Coming Home Again With Ian Anthony Dale

The St. Paul native and former Hawaii Five-0 star talks Hollywood, baseball, and growing up in the Midwest.

Ian Anthony Dale
Photo by Cameron Wittig

Ian Anthony Dale is having a great year. On top of purchasing a home in Los Angeles, the St. Paul native wrapped the first season of TNT’s Murder in the First, recently landed a part in Hart of Dixie, and this month returns to his recurring role in Hawaii Five-0. But despite the impressive resume (you may recall his gun-touting, cop car–smashing character in The Hangover) the success of a 14-year career in Hollywood hasn’t gone to his head. Dale—a graduate of Cretin-Derham Hall and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—still makes it back to Minnesota a few times a year to kick it with his brother, a homicide detective for the Minneapolis Police Department, and the rest of his family in Cannon Falls.

Welcome home! What was it like being back for the Fourth of July?
It’s always great being home. I don’t do it nearly enough these days, but I’ve been making this trip home for the Fourth every year since I moved out of the Twin Cities, with the exception of one year when I was in Milwaukee filming Mr. 3000. But I love it. Typically, I just stay parked in Cannon Falls where my parents now live, and family comes down and they all spend the night and we just get “trapped in the vortex” as we say. We just soak each other up and enjoy each other’s company, eat way too much food, and watch the fireworks.

Are there any particular places you have to hit while you’re in town? 
You know, I’m a bit of a foodie. I left the Twin Cities to go to Madison when I was 17, and Hollywood thereafter, so I really haven’t experienced much of the Twin Cities as an adult, with the exception of the times I’m home. So what I like to do is seek out a really good restaurant whenever I’m home. Last time I went to Butcher & the Boar, Bar La Grassa, and Burch. I was so excited to know that really great restaurants exist throughout the Twin Cities.

Growing up in St. Paul, did you always know you eventually wanted to pursue acting? 
Not really, no. I was very much into sports; baseball was my passion. I had a really great experience playing for a 14-year-old Minnesota team in 1994, and in 1996, I got to win a state championship with my high school, Cretin-Derham Hall. I just sort of happened to stumble upon acting when I was a junior in high school. It was a discovery that I was so happy to make; it was so unexpected. My high school drama teacher, Katie Kreitzer, was so influential in showing me what a world of exploration the theater could be. I was hooked from the beginning and I’m so fortunate that I stumbled upon it, because I’m now making a living out of it. I hope to continue to do it for the rest of my life. 

If you hadn’t been injured in baseball and hadn’t had the chance to discover acting, do you think you still would’ve wanted to study it in college?
I discovered theater right before I got injured. So it kind of became the perfect hobby to transfer my passion once my baseball career ended. How fortunate was I to have two things that I was really passionate about and invested in? I’m just happy that I could make a living out of one of them. If not baseball, then it’s great that I could do acting.

You went to Madison first, instead of going right to LA. What influenced that decision? 
When I went to college, I focused on film instead of acting because I was a little disillusioned by the lack of Asian-American faces on film and television. I didn’t think it was a wise career choice to pursue acting, especially with such a small percentage of Asian faces represented. I had this idealistic attitude that maybe I would become a director and create more opportunities for people like myself. But while I was in school, the television and film landscape began to shift, and I saw it become a little more inclusive. I thought that if I didn’t give it a shot, I would always regret it. So when I graduated a few weeks later, I packed a bag, threw it in the back of my truck, and drove across the country. I hit the ground running. I worked as a carpenter building sets for two years, got into an acting class, and when I knew the lay of the land and felt I was ready to start auditioning, I did, and I’ve been really fortunate to have made a living for the past 14 years. 

Was working as a carpenter on sets a way for you to get your foot in the door? 
That was a way for me to survive. I’d work on a TV show or music video for a couple days and make enough money to last me the month and for my acting classes. For the first couple years I was in survival mode, making next to nothing but just enough to get by. One thing it taught me is that nobody can stop you from working hard, you can always control that aspect of your life. It also gave me an opportunity to be on the opposite side of the camera and start to understand just how important every crewmember is to the entire production. It’s a team effort and I have such admiration and respect for the crew that has stayed with me throughout my career.

What has been your favorite role to date?
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really wonderful experiences. My favorite character would probably have to be Simon Lee in The Event, the short-lived sci-fi alien series on NBC. That was the first time in my career I got to play a heroic character. Being an Asian-American actor, I hadn’t seen a lot of prominent Asian characters growing up. So to grow up, get into the business, and become one of those characters was really satisfying for me. Anytime I get a chance to play a three-dimensional character that goes against the stereotype, I feel like I’m doing my part in moving the needle in a positive direction. 

Why do you think it’s so important for Asian-Americans to have a voice in Hollywood?
When you’re young, the television medium has such a huge impact when it comes to the feeling of inclusion. If you watch television and you don’t see anyone who looks like you, then you don’t feel like you have a place in society. So for me, I feel a responsibility to create positive images for young Asian-Americans growing up watching TV. 

From your resume, it definitely seems like you’re making a positive impact. You’ve starred on CSI, Criminal Minds, Cold Case—why do you think crime dramas are so popular? 
I like to think that people are fascinated with the struggle for vindication, the struggle for justice. The whole good versus evil is the classic story throughout time. I think there’s a whole group of people, a whole audience out there that remains hopeful that good will always win out in the end. 

Most recently, you’ve starred in the TNT drama Murder in the First. What attracted you to that role? 
I was attracted to the opportunity to work with Steven Bochco. He’s been a pioneer in our industry for the last 40 years. Just to work for somebody of that caliber was what drew me to the project. And it was just a really good story. Anytime you read a script where there’s a character that you have a legitimate chance to go after, that’s the most exciting thing. 

Besides Murder in the First, you star in Hawaii Five-0 and you just landed a role in Hart of Dixie. How do you stay balanced? 
You know, I love to work. I love the working environment and getting to travel to different places—particularly Hawaii. It’s part of the job. You transition from character to character, from one environment to the next. I love what I do and I’m so lucky that I get to work on all of these shows at the same time. 

What advice do you have for others who want to pursue an acting career in Hollywood? 
I’ll say this, and I say it to everybody who I speak to who’s looking to come to LA: You’ve got to work harder than everyone else. You have to have an enormous amount of patience. You have to want it for the right reasons. Do it because you love it, do it because you want to make a living out of it. Don’t do it if you want to be famous, because you might never be satisfied, no matter what level of success you get to. 

Is there anything that surprised you about working and living in Hollywood? 
I’m so happy that I grew up in Minnesota, that I grew up in the Midwest, because you just have a different perspective on things. When you’re working in this industry that isn’t always friendly and genuine, it’s so nice to have my roots grounded in the Midwest. I always remember to be genuine. No matter what environment you’re in, just try to set the example of being nice to everybody and respecting everybody. I wish there was more of that naturally in our industry.