Catherine Haena Kim Talks ‘The Company You Keep’ and the Show’s Love Story
Feb 20, 2023
In the sexy new ABC drama series The Company You Keep, con man Charlie (Milo Ventimiglia) and undercover CIA officer Emma (Catherine Haena Kim) cross paths at a turning point in their lives. After a chance meeting at a bar unknowingly intertwines their professions, their undeniable attraction keeps drawing them together in a way that could lead to dangerous consequences for each of their families.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Kim talked about what makes The Company You Keep such a fun show, why Emma is a dream character, the love story at its core, how she prepared to play a CIA officer, finding character chemistry with Ventimiglia, how challenging it is to know who you can trust when lying is part of your profession, exploring the family dynamics, and how excited she is to get to share all the hard work of making the show with viewers.
Collider: This is the type of show that just seems like it’s going to be so much fun to watch, every week.
CATHERINE HAENA KIM: It’s honestly been really fun to shoot, even though it’s long hours. Our cast, our crew, and everyone is amazing. Our cast is so talented. I can’t wait for everyone to see all these insane cons. There are wigs and accents and fun disguises, for sure.
Image via ABC
When the opportunity to be a part of the series came your way, what was the appeal of it for you? Had you had dreams of being a secret agent? What was it that reeled you in? Was it the concept? Was it the character, specifically? Was it the relationship at its core? Was it everything together?
KIM: I honestly feel like, if I sat down with an agent and said, “Over the course of my career, I would love to play all these different types of roles,” (co-creator) Julia Cohen somehow sandwiched all of it into one character. You get a badass CIA officer, it’s a love story, and you get to know about her family. It’s everything, and it’s so exciting. When I see spies and CIA officers, in general, we don’t always get to be privy to their personal lives, so to get to see someone who has this insanely high-stakes job just be human, at the end of the day, and fall in love, and navigate family and life, is so interesting to me and something that I’m really excited for the world to see. It’s a real two-hander, which I don’t feel like we’ve seen in a really long time. You’ll see how similar both families are, even though they seem really different. I can say the same thing about Emma and Charlie. I feel like this is the kitchen sink of shows, so I’ve been having a hard time articulating what it’s about. But the other day, it clicked for me that it’s a love story. You have Emma and Charlie, and they make no sense, but you want to root for each of them anyway. It’s about love of family. It’s about loving your job probably too much. At least for Emma, how can you not care too much about your job, when millions of people’s lives are at stake? How can you not care too much about your job, if you’re Charlie and just one con is supposed to end all of them and retire the family for good?
This is based on a Korean series, My Fellow Citizens, which you’ve said you watched a little bit of. Are there any direct comparisons between the two, or is it just the general idea that this series took from that one?
KIM: Yeah, even from the initial pilot episode, they’re wildly different, but the general premise, where you have two people on opposite sides of the law that have a chance meeting and fall in love, is the same. Usually it’s a will-they-or-won’t-they, but they do, very quickly. So then, if the truth comes out, what happens when all the cards are on the table?
Normally, viewers have to spend seasons of a show getting frustrated because we don’t know if the characters will ever get together. What’s the fun in getting that out of the way and just getting to play with that dynamic, from the very beginning?
KIM: They both lie for a living, and they’re both going through the exact same moment in their lives, respectively, when they meet. It’s just that moment when you meet somebody and you can’t even explain it. It’s a gut feeling, where you just feel seen. It’s like, “Oh, okay, you get it and you get me.” You just initially have that draw to each other that’s undeniable.
Image via ABC
Because they really are two sides of the same coin, even if they don’t know that about each other, do you think that will make Emma any more forgiving or sympathetic, if she learns the truth?
KIM: I guess you’ll have to wait to find out. I feel like it’s such a natural human thing, as you keep getting to know people, you realize how complicated they are and that nobody is really what you think they are, at face value.
What are the qualities in your character that you like because they’re similar to you, and what are the qualities in her that you like because they’re so different and you’re having fun getting to play sides of her that are unlike you?
KIM: In a world where we want to overshare about everything, and I get it because sometimes you have a beautiful salad and you just need the world to know, you have people who are CIA officers like Emma, and they wanna be invisible. They always wanna fly under the radar, and if they do their job right, you’ll never know about what they did. There’s no post of her linking arms with an arms dealer, after some insanely crazy international deal has been squashed. That’s something that’s really fascinating to me. I love how curious Emma is. Jokingly, I’m curious about very important things, like what I’m gonna have for lunch tomorrow, and she’s curious about things like, what drives somebody to do this? How did we get here? How do we prevent this from ever happening again? To not only wanna find the answer, but to wanna be a part of the answer is so fascinating to me.
When you’re someone like Emma, who lives in a world where lying is a requirement, how challenging is it not to lose a sense of who you really are? Is she able to maintain knowing who she really is, underneath all of that?
KIM: Yes. We’ve been lucky enough to have a former CIA officer as a consultant on our show. I specifically wanted to read female CIA officer books because I thought it would be a little bit different, since women joined a little bit later. I picked up this book by Amaryllis Fox, and it turns out the director of the pilot is actually really good friends with her, so I’ve gotten to chat with her. That’s what made me realize, of course, that these people are also just humans, at the end of the day. They get stuck in traffic, and they’re annoyed because the babysitter didn’t show up. You don’t think about those things when they’re on their way to some insane job. Amaryllis said something that I think is really poignant, which is that you have to justify all of your lies. You don’t just lie for the sake of lying. There’s a very specific reason why you tell certain lies, and you justify it to get to a certain goal and to protect people, along the way.
