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Peter Kim On ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ and Carving Out Spaces for BIPOC Stories

THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION - PETER Y. KIM as ARCHIE. Cr. JEONG PARK/NETFLIX ©2020

The Forty-Year-Old Version is a story about Radha, a woman who, after a creatively uninspired stint, yearns for the opportunity to take her voice to the next level. She navigates the theater world’s predominately white sphere with her agent Archie (Peter Kim) and questions whether or not compromising her voice is worth her next break. Radha discovers she might be able to carve her path to success in an unexpected way as a rapper RadhaMUSPrime.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is director-writer Radha Blank’s story, but it feels just as personal to actor Peter Kim. Kim plays Radha’s agent Archie, and as an Asian American man, he has experience shifting into different circles. He spent some of his childhood growing up in his New Jersey suburb among all-white middle-class families to spending weekends at his parents’ toy store in Bushwick, soaking in the melting pot of Brooklyn.

Of that time in his life, Kim said, “It was like I was getting acting training without even realizing. Then you add on the layer of me being gay and being raised in a strict Catholic household, within that lens of being the queer person in these worlds, which was another set of “othering.”

Kim was involved very early on in The Forty-Year-Old Version when it was a web series. From there, he had the rare opportunity of developing Archie’s voice from the inside out. The chance to advocate for himself as a performer wasn’t lost on him. “I consider Radha a peer, and the fact that she created space for me and a role to allow my talent to shine and thrive, I feel indebted to her. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it took another person of color to provide a space for me.”

Awards Radar sat down with Peter Kim to discuss his friendship with Radha and making room for BIPOC voices.

Niki Cruz: You’ve been in TV, film, and theater, and if you get the right project it can lead to having your own agency. What’s your experience forming character? 

Peter Kim: It’s so great that you bring this up because I consider myself a character actor. I love physical, vocal transformation for character work in addition to a deep script analysis and figuring out a way a character’s strength and weaknesses and what their vulnerabilities are, and where they thrive.

With The Forty-Year-Old Version, with Archie, even though we have a lot of similarities, his physicality is different from mine, and that was intentional. There’s a line that Archie says to Radha, “You saved my sissy ass,” and I think Archie is one of those guys who can’t co-exist in the way that I could. He’s kind of a guy that walks into a room, and people assume he’s gay, and that’s something he’s had to deal with from day one. Humor and wit were his armor, so I was kind of curious how I could physicalize without crossing over into caricature territory…I had a lot of input into the shaping of Archie. Radha and I had known each other for years and started working on this when it was a web series. So, over the years I’ve been able to bring my own personal story.

NC: And because of that work this is a character that feels like a fully realized person and not just set decoration. We get glimpses of his life while he’s interacting with Radha.  Aside from the physicality can you talk about how you created those moments for Archie? 

PK: I love these questions because they’re about technique! I haven’t been able to delve into this aspect of my work. The chemistry between Archie and Radha is very much the chemistry between Radha and myself in real life. We have a banter with each other. We didn’t have to work on that, but I was really interested to see how far I can take Archie within those extremes of his emotional life.

I knew Archie would get this grounded scene with Radha towards the end of the movie, but I wanted to push it in the other way to see if I could make Archie, almost sort of superficial. He cares about the way he presents himself to the world. It’s a really important part of his being, and you can think that’s superficial — I think it would be dishonest to say that a nice apartment, having nice clothes, being able to take vacations, is not nice. Those are things that he values because he wants to have those things yet he has this deep undying love for Radha as a friend and as an artist. I knew the range from the beginning to middle end of this arc so I could map it out. I purposefully calibrated the lightness to the groundedness while I was shooting. Radha loves long takes and she doesn’t like coverage so there’s no lead-in or closeups, it’s all two shots. We got 2-3 takes of each scene. It was almost like shooting theater because you knew you had to get it while you were shooting. You didn’t get too many chances. 

