, on this set – and that’s talking about 200+ crew and cast – everybody is just so cool. A lot of the comments from our guest stars are things like, “It was super-fun, just to even be on set.” Nobody judges you. Everyone is here to work, and it’s a very comfortable environment to do that work. I really love that.
Are you the type of actor who likes to try to find work during hiatus, or do you prefer to take a break and recharge for the next season?
KANG: I think it all depends on the project. If the project itself is worth doing, in terms of there being some value to it and it’s ultimately fun to do and I have the time, certainly I’m going to jump on that. I’m not going to take a vacation, if something like that presents itself. On the flipside, after nine and a half or 10 months of work, you just want to take a breather. There is maybe a week or two of recharging the batteries a little bit, but then the search goes on for that elusive fun, creative project. I never make a decision like, “I’m not doing anything for two months.” I look forward to my two months, but if two months turns into a week because I’m doing something else, then so be it.
KANG: Not really. In little guest stars, I’ve had the chance to do some comedy with some really fantastic comedic actors, like Dave Chappelle and Steve Carell, and those guys are amazing. And, I’ve been lucky enough to do some shows that were a lot of fun dramatically. Ultimately, I enjoy the more dramatic side of the business. I’m hoping that more projects come forward that delve into that. But, I have fun acting and doing what we do, whether it’s comedy or drama. If a horror film came up, that would be cool. It doesn’t really matter to me. I have a good time and I can find the fun in whatever the genre. As far as what I would prefer, probably the drama side of things. It’s a little bit more interesting to me to delve into the choices that we make when faced with a really heavy subject, topic or situation.