INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Interview With Jason Scott Lee

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By GUY AOKI
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on December 2, 2010.)

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Readers of this column know I’m no fan of Alex O’Loughlin. It’s no coincidence the two shows the Australian’s headlined for CBS—“Moonlight” and “Three Rivers”—failed: the guy has zero charisma. So in January, when word got around that CBS was going to allow him to star in yet another series—as Steve MacGarrett in the new “Hawaii Five-0,” no less—I got on the phone to CBS’s head of casting and tried to make the case for Asian/Pacific Islanders who could be considered for the top two roles of MacGarrett and Danny “Danno” Williams.

Jason Scott Lee, who lives in Hawaii, told me he was open to doing some television. The exec was aware of his whereabouts and interested in getting contact information for the actor, so I passed it along. In September, the day after the series premiered with, yep, O’Loughlin as the star, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition held its annual diversity meeting with CBS. The exec walked in, tapped me on the shoulder and revealed, “Hey, I just cast your friend in ‘Hawaii Five-0!’”

Great! I envisioned him as a police officer who might help the team from time to time. The episode that introduced him aired in early November. Danno came storming into the Honolulu Police Department trying to clear the name of his murdered former partner. Lee played Detective Kaleo and initially gave Danno a rough time but then showed him a piece of paper telling the cop where to meet him in an hour.

Soon, Kaleo was providing information to MacGarrett and Williams and even saw some action helping out the team when they confronted a drug lord and his henchmen. Kaleo chased after the main baddie and—off camera—shot him dead. When Five-0 caught up to him, he apologized but explained that he had to kill him in self-defense. However, as our heroes did more investigating, they realized Kaleo had been the crooked cop and killed Danno’s old partner for figuring it out. Kaleo also killed the drug lord so he couldn’t be connected to him.

Jason Scott Lee emerged as a leading man with his turn as Bruce Lee in “Dragon” (1993), but has largely dropped out of sight in recent years. He recently appeared on the CBS series “Hawaii Five-O.”

Noooooo! How could they?! Williams angrily confronted Kaleo in the police department and pummeled him into bloodied unconsciousness (for some reason, the script didn’t allow Lee to fight back). Reaall niiice way to treat one of our finest actors. He wasn’t even credited as a “special guest star.”

I mean, back in 1993, Lee was the great yellow hope. As the title character in “Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story,” he gave dignity to the plight of Asian Americans who never got their fair share because of their race, and he knocked out movie critics in “Map of the Human Heart,” one of the best-reviewed films of the year.

He went on to make “Picture Bride” and “The Jungle Book” and did some voiceover work in projects like “Lilo and Stitch.” But the actor seemed to drop out of sight after 1998’s “Soldier,” the big-budget critical and commercial flop starring Kurt Russell. For the last few years, Lee’s laid down roots on a farm in Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, living off the land. There, he became friends with my father, Herbert Aoki (that’s who gave me access to Jason Scott Lee in the first place), who also has some property nearby. Lee even helped build his own dojo/community theater space, which he kept going for about four years.

Of the 44’ x 28’ structure, the actor told me this week: “It wasn’t your typical community theater in the sense that it was at my residence and we were doing socially conscious plays and trying to bring professional-caliber theater to a rural area, more like a black box venue. I would probably still have it going if I had the foresight to have it off of my property as a tangle of issues surfaced because of my celebrity.”

Lee ended up getting the role of Detective Kaleo in part because of the new Chin Ho Kelly. “Daniel Dae Kim had been heavily lobbying the producers to get me on as one of the good guys. We waited for them to come up with the right role and this part was offered. My understanding was they knew all about my background and what I could bring to the show. Apparently I don’t have much in the way of TVQ so I also kinda felt I was under-utilized. I trusted that since Daniel spoke to them at length, the part would be more substantial towards a recurring as a one of the team. Daniel is still in hopes that they will somehow reform my character. Doubtful.

“I decided to do the role because there was a chance that it could lead to a recurring character which would allow me to stay in practice close to home. Whether it was a bad guy or good guy really didn’t matter. We actors only have so much power at our disposal to demand of the producers exactly what kind of role we want. Maybe if I was on the developing end of the production it would be different.”

The experience didn’t exactly thrill the actor: “I realized I am not so fond of the filming process of episodic television. The fact that I haven’t really done any TV in some 20 years made my experience filming ‘5-0’ rather jarring.”

