Given the ample number of child actors in The King and I, you might think that all professional performers get their start at age 5 or 6. You would be wrong. Hoon Lee, currently giving a commanding, playful performance as the King, did not emerge from the womb stage-struck. “I was a fairly nerdy child,” he said the other evening in his dressing room. “Comic books, fantasy, sci-fi – that was what I was into.”
After a childhood in suburban Boston, he went to college nearby, at Harvard, where he majored in visual arts and English literature. “After graduation, I spent around 6 years as a graphic designer. I came to acting fairly late, in 2001. I was discontented with what I was doing and was seeking a change.”
One of Lee’s friends had written a musical called Making Tracks. “I had done some vocals for the show’s concept album,” Lee said. “I had done singing before but was new to acting. I was offered a role in the show’s tour, which was going to Taiwan, so I thought I’d give it a shot.”
Like many actors in LCT’s The King and I, Lee has appeared in a previous production of the show. “Not long after I came back from Taiwan,” he said, “I was contacted by Marc Oka, who’s in the cast here at Lincoln Center. He had choreographed Making Trails. He helped me get an audition for The King and I at the Paper Mill Playhouse.” There, Lee played the Kralahome.
“I don’t think that Asian actors get tired of being in The King and I, Lee said. “A lot of us know each other, but we don’t often have a chance to work together. In The King and I we do, so it’s a treat.”
Though Lee has a fine list of stage credits, playing the King marks a return to live performing after an absence of a few years, which he spent primarily appearing in the TV series "Banshee." How has he transitioned to the demands of eight shows a week?
“To be honest, I’m still learning about how to pace myself,” he explained. “Doing TV is like doing a series of sprints. You do them over and over, and you have to do each of them with full concentration.” Performing a three-hour show, he went on, resembles a marathon. “You have to manage your energy.” Lee said he pays particular attention to the demands from his “Puzzlement” number to the end of the schoolroom scene. “That’s a challenging stretch to get through.”
I felt a little guilty, backstage that night, for not asking Lee more questions about “Banshee.” Truth is, an entire blog entry could devoted to his work on it. Lee portrays Job, a computer hacker. “He’s a gender-fluid character who’s incredibly rewarding to play,” he said. “In the four seasons of the show” – the fourth season has been shot and will begin airing, on Cinemax, in late January – “I never felt I got to the bottom of him.”
I could also devote an entire posting to Lee’s vocal work on videogames. “I’m not a huge gamer,” he said, “but I do enjoy the challenges of working on them. Because you aren’t seen, you have to get everything into your voice. That’s a challenge.”
As for the nightly challenge of The King and I, Lee said that playing a monarch is a complex undertaking. “The king is a person, but he doesn’t have a person’s normal restraints.” He added: “One of the hardest parts of playing him is removing your sense of inhibition. I can only do that in partnership with all the other wonderful actors in the show, whose interactions with the king make it possible to bring out both his royal nature and his humanity.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.