NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
|James Kyson Lee|
Heroes Preview: Is Ando More Than Just a Trusty Sidekick?
by Angel Cohn
While Masi Oka draws much attention for his role on NBC’s Heroes (returning from hiatus tonight at 9 pm/ET), Hiro himself would be nothing without his loyal best friend and translator, Ando, played by James Kyson Lee. But now that Hiro has incredibly improved his English, will he still need the seemingly “ability-free” Ando around? TVGuide.com had to know the answer, so we spoke with Lee to see if Ando will, in fact, survive the hit show’s first season.TVGuide.com: What has it been like for you to get so much sudden fame for Heroes?
James Kyson Lee: You know, it’s just been a blast. I think the best part of it is that we have such a good family here at the show. Everyone, from top to bottom, is just really friendly and has great energy, and I just love coming to work. We have great writers, they’re doing some brilliant stuff…. It’s probably the best show I’ve been a part of.
TVGuide.com: Are you at all jealous of Masi [Oka] and the attention he’s getting? C’mon, be honest!
Lee: You know, I’m very happy for Masi. He’s been in the business a lot longer than I have, so a lot of times he shares stories about how he was on the verge of giving up. It’s interesting, there are so many unpredictable things about this business, and you just never know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next year, but we’ve been having a blast together. They love writing for our story line, and we have this really interesting, great dynamic on screen.
TVGuide.com: The scene of yours that I love is you in the diner just waiting for him to come back.
Lee: [Laughs] I must have had every single piece of pie in that diner! Sitting there for 48 hours or so….
TVGuide.com: Are you at all concerned about Hiro’s much-improved English, that maybe he doesn’t need Ando anymore?
Lee: Yeah, hopefully he doesn’t learn too fast. [Laughs] We told the writers to slow it down a little bit. Right now, they see us as one entity, and we have created this great relationship where we balance each other in sort of a yin-and-yang kind of way. They created this interesting combination of a modern-day Odd Couple or Dean Martin-and-Jerry Lewis — or that’s how they like to refer to it. I feel like we have a unique position in that we are able to bring comedic elements into the show, which separates us from some of the other heroes.
TVGuide.com: Right, because squinting isn’t the same as flying.
Lee: [Laughs] Exactly.
TVGuide.com: What would your reaction be if somebody said, “Hey, I can do this really cool thing — watch me walk through a wall”?
Lee: I have a fairly active imagination, so I’d be so excited if someone came up to me and could show me something. I’d be like, “Well, do it now!” and then my brain would start being active, like, “How do we use this? Let’s put a show together!” It’s fun when Ando comes up with different ideas to pursue his power.
TVGuide.com: So you’re not as logical as Ando is?
Lee: No. In fact, I think having any kind of power would be so much fun. I know if I had a power, I’d get in so much trouble.
TVGuide.com: Which ability would you like the most?
Lee: I do like the way Peter is able to absorb other people’s [powers], but I think it’d be great to absorb other people’s special skills. Like, if you knew how to play the trumpet and I just hung out with you, and then all of a sudden I’m this jazz-trumpet master. Or, you speak fluent Italian, and I absorb your ability and am fluent in several languages and traveling the world. Something like that would be so fun. Another fantasy I have would be to switch bodies with somebody for a few hours. I would switch with LeBron James, or any professional basketball player, and see how I do in an NBA game! [Laughs] I mean, I grew up playing a lot of sports, so I’ve had these fantasies about professional sports.
TVGuide.com: You’re very well-rounded, because I hear that you’re also a jazz singer in your free time.
Lee: [Laughs] Well, I do like singing jazz. When I first came out to L.A., I started in music classes rather than acting, so I explored jazz a lot and the standards and really kind of fell in the love with that whole history and world. And then I entered musical theater a little bit.
TVGuide.com: You have to tell me: Does Ando have a power? A special ability that a normal human being wouldn’t have, perhaps?
Lee: Well, is romancing women a power? [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: In some circles, yeah!
Lee: Well, we have some great surprises coming up. Ando has a mini love interest in one of the upcoming episodes, and there’s going to be a great twist to it, too. We have some really, really fun stuff ahead.
TVGuide.com: I love how you totally avoided that question, by the way. They’ve trained you well!
Lee: [Laughs] You know, we were talking about this, and we thought, “How funny would it be if Ando develops powers that were unique but just really random?” Like being able to make cheese out of thin air. I concentrate and say, “Mozzarella!”
TVGuide.com: I think it would be really cool if he had uncontrolled powers, like he never knew what was going to happen.
Lee: [Laughs] Like all of a sudden, 10,000 balloons pop out of nowhere and everything turns pink.
TVGuide.com: Did you ever watch Inspector Gadget?
Lee: [Laughs] Yeah! Random things pop out of his hat and you just don’t know what’s going on. What about the ability to Bedazzle?
TVGuide.com: The ability to make people sparkly!