Back in January, Lee told me that with his wife expecting a baby this year, he wasn’t interested in doing any television shows or movies unless it was shot in Hawaii—he wanted to remain close to home. So I was surprised when he told me he’d just returned from Los Angeles, secured a management deal, and was now looking for projects. What accounted for his change of heart?

“After long family talks, we thought that it could be a good experience for our children to be exposed to the traveling lifestyle that the movie business affords. But also have the ability to come back home to our homesteading life. My decision to re-enter Hollywood is mostly for the ohana. I have had to adjust my understanding of where the entertainment industry is currently and try to fit into its highly competitive nature. Ideally, I would only like to do feature films, but we will have to see how things pan out.”

After hitting his stride in the mid-’90s, word got around that Lee was highly selective and only wanted to do “epic” type movies. I asked him if that was true, and looking back on it now, if he felt he’d been too picky. “The biggest challenge in this business of acting is to constantly re-invent yourself,” he replied. “Back in the ’90s, my effort was to do films with meaningful content, which I believe is still the goal of many artists in Hollywood. For an Asian American actor, it’s that much more difficult. I had a tough time back then accepting the redundant action hero opportunities that were placed before me. It now makes me realize that ‘Dragon’ was somewhat before its time, and trying to find a challenge that would capitalize on that performance was completely non-existent. I’m hoping to find positive challenges in the current situation of movie making.”

Could this be the second coming of Jason Scott Lee? Let’s hope so. We certainly need more leading-type Asian/Pacific American men like him in Hollywood.

The Non-“Event” Department: NBC had high hopes for “The Event,” the high-concept show about aliens living amongst an unsuspecting public. The network hoped to tap into the audience that loved such suspenseful, conspiracy-type series as “Lost” and “24.” To ensure this, they even hired Evan Katz, the former executive producer of “24,” to do the same honors. But although NBC ordered a full season, the ratings have only been average, so after this past week’s episode, it’s being taken off the air for three months.

His name is listed fourth out of the 11 regulars, but Ian Anthony Daniel (who’s half Japanese) hasn’t had as much screen time. That’s a shame because I’ve become a real fan of the actor after seeing his riveting performance as a doomed Japanese American concentration camp survivor from World War II in an episode of “Cold Case.” On “The Event,” Daniel plays CIA agent Simon Lee, who works closely with the White House but is secretly one of the aliens who crash-landed in Alaska in 1946.

In one moving flashback to the 1950s, we saw him in love with a white woman he wanted to settle down with. But then, Thomas, the leader of the aliens not secretly imprisoned by the government, came to remind him that he had to move on in order to do what was right for their people. 10 years ago, Lee—looking the same as he did in the ’50s as these aliens don’t really age—was walking down the street when an old woman called out to him. It was his old girlfriend, now with Alzheimer’s. Lee was obviously conflicted, having to pretend she’d mistaken him for someone else, though she insisted she wasn’t crazy.

Later, he came back to visit her. “If it had been up to me,” he tearfully told her, “we would’ve gotten married, had children.” Her response: “It was up to you.” It was a great and heartbreaking scene.

If you’re interested in catching up on past episodes, watch “The Event” on hulu.com, then wait until March for new episodes.

Mahalo Department: Thanks to Mike Quigley for pointing out that Kam Fong did not leave “Hawaii Five-0” at the end of its second-to-last season in 1979 (as I’d remembered) but earlier in 1978. Go to his website (mjq.net/fiveo.com) for descriptions and ratings of every episode and interesting trivia about the actors from the original 1968-1980 series.

Support a Good Person Department: Leslie Ishii, who served as MANAA’s vice president in 1994, has made her directorial debut in “Crimes of the Heart,” now in its final week at East West Players. It centers on four hapa women playing crazy Southern sisters and friends. I’ve learned more about myself from Leslie than probably anyone else. She’s one of the smartest and best people I’ve ever met in my life. So I hope you support her. 8 p.m. shows until Saturday, 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday—final performance. $35-$45. Seniors and students get a $5 discount. Rush tickets, 30 minutes before showtimes, are $15 students, $20 regular up to Thursday, $20 and $25 Friday on. Go to eastwestplayers.org for more info or call (213) 625-7000, ext. 20 until Friday.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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