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Will Yun Lee On The Good Doctor And Altered Carbon - Exclusive Interview

Korean-American actor Will Yun Lee is an impressive double-dipper — starring on both the hit ABC medical drama The Good Doctor and the Netflix sci-fi series Altered Carbon for the past two seasons. It's no small feat to effortlessly move between the pensive Dr. Alex Park and the combat-ready Takeshi Kovacs, but if anyone can pull it off, it's Lee, whose impressive 20-plus-year career runs the gamut.

Although Lee's first role was a one-off appearance on the TV show Nash Bridges in 1997, his career really got started a few years later when he starred in the cult TV adaptation of the Witchblade comic. Soon after he landed high-profile appearances in the James Bond film Die Another Day and Elektra. More recent starring roles have included the Total Recall and Red Dawn remakes, The Wolverine alongside Hugh Jackman, and the Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson films San Andreas and Rampage. He has also appeared on True Blood and the Hawaii Five-0 reboot.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Lee candidly spoke about what his role on The Good Doctor means to him as an actor, the physicality of starring on Altered Carbon, and whether he thinks positive strides have been made when it comes to Asian-American representation in Hollywood. Here are his thoughts.

Will Yun Lee likes the action of Altered Carbon and the everyday aspect of The Good Doctor

How do you juggle two high-profile shows at once with The Good Doctor and Altered Carbon?

I mean, luckily, when I did the last season of Altered Carbon, it only overlapped with The Good Doctor for one week. So it was a little chaotic trying to hide my [long] hair for The Good Doctor, and rushing back and forth and being in two different mindsets. Altered Carbon is a very intense show — it's run and gun and the physical demands of the show are pretty heavy with fighting. So it was a nice, welcome change when I got back to The Good Doctor.

Does one inch out the other for which style of acting you like better?

I don't know if it's a style thing so much as you just have to be in a different mindset because everything in Altered Carbon is so heightened, and I love that world. I love the sci-fi world. I love that epic, operatic scale of a show. But the thing that I said to myself when I was an actor early on was I just want to be a normal person in a role. And for most of my career, being Asian-American, those roles really didn't exist. It was always kind of a heightened reality, whether I'm fighting James Bond in Die Another Day or Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine, everything was so epic and big scale. I know a lot of actors want to do those kinds of things, whereas I was just yearning to do something small, I guess you'd call it. I don't know how to describe it, but just normal, everyday life, and I didn't get to do that for most of my career. So The Good Doctor has been really special for me.

What's it like filming Altered Carbon? Especially since you're the lead character but yet you're not, since other actors also play your same character...

I was always a fan of Anthony Mackie [who plays Takeshi Kovacs in season 2] from way back in the day when he did Spike Lee's show Sucker Free City. So I was excited to work with him. It was a really interesting process because when I did the first season of Altered Carbon, I came late to the game because I was on the other show. By the time I jumped on, Joel Kinnaman [who plays Takeshi Kovacs in season 1] had done most of his episodes. I had to look through the script and watch some scenes to see how I could create an arc based off something he'd already done. And since I'm the origin character, I had a lot of leeway. For me, the most interesting part was how do I get from Joel's character, who's so hardened and has this bleak view of the world, to the origin character. You have to start him from a place of love and wonderment.

When I moved on to the second season, it was interesting to see Anthony's take on both of our characters and how he would make it his own. When I got the phone call saying, "Hey, will you come do a second season? But the character is different — very Teminator-like," I had to hold onto the secret that I was going to be hunting myself. I had a lot of fun with that.

Will Yun Lee thinks Altered Carbon co-star Anthony Mackie's skills are "impeccable"

Did you and Anthony Mackie ever get together and talk about how the character would act so both of your storylines sync up or was it totally separate?

No, everything happened organically on the set. I mean, we spent a little time together, but he was so busy. And by the time I came on, the train had been at full speed and we just synced really well. Our first day together was an interesting first scene to have with Anthony. They didn't ease us into it. It was the scene where we first meet each other, which is the fight scene. That scene we shot on the very first day that I worked with Anthony, basically revealing to each other who we are and him revealing his vulnerable side. I think it was a perfect way to start our journey together.

What was it like working on the fight scene with him?

I had a lot of actor's notes about what I wanted to accomplish in that scene. Luckily I had a really good relationship with [producer] James Middleton and [showrunner] Allison James. As we were designing the choreography, I said it has to feel like a holy s— moment. I always describe it as part innocence. I remember getting my dog, and when he was a puppy, it was the first time he saw his reflection in the mirror and he started just freaking out. And I wanted the fight to show the audience they have the same moves and then the discovery of, oh my God, he has my move. And then it becomes a game of chess. That was the genesis of how that scene came about.

You're a Taekwondo master. How does that come in handy on the show? Do you do all your own stunts?

Yeah, I've done martial arts almost my entire life. It comes in handy in a lot of different ways. Particularly in this role and that fight scene. In my mind, and for my character, I knew how to frame the scene so that the fight kind of explained who the characters were, because there wasn't a ton of dialogue. I love that scene because it was like, a TV show comes together much differently than a movie. When I did a fight scene with Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine, we had rehearsed it for a month. And in the Altered Carbon fight, Anthony and I separately learned the choreography. So his stunt double taught him his moves and my stunt double taught me my moves.

