Walking with her best friend, Rory Gilmore, through the small town of Stars Hollow, she strips off her jacket and puts on a Woodstock ’99 tee. Lane Kim is introduced on Gilmore Girls as the girl who hides her love of “evil rock music” from her very traditional Korean parents; parents who want to see her in line to marry a Korean doctor before she’s even graduated high school. By the end of the series, Lane Kim has revealed her true self to her mother, the formidable Mrs. Kim, playing as part of her own band, Hep Alien, marrying the ‘bad boy’ guitarist Zach Van Gerbig, and having twin boys, after a single and unsatisfying honeymoon excursion.
To say that Lane Kim is the most underrated character on Gilmore Girls would be an understatement. For 154 episodes, actress Keiko Agena helped bring Lane Kim to life on screen for us. Helped Lane blossom from a quietly rebelling high schooler into a mature, confident and quirky mother-of-two who is not afraid to stand up for herself and those she loves.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Keiko Agena, who plays Lane Kim, a couple of weeks ago, during a break in her filming schedule before she was expected to return to the Gilmore Girls set for her final day of filming. Keiko was on set this Monday, filming a bittersweet last day on Gilmore Girls, wrapping up what promises to be a fitting tribute to an amazing series.
“It was really sweet and exciting and like a reunion, I guess. I’ve never been to a class reunion. I assume it’s something like that, where you see people and you’re kind of catching up to what they’ve been up to. It’s been a very nice experience.”
From what it was like to audition for the part of Lane Kim to the mystery of Mr. Kim to the feeling of being back on set, read on for more insight from Keiko Agena.
Amy Sherman-Palladino loosely modelled the character of Lane Kim after her friend Helen Pai, a Korean-American writer, director and producer, who worked on the show, doing everything from script coordination to set design. Helen Pai is also an anagram for the eventual band name, Hep Alien, which would become the foundation of how Lane Kim begins to find herself.
Keiko Agena, who grew up in Honolulu, auditioned for the part of 16-year-old Lane Kim when she was 26. Keiko credits her age as one of the factors that helped her relax in the audition process:
“Three things that made me completely relax in the audition: First, I had never been through a network test experience, so I was completely naive to that,” Keiko notes. “I didn’t know the process, which I think helped me. Second, I had just gotten a small recurring role in Felicity, so I was more distracted by that. And third, I was 26 at the time, and thought ‘I’m way too old to play this character, I won’t worry about it. There’s no way they’re going to choose me, so I’m just going to go in there and just say the lines.’”
“When I read the script, I realized, ‘I don’t need to do anything, this character is written so well. I just need to come in and say these great lines and then leave.’ There was no spin in there for me to put in, I felt. I guess it happened to work!”
Given that the role of Lane Kim was based upon Helen Pai, and the character was originally well-defined, I was curious if Keiko felt she had influenced Lane over the years in any way.
“Amy is very specific about what she wants on the day when everything’s written, but I do think that she and Dan, like every great writer, are influenced by what is happening,” Keiko shares. “There are definitely times where I feel actor worlds and writing worlds kind of mesh. I always think back to Kirk and Cat Kirk. Kirk has this love of animals. And Sean, if you follow him online, loves cats, and I think had a cat that was pretty vicious that he really loved. It’s little things like that come into the writing world, because they are open and listening to everything at the same time, from politics and pop culture and what’s happening in the actor’s lives; what they’re breathing into things and bringing into things.
In the case of Sean, where he went from being a one-day player to becoming a series regular, or Liza Weil, who auditioned for Rory’s part and they created a part for her, because she was so great, are a couple of how what the actor’s brought helped influence what kind of story developed.”
Of course, the same can be said for Lane. Although she’s perhaps too close to the character to ‘see’ it, Keiko believes that her own personality shines from within Lane:
“I’m kind of neurotic and that kind of seeped into the Lane world. I think she started out much cooler and more of an observer, than a neurotic stress-case, but I think I brought those elements into it,” Keiko jokes.
The ability for Amy and Sherman-Palladino to recognize talent, and cultivate it, is what has allowed these powerful characters to evolve. We’ve seen, even during the filming of the revival, how storylines have been adapted to include additional actors, both returning and new, such as was the case with the return of Melissa McCarthy. Keiko admits that she was originally skeptical about the return of Gilmore Girls, but once it was moving forward, she always held out hope that Melissa McCarthy would return:
“I never expected Gilmore Girls to actually come back! I think people have been suggesting it for a long time, and my response is always, ‘That’s a lovely thought, but there’s no possible way it’s going to happen.’ And I’m a little bit of a pessimist, so even as it was all unfolding, I was like ‘Well, we’ll see.’
