TV Squad interviews James Kyson Lee of Heroes
by Kevin Kelly, posted May 3rd 2007 11:56AM
James Kyson Lee has a job plenty of people would love to claim: starring on NBC's Heroes, one of the best shows of this season, and currently riding a wave of both critical and fan-based praise. However, if you'd asked him a few months ago if he thought he'd be where he is now, he wouldn't have been able to tell you. Unless he'd been able to peek at a painting or two by Isaac Mendez.
Although Lee started out playing sidekick Ando to Masi Oka's Hiro, he's definitely come a long way since then. He's gone from cubicle neighbor, to reluctant participant, to butt-kicking undercover security guard guy, all in the space of one season. He's also get even tougher before this season is over. It could be argued that of all the characters on the show, Lee has undergone the biggest change, that is if you don't count Future Hiro.
A group of us caught up with Lee during our visit to the set of Heroes, and they let us interview him in Isaac's New York artist's loft. Surrounded by piles of comic books and Isaac's paintings, he filled us in on what's been happening with Ando, what will happen in the future, and where his own career is going.
Do we end up finding out you have a superpower?
Lee: That's the question of the year! I get asked that so many times, and that's a great question for the show's writers. We talk about this all the time. I thought it would be funny if Ando gets a power that's just unique, but random. Like, he can make cheese out of thin air. It'll be like, "Mozzarella!"
Or he could be like a Karaoke Hawk, and when he gets mad he'd turn all blue and start singing 1980s rock songs from Journey with explosions and glass shattering, and everyone would be like, "Stop! We surrender." I mean, who knows? You never know what's going to happen with this show.
You seem to be able to get a job as a security guard at the drop of a hat. Maybe that's your power.
Lee: I know. Hotel bellhop. I could be changing uniforms every two episodes. I don't know what's next. Construction worker? It's so fun always coming in camouflaged like that and it's always fun what they do with Ando and Hiro. They kind of come in and save each other at the end of the day.
Did you think that the show was going to be a success when you first read it?
Lee: When I read the pilot script I definitely felt there was something special about it. It was a page turner for sure. I couldn't put it down. I was really curious and excited to see how it was going to come together. I wasn't sure how it was going to be shot with people flying and regenerating and stopping time. I thought, "How are they going to shoot this?" But it's been amazing so far. They do such a great job and in the show we've gone everywhere from New York to India to Tokyo and Las Vegas and Texas, and sometimes it's all created here in L.A. So that's magic.
What can you tell us about your character when the show resumes?
Lee: When we left off we saw a glimpse of what the future would be like. We saw five years into the future, and in Episodes 19 and 20 you're going to see a lot more about that. Basically, it's Ando and Hiro running around in this supposed future and also how some of the other characters have turned out in those five years, so there's going to be a lot of surprises.
A lot of the people we know of now have changed physically and emotionally and I think Ando and Hiro have to walk through that, and especially Ando. He takes the place of an audience member, thrown into this new world and asking a lot of questions. So there are a lot of twists and turns coming up and a lot of action-packed stuff. There is so much amazing stuff waiting for us. It's going to be a heck of a final season finale.
Do you ever get to meet up with Hiro's sister again?
Lee: Good question. Yeah, you know what? I would like to. Probably not this season, but again, we don't know what's in store for the final three episodes, but I know that next season they're planning a whole new world and storyline. I don't have any idea what's going to happen there. There are so many things that Tim Kring is thinking about, and what's inside the writers' minds? But, I think fans are really in for a treat. I think our last five episodes are going to be out of this world.
When you first came on you were signed as a guest star. Did the writers bump up your part after seeing how you and Masi Oka work together?
Lee: When I first started, I think the writers and producers probably had a much better idea than I did. I personally did not know where this character was headed and I think as the season progressed, Ando has seen a lot of character growth and gone through the most changes throughout the season. He starts out as a realist and he thinks Hiro is like a child living in a fantasy land and as we progress, he witnesses these supernatural events with his own eyes and he slowly starts to become a believer.
By Episode 15 you saw him swap roles with Hiro and spearhead this mission and run off with Hope. His motivation always seems to be helping women for some reason, but he was feeding lines back to Hiro like, "Heroes don't have regrets. You don't need to have powers to be a hero." So that was a lot of fun and we see the roles changing a little bit. As Hiro becomes more burdened with this responsibility, I think Ando gets to have a lot more fun. I see it as the Han Solo to the Luke Skywalker. A lot of people compared us to the Odd Couple and Abbott and Costello when we first started out, but as the season progressed our storylines have changed and so have our characters.
In the scene we just saw, they're in the sword shop and you went in and bought a sword. Are you taking on the world?
Lee: Yeah, you know, that's coming closer to the season finale, and basically after we go to the future there is a whole question of how do we stop everything from happening? Basically, our main mission right now is to stop Sylar, but there are a lot of things preventing us from that. So, here goes Ando again with his own crazy ideas, and so we'll see how it all ends up in the season finale.
So you're supposed to stop Sylar and not the man who's going to blow up New York City?
Lee: Yeah, because right now we don't know who that is. It could be Sylar. It could be Ted Sprague. It could be Peter. There are so many questions, but whoever it is, that's who we need to stop.
Masi says he meets his future self in Episode 20. Do we meet future Ando at all?
