Actor James Kyson Lee is better known as Ando Masahashi in the hit series "Heroes". Born in Seoul, South Korea, the actor moved with his family to New York City at the age of 10. He graduated from Bronx High School of Science and continued his education at Boston University and New England Institute of the Arts where he studied communications & broadcasting.
After trying out improv and inspired by his newly discovered passion for performing, Lee sold his used car and purchased a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, where he began his training in music, dance, and acting. He has since guest-starred on hit TV shows such as "CSI", "Las Vegas", "The West Wing", "Heist", "Threat Matrix", "JAG", and "All About the Andersons" and currently stars as Ando on "Heroes".
In addition, he has wrapped in the upcoming "How to Make Love to a Woman" and co-stars in the indie comedy/drama, "White on Rice", who plays best friend of lazy Jimmy, in this wry look at at a dysfunctional Asian-American family coping with dinosaur-obsessed Jimmy [Hiroshi Watanabe] who mooches of his sister and frequently impatient brother-in-law.
In this exclusive interview, Lee talked to Paul Fischer about the film and what is in store for the next season of Heroes.
Question: What is the main attraction of doing a film that – I guess this film explores a very different side to Asian culture, Japanese culture in particular. What do you think sets this film apart from any other film that have dealt with those same ethnic issues?
Lee: Well, I feel like this story had a very humanistic quality to it, you know? It just happened to take place in a Japanese-American family. But it really had nothing to do with the race, or whatnot. You know? There were elements in the movie that carry that uniqueness. But overall – you know, it could have been any-town USA. A Greek family, or an Italian family. I just felt like at the end of the day, the characters are very relatable. A married couple who – where the husband sort of longs for the way things used to be. You know? My character is reconnecting with a high school sweetheart, and there’s so much rich history there, that they’re trying to re-explore. And then you have the central character, who is sort of a 40-year-old guy trapped in – with the mind of a ten-year-old, and he’s just going around causing havoc everybody. You know? And then, we all have the one guy in the family who’s just like, oh my God. He’s the crazy one. So, it was very – I feel like it had something for everybody.
Question: I guess your character is one of the most grounded in this story. What is your take on him? What do you think of this guy?
Lee: Tim’s a young guy who’s got a nice job, but he’s clearly passionate about something else, you know? And we can sort of relate to that. The daydreaming about escaping the corporate life. And only when he decides to pursue his real passion, which is music, I think his life and his relationship to Ramona opens up. My character was actually based on a real guy, who’s a very talented musician. So when I went to Salt Lake City, I got to spend time with the real Tim. Taking guitar lessons from him. We all went to a guitar shop and I bought my first acoustic, which was an Ibanez. And next thing you know, a few days later, I was up on stage with his band recording a song for the movie together. And it was a Halloween scene, so I was dressed up as a Quaker Oats man. He was Uncle Sam. Our drummer was a big bear, and – it was just a very fun sequence to shoot.
Question: How intimidating was that for you, to do that, actually?
Lee: It was – I mean, it definitely took some practice, you know? I learned some songs that the real Tim wrote, and got some lessons from him. And basically, you know, from the first day on, I had my guitar with me everywhere. You know, I slept with it, made love to it, became one with it. And I would write these incomplete songs in my hotel room and the trailer, that made no sense. But – you know, it was still sort of my attempt at exploring the music side of it. And I just had a really great time trying on a quote-unquote “new clothes” for this character.
Question: I find it fascinating that you said you made love to your guitar.
Lee: [LAUGHTER] In a figurative sense.
Question: What are the challenges for you, as an Asian-American actor, finding material that is not ethnic-specific?
Lee: You know, it’s – yeah, there aren’t that many. And even though Hollywood is slowly catching up to the world, it’s going to take a lot of effort and time for this to sort of steep into the mainstream media. So I feel like it’s great to participate in more projects like this. And it is movies like this that has to prove its quality. Which then would broaden its appeal, and open people’s minds. And I think this is a good example of that.
Question: Did Heroes at all open up more doors for you? Has it helped in any way?
