I first saw Daniel Henney when he played Dr. Henry Kim in the 2005 hit Korean drama, My Lovely Sam-soon. Fast forward sixteen years later, I’m virtually greeted by Henney sporting a black tee from his home in Prague.
After the successful run of My Lovely Sam-soon, Henney went on to star in several films and TV series, including X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), Big Hero 6 (2014), Hawaii Five-0 (CBS), and Criminal Minds (CBS). Now residing in Prague, Henney is taking on his biggest role yet — Lan Mandragoran, the stoic yet multidimensional warder from The Wheel of Time. The highly anticipated show premieres this month on Amazon Prime and has already been renewed for a second season which is currently in production.
During our wide-ranging conversation, I learned about Henney’s thoughtful approach to the roles he plays and the various trajectories that have shaped his personal and professional journeys. Through his stories, Henney shares how he learned to trust himself, embraced failure and took his time to carve out his own path. At the root of this was learning to not pay any mind to pre-conceived societal or cultural notions — but rather to process who you are and the paths you want to take at your own speed.
Henney's recent endeavor, The Wheel of Time, is a massive undertaking from Amazon Prime Video. It's an expansive fantasy tale written by Robert Jordan that spanned 14 books and has captured a devout following since 1990. When I ask Henney about his preparation and approach to playing Lan, he responds, "Step-by-step. It's been a full-on journey. It's a whole process of putting this puzzle together, and sometimes you get lost within the source material because Jordan writes so stoically and wonderfully." Henney goes on to describe Lan in the books as more stoic and mysterious. There are still traces of these characteristics in the show, but its version of Lan is much more sentimental. "It was tough for me to figure out how Lan shows emotion." Henney continues, "I asked myself many times as we progressed through these emotional explorations, would Lan do this? Am I taking it too far, or should I go further?" It's not only about striking a balance of staying true to the character and author's intention but also bringing pieces of himself to the role. This, in turn, helps build a stronger bond to the character.
A prime example of this is Lan's styling and wardrobe. Because Henney is Korean, it was important for him to ensure that his wardrobe had elements that reflected his culture. Lan's outfit has a draping that resembles a hanbok, a traditional Korean garment. "I wanted to make sure that I had some connections to myself." This is true of Henney's past roles as well. In Criminal Minds, his character Matt Simmons had Korean themes throughout his home. It's these subtle hints that bring depth to the character and story without needing to put emphasis on being Asian or different. While stories that celebrate Asian identities are essential, it's just as important to see Asian characters explore other aspects of their identity on screen.
This connection to his heritage — or the urge to explore it — wasn't always there. Instead, he credits his family for providing him the environment to come into his own identity at his own pace regardless of societal or cultural expectations. "I think that parenting was a huge part of that, especially for a young mind. For me, my family was so wonderful, and I owe them everything. They never ever pushed me to identify in any way."
Henney grew up in a predominantly White town in Michigan, and his mom had been adopted and raised by a White family. "My mom and I were outliers," he tells Timid, "but maybe I needed that. Maybe I wasn't ready yet, because my mom wasn't. It wasn't until she started searching for her roots when I was about 14 years old that my Korean mind started to open up for me."
Henney moved to Asia when he was 20, which he describes as the perfect time. “I had this formative period as a young man when I was old enough to process and make choices within my world and my culture. I was wide open for the experience mentally.”
The Asian-American experience is varied, but a common struggle is finding the balance among intersecting identities. Am I Asian enough? Am I American enough? What does it mean to be Asian-American? During our conversation, Henney muses that “no matter what side you’re leaning towards, it might never feel 'enough.'"
"I think it's about letting go and knowing that it's okay to be leaning towards one identity for a while. You're going to get there eventually if you want. If you really want to, it's in your core, and you will get there, no matter if you're 30, 40, or older." He adds, "You'll eventually find it, but I think if you pressure yourself too much to 'find' it, it can start to become tricky."
That combination of patience, perseverance, and openness helped him adapt to change throughout his career. During his time in South Korea, Henney transitioned from modeling and acting for commercials to television. "It was really tough," Henney recalls. "At that time, we didn't have Instagram or Twitter where we could put ourselves online. So instead, I had to walk from place to place hoping that someone would represent me." It just so happens that Martin, one of Henney's contacts from his commercial work in South Korea, reached out to him for a commercial shoot. That shoot led him to an introduction to the casting directors of My Lovely Sam-soon, and the rest is history.
Henney looks off to the side momentarily during our interview, deep in thought. He continues, "At that moment, as a young person trying to find your way, and then you're presented with such a life-changing opportunity. It can be overwhelming."
For Henney, self-actualization is an iterative, ongoing process that begins and strengthens through failure. "I think failing helps a lot. For me, failure has been a good trend. Through these series of failures, you start to build confidence."
He further shares, "You're quickly faced with the reality that you're not quite there or where you need to be. So you start with a different version or build from scratch, again and again. Eventually, these failures shape you into a place where you're no longer scared of them."
Henney leans a bit back in his chair and gives a quick smile. Through his experiences, failures, and ongoing journeys, he radiates an assuredness that is unmatched. You can tell that Henney has found his place.
The Wheel of Time is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video