Lee: I snap my fingers, and there’s glitter all over you. [Laughs] How useful is that for saving the world?
TVGuide.com: I’m definitely glad to hear that there’s a good story line coming up for you. I’ve been worried about Ando becoming, well, dispensable.
Lee: Yeah, we have some great cameos coming up. I’m sure you’ve probably heard by now about George Takei [of Star Trek fame, debuting Jan. 29 as Hiro’s father]. [Right now], I’m working with Missi Pyle [who plays a damsel in distrees in the Feb. 12 episode]. And we have some new characters with different powers coming up. It’s all going to keep people on their toes.
TVGuide.com: We’ve seen the painting of Hiro and a dinosaur. Are you with him when he faces off with the T. rex?
Lee: [Laughs] Yes, I am with him, I am in the vicinity. Now, where that’s going to take place will be a great surprise. In fact, when we come back [tonight], that’s going to be Episode 12, and boy, that’s a great, great, great episode. It’s a fun one.
TVGuide.com: Now, the geeky girl in me is all excited that you’re involved in all these video games. I heard that you’re doing The Darkness, and you did a baseball one?
Lee: Yeah, The Darkness is coming out this year [for Xbox 360/PlayStation 3], and that was a really fun process. I did motion capture, where they get me in this tight leather suit with pins all over, and then they put these little pins all over your face to capture every expression that you make. And you’re put in a sort of chamber where there’s, like, 36 cameras going all around. Basically you have to physically move and tuck and roll and jump and shout and say your lines. I mean, it was really theatrical!
TVGuide.com: You have movies coming out as well. You’re very all over the place.
Lee: Well, thank you. I have four feature films coming out next year. The last one I worked on is an independent ensemble comedy, called Searching for Mickey Fish, and it’s with Treat Williams, Daniel Baldwin, Charlotte Ross, Curtis Armstrong, Efren Ramirez…. It’s an ensemble piece directed by Don Most (Happy Days), and he’s such a great guy, a great actor’s director. I’m really looking forward to seeing it.
TVGuide.com: Do you have time to do movies now, or are you busy with Heroes?
Lee: I do have a cameo [which aired Jan. 19] on Las Vegas. I play this interesting guy who womanizes his older brother’s ex-girlfriend in order to try to get them together. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Well, Ando and Hiro were already at the Montecito once….
Lee: [Laughs] We said it would be awesome if we did a crossover episode. It would have been so funny when we were playing cards if James Caan popped up in the background and Molly Sims gave us cocktails.
TVGuide.com: So, coming up on Heroes, do we get to see lots more of you and Hiro hanging out?
Lee: Yeah, and our adventure. I myself don’t know where things are going, but I’m getting little hints here and there, and we have some amazing stuff coming up. The great thing about it is that a great friendship is really featured in our story line, and you don’t really see that a lot in prime-time television. I think it’s the first time you see two Asian characters featured in this sort of way, so fun to share. People come up to us who don’t understand Japanese and at the same time they’re like, “We totally love you guys…. We feel like we relate and connect and really latch onto these characters.” To me, that’s the biggest compliment.
TVGuide.com: Is it hard going back and forth between the English and the Japanese?
Lee: [Laughs] For me, it was one of the biggest joys and challenges, because Japanese was not my native language. My father lived in Japan for a while, and then he was transferred back to Korea, where he married my mom, so I’ve always been really fascinated with the culture and the language. I took a semester of it in college, but this has been such a great opportunity to really dive into it and study intensively. I’m planning to go [to Japan] sometime in the summer, if I can, to really experience the culture.
TVGuide.com: If they’ve seen the show by then, you’re going to be a god over there.
Lee: [Laughs] Well, I just hope that they’re fans of the show.
Interviewed by Lee Ann Kim, SDAFF Executive Director
Actor James Kyson Lee
Actor James Kyson Lee has appeared in numerous SDAFF films. This year you can see him in “Asian Stories (Book 3)” and as a regular on NBC’s new drama, “Heroes.” James will be here for the Friday screening of “Asian Stories (Book 3)” and participate in our Asian Americans in Hollywood Panel.
First, congrats on your lead performance in “Asian Stories (Book 3)”. Asian Americans (men, especially) rarely have the chance to be the lead of a feature film, so you must have been psyched about this experience. Any thoughts on that?
Thank you. This was probably the most fun I’ve had on a shoot. The best part about this script, is that the lead characters really could’ve been played by actors of any ethnicity, with some tweaking here and there. The fact that it presented great three-dimensional Asian American characters was very refreshing and rewarding.
I was the first cast to be attached, so to see the process from conception to casting to the shoot and then the premier — it’s been an incredible and hilarious journey.
Then again, your character is a heartbroken, self-loathing, suicidal man in a tuxedo. Was it much of a stretch?