Lee: Good question. I think that's a question the present Ando has, too, when we're in the future. That will slowly get answered and that's going to be part of the key of why we come back to the present and why we must stop what is happening. But when Ando goes off with future Hiro and present Hiro is on a mission to save him, you see a lot of interesting stuff come out and how those two relate together, because future Hiro is very different from present Hiro and Ando relates to them in very different ways.
So you never considered your character to be the sidekick?
Lee: You know, it's been an interesting dynamic. I think Ando started out as a sidekick and slowly has become the two of us as the Dynamic Duo. They split us up and then we come back together again. One gets into trouble and the other one saves him and vice versa. It'll really be interesting to see how it continues throughout. It's special. You don't really see a lot of characters presented in this way, especially Asian-American characters on primetime television. I think the great thing about Heroes is that we get to add a comedic element to the show, which I believe really separates us from the other one-hour dramas that are out there.
You do bring a comedic element to the show, but you're also one of the most serious storylines as far as what the ultimate goals and payoffs are. Does that make the job easier for you, that you get to have a little fun through all this seriousness?
Lee: It's more fun because we get the best of both worlds. It is more work though, and I think it's important the show have this because we have a lot of action and a lot of drama and sometimes it's overwhelming. It really creates a nice balance to the overall big picture of what's going on. I think we get to have a lot of fun in the storyline. The writers love writing for us. Especially with Ando, as Hiro gets more and more serious with this burden of having to fulfill his destiny, I think Ando gets to go have fun a little bit, whether it's with the ladies or commenting on what's really happening. So it's been a fun journey.
Can we expect to see different villains or heroes pop up in the next few episodes?
Lee: Let me see, Linderman was just revealed when we left off and that was a huge, huge reveal. I believe there are going to be some more surprises and I think you've learned a little bit more about Sylar too, and how that's all connected. It's going to be a lot of mystery leading to the end, how it's all going to come together. Who is the Exploding Man? That's the big question. Why does it happen and how do we stop it? It's going to go more in depth with the characters that are in the present, but also when we go to the future and we meet the future versions of our friends, many of them have changed. Some of them have changed for the better and a lot for the worse.
You're Korean, correct?
How did you convince the producers when you auditioned for the show that you could play a Japanese-speaking character?
Lee: It's been a lot of work! What's funny is that my father used to live in Japan in the late '60s and early '70s. He worked there as an electrical engineer and he used to be fluent in Japanese. I grew up speaking Korean and English because my family is from there, but I took a semester in college. This has by far been the most fun though, and also the hardest work I've had to put in to learn the language. I work with a coach and we've been working together since the second episode, and we have a great working relationship. I have to put in at least six or seven hours a day just concentrating on the language.
A lot of people ask if I learn it phonetically and stuff. I actually learn every single word in the dialogue because I need to have an emotional connection to what is being said and what is going on. So we basically talk about the translation process and talk about Americanisms versus Japanisms, why things are said the way they're said. English grammar is opposite the Japanese grammar and so you have to learn to flip that, and then on top of that there is intonation and cadences the Japanese have that's completely different from any of the other languages, definitely from English. So it's a lot of work, but for me it's worth it.
I'm actually going to Tokyo in May. I'm doing a 20th Century Fox feature called Shutter and I'm really looking forward to that. That'll be my first time in Japan and I've been wanting to go there for a long time. So I'm very excited for that.
Can you talk a bit more about Shutter?
Lee: Yeah. It's with Joshua Jackson and Rachel Taylor and it's a supernatural thriller in the line of Sixth Sense, about a ghost of a young girl that starts to appear in many of the pictures a camera takes and you learn how it's all connected to the main characters and their past relationships. I play a guy who works for a ghost magazine in Japan and talks about the phenomenon of spirit photography with the lead characters. I'm looking forward to it. It's a Japanese director named Masayuki Ochiai who did a movie called Infected in 2004. He's directing this and the whole production takes place in Tokyo, which I think is a huge undertaking for an American feature. So we'll see. I think it's going to be a lot of fun.
With the horror element to the film, is it going to be a Japanese-style ghost, a "Ring"-style ghost?
Lee: I think this one is going to be a little bit different, not so much like The Ring or The Grudge, but a lot more psychological. I don't know if you've ever seen a movie called The Audition, but it played with your mind a lot, and in this one, I mean I read the script and it was such a great script. This American couple goes to Japan on a photography assignment and end up with what they think is a body, and then later the body is nowhere to be found but the ghost of it starts to appear in all their pictures. They start experiencing all these supernatural events. So it's a psychological thriller and it also has that element of Sixth Sense. Are the dead speaking to us? Who are the ones who are really alive? Are we in the real world or this alternate universe? I'm just really psyched about going to Tokyo and hopefully will have some off days where I get to sightsee and really just absorb the culture.
You can test out your language skills.
Lee: Yeah, I can test out some random lines like, "We're going to save the cheerleader!"
Has Heroes been showing in Japan?
Lee: Not yet, but I know they're planning to. I know we just started airing in England and Australia and then this summer we're starting in France and so the show is really going international.
Also in illegal downloads.
Lee: Yeah. I've been getting random MySpace messages from people in Germany and France saying, "We're in your fan club here and we love the show!" Amazing.
At this point, James was whisked away to get ready for a scene, and we had to be ushered out because they next stuff they shot was going to be "super top secret." Curses! We would've loved having Claude / Peter's invisibility powers at that point. On the way out we bumped into series creator Tim Kring who thanked us for stopping by. Hey Tim, no problem. Call us anytime!
Be sure to check out our interviews with Masi Oka and George Takei (coming soon) as well!