Lee succeeded Jose Llana, who replaced Tony nominee Ken Watanabe. A Theater World Award winner for David Henry Hwang’s 2007 play Yellow Face, Lee, who currently stars on the Cinemax series "Banshee," gave us the royal decree on returning to the stage, better and balder than ever.
You appeared on Broadway in Urinetown and Flower Drum Song, but it’s been more than 10 years since your last Broadway outing in Pacific Overtures. How does it feel to be back?
Hoon Lee: When I was doing more film and TV recently, I felt like I was learning a very different set of skills and rules, and exercising different muscles. So when this opportunity came up, I was very curious to know where I was as a theatre performer now. There’s something very special about the theatre community, and with a big show like this, there’s usually even more of a sense of family. I was hoping that would be the case with The King and I, and it absolutely turned out to be true. It’s been a very warm and welcoming environment.
Do you have a history with The King and I?
HL: I haven’t done the role of the King before, but my second professional gig was The King and I at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2002. I played the Kralahome, and I understudied the late Kevin Gray, who played the King. It was an incredible indoctrination into this piece, and I couldn’t have asked for a better role model than Kevin, as a professional and as a person. It’s been a lovely thing to revisit the show at this point in my career. I have some familiarly with the text, but I’m able to look at the show through a fresh perspective, both personally and through the lens of this new production. I feel very privileged to be able to do so.
Does it feel like you’ve been preparing to play the King for years?
HL: It is funny, because as a younger Asian male actor, understudying that role, I definitely saw this somewhere in my future — that, sooner or later, this opportunity would be presented. I didn’t know when and I didn’t know the circumstances, but arguably this is the most ideal circumstance. So it has been simmering in my mind for quite some time. Of course, thinking and doing are radically different things.
The King of Siam has become closely associated with Yul Brynner, who originated the role on Broadway and starred in the film version. How do you make such an iconic role your own?
HL: I feel like that’s a concern for other people who will be wrestling with that more than I am. I have this strange quirk of my upbringing that I’ve never seen the Yul Brynner version. When I learned that I was going to do the role, my first instinct was to research, gather material and see everything. But then I thought about the fact that he loomed so large over this role, so I took the unique opportunity to be ignorant of it. I don’t feel that pressure to live up to it or to run away from it. I fully intend to watch the movie after I’m done, and I’m very curious to see what sorts of things are consistent between the performances that may have been dictated by the text or the music. So you are aware of how beloved the show is, even by those who aren’t necessarily big theatre fans.
HL: Oh, yeah, when I let people know I was going to do this, the response was overwhelming. It really only hit me then how much history and emotion is attached to this piece for a large amount of the population. My friends and family were far more excited about this than anything else I’ve done. People have been coming out of the woodwork to offer their well-wishes and express their desire to see the show. That’s the power of a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical like this that stands generations. It puts a huge burden of responsibility on it, but it also allows you into a wonderful fraternity of performers who have done this show.
Did you receive any words of wisdom from your predecessors in this revival, Ken Watanabe and Jose Llana?
HL: I didn’t have the opportunity to speak to Ken before he left. Jose and I are old friends — we did Flower Drum Song together — and he’s been wonderful about helping me understand the landscape of this new production, from the technical to the less tangible aspects of what’s going on. I got a sense from Jose that he was able to receive from words of advice from Ken that he’s now transferring to me. That’s one of the things I love about theatre — that sense of continuity and history and sustaining a production until the next guy comes along.
How has your rehearsal process been? You recently tweeted that you’ve gotten “good advice, good cheer and the occasional gentle shove.”
HL: Well, the stage is massive, and there are many places to get lost or trapped. Without ever making me feel idiotic about it, people have been politely forthcoming in offering, “Hey, maybe you should stand over here now…. Try this mark.” That’s partially a byproduct of not having a fully robust rehearsal period. You have to learn very quickly, most importantly how to keep out of everybody’s way. The production is very successful on multiple levels, and it’s somewhat incumbent on me to find my own path in it without creating a huge amount of upheaval.
There must be a lot of pressure involved when you join a huge Tony-winning hit with Tony winning performers like Kelli O’Hara and Ruthie Ann Miles.
HL: I’ve certainly felt that pressure, but Kelli and others have come forward and said they’re expecting and hoping that I bring my own thoughts and ideas to this. With a longer-running show like this, I think it’s a welcome thing to inject a new element, shake things up, and hopefully help people reinvest in their characters. Personally, I find it a very unique and engaging challenge to see a set of constraints in a show, mostly technical, and figure out how to find my way emotionally through this existing construct. That’s fun for me. It’s like solving a puzzle.
How are you finding your way through the famous “Shall We Dance?” number?
HL: [Laughs] There’s some physical activity that just happens through repetition. There’s only so much I’m going to learn in rehearsal — or at all. But I take comfort in the fact that when people come to the theatre, they come for a unique experience that happens on that particular evening, good and bad. The actual process of learning these things is a tandem partnership with the audience. My biggest concern is that we’re hauling around a 35, 40-pound dress, and you don’t want it spinning out of control. I just don’t want to hurt anybody.
What helps you get into the King’s mindset?
HL: I’m not a huge ritual guy, aside from just trying to stay physically loose. Especially with a commanding character and all this power, that can lead to a sort of stiffening. I focus on trying to remain loose, so I can be receptive to what’s happening on stage. I also think that a role like this is largely shaped by the people around you. Theatre is a team sport. My goal is to find this character as he exists within the cast. If you walk on stage with the intent of being the most powerful figure in the land, and the lowliest figure in the land doesn’t bow to you? My position is in some way defined by every other person on the stage.
Like The King and I, your last two Broadway shows, Pacific Overtures and Flower Drum Song, have predominantly Asian casts. Is it still a challenge in New York theatre to land roles that are traditionally played by white actors?
HL: Yeah, and I think we’re very, very far away from any sort of true colorblind casting. That’s going to take time. If you’re an Asian male and want the experience of being a male lead on Broadway, you basically have The King and I and Miss Saigon. That’s pretty much it. Pacific Overtures, maybe, but it’s not done as much. There simply aren’t that many opportunities, so it’s difficult for us to learn. A benefit for colorblind casting, if people really embrace it, is that we open the doors to up-and-coming actors who could potentially become our next great actors. The goal should be choosing from the biggest pool of talent you have available, because it’s only going to benefit the theatre to cast that net very wide. Hamilton is making that point very clearly. Theatre is a place where this is possible, because people walk into a theatre and suspend disbelief in the most overt way. This is the one place where we can ask that of the audience, and they’re already willing to give it to you. No one believes we’re physically in Siam. With film and TV, they trade more in naturalism and realism, so that’s a harder sell.
Some might think you shaved your head for The King and I, but you’ve actually been rocking this style for a while, haven’t you?
HL: [Laughs] Ever since I started acting, yeah. I have what’s technically known as problem hair. I’ve felt like I was in mortal combat with my hair since I was a teenager, and I finally conceded. Just the sheer amount of hair gel used alone was a hazard to the planet. It’s probably best this way.