Over the years of interviewing actors, I have met those actors who are phenomenally awesome because of their dedication to the love of their craft however; I can count on one hand the actors who are phenomenally awesome as a person.
Will Yun Lee is not only a versatile actor; he is a phenomenal human being.
Will was born in Arlington, Virginia just after his parents immigrated to the USA from Korea. He was raised by his immediate and his extend families. He was able to adjust quite well growing up on the tough streets of The Bronx in New York City to the idyllic beach living of Hawaii. As a teenager, he lived in the San Francisco Bay area with his father, a Korean Tae Kwon Do grandmaster. During those years, Lee became an accomplished martial artist which won him an athletic scholarship to the University of California at Berkley.
While in school, Lee worked at the East Bay Asian Youth Centre teaching high-risk teens from neighborhoods ghettos, not unlike those he had known as a child when he lived in New York City. It was there that his ongoing commitment to young people began and continues to play an important role in his personal life today. It was also at this time that he became seriously interested in acting. After landing a small role in Nash Bridges, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. He guest stared in several TV series roles such as Profiler and Brimstone, which eventually led him to more robust roles in the TV movie The Disciples for UPN and soon thereafter to What’s Cooking and TNT’s Witchblade.
In 2002 he was named by People Magazine as one of their “50 Most Beautiful People.” This honor quickly led him to high profile roles: Die another Day, Torque, and Elektra. He has also played character roles on the FX Network’s television series Thief, and ABC Family’s Fallen. Lee was chosen to play one of the main characters of NBC’s sci-fi television drama Bionic Woman. In November 2007, he was again recognized by People Magazine, this time as one of the members of their list of the 15 “Sexiest Men Alive.” In August 2010, Will Yun Lee starred alongside Miguel Ferrer in the Indie thriller Far Away Eyes, which was shot entirely on location in Hong Kong and started in the same year; he became one of the beloved villains Sang Min of Hawaii Five-0.
In 2013, Will took on the roles of “Kenuichio Harada” and “Silver Samurai” in the much awaited The Wolverine, with Hugh Jackman playing the lead role. Will recalls, “I went through the normal casting process of getting the audition, and then auditioning for James Mangold (director), which was pretty basic but a nerve racking process.” Will continues talking about his character Harada, and how he prepared for the role, “I didn’t get much information about the character until I got to Australia and met up with James for the audition. I auditioned for a part called ‘Mario’ which I thought was kind of peculiar. I thought…How many Mario’s could there be in a Japanese centric Wolverine movie? I knew this was part of the secrecy, which amped up the level of anxiety of which I was going to play, and ultimately, how I was going to approach the character. Once I got to Australia, James Mangold gave me some rich stuff to think about and marinade over in terms of relationships and intentions. Hiroyuki Sanada, who played the character of “Shingen” truly saved me by helping me learn the Japanese language and culture.”
“Learning Japanese was probably the most stressful part of the shoot.” Lee said, “The movie was set in Japan, and the actor was playing against a Japanese actress named Tao Okamoto.” Will had to learn Japanese for his role. “I wanted to make sure that I did the best I could to honor the culture and all the hard work and vision that James Mangold had for the movie. Tao and Hiroyuki Sanada were incredibly generous with their constant coaching. Hiroyuki stayed with me on set one day for 15 hours to make sure my Japanese was good as it could be…so I am forever indebted!”
“Japan is a very special place to shoot. Not only is it an epic landscape of traditional and modern architecture, the people have a way about them that always makes you recalibrate your own sense of being respectful and courteous.”
Working with the Wolverine – Hugh Jackman
Will had this to say about meeting Hugh and bonding with him for the first time. “I met Hugh on set and fortunately he was as genuinely nice and giving as a human being and actor. You never have to worry about making sure the ‘chemistry’ is right. He makes everyone feel like family which I think ultimately translates to the right environment to go to work and put it up on the screen. He is a rarity in this business. I will always remember him eating lunch with the entire crew almost every day. Most “A” list stars go straight to their trailers during lunch, but he stood in line like the rest of us and ate in the cafeteria almost every day with everyone. That is rare!”
The Asian-American Actors Community and Working in Hollywood
When asked about the growing number of productions and projects for Asian-Americans in television and movies, Will talked about how much progress that conventional studios have opened their doors towards Asians and Asian-Americans. “I think it has gotten better, but obviously there is a long way to go. But I truly think that with actors like John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, Masi Oka, Grace Park and Sandra Oh….they have pushed the envelope in color blind casting and helped start this momentum where Hollywood is more open to cast outside of what is considered the norm. But also, I think what Peter Lenkov and CBS has done with Hawaii Five-O has been historical for Asian Americans in general. I can’t think of the last time where 90% of the actors on a broadcast TV show were Asian. It may not seem like a big deal, but to me, it is monumental to have a medium where lead actors like Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are showcased as ‘kick butt’ action stars with so much humor and depth.”