I think the day of the fight scene was the first time Anthony and I interacted together, and we had maybe 30 minutes of rehearsal together and then were fighting each other. And with a fight scene, it can either go really bad or really great. A lot of actors I've fought who haven't had a lot of on-camera fighting experience, you can get hurt — it's all about timing. And Anthony's timing was impeccable.

Do you seek out roles where you can use your Taekwondo skills or is that just an added perk?

I dance back and forth. When I first started my career, I would pass on anything that had anything to do with martial arts. I wanted to learn what the craft of acting meant. But now, when I do a long stretch of The Good Doctor, when you're like eight months into the show, you start getting the itch and you want to pull out the guns and fight. The last two years have been a perfect balance for me [between The Good Doctor and Altered Carbon].

Will Yun Lee sees positive change when it comes to being Asian-American in Hollywood

You touched on it earlier, but can you expand on why your role in The Good Doctor is so appealing to you?

I love The Good Doctor because when I first started acting, there were very few people on screen that looked like me. There was Jackie Chan, Dustin Nguyen from 21 Jump Street, Russell Wong from Vanishing Son, and obviously Bruce Lee. But it was very rare to see an Asian-American onscreen. So, for me, I love this role because when you go to a hospital, you see all different races, and I love that the show never really addresses your race. It's just how the world that I grew up in is reflected. It's just human beings, and we just happen to be all different shades of different colors in a very real setting, even though it gets fantastical at times with [The Good Doctor star] Shaun Murphy's powers. It's just a human drama, and I've always been attracted to that kind of stuff. I did a movie called What's Cooking?, which was at Sundance when I first started, and that was one of those small, quiet movies. And even though The Good Doctor is a major network show, I like the small moments. It's few and far between in my career that I've gotten a chance to do those.

You're Korean, and The Good Doctor, which is based on a South Korean series, is executive produced by fellow Korean Daniel Dae Kim. What are your thoughts on that combination in terms of the Asian community being better represented in Hollywood these days?

The Good Doctor is an important show because it reflects the world we live in. For me it was twofold. When I saw Jason Scott Lee in Dragon, I felt a sense of pride. I saw someone that I could relate to onscreen, and it gave me a sense of belonging.

I know Daniel Dae Kim, he called me and asked me to audition for the show, and that was part of his mandate — to reflect the world we live in. As far as Asian-American males, I knew it was a rare opportunity to be part of a show with such broad appeal. It was very important. It allows people to see that we're just human beings, all of us, no matter what color you are.

With the recent success of films like Parasite and Crazy Rich Asians, among others, do you think this is a turning point for Asian actors and filmmakers in mainstream film?

I think we got a nice shot of adrenaline. And yes, in some ways it's moved the needle farther than it has ever moved since I started 20 years ago. I've noticed in the last five years, the kinds of roles that I've been able to do have changed. I used to be Gangster Number One. So I think change is happening, and as long as those [types of movies] continue to be successful, it allows us to continue into a long distance marathon. And that's our dream. But we're far from that. Still, it's positive.

Your upcoming animated film Wish Dragon has an all-Asian cast. What are your hopes for that film and what's your take on the cast?

It's interesting how these animation movies get made [with everyone voicing their parts separately]. Because I haven't done much animation, part of me was naively excited to meet Jackie Chan, but that never happened. But it's cool. I'm just proud to be part of something that's so universal. It's about love and all these great things. All Asian or not, I'm excited because it's such a special story.

Will Yun Lee dishes on what it's like working with Dwayne Johnson and Hugh Jackman

You've been in two movies with Dwayne Johnson, what's he like to work with? Any memorable moments with him on set?

My scenes weren't with him, but I can tell you this, everything that everyone feels about the Rock, when you go onto a Dwayne Johnson set... the lore is real. Everyone talks about the Rock. When you're talking to crew, catering, he is this lore that is actually the person who we think he is. So I'm just fortunate to have been part of that. Not just me, but from when you listen to a crew from top to bottom, from the person who brings sets out, food for the cast, to someone who's moving lights, they all are just excited to be a part of his family. And what's great about being part of that Rock world is that... One of his producers is Beau Flynn. And I did a movie called Red Dawn with Beau. And the thing about being part of a Beau Flynn/Rock movie, because they've made so many movies together, is you will see the same family in every single movie. It's usually a call, "Hey Will, you want to come do a week on this?" I'll see six different friends and we were on the same movie together on the last Rock one or on something that Beau produced. So I love that he loves to keep a family.

What about working on Wolverine. Any memorable moments there?

Wolverine was awesome. I mean, we shot most of the movie in Australia and then we went to Japan for a few weeks. And I think the most memorable moments were in Japan because you're kind of in this new world and were shooting in these different places. And the amount of translation that has to happen for one scene to be executed is unbelievable. So you'll have a matching Japanese crew and an American or English crew. Like, okay, you're going to shoot the guy in the chest. And in order for that one direction to be executed, it has to go through so many different people. The Japanese guys tell him to get the CG arrows, and lighting has to tell him... That was always fascinating to me.

And then the other memorable part was Hugh Jackman, every Friday, no matter what country we were in, he went and got thousands of lottery tickets and he made sure every single crew and cast got a lottery ticket. And that was always the fun thing on Fridays. You would just see him running around saying, "Here, here, you take one, and you take one!" My wife was on set and he's like, "Come here, you take one." And so that was always the fun part of Hugh, he made things fun like that.