Heroes has, arguably, been the biggest new hit show of this past TV season. With its much anticipated season finale airing tonight, we’ve got an exclusive interview with Ando himself, James Kyson Lee. As Ando, James has appeared in more episodes than most of the main cast members and has gone through some of the largest character transformations on the show. We discussed his journey to Hollywood, the process for learning Japanese, and his relationship with Masi Oka.
Below you will find both the written transcript and full mp3 audio of the interview.
First off, I know you were born in South Korea, and then grew up on the east coast. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are now?
Yeah, I went to college out in Boston and I grew up in New York City and after studying in Boston, I was sort of figuring out what the next stage of my life was. I started doing some basic improv and I just fell in love with it and sort of reawakened a new curiosity and spirit in me. So, in 2001, I sold my used car for $1800 and packed a suitcase and I bought a one way ticket to LA. So, when I landed here I basically had to kind of start my life over, because I didn’t know a single person in the city and I didn’t know what to think about the business. So, the first three years I trained everything, from jazz singing to musical theater then to taking the acting classes for the first time and it was like twenty years of creativity just became like unleashed. I really sort of began to rediscover myself. And then my career began about three and a half years ago. My first TV audition was for a show called JAG which was on CBS at the time and I ended up being cast as a guest star for the episode. That’s how things began.
How did you end up with the part of Ando on Heroes?
The whole audition process was a little over a year ago, February last year, and it was a long process and I had to audition five times. You know, the first audition and the initial callback with the producers and then they do what’s called a work session in which they basically prepare you for going before the executives. Mine felt just like another audition. And then we had to go before Universal Studios to do a screen test, and finally it was at the network, at NBC.
What were your first thoughts when you got the pilot script? Could you tell that this might have the potential to be a pretty big deal?
Yeah I did, I felt it right away. It was a page turner, I couldn’t put it down, it was…it felt like reading a movie, you know…a feature script and I was really curious to see how they were gonna film this because there were people flying, walking through walls. You know, it just didn’t read a like a regular TV show so I really felt that there was something special at hand and it was a show that I wanted to check out whether or not I was involved in it, so yeah…so far it’s been amazing.
You work pretty closely with Masi Oka as Hiro. How has it been working with him? You guys seem to have a pretty easy, natural chemistry going on.
You know, we do have really good rapport on camera, which is surprising because, one, this is our first time working together, and two, we really don’t have any kind of rehearsal time because the show films at such a fast pace. We don’t have any table reads and, you know, all of us have really busy personal lives off the set. So, you know, it’s very common that when we show up to work, after a half an hour we are dressed in make up and we’re filming, so a lot of the stuff that happens on camera is really spontaneous and in the moment. Masi and I both come from an improv background, so that helps. One cool thing is that even though this is a one hour drama we get to bring some comedic elements onto the show, which really opens things up and adds a different layer to our storyline and the show overall. So, I think that’s what really separates us from all the other TV shows out there.
Are you fluent in Japanese?
No, in fact I’ve only taken a semester of it in college. I really didn’t know the language before the show. You know, I had some background in it, obviously, so that helps, but this is by far the most I’ve had to study the language and it’s been fun. It’s a very long process and it’s a lot of work. Luckily, at NBC I have a coach that I work with exclusively. Basically, I learned the new language from scratch and some people ask or wonder if I memorize thinks phonetically. I don’t do that because I need to have an emotional connection to what’s being said and what’s happening so I basically learned every single word of dialogue that’s in the script. We break it down, I learn the roots of the words…it’s kinda like learning Latin, English, different conjugations and verbs and forms. Also, English grammar and Japanese grammar are almost complete opposites so you have to learn how to flip things, and then on top of that there’s cadences and intonations that when it’s said is different than any other language. So, it’s a very complicated process but I’m having a lot of fun with it, and I feel that it’s a skill that I should be able to retain for a long time. The funny part is that my dad actually used to live in Japan as an electrical engineer in the late 50’s, and 70’s, so he used to be pretty fluent in the language. It’s kind of interesting that thirty five years later I’m playing a character that’s from Japan.
You’ve appeared in more episodes than most of the main cast members. Did you initially think that you’d be getting this much screen time?
You know, I really didn’t know where this character was going. Maybe the writers did, but Ando is one of the characters that’s really gone through some of the biggest character growths during this season and he started out as sort of a realist, and sort of a reluctant participant in this journey, and he’s grown to a point where he’s really accepted his role in this quest and sort of become a hero. I think one of the episodes earlier in the season, Hiro says to Ando, “You don’t have to have superpowers to be a hero,” and I think that really started to land on him and when he first sees events with his own eyes he’s really becoming a believer. Ando’s fate is really intricately entangled in this whole catastrophe that’s happening in New York, his life is at stake and Ando’s very…well…this whole quest has been very personal for him as well, and the funny thing about Ando is that he sort of represents the everyday people or the mortal in the super, kind of heroic world and sometimes I think it takes more courage to…you know, for someone to really step up and accept their mission when you don’t have a power.
I think, as a whole, this relationship with Hiro has really grown. They used to compare us to Abbott and Costello, they used to call us the new odd couple, the new Martin and Lewis, and I feel like now Ando has become the Han Solo to Hiro’s Luke Skywalker because he’s burning with his mission, you know, with the sword and he’s becoming more and more serious and Ando’s kinda becoming the adventurist, the happy-go-lucky, kind of comic relief of the show.
James, do you know or do you have any thoughts on if you’re gonna be back for season two?
I’m not allowed to comment about season two but NBC will make an official announcement in May because of what’s happening.
(Interview Conducted by Oscar Dahl)