Lee had tweeted about an upcoming guest appearance on an episode of “The Black List” and I replied, tongue in cheek, “You’ve been on my black list for years.” I was rewarded with a fan of Lee’s telling me to “Back the fuck up!”
After I assured the tweeter that I was only kidding and that I was writing a profile about him, she gushed, “Mr.Lee is an awesome actor! He takes you into the heart of the character.” She added, “and he’s CUTE as hell!” Others had similar thoughts.
After watching two seasons of Cinemax’s hit show “Banshee,” it’s easy to see why Lee has so many fans. Apart from his ample acting chops, Lee is the most imposing Asian male presence ever in an American series. The man is as muscular as an action figure and can hold the menacing gaze of a panther. Lee’s cut enough to go shirtless, but for “Banshee” he takes it to another level: He squeezes into tight skirts. Job, Lee’s character (pronounced the biblical way), is a cross-dressing hair stylist and genius computer hacker who snaps lines like, “Suck my tit!”
Lee says he lost 30 pounds for his vision of Job. Staying in that shape isn’t always easy because in Charlotte, N.C., where “Banshee” is filmed, “You get hit with a biscuit every five steps.” He’s going to be hit with a lot more biscuits: “Banshee” was recently renewed for a third season.
You wouldn’t know it from seeing Job, but IRL Lee laughs easily and often. I caught up with Lee over ramen and pork buns–a reward for completing an intense physical workout session.
Giant Robot: How did you prepare to get into Job’s mind for the first time? Is it easier to slip into it now?
Hoon Lee: The first time would have been my audition. The scene was a confrontation with “homophobes,” I believe the script called them, in a diner. I keyed in on the things I knew I could swing: a sense of vindication, anger, violent intent. Everything else, the sort of external affects of the character I just sort of took a stab at. The script certainly carried a lot of the character to begin with. The character seemed “full” on the page already.
There’s an adjustment period with Job — to settle back in after I’ve been out of the skin for a bit. And so much of what he does and says is quite different from my natural impulse. So I have to make sure I give myself a bit of a soak in the character before cameras roll. I wouldn’t say it’s “easier” but I would say I have more faith that I’ll find him if I put in that little bit of time.
GR: Banshee is infused with violence and sex. But after the initial shock wears off, it seems like an artistic choice, sort of like the excess of bullets flying around in a John Woo film. There’s something deeper under there. At the core of it, what does Banshee mean to you?
HL: Banshee, to me, is a continuation of American popular fiction — gothic fiction, detective fiction, comic books, pulp. Like many of those genres, and like sci-fi, I think it establishes its own rules — heightened drama, sex, violence — as a way of re-lensing common and persistent themes. Things like the search for identity, self-knowledge, reinvention. Or the bonds of loyalty and family. Innocence and corruption. Everyone in Banshee is sort of in the process of reinvention. Which is perhaps the single greatest American trope there is. So at its core, I think Banshee is about American reinvention in the face of forces that want to prevent that.
GR: You’ve always lived in the Northeast so is it a bit of a culture shock living in Charlotte during shooting?
HL: Yes! But in a good way. We’re only there part of the year so the change in climate, general civility and pace is actually very welcome. I get to enjoy it on its own terms, knowing I’m not really putting down permanent roots. Six months is long enough to feel you’re not really a tourist, but not long enough to grow tired of the good things on offer.
GR: Are you anxious to get back to the stage? I’m sure New York’s dying to see you tear it up again in person.
HL: I’m dying to — that still feels native to me. I get excited to do readings or workshops of new things in particular. Sadly the timing doesn’t always work out. Our hiatus is broken up by the holidays so it’s not always easy to commit to a theatre project on either side of the New Year. But stretching new muscles in the world of television and film is proving very rewarding. I’m learning a lot about the process as a whole, not just the relatively small part that is acting in a single role.
But yes. Dying to get back to stage. Would love to do some classics actually.
GR: Like a dirty little secret, people still get off on memories of Sides: The Fear Is Real by The Mr. Miyagi Theater Company. The last time the Miyagi crew was together, some were saying it felt like there was still unfinished business. Can the world expect an updated Sides at some point?
HL: Man, I don’t know! It’s very gratifying that people remember that show so fondly. But it’s been a really long time! I would never say “never” and if the right opportunity presented itself I’d leap at it. But the original show grew very organically and I wouldn’t want to force anything. I think when the time’s right something will pop into view.
GR: You’re like Jeremy Lin in some ways–Harvard guy goes and does the atypical, the unexpected. What advice do you have to younger people who want to pursue the arts but have hardass parents who are set on them going to medical school or worse?
HL: I’m so not like Jeremy Lin — as anyone who has seen me do anything athletic will tell you.
Any advice I might give is going to sound either incredibly clichéd or so general as to be meaningless. Everyone’s situation is specific to them. I guess the only thing I’d say is if nothing else, make sure you are checking in with yourself regularly and with complete honesty. Drives and desires change and fluctuate. The romance of being an artist might fade with time and lead you to more practical thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly stagnation in a more secure job might spur you to a different artistic challenge. Be honest about what you are actually pursuing though because there’s more overlap than you might think between professions. And things like “creativity” aren’t reserved for the arts. You can find that everywhere.
GR: What are your favorite toys?
HL: Right now, computers. Favorite tools and favorite toys. Especially the tiny handheld ones that look like phones…