Image via ABC
The success of a show like this obviously depends on the chemistry between the two leads. When it’s so important to what you’re doing, do you have a moment of panic where you’re like, “Oh, no, what if it doesn’t work?,” and do you have a moment where you’re like, “Okay, this works,” and you can breathe a sigh of relief?
KIM: Yeah. Great question. This role is so important to me, and this production, that I don’t wanna just be good, I wanna be great. I also want the production to be great, and I wanna do everything I humanly can do, to make that happen. But nobody is putting pressure on me. If anything, I have so much support. It’s more that I put pressure on myself to represent women well and Asian Americans, as a people. That’s about the point where (executive producer) Jon M. Chu will sit down with me and be like, “You’re one person, and this is one character and one story.” That takes some of the pressure off of you.
What was it like to start finding that relationship dynamic? Was it something that started to come together as quickly as it does for Emma and Charlie, or did that take you guys some time to find? Did you have time to get to know each other?
KIM: We did, and I’m so grateful for that because we were getting to know each other as friends and as acting partners, and as producer and actor. We got to sit down and talk about the kind of set we wanted to create together, and that we always wanted it to be kind and professional. Milo [Ventimiglia] sets a very high bar because he brought in his crew from This is Us, who he doesn’t just know in passing. He knows everybody’s names, and he knows all about their families and their lives, and that’s something that’s also very important to me and something that I’ve also tried to grab the baton for and continue. We’re all creating something together. There are hundreds of people who make production happen that we never even know about. And we also had the luxury of rehearsals, so we got to just play and trust each other, as seen partners. That’s where the chemistry started building. When you think about life, of course, there’s physical attraction and sexual attraction, but the reason you’re attracted to someone is almost on a deeper level than that. It’s something that’s emotional and cultural, and that’s something you build, as you build trust with each other.
It’s so funny that when these two characters meet, they ask each other to reveal something true. In that moment, Charlie tells Emma that he’s a criminal, and she tells him that she’s CIA, but neither of them believe the truth from the other. What do you think it says about them that, even though they have that moment where they’re honest with each other, they don’t seem to believe each other?
KIM: You know, I’ve never really thought about that way. They meet by chance while they’re in a bar and they’re drinking and having a good time, and they’re playing this funny lying game, where there everything is ridiculous and silly and whimsical. Sometimes the truth seems so outlandish that it’s hard to believe, so when they say the truth, you’re right, they don’t actually believe each other, especially because it’s been colored by so many lies, leading up to it.
Image via ABC
Emma pursuing Charlie seems like it might be a little out of character for her. It seems like it’s probably more in-the-moment and spontaneous than what she might typically do. What do you think it says about her, at this moment in her life, that she’s in a position where she needs to be a bit more spontaneous?
KIM: When you first meet them, they’re both going through the exact same moment in their lives, separately, and they see someone they feel just gets it and gets them. That’s the initial draw to each other. I also think the events leading up to her being in that lobby hotel bar have made her lower her guard just a little bit. She is normally very observant and calculated, in all of her moves, and she likes to control everything that she possibly can, in this insane job that she has. And then, this guy just sneaks in, and now she doesn’t know what to do because this one feels different.
How hard is it for Emma to tell anyone the truth? How can she know who to trust, and when she should tell someone the truth versus when she needs to lie to someone.
KIM: It’s interesting, as I started prepping this character, that question came up for me. Can I trust you? Because when you’re falling in love with someone, you have to wonder, can I trust you with my heart? Emma has grown up in this high-powered political family that feels like it’s all optics and flash and show. It becomes more about, are we doing this because it looks good, or because it’s true? Can I trust you? When she’s got National Security on her shoulders, she has to think about who she can trust, and who’s lying and who’s not. It’s all about trust.
I love the moments that we get to see her with her family. She’s someone who has this pretty badass job, but she still has to deal with her parents. What have you most enjoyed about getting to explore that family dynamic and forming your own little family with those actors?
KIM: It’s so fun because you’re never put more in your place and taken back to who you were as a child than when you are with your family. That’s the fun. She has this extraordinary job, but then she comes home and she’s the younger sister, and she has a mom that is a lot. Nobody seems to understand why she works for this logistics company because it’s not like she’s always had a passion for logistics. They’re all like, “There’s nothing else you wanna do? Are you sure you don’t wanna be in a family business? Nobody knows that she’s secretly CIA. But you’ll really get to see them as a family, throughout the season. We’re all the main character, in our own lives, so there’s that component. And Emma has to fly under the radar and be invisible, in order to do her job well.
Image via ABC
What do you think it is that made Emma want this job? Is this a job she pursued for herself, or was it unexpected for her?
KIM: I wanna say it’s one of those jobs that almost finds you. I don’t feel like she was necessarily actively pursuing this. It’s something that happened, and I think it started because she wanted to be a part of the answer and not just find out why. As the season unfolds, she questions whether she wants to continue to have this job or not, just the way we all question things in life. She wonders whether she’s on the right path or not. It’s like, if you love sausage, or you love the idea of sausage, and then you see behind the curtain and see how the sausage is made, you’re like, “Do I still want sausage?” I asked Amaryllis what made her want to stay in her job, and she told me that, once she realized there was actually something she could do to be a part of the answer, there was no way she could leave. With this job, as the actor, where I’m up at 3:30 in the morning on some days, and filming days can be 14 or 15 hours on set, it’s really exciting, knowing that something that we love doing is something that we’re gonna now finally get to share with everybody else.
The Company You Keep airs on Sunday nights on ABC and is available to stream at Hulu.
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