NC: It’s funny that you mention how it felt like theater because the film does feel so naturalistic. You feel like you’re watching these characters move through life. What was your take when you saw it up on the big screen for the first time?  

PK: When I read the script, Radha’s voice and vision were so crystal clear off the page. The movie is very much what Radha wrote on the page. We shot this in the summer of 2019 and at that point I knew how relevant the movie was, and how funny, but it was also shining a light on people of color specifically, Black Americans, Asian Americans. For me, being an Asian American, we don’t get a lot of love on film and TV — like you said, there are a lot of moments of people just living their lives in this and that’s something that Radha speaks about — loving the mundanity. Just seeing people of color in the “danity.” We’re pointing a finger at racial injustice and white gatekeepers..specifically NY theater, which has white supremacy in its DNA. 

Photo Credit: Deborah Lopez

NC: The film resonated because it has this great piece threaded throughout how gatekeepers in entertainment stifle diverse stories. There’s that layer of gatekeeping in most institutions. 

PK: I think for a lot of people of color who are in the arts and any sort of creative field, I think it all helps us be seen because we do experience these micro-aggressions on a daily level. I have to say that’s why peer mentorship is really foundational for me. I’m part of this comedy troop called Miyagi, and we had a show that we co-created. It was basically an off-broadway comedy about six Asian American actors talking about their terrible audition experiences told through these comedy sketches. We did this in 2005, and it took the pandemic to get us back together. We adapted the show into a digital format, and we wanted to make it relevant to today. Because of quarantine, everyone was struggling and isolated, and I thought, maybe I needed us to be able to get together once a week for a few hours and laugh. That group of friends I consider peer mentorship and that’s something that has sustained me. I can’t speak enough about it. Peer mentorship sounds so academic but it’s your ride or die family.

NC: Can you talk more about Mr. Miyagi’s Theatre Company?

PK: We’re more of a troop. We had only done two shows and that was it but we adapted two scenes and they’re on Youtube, and we’re really happy with the way they’ve turned out. We have another one coming up in a few months because it takes a few months to make. In addition to that troop, I’m an associate producer of NAATCO based in NY, and that’s a creative home base for me for over 20 years. These culturally specific institutions — it’s important to have BIPOC leaders because those are the folks who will give us a leg up. They’re creating opportunity.

NC: There is this real problem in Hollywood where stories featuring BIPOC performances are usually tragedy porn. It’s nice to see a specific story address that aspect of the theater world while featuring a black woman coming into her own as an artist.

PK: Yeah, and also, being people of color, we have other parts of our lives. We don’t just sit around and talk about being Asian American. We don’t talk about race when we’re having a dinner conversation. Something might come up, but it’s not the focus of our conversation because we are living as people of color. What’s so cool about being adjacent to Radha through her experience of being a producer on The Forty-Year-Old Version, she made me abreast when the movie had funding when it lost funding, and when it got funding again and just by observing her on set on how she’s navigating these waters has inspired me to start developing TV and film projects with Asian American storytellers. Talking about peer mentorship, just by the certain nature of me being on set and the making of Forty-Year-Old-Version, I’ve been learning so much just by being with Radha. 

NC: It must have been a great experience being in each other’s corner and championing in that way.

PK: Yeah, it’s inspiring. It also demystifies it. I’ve been creating and producing off-broadway theater in NY for eight years now, but I haven’t produced for television and film before..my project with Miyagi, I was able to secure funding for it, and though it’s small, I don’t know if I would’ve had the confidence to do it if I didn’t have that experience of being with Radha. I feel even more confident in walking into those spaces.

A few months ago, Radha and I were having a drink, and she asked me if I had any interest in producing film and TV, and I said, “Actually, I do.” She was like, “Yeah you should totally do it.” To have her boost of faith and to believe in me that I could do it? She said to me, “We need you in this space, so get on it.” The movie was certainly a saving grace for me and everything that comes along with it.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is available for streaming on Netflix

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

 

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Written by Niki Cruz

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