Who the Hell is Daniel Henney?
By Ada Tseng
This is an analysis of a really good-looking man named Daniel Henney and his potential to shatter preconceived notions of Asian American men in America.
On February 21st, 2008, Variety reported a new addition to the ever-growing X-Men Origins: Wolverine cast. With various versions of black-and-white chiseled glamour shots accompanying his name, Daniel Henney, 28, was set to portray Agent Zero, a super-powered secret agent who, along with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber) and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), is part of the Weapons X project in the X-Men prequel.The casting announcement's repost on MovieWeb.com elicited user comments from comic fanboys, who derided the overflow of characters in the film, debated whether Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool could handle a spinoff series, and generally heckled each other for no reason. Then came the winning question: "Who the hell is Daniel Henney??"They only needed to go to the next Google search result to find out. Just Jared, a celebrity gossip site likely frequented by the commercially-viable 18-34 female demographic, had also reposted the Daniel Henney/Agent Zero story. After a deluge of capital letters and emoticons, a "WAAAHHH!!!," and a "i might cry in the theatre from all this beauty," it was clear that this audience knew who Daniel Henney was. And if they didn't, they wanted to know.
Although Henney is a certified heartthrob in Korea and amongst worldwide Korean pop culture fans, he is still a relative newcomer to the entertainment industry, starting only three years ago in 2005. A 6'2" American from Michigan (father is British American, mother is Korean American), Henney hit the jackpot with his first role in the Korean drama My Name is Kim Sam-Soon. He played an English-speaking Korean American doctor, which was quite convenient because at that point his Korean-language skills were still rather shaky. Although Henney didn't play a leading role, the drama gave him extensive exposure -- an estimated 50% of Korean households tuned in for the series finale -- and quickly catapulted him to stardom. Advertisers flocked to him, wanting to capitalize on his newfound fame, and soon he was all over the place, selling everything from cell phones to beer to clothing to cars.
On a surface level, understanding Daniel Henney's appeal is kind of a no-brainer. He's strikingly good-looking. And, he appears to be kind -- so even better.
However, in the context of the Korean Wave, or hallyu, Daniel Henney may have represented something greater. According to Eun Mee Kim, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Korea who studies the global consumption of hallyu, there has been a yearning among Koreans to get a stamp of approval from the West through culture and the arts."The fact that [Daniel Henney] came to Korea to test the Korean market sent at least two messages," explains Lin. "One, that the Korean entertainment market is important enough for an aspiring young American actor; he had to learn Korean and Korean customs, which were not easy by any means, to come to Korea. And two, that Daniel Henney himself is a product of globalization -- bi-racial, multi-cultural, etc. Thus, Daniel Henney was more than other good-looking, gentle Korean male stars since he embodied the 'global' spirit in himself."
In mainstream America, the first glimmer of Daniel Henney came when he was shooting a European commercial with for Bean Pole casual wear with Gwyneth Paltrow. You might not have known who this guy was, but you believed that he had the power to make a statuesque blonde beauty blush. An Oscar-winning Hollywood actress who once had Brad Pitt, no less. After the commercials aired, JoongAng Daily reported that Bean Pole sales were up 28.1 percent from a year earlier (compared to an 8 percent year-on-year increase during the first half of the year).
Jung-sun Park, an Associate professor at California State Unversity, Dominguez Hills researching transnational flows of Korean/Asian pop culture, reflects that only seven to ten years ago, if a Korean American had tried to break into the Korean entertainment industry without being able to speak Korean, it would have been met with harsh criticism.She remembers Yunjin Kim -- the star of Shiri and Seven Days, more familiar to American audiences as Sun on ABC's hit show Lost -- when she began working in Korean dramas in the late '90s. Although Kim was born in South Korea, she had immigrated to the US at the age of 10, so in the beginning of her career, she was speaking Korean with a heavy American accent."Of course, she's had her ups and downs and has been successful," says Park, "but there was pressure on her to improve her Korean if she was serious about building her career in Korea." Henney's less-than-stellar Korean, on the other hand, was not part of the public criticism in the same way, Park points out. His scenes in My Name is Kim Sam-soon were subtitled, he did many of his television talk show interviews entirely in English, and if anything, his American-ness was part of his appeal.
