Q&A: "Arrested Development" Star Justin Lee
Justin Lee, aka the adopted son of the kooky Bluth clan, Annyong, is known for delivering great quips on “Arrested Development”, including one of my personal favorites, “I play Uncle Sam. Better than part I have now. Guy who calls strike on Pearl Harbor.” Lee played one of the most memorable (and important!) characters on the show. When we last saw Annyong, he had finally brought the Bluth clan down for stealing the banana stand idea from his grandfather.
In addition to starring on “Arrested Development”, Lee has also starred on the TV series “10 Things I Hate About You” and in the webseries “One Warm Night”.
During our interview, I learned quite a few interesting facts about Mr. Lee. I was shocked to find out that he attended my high school, Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, CA, for a year, and pleased to discover that we are both massive foodies. And did you know that Mr. Lee is a well-trained MMA fighter who almost fought professionally? Neither did I, but that’s pretty nifty, eh?
Mr. Lee and I chatted about what it was like to wrestle Tony Hale (Buster Bluth), going to school with a bowl cut, and what to expect from Season 4 of “Arrested Development”!
YH: What was the audition process like for “Arrested Development”? Were you just asked to say ‘Annyong’ over and over?
JL: [laughs] Good question. There was a little more than just “Annyong”. It would be kind of hard to figure out an actor’s potential with just one line. They wanted to hear how I said it, but they also gave me some of George Michael’s lines. I believe it was episode three, the very last scene with the cornballer, where George Michael and Michael are having their intimate last moment -- that father-son moment. Fortunately, they liked the way I did it. Fun fact: I heard that originally Annyong was supposed to be for an 18-year-old Korean, which makes a lot of sense. When I went to the audition, I just saw all of these Asian men and couldn’t figure out why I was there. I guess they liked it enough to use me, and it was more comical to use me. If you look at another episode -- I don’t remember the exact one, but it’s right after Lucille puts all the money in my trust account... in the next episode section, Lupe finds my Korean passport and reads it and says, “Hmmm, this makes Annyong 18.” I thought it was pretty funny that they decided to keep me the same age.
YH: You and Tony Hale (Buster) had some great wrestling matches on screen. How did you guys choreograph those?
JL: First off, Tony is amazing. Getting to work with him is a wonderful experience. There’s so much for me to learn from him, and he always makes it so much fun. It was slightly choreographed, as in "know where the cameras are and where to land, we want you placed on this couch at this moment." But as for the detailed actions with the wrestling, we were in the moment fighting with each other. Tony’s a pretty strong guy. I got to go all out, and I was only like 15 at the time, so he got to throw me around like a rag doll. But I love doing all my own stunts. I love competitive sports, I’m a pretty competitive guy. Anytime I get the chance to rough house on screen, I’ll take it. It’s any boy’s dream come true. I was a teenage boy, rough housing, realizing “I’m really getting paid to wrestle someone right now?”
YH: “Arrested Development” seems like the best show on the planet to be a part of. Did you have a favorite moment when you were filming, or was the whole experience just a blast?
JL: I had a blast every time. I was fairly new to the industry. When I first started “Arrested Development”, I had been in maybe a year or two. For me, I had never been on a set like this, with so many talented professionals. It was such an eye opening experience for me. I was really trying to soak everything up and learn as much as I could. My first day of walking on set was very surreal. I couldn’t believe that I was walking on this fully made model house. It’s on a soundstage, but on screen, it looks so real. After the first day, I knew instantly this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Everyone made me feel comfortable. You hear about guest stars coming in and feeling awkward because they’re not there with the regular cast, but it wasn’t like that at all. I was adopted into the family. And I’m a big, big, big food guy. I love food. I loved that there was a catering truck stuffed with all the candy you can get. And for someone like me who has a huge sweet tooth, it was great. It was never hard to find me -- I was always by the catering truck.
YH: You were actually in high school during the time “Arrested Development” was being filmed. Was it weird going to school with a bowl cut?
JL: If I had my choice, I would not have been walking around with a bowl cut. [laughs] I was so excited to be on the show, I wouldn’t have cared if they shaved half my head off, I would have walked around proudly. Ultimately, I did have to go to school with a bowl cut, and not everyone knew why. It’s not like I was going around telling people. That just really isn’t me. I don’t like to tell people what I do. And for the right reasons -- you want to make friends who like you for who you are, not what you do. The best thing about the bowl cut was that I was in upper division math courses, and as a freshman, I got to hang out with junior and senior girls. They would sit behind me and would just play with my hair. They would say things like, “It’s so soft!” and “Don’t ever cut your hair, please!” At that point, I thought maybe I’ll keep the bowl cut a little longer.[laughs] I was 14 at the time, but I looked like I was ten years old. I played up the cute factor. I’m not sure if I could get away with that now, but I definitely played it up then!
YH: You’re also an MMA fighter. Any plans to fight professionally? (Or perhaps make an MMA fight movie?)
