James Kyson Lee participated in McDonald’s guest speaker series Saturday at the Canaan Vision Center in Glenview Illinois. Hyphen was invited to act as a moderator for the event. Here are some excerpts from his appearance.
Thanks for joining us today, James. ... This morning’s topic is focused on “Following Your Passion.” Can you talk about what made you want to follow your passion and pursue a career in acting?
I started getting an interest back in college. A friend of mine from school invited me to play in an improv troupe, and at the time, I didn’t even know what improv was. But I tried it, and ended up loving it. And because I grew in the East Coast my whole life, I felt I needed to explore myself a little bit more outside the city. So I ended up moving out to L.A. on a one-way ticket and a suitcase, and sort of just started over. I really started acting for the first time, and it really connected with me.
So you said you bought a one-way ticket to L.A. That’s a pretty bold move. What gave you the courage to risk that?
Well, you know, when you’re in New York, there’s a lot of pressure, academically. I went to high school in the Bronx, and it was a very academic high school. I sort of went through that trap, and I think sometime in college, I realized I still don’t quite know myself yet, what my talents and what my gifts were. I think a part of me developed a desire to learn, rather than to kind of just to go through college because it was the next step in life. And during that process, I realized I really need to connect with what it is that I want to pursue in life, not just what’s the best job, the best career. So it was very organic in that sense. It’s been a very ongoing journey for me.
Can you take us back to the beginning of that journey and tell us a little bit about how you got your foot in the door and how you got started in the industry?
[laughs] The first night in L.A., I slept in my car, so that was really like my big West Coast Welcome. It was very hard. But the first two years in L.A., I actually did a lot of educational theater, where you went to the public schools in L.A. and you would do shows on a stage like this for all grades starting from kindergarten all the way up to 8th grade. Some of the shows were like History of Civil Rights, or Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of the shows had to do with [health] education, like teenage pregnancy, and some of the issues that were talked about in the community. That was a really good experience because we were acting on stage, and also because I was a part of something good. And about two years after I moved to L.A., I went to my first audition with a TV show called J.A.G. At the time, it was on CBS, and um, I ended up getting cast. So, it was [laughs] it was like, I’ve never even gone to a television audition before, it was like my first time, sort of going through that audition process in Hollywood and somehow -- I was very lucky to be able to land the role.
That’s wonderful, that you were able to have such a great start. Everyone talks about how difficult the entertainment industry is. So what are some obstacles that you ran into, and what motivates you to keep going?
Well, you know, I could tell you, I understood after living in L.A. why so many parents discourage their kids to go into acting! I don’t know if you can compare it to any other profession. I mean, the life of an artist, as a whole, is a very tough one. It’s getting up at 6 or 7 in the morning and leaving the house, and maybe have four auditions a day. And, as an actor, if you have four auditions a day, that’s probably a dream day! Some people, sometimes, end up getting four auditions in a year. But I would drive across town, and throw a bunch of clothes in my car, and you know, I’ll go to an audition for a commercial. And maybe I’m a college student. And then I’ll go audition for something else, and maybe I’m a young business guy. And then for a TV show, or for a film. So you have to prepare for these auditions. So I’ll drive across town all day, maybe grab lunch on-the-go, change in my car on the side of the street. And I come home at 6 or 7 at night. You can’t ask for a better day as an actor. But at the end of day, how much you are paid? Zero dollars. So now, I have to go out and try to make rent. Now, hopefully, through one of these auditions, I’ll have booked a job. But that job will last… one week? One month? Or one day. So then you’re sort of back to starting over. And for some people, that process can last several years; for some people, it can last 20 or 30 years.
Was there anything in your background or the way you grew up or the way you were raised that prepared you for the hardships or challenges that you faced?
Well, I think, growing up in New York, you really learn how to adapt. As least for myself, I grew up in a Korean American