Crime Stopper: Interview with The Mentalist 's Tim Kang

By , Contributor

Actor Tim Kang

For the past five years, actor Tim Kang has been helping keep the streets of Sacramento, California as crime free as possible in his role of Special Agent Kimball Cho in the hit CBS TV police procedural drama The Mentalist. As a member of the fictional California Bureau of Investigation (CBI), his character works with former con man/psychic-turned-consultant Patrick Jane, who uses his keen observational skills as well as insight into human behavior to get inside the criminal mind and bring the perpetrator of the week to justice.

While casting series regular roles sometimes ends up with actors jumping through numerous hoops, the process in this case was much less hectic for Kang. “It was sort of the standard ‘cattle call’ so to speak for TV pilots that were coming out,” recalls the actor. “So I just went in and read for the part. I didn’t really go in expecting a lot. I just did the best I could and then kind of forgot about it.

“A few days later I received a phone call telling me that they liked my audition. I subsequently went through the next [audition] stages, first with the show’s casting director, followed by [executive producer] David Nutter, who directed The Mentalist pilot, along with [series creator/executive producer] Bruno Heller.

“After that I read for the studio, so I met a number of people from Warner Bros. Typically from there you then meet with the network execs, but for this particular show I think they were fairly confident with the cast. So we didn’t need to go to network. They just approved us. It was still nerve-wracking, but I knew my audition sides backwards and forwards and could do them in my sleep,” jokes Kang. “So I was fairly comfortable in the [audition] room, and now five years later here we are.

“I have to say, too, that the pilot script itself was very entertaining. It’s always a good thing when you want to turn the page and learn more about the story. Right off the bat, that was a good indicator of the quality of this project. Also, Bruno did a wonderful job of laying down a foundation for each of our characters. He nudged us in the right direction, and it was a fun challenge to then discover more about our characters as we went along.”

It was the murder of his wife and daughter by a serial killer called Red John that initially led to Patrick Jane’s (Simon Baker) involvement with the CBI. His crime-solving techniques are often viewed as unconventional by those around him, including Senior Special Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) and Agent Cho, but there is no denying that Jane gets results. Kang has enjoyed watching his onscreen relationship with Simon Baker evolve.

“In season one there was a great deal of back and forth, actually a lot of really funny back and forth, between Jane and Cho,” he says. “That’s when they were kind of feeling each other out and deciding, ‘Okay, you’re this type of guy.’ They’ve since had quite a bit of time together to joke around and try to understand each other.

“Lately, though, the two of them have spent less time with one another. I don’t know why that is. It’s mostly Jane and Lisbon now. So Cho’s and Jane’s relationship went to a certain place or developed to a certain point, and then just kind of stayed there. That’s where we’ve been for the past two or three seasons, but the most important thing is that Jane and Cho have a mutual respect for each other.”

Referring to characters from the children’s TV show Sesame Street, Cho and coworker Special Agent Wayne Rigsby have been nicknamed Ernie and Bert, respectively, by their colleagues. Theirs is another onscreen friendship that Kang has taken great pleasure in creating with his costar Owain Yeoman (Rigsby).

“I think what you see onscreen is what Owain and I are like in real life,” notes the actor. “I don’t really like watching myself most of the time, but when I see some of the scenes between Cho and Rigsby, I laugh, too, because they’re so great and I remember having such a good time shooting them with Owain.

“The two of us really look forward to those types of buddy scenes where our two characters give each other crap. Again, they’re so much fun to do and that comes through, I think, on the screen. Those are some of the gems that I look forward to as an actor on this show because there’s just a fluidity to the stuff between these two guys. Certainly, Owain and I work with the structure of the scene that’s given to us, but it’s a real blast to just riff, and I riff all the time with Owain. Sometimes the adlibbing is funnier than the scripted version, so we’ll stick with that. It’s almost like doing a stage play and we enjoy ourselves every time out.”

When asked if he has a favorite Kimball Cho scene from The Mentalist, the actor is quick to respond with one that showed viewers a different side to his often-serious character. “The scene that sticks out in my mind is Cho’s first encounter with Summer Edgecombe [a prostitute recruited by the agent as a confidential informant in season four],” says Kang. “That scene was a lot of fun to do. Samaire Armstrong [Summer] is an amazing actress and it’s a pleasure to work with her. The two of us felt very comfortable around each other right away.

"In terms of the material, that scene was a little bit on the difficult side as far as getting to that heightened place time and time again. We did a bunch of takes, as you can probably imagine, but it was so worth it, especially because we got to see Cho in a different light. One of the most asked questions when I do interviews is, ‘Does your character ever crack a smile? Does Kimball ever let his guard down?’ For the longest time I kept hearing that about my character and I’d answer, ‘Well, on occasion,’ or, ‘Once in a blue moon.’ This scene, though, was the first time we really got a glimpse into the vulnerability of the character.”

Born in San Francisco, California, Kang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of California at Berkley, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) Institute at Harvard University. Despite his passion for acting, he originally considered other potential career paths.

“I grew up in a very academic-oriented household,” says Kang. “All my cousins are Ivy Leaguers and doctors, engineers or attorneys, and my younger brother is an attorney, so it looked like it was pretty much going to be one of the professional settings for me.

“It never really occurred to me that this [acting] could be a possible way to make a living. In the end I applied to law school, but just couldn’t do it. I thought, ‘This is not my path,’ and went completely in the other direction. That’s why I got into acting so late in life. I think I took my first acting class when I was 26. I’d never done it as a kid, or when I was in high school or college. I was brand new to the whole thing, but as soon as I found acting, I knew it was for me. The rest as they say is history and here we are.”

Two Weeks Notice, The Forgotten and Rambo are among the actor’s feature film credits. His other TV work includes The Sopranos, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Ghost Whisperer, Monk and The Office. When it comes to one of his more difficult roles to date, Kang looks back at his stage work.

“I played Swiss Cheese in Mother Courage and her Children by Brecht back in graduate school for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he says. “We had a brilliant director, Janos Szasz, who later became the artistic director for the A.R.T. for a brief time. Working with him and seeing the quality he wanted out of his actors and the understanding that he wanted us to have about our characters was amazing.

“I put in five or six hours of work on that script every day trying to figure out all the nooks and crannies and depth of my character and his relationship with his mother as well as his story throughout the play. It was a challenge, but I relished it and it was fantastic. I miss that sort of detail work that the theatre affords when you have the time.

When he is not chasing after criminals on The Mentalist, the actor keeps busy working on some projects of his own. “I started a production company last year called One Shoot Films [OSF], and we’re in the process of finishing up our first short film,” enthuses Kang. “It turned out really well and we’ll be entering it into [film] festivals within the next couple of months.

“Next up, I’m planning to shoot a feature film with the production company and work with other production companies and filmmakers to come up with our own content. Our goal is to go back to that quality I spoke of when I did that play with Janos. We want to tell stories that are, of course, entertaining, and at the same time give the work a little more attention that we typically don’t have the time to give it.

“When you do TV, you’re on the clock all the time. You have to whisk through the material. We shoot 10 pages [of script] a day on The Mentalist, and on daytime soaps I think they shoot 20 to 25 pages. With speed, you lose some of the quality, so, again, we’re trying to bring that quality back into the work as much as possible. That’s our main goal for the production company.”

Please not, all The Mentalist photos copyright of CBS.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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