JL: I would love to make an MMA fight movie. I’m not picky when it comes to roles. My only condition is that it’s not that stereotypical. I’d like to have a high concept MMA movie done, a movie that has a strong storyline and where the character’s range and depth is actually challenged. I’m always looking for roles like that, despite the genre. But then again, I don’t want to do the stereotypical Korean martial artist. I think it’s possible. Take a kook at Warrior -- They focused more on the characters, not just on the action scenes. I love the way Guy Ritchie mixes his storyline with action scenes. I think he’s one of the best. I think he does it extremely tastefully. I’ve been a big fan of his work from Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels to Rock and Rolla to Sherlock Holmes. I just really love his films!
I’ve been offered professional fights since I was 18. I’ve been doing mixed martial arts for a good while now, and I was looking at going into it professionally, but I hadn’t even finished puberty (in my opinion). I was walking around at about 115, and I would have had to go up a weight class, so I wasn’t sure it was the smartest move. I felt that I should let my body develop and grow a little more. I looked into it more, and I prayed about it a lot, and I really do love MMA, but if the pay-off isn’t bigger than the risk, then it’s not worth doing. For me, I’m looking at these fighters who are putting their bodies at risk everyday. Until recently, these fighters -- and I still feel -- they’re not getting paid what they deserve. Boxers can make up to $100 million a year. That makes sense; you’re getting paid to take that damage to your body. I think that MMA needs to have pension plans, and there needs to be a better way to protect the fighters. Obviously the organizations are doing the best they can, and it is evolving faster than other sports have. It’ll only be a matter of time until pension plans come in, and the UFC becomes more a union, like the NFL, NBA, etc. At the moment, it’s just not where it should be. Personally, I’m looking at this wondering how long my career will last as an MMA fighter. It could last 10, 20 years... or it could just be one punch, one leg lock, and it could be career-ending. When looking at the big picture, I wanted to do both -- mixed martial arts and acting. But how would I be able to act if I couldn’t walk anymore? I had to find that happy medium. I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was four. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be. I wanted to be everything! A superhero! An astronaut! A professional athlete! When I looked at acting, I could do everything. Plus, I can do it all as an actor. I can get a role as an MMA fighter in a film. As an actor, I do look for ways to implement MMA into my acting. I also like the idea of a reality show with celebrities MMA fighting for charity. I think it’d be cool. Nevertheless, I will never ever stop training in mixed martial arts. I have actually gotten more hurt from training than from any actual fights, which I think concerns my manager, Steve. [laughs] The whole point is that you put yourself through rigorous training, so when you get to the actual fight, it’s not that bad. And I think that this goes with every sport, or even with acting. You have to keep training, and improving on your passion.
YH: Tell us a bit about your current project, “One Warm Night”, and your production company, Black Canvas.
JL: "One Warm Night" is a nine-episode series, produced by The Actors Room and Last Chance Productions, LLC. It’s a really fun series. It’s similar to “Arrested Development” in the sense that it’s a large ensemble cast, and all of the characters are very unique. We’ve got 17 actors, and 14 of those are leads. You don’t really see that very often -- it’s usually pretty hard to keep up with that many lead actors. It’s quirky, it’s fun, it’s witty. It really does require the audience’s full attention. You may not get the pay-off in the first three episodes, but the pay-out might be later, which may bring up more questions. So, some of the questions may be answered, but as you keep watching the show, more questions may come up. There’s all these hidden secrets and gems all throughout the show. It’s really important that the audience pay attention to these clues, because it’s these clues that give you a better idea of where the story is going. To give you a little tip, I would tell the viewers to pay attention to the walls...
To give you a quick synopsis, it’s about a beautiful girl who brings all of her ex-boyfriends into one room. These exes are a bunch of oddballs and misfits. They all think that they're there because she is going to pick one of them to rekindle their love, but she actually has an important life-changing secret to share with them. But before she gets the chance to, one thing leads to another and ninjas show up as well as the FBI and the CIA, and it just gets crazy. You have to figure out why they’re all in the room. The pay-out will really be great at the end. Our tagline is actually, “This time the end will justify the means.” It’s been a lot of fun. There are seven episodes out right now, and you guys can watch it at onewarmnight.com. There are two more episodes to be released. The show actually started as a script that started in the Actors Room and was actually not meant to be shot. Steve [Lowe] wrote these characters for his actors to learn character development and character arc, and one thing led to another, and then we decided to shoot it. It was a lot of fun. It was crazy on set! We shot the sucker in three days. We weren’t expecting it to be what it’s become now. After we shot it, we decided to make it the best that it could be. We just wanted the audience to get a laugh out of it. The show has started to find its identity. Through the popularity of the show, it’s helped the actors find their voice. There’s been a ton of opportunities presented to the actors individually and collectively to help reach out and help the community. We’ve been getting involved with a lot of worthwhile and charitable organizations.