On the advantage or disadvantage of being an Asian in the industry and the options of being to play any role and character, “I am not sure how to answer this…but I can say that growing up in an Asian household with strict lines of respect, hard work and tenacity prepared me for the harsh realities of the industry.”
If he has ever turned down a role because of his “Asian” principles, “I’ve turned down roles on occasion,” explaining further, “But I always try to look at a role as an actor first, because my belief is that if I decide to go into an audition based on race first, then I’ve closed myself on possibly telling a beautiful, funny, or tragic story that someone growing up here could relate to. For example…early in my career, I said I would never do an “accent” but as the years passed, I realized that for me it was being disrespectful to my parents, who have accents. If I kept my early mindset, then I might miss out on the possibility of one day telling my dad’s story in America as one of the first Taekwondo Masters to come to the U.S. to have coached one of the first African American Fighting teams during the late 60’s (post-civil rights). Sorry for the ramble…I guess….to each their own.”
He was asked about actors who prefer cinema to television, or vice versa, if there was really a difference between the two. “There really is not a big difference, except in the “speed” in which both mediums move in. TV moves fast and quick and there are a lot fewer “takes” unless of course you’re doing an indie film, which is just as fast.”
“I think the biggest sacrifices actors make is the amount of preparation that goes into the audition process. You spend countless hours prepping something that ultimately comes down to 2 minutes in a room with producers and directors.”
“I tend to gravitate towards drama,” the genre of film/TV that Lee prefers doing, “but hopefully someone calls me one day to not ‘blow up the world’ and to just do something funny…I think I got some ‘funny’ in me to let loose.”
Almost every actor has a “ritual” that helps them get into character. “Music is a huge thing for me. For every character I play, I always make a playlist that I listen to from the beginning of a shoot to the end. I even have two different playlists for ‘Sang Min’…hint…it’s mostly Hip Hop.”
As a seasoned actor, Will gives good advice to upcoming actors. “Once you decide that acting is what you ‘have’ to do…put your hands over your ears to all the people who say that ‘you’re not going to make it’ (usually they don’t say it, but make you feel it)….and keep pushing forward.”
On being Cash’s Dad –
On the evening of June 3, 2013, Will and his gorgeous wife Jennifer Birmingham welcomed Cash Yun Lee. “For me, the best part about being a dad was the first feeling I got when I saw Cash come out….I looked at my wife and my son…and I was overwhelmed with this feeling that ‘we are forever’ now. It was magical. I’m not sure if that makes any sense.”
Catching up with Sang Min
Are we going to see Sang Min again after he cut off the mullet and walked out of the Halawa Correctional Facility? “I am not sure… I will leave that in the hands of my good friend Peter Lenkov…when he calls, I will be there!”
“While I am biased about H50 for having been in a few episodes and having much love for the cast and the entire H50 team,” as he talks about the H50 madness and mania, “I think the H50 madness and mania is truly well deserve. It is one of those shows that allows a person an ‘escape’ for a full hour with a perfect blend of popcorn fun and character development. It is also rare for a person to find a television show to watch that has a dynamic core cast (Daniel, Alex, Scott, Grace, Masi and Michelle) who each have a great story line, have a great mix of chemistry and who’s fans actually know each of them by their character names as well as their real names. It kind of reminds me of those days of A-Team, Charlie’s Angels (the old one – not the new one) 21 Jump Street, Miami Vice, etc., where there was great escapism and memorable cast.”
“I am flattered by having some people respond in a positive manner to the character Sang Min, but in truth, an actor is only as good as words they are given and the way actors get to play them off. So, I guess I just got lucky to have been a part of it.”
When asked about this favorite Five-0 moment, “I can’t say if I have ‘one’ specific favorite scene, but I can say that my favorite elements are with the bantering of Alex and Scott and seeing each of Daniel’s and Grace’s love encounters. It’s a good balance again for popcorn fun and character depth.”
As to who makes him laugh the most, “Scott Caan, hands down, makes me laugh the most. All of the lines where Scott makes fun of my hair were ad-libbed. I just did my best to ‘block him out’ so I wouldn’t ruin the take afterwards from laughing so hard.”
His message to his adoring fans, “I just got back from the London Comic Con, and I have to say that I was shocked to see how many die hard Hawaii Five-O fans that were out there who came over just to see and talk to me because of Five-O. The Five-O fans have weirdly, and I say ‘weirdly’ because I have only done a few episodes. They have been the most supportive of fans I’ve ever had…that’s pretty damn cool!”
“Keep watching the show!!! When was it ever a time that you get to see that many talented Asian Americans on one show and in every episode? My hat goes off to CBS and H50 for that! I really do believe it’s kind of milestone for Asian-Americans in television/cinema…and it’s pretty cool.”
Thank you for the interview – Will Yun Lee
For more updates on Will, follow him on Twitter @WillYunLee1