Will Yun Lee has taken on many roles as an actor over the course of his two-decade career. Some of his prior roles include TV shows like Witchblade, Bionic Woman, Hawaii 5-0, and films like Die Another Day, Elektra, and The Wolverine. He is currently starring as Dr. Alex Park on ABC’s The Good Doctor, Takeshi Kovacs on the Netflix show Altered Carbon, and has a role in the upcoming animated film Wish Dragon. In addition, Lee is an alumnus of UC Berkeley and has a background in taekwondo. And, he has the honor of being named not once, but twice, in People Magazine‘s Most Beautiful and Sexiest Man Alive issues (2002 and 2007, respectively).
In an e-mail interview, Lee talks about how he got his start in acting, his thoughts about the changing media landscape, and how it has been for him to star in two very different major shows.
How did you develop an interest for acting and what made you want to seriously pursue it?
I’ve always been interested in acting to some degree. I think partially because of Bruce Lee and movies in general, but when I saw Jason Scott Lee in Dragon – that’s when I really started thinking I could do it. Up until that point, there were really no contemporary Asian American actors I identified with, so when he came on the scene he opened the world for me.
Then I took my first acting class at The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and was hooked. The teacher told me that she didn’t think acting was for me (I guess I was pretty bad, looking back at that time), but part of me wanted to prove her wrong. So, I took my $1,000 I saved up, my Jeep and a boombox (that’s how long ago it was) and moved to LA to pursue my career.
I read that you studied Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. Has that had an impact at all in how you view and approach your career?
Ethnic Studies at Berkeley changed my perception of how I fit in the world and gave me touch points for being bold and taking chances. It led me to work at a place called The East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), where I worked with a small group of South East Asian American teens who were in gangs. We spent half the day learning about Asian American history, and the other half cleaning up their streets.
Even though I never went to a performing arts school, I am glad that I had so many life experiences that gave me something to draw from…and my experience working with EBAYC helped shape a lot of who I am to this day.
As someone who has been in the industry for over two decades, do you feel that things have changed?
I started in 1997, and things were very, very different from the landscape of today. At that time, there were so few roles for us, but people like Russell Wong, Dustin Nguyen, and Jason Scott Lee gave me the examples I needed to keep pushing, learning my craft with hopes that one day the casting field would open up to Asian Americans in a bigger way. Eventually, the triad and tech geek roles would become less of a common thing in casting. Now we are seeing windows of hope and inclusion as “regular” people.
Don’t get me wrong. The group of us that came up together from Daniel Dae Kim, Brian Tee, Ian Anthony Dale to Ron Yuan did our damndest to make these “stereotypical” characters come to life. So yes, things are changing. The success of Daniel, Brian, Ian and Ron are amazing and inspiring to watch, because I remember spending so much time in audition waiting rooms together over the years.
You’re currently starring on two major television series; one of them being ABC’s The Good Doctor. Your character, Dr. Alex Park, is a person who’s been through a lot in his lifetime. What has it been like portraying him so far, and can you give a glimpse at all on what audiences can expect to see from him in the upcoming third season?
The Good Doctor is so much of what I have worked so hard for in my career. I have done a lot of action things, dramas, etc. But for a majority of my career, I played extreme life characters that wanted to take over the world, or kill superheroes like The Wolverine, Elektra, and James Bond. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every one of those roles and had a lot of fun doing them, but inside I hoped to consistently play a regular person that existed in that world just because he was human, not solely on race.
Alex Park is just a normal guy, with normal wants in an amazing show. I think when you can be part of shows like The Good Doctor, and race is never mentioned, it actually reflects the world we live in. This is when change, inclusion, and acceptance happen. The Good Doctor is amazing in the sense that we have all these characters of different backgrounds who actually reflect the world I grew up in and everyone gets their turn to hold the center of the screen.
You also play the original Takeshi Kovacs on Netflix’s Altered Carbon. How do you balance starring on two vastly different, but major, shows like that?
The first season of Altered Carbon was one of the BEST experiences I have had in my career. Particularly Episode 7, me and Renée Goldsberry got to do the flashback episode of the show’s origin. It felt like a stand-alone movie, and to have an Asian American man and African American woman fall in love on screen in such an epic and layered way, amidst the insane action was beautiful. It only took about 18 years to get a chance to play a role like that. Very grateful.
Can you speak at all about your voice role in the upcoming animated film, Wish Dragon, and how is it for you, being part of an animated film with an all-Asian cast?
I can’t say much about this animated film, but to be in a movie with Jackie Chan is definitely a bucket list kind of thing. Pretty amazing!
What are your goals going forward in your career?
Watching the explosion of a new group of Asian American actors is exciting to watch. I am re-inspired to do more and find projects that were once considered impossible to be a part of. Watching things like Snake Eyes, Shang-Chi happen, or anything Awkwafina is doing is truly inspiring. Hopefully I get to stay on this ride for another 20 years, then buy a house on a lake with my family and go fishing every day!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The third season of The Good Doctor will premiere on Monday September 23rd at 10PM on ABC.