Lee: Absolutely, you know? It’s a prime-time show, that’s showing all around the world. So obviously it’s given me a tremendous amount of exposure. I mean, the show is now airing on 237 territories, which is sort of unheard of for an American show, you know? So in that sense, I’ve been very fortunate. And of course, I think there’s something about sci-fi fans, and – in the whole comic book genre, that are very passionate and loyal. And so it’s nice to be part of that world.
Question: Now I know that the second season had a lot of mixed reviews, and fans kind of drifted away from it. How hard has it been to pull back the momentum that it began with in the first season?
Lee: Well, you know, any time a show takes off so strong right out of the gate, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of expectations and pressure to have that follow-up. So – and I felt like we gained a lot of that momentum back as we sort of wrapped up the third season. This new season, Volume Five is called “Redemption.” And it’s looking really good. You know, we’re premiering in less than three weeks, on September 21st. And – you know, they’re introducing a new carnival theme into the story line that I think is going to just provide some really interesting twists for the show.
Question: Is there going to be a new antagonist?
Lee: Yeah. You know, right from the first episode , you find out that Ando and Hiro are starting a new business together , that’s going to throw us into some unusual adventures. Ando’s going to be linked with somebody you kind of didn't expect. So, there’ll be a nice surprise for the viewers. And this season, we have Robert Knepper, who played a character called T-Bag from Prison Break. So, he’s sort of the new ringleader of this other family. And if you ever got to a circus and see a flame-eater, knife-throwers, acrobats, and think to yourself, “Gosh, these people seems superhuman. How do they do that?” Well, what if they really had those powers, and the circus was just a façade? So, now it’s going into that idea, that these people have been immersed in our society, and now slowly are being revealed.
Question: It seems to me that you and your co-star in this would eventually go off and do your own show together. I mean, it’s such a great camaraderie between you two. Is that something that you’ve ever spoken about, that you think you would like to do?
Lee: I feel like it just kind of happened – you know, in an unspoken way. Him and I are very different physically, and we have different energy and personality. And I think that’s why on-screen in works well. Sort of the nice yin and yang, you know? And they sort of compare it to the Han Solo, Luke Skywalker – I guess Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn type of combination. But luckily, we’ve sort of had a really good dynamic.
Question: What has surprised you the most about being an actor, that you didn't really expect when you started out?
Lee: Not only does it take a lot of effort – because it’s such a craft, I think people don’t realize. Because we’re in the business of recreating reality, and the better you are at it, the easier it seems – people almost kind of take it for granted. You know, you’re sort of trying to be natural in the most unnatural circumstances. You know, when there are lights all around you, and sound, and a camera right in front of your face, trying to capture your emotion. So, there’s so much about the craft that I feel like I’ve learned on the job. Also, people don’t realize how much work goes into recreating maybe ten seconds of film, you know? Our show alone costs millions of dollars per episode. And – you know, when you go to any sort of studio set for a movie, there’s this team of 40 to 50 people at any given time trying to make this thing happen. It’s such a collaboration in so many different ways, and so many things have to happen right, for it to be successful. So – I guess that’s why they call it – you know, magic of movie-making.
Question: Do you have any ambitions beyond acting? Is there anything you’d like to do creatively?
Lee: You know, it’s funny. I think naturally being on set for the past three seasons, I find myself still being interested in the technical aspect of things. And initially, I think acting alone was a full plate. But I kind of found myself organically paying attention to different set-ups and camera angles, and whatnot. So I may see it as a natural progression. We’ll see. But it might be interesting to go in that route, whether it’s writing or directing.
Question: And I take it you have nothing beyond this season of Heroes that you’re signed to do, or you’re planning on doing.
Lee: Well, I just finished another movie with Krysten Ritter and Ian Somerhalder called "How to Make Love to a Woman". That will come out some time next year. Of course, "White on Rice" opening next week. And it’ll be a rolling opening, in different cities, starting from the West Coast and going to the East Coast.
Question: Now, do you get to teach anybody how to make love to a woman in that movie? Are you a student or a teacher?
Lee: [LAUGHTER] I guess I’m definitely a student. It’s one of those ageless mysteries that people are always trying to figure out. But I’m one of the couples that are featured throughout the movie.