Black Canvas: I’m always doing everything I can to improve my craft, like anyone who loves to do what they do. This is why I continue to train at The Actors Room with Steven G. Lowe, who is also my manager. I’m very blessed to be part of an elite group of such talented individuals. It really helps that Steve is a personalization coach, because he caters to the individual. He know that I’m extremely competitive, so he is constantly challenging me to do anything that challenges my creativity and my depth. Steve is a big mentor of mine. I’ve been working under him, learning more the production end of things. In a way, he’s almost breeding his competition, which in this industry is pretty unlikely. Ryan Tsang and I, with everything that we’ve learned from The Actors Room and Last Chance Productions, have started our own production company, Black Canvas. We have a lot of new media projects (example: "One Warm Night"). We’ve gotten a lot more involved in the production side, which has made me appreciate acting even more. And now I have a new passion and interest: producing. I love acting, I’m never going to stop acting, but I am also going to continue to produce too. The entertainment industry has officially sucked me in!
YH: Have you ever thought about ways to cross Korean and American entertainment a bit more? For instance, I think a Korean-type drama could do really well in America.
JL: I am a disgrace of an Asian. [laughs] I do not play video games, I am terrible with technology, I don’t watch Korean dramas. I’m guess I'm what you would call a banana. I’ve been called a banana a lot. I really do appreciate my culture. It’s been an advantage having Korean parents and being born and raised in Orange County. I took what I loved about both cultures. In American culture, I love the idea of following your dream/passion, and that you have the right to be happy. In Korean culture, I love their work ethic. It’s a bit extreme. It’s like they’re not allowed to have fun. When they have fun, they hide it. I’ve combined both cultures, which is the work ethic combined with what I love to do. I’m always looking for ways to help bridge the gap between Asian-Americans and Hollywood. Or, to be specific, Korea. The Korean entertainment industry is their biggest moneymaker. It’s huge! So, I know there’s a way to incorporate it, to conglomerate the two industries in a way that’s mutually beneficial. I also want to help make it easier for Asian Americans to get into the entertainment industry. I feel like there’s this huge stereotype where a lot of Asian-American actors are not given the opportunity, and there are fewer of us. We’re often given these comic relief roles or action roles. I would love to help break that. There are Asian-American actors who have broken that, such as John Cho, who I respect greatly. I’d like to be one of those actors.
YH: How do you feel about “Arrested Development” returning this year?
JL: I’m ecstatic! I’m very happy, not just for me, but for the whole cast/crew. All the actors, the producers, they deserve it. They are such hard-working, talented individuals. They are such a good representation of Hollywood and what Hollywood should be like. If anyone deserves this “homecoming”, it’s this group. I couldn’t be happier with everyone that’s involved. I think the word that really describes it is surreal. We know it’s back. The premiere event felt so surreal -- walking on the orange carpet, reconnecting with everyone. I know I sound like a broken record, but it was just so surreal. It had been seven years since when we had all saw each other, but it felt like just yesterday. It felt like nothing had changed, and that we had just started back from where we left off. I’m very, very happy that it’s back, and I think that Season 4 is going to do amazing. I think that it will do so well that it will help promote the film, and help bring the film into existence.
YH: Can you give us a possible hint of what to expect this season?
JL: A lot of fun, a lot of madness, and a lot of “Arrested Development”. [laughs] The show is taking off from where it left off in Season 3. Annyong rats the family out to the SEC, and the family disbands without Michael being there to keep them all together. You really have to see how the family is holding up without each other, by themselves or with only a few of them around. You see an even wider range of “Arrested Development”. Have they really hit this plateau as humans and individuals, which really adds even more comedy. The one thing I can give away is that you’re not going to see the characters in every episode. In fact, Mitch[ell Hurwitz] is doing it very creatively where you’re following a different character’s perspective every episode. For example, let's say in Episode 1, you’re following Michael Bluth around, then in Episode 5, you might be following Gob around. You will see the same exact scene and moment you saw in Episode 1, except that we’re following Gob around so it will be from his perspective. I thought that was very cool, and stylistically it’s done very well. Mitch is just so creative.
YH: I have to ask, have you ever had anyone come up to you on the street and say, “Annyong?”
JL: If they know who I am, it’s like a do-not-touch sign -- they can’t help but want to touch it. They can’t help but say “Annyong.” I appreciate it, because no one has said it in a way to make fun of me. Everyone’s said it for a positive reason. It’s in a positive fashion. The fans are so nice -- thank God! I feel so blessed to have such goodhearted, nice fans. Every fan that has come up to me has been so nice. No one’s made fun of me. If I can somehow leave a positive impact, and if someone can get a laugh from "hello", then that brings a smile to my face.
I actually did a questionnaire on Reddit, where I got to answer some of the questions for the fans. I found out that some people have named their cat Buster and their dog Annyong. One person actually got "Annyong" tattooed on his arm in Korean. I didn’t realize how seriously people were taking this! One of the best stories I heard was that there was this married couple who were walking down the street, and they saw these two adorable Korean girls who were about three. They walked by and said "Annyong," and the two cute little girls said "Annyong" back in the sweetest way. They said it in a way that was so innocent that it reminded them of the character Annyong. They thanked me for being on the show, and saying this one word, so they could share this sweet moment with their neighbors. I was really surprised! I was like, “Really? Wow!” I’m a sucker for kids. I had a tear coming out of my eye. I’m really for that -- making such a positive impact on the world.
(Image via Justin Lee)
- Sarah Osman, YH Staff