I feel so grateful that all the pieces worked out and that it was possible to do and that very last thing, that Melissa was able to come in and work on the show, is perfect. I was still holding out hope that that would happen, and the fact that it’s happening is just phenomenal.”
Although the introduction of platforms such as Netflix have opened up new possibilities for revivals, with television shows attracting a whole new generation of viewers, Keiko has some thoughts on what has helped Gilmore Girls stand the test of time:
“Amy Sherman-Palladino has created this unique world,” Keiko explains, “The environment she created is so specific and unique in television-land where this fantastical little small town where everybody is so smart and quips at a million miles an hour. It’s a sort of quaintness and innocence and this hyper-intelligence at the same time.”
Keiko also gives credit to Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, whose “acting chops” and dynamic helped set the stage for success. Keiko also believes that Rory is a very unique character on television:
“The Rory character is intriguing. She’s a young girl who is more interested in books and expanding her mind and doing well than maybe the things that most 16-year-old girls are interested in, at least on the television landscape.”
Lane, too, is one of the more unique characters on television. Although the relationship between Lane Kim and her mother, Mrs. Kim (played by Emily Kuroda) has been criticized as being heavy on the stereotypes, if we look beyond that, we see a very unique mother-daughter relationship. We perceive Lane as rebelling against her mother’s strict rules: changing how she dresses, hiding her music and decor amongst the floorboards of her room, expressing herself only in the safety of her best friend, Rory Gilmore, and her surrogate ‘fun’ mom, Lorelai Gilmore. And yet, while the teenage rebellion is not unique to television, Lane never acts out against her mother with anger or hatred.
Keiko once shared that Lane, much like Helen Pai, may have disagreed with her parents, and may have hidden a great deal of her life from them, but she “wasn’t angry and didn’t rebel in the same way” that other teenagers would have. Keiko expanded on that feeling for me:
“I think instinctually, I felt that way. I had a point of view about that. I think it’s also true about Helen herself, so that might be just the way it was written, but I think that there was always this gut feeling that no matter what Mrs. Kim is asking, the root of it is this fierce ‘Mama bear,’ need to protect. It was coming from a fierce love. A love that’s too intense.”
From Mrs. Kim’s perspective, it was all based on love: “It always felt like Lane was topmost in her mind. It never came form a place of diminishing her or controlling her, even though everything that she’s doing is controlling Lane, but the impetus of it felt like a strongly good place.”
Mrs. Kim was motivated by love, and as such, “It never seemed like Lane hated her. I never felt a fight in Lane to hurt her mom.”
Could the absence of Mr. Kim, the biggest mystery of the series, play a role in the dynamic between Lane and her mother, Mrs. Kim? Keiko shares her own feelings on the absence of Mr. Kim and why, just perhaps, he may not actually be absent after all.
“In my mind, and I’ve never discussed this with anybody, even Emily or Amy, Mr. Kim was always there,” muses Keiko, “Even though we never talked about Mr. Kim, and it was never explained to me logistically where he was, but for some reason, I felt that they were married and that he was just somewhere. I know it doesn’t make any sense; he didn’t come to the wedding, and so on, there’s no logical reason for me to feel this way. In my gut, for some reason, my mother is a married woman.”
Keiko believes that Mr. Kim was simply “Travelling. He was away from home. I don’t know the specifics, but I felt like religion played a part in it somehow.”
Initial seasons of Gilmore Girls often referred to “Lane’s parents,” and Lane sometimes refers to her father, but the subject quietly disappears. Was it intentional, to create a mystery? Keiko jokes, “The unexplained!” However, the subject of Mr. Kim has not been one that bothered Keiko, who surprisingly has never asked about it:
“I don’t know if it’s the fact that Emily and I are both Japanese or what, but Emily and I never had a conversation about it. Amy and I have never had a conversation about it. And for some weird reason, that felt okay? It shouldn’t. I don’t know if that’s some weird voodoo Amy put out into the world, at least for me, for us, but I don’t know why. And I don’t know why I never asked her or Dan about it!”
Readers here at GilmoreNews can now wonder if Keiko decided to ask about it on her last day of filming this week! In Part 2 of my interview with Keiko Agena, Keiko shares what it has been like to be back on set, the fandom surrounding Hep Alien, and what other projects she’s working on now.