(lol) I got to do some interesting research to play Jim. Because the character is loosely based on a real person — an old roommate of Kris (our executive producer) — Kris had these various home videos of Jim and Catherine at different events — trips to Disneyland, Holloween party, etc. The study was less about mannerisms or personality, but more about their dynamics and relationship.
Jim is a character whose rug is pulled out from underneath him by life at the most unexpected moment — human, imperfect, sometimes pathetic yet relatable. To experience his arc, I myself had to go through a gamut of emotions. It was a satisfying challenge.
Heartbroken in “Asian Stories (Book 3)”
You wore a tuxedo for most of the film. Just curious, was that really the same tuxedo?
Yeah, it was. I think we had one jacket, two shirts and pants. And many of our shoot days we had 90+ degrees weather… so you can imagine the fun I was having. Ron [director] later told me he wrote it that way to save money on wardrobe. After we wrapped, they gave me the tux as a memorabilia.
There were some pretty funny moments in the film where you had to stay dead pan. Did you have a hard time keeping yourself from cracking up?
We have some great outtakes and scenes that are not in the film. Maybe they’ll include it on the DVD. After spending time with Ron and Kris, I began to understand their humor more and more. Also during rehearsals, we improv’ed and played a lot, and discussed different ideas. The time we spent together really helped the chemistry of the cast and crew. We were laughing and talking all the time.
Lee gets tough in “Bunny & Clydo”
Now let’s talk about your career. Your bio says you’ve appeared in numerous commercials and projects (and in fact, the SDAFF screened “Bunny & Clydo” last year, which you starred in — loved it!). And now, you’re working on at least three feature films and you star in “Heroes”, the new NBC drama. Would you say you’re where you want to be with your career?
I’m very thankful how my journey has turned out. I came out to L.A. five years ago, knowing nobody in the city and surely nothing about the business. I was living in Boston, sold my used car for $1800, packed one suitcase and bought a one-way ticket. I spent my first night in L.A. in my rental car.
What did help me was that I didn’t come out with any expectations, but just a willingness to learn. My first two years in L.A., I really explored the arts: jazz singing, musical theatre, dance, doing plays, training at a conservatory. It was important for me to find myself before I jumped in to this game. Then my professional career began three years ago.
Television moves very fast. We shoot an hour episode — essentially one-half of a feature — in eight working days. The number of people involved to create the show from beginning to end is astounding. “Heroes” has one of the best organized production teams I’ve ever seen — very efficient and tight-knit.
Can you compare the indie film experience with your studio experience? I’m sure there are tradeoffs.
Indie films can move in a similar pace but for a very different reason. Usually it’s from a lack of a budget. Photography for “Asian Stories” was about 24 working days, and I was needed on all of them. There were times when we had just wrapped a 15-hour day, and I had to be on a set for a commercial in 2 hours. During our shooting I was seriously sleep-deprived, which probably helped with the character.
Indies also provide opportunities to tackle roles that maybe harder to come by in studio pictures. It often becomes more of a “collaboration” where everyone pulls in their resources to help the film come to fruition. That was certainly the case with “Asian Stories” and maybe that’s why it was so satisfying.
Some Asian American actors say they’ve had to audition for roles that they didn’t want (slim pickings). Have you ever taken a role you regretted or considered somewhat humiliating? And if so, do think things are getting better for ethnic men in Hollywood?
Sure, I’ve had auditions for roles that weren’t that interesting but luckily I’ve had many more that were rewarding. I haven’t had a project that I regretted — simply because I wouldn’t take it if I knew it was something I was going to dislike.
I think the responsibility to make things better for minorities falls on us. I and my fellow actors need to continue to do good work. We need more talented writers and filmmakers who will create stories and characters that are interesting and compelling. We need more collaborations between people with financial and political powers who can support and enable the arts and filmmaking. It’ll take time but I’m optimistic.
Who is your hero?
Teddy Roosevelt. I recently read about his life, and he was a pioneer in so many ways, overcoming some huge personal tragedies. Inventors like Thomas Edison, whose impact on humanity and our lives today is immeasurable. Oprah, because she does so much with what she has.
What do your parents think about your work?
They’re very supportive. I strategically did not discuss my career with them until I began to do TV. I wanted them to see it in a professional context. My father also lived in Japan for a while, and my character in “Heroes” is Japanese — so he’s really looking forward to seeing the show.
We hope you’re looking forward to throwing down with us at SDAFF. Any thoughts on the film festival experience, and particularly the role of Asian American film festivals?
I’ve had nothing but great experiences at festivals. They provide a venue for a lot of independent projects and a forum where people can come together and connect. Festivals like yours and Visual Communications are crucial in creating more visibility for Asian American work. It gives us a chance to celebrate our community and our arts. I want to personally thank and praise you for what you have done in San Diego. I’m looking forward to being there.
Finally, is Kyson your Korean name?
Kyson is from the first letters of my parents’ last names, “k” and “y”, and the word “son”. When written in Korean and Chinese characters, it means “Child of the Spirit.”