Henney's mixed-blood heritage allowed him to carve out a little niche for himself in Korea. Around the same time, Dennis Oh was another example of a biracial Korean American model-turned-actor playing characters who mostly spoke English. This acceptance of "foreigners" in the Korean mainstream was definitely a reflection of the changing times. Recently, NFL star Hines Ward, who is half Korean and half African American, suddenly created sports fans out of Korean audiences who previously had no interest in football – and made society rethink their past discrimination against mixed-race children.But Daniel Henney's rise also came at a time when Korean youth culture was developing a keen fascination with outer appearances. While conservative traditions and Confucius values would consider such superficialities the antithesis of what was important in society, Park attributes this trend to the proliferation of cyberspace. Suddenly, the youth in Korea were obsessed with self-shots, loading up nicely-lit, well-angled, carefully Photoshop-ed pictures of themselves online and obsessing about how they looked. Cosmetic surgery was on the rise, evaluation of physical appearances became acceptable small talk, and it wasn't considered shameful to be shallow anymore. Park brings up the Korean slang that has permeated the mainstream vernacular, terms that zone in on specific degrees of physical beauty. Having a pretty face (ŏl-tchang/ulzzang), having a nice body (mom-tchang/momzzang), and the ability to look good in whatever clothes you are wearing were considered by youth to be smart investments for one's future success.
In this type of social atmosphere, someone like Daniel Henney was a snug fit. Acting prowess became secondary. Not to insinuate that he can't act -- it's currently debatable, although he did win three Best New Actor nods for his recent dramatic turn in Our Father -- but for the most part, audiences (mostly female) seemed perfectly content with his lighter fare, such as Spring Waltz and Seducing Mr. Perfect.
Which leads us to his current role as Agent Zero in X-men Origins: Wolverine. Although he's expressed interest in working in both the Korean and American entertainment industries in the past, this is the first Hollywood role he's accepted. While it's likely not a major role, it will be a high profile one. In the comics, Agent Zero is an intelligent, mysterious spy/mercenary and a skilled marksman who has the ability to absorb physical impact without getting harmed, including energy beams. It's rumored that the film is changing his character from East German to North Korean, albeit the only source for this so far seems to be Wikipedia.
In Asia, Henney's Western features might stand out, but internationally, it'll be interesting to see if he be categorized as Asian American, or if his ethnicity will be put on the backburner like a Keanu Reeves or a Mark-Paul Gosselaar.
In the US, the lack of Asian American male representation in media has long been a sore subject, mostly amongst Asian American men who are tired of alternately feeling emasculated and being portrayed as gangsters. With the possible exceptions of John Cho and Kal Penn, we're still itching for an Asian American leading man to break through. Henney's case brings up interesting potentials, because although he's already reached star status in Asia, he's not really "crossing over" to America. He's coming back.
While Korean pop culture fans may compare him to Rain, a more experienced Korean talent who is getting his own Hollywood love with back-to-back Wachowski brothers projects, Henney probably has more in common with other American-born talents who have made names for themselves in Asia. Daniel Wu, Wang Leehom, pre-scandal Edison Chen… most of whom haven't made any extensive efforts to act in Hollywood, but could easily step up to the task if offered a role that was worth it. But on the Hollywood silver screen -- where commercial appeal rules, ŏl-tchang and mom-tchang are prerequisites, and multiculturalism might have its limits -- there's something about the non-accented-English speaking, tall-built-and-handsome, half-Caucasian Daniel Henney that might bring him more opportunities than your average Asian or Asian American male actor. It'll be interesting to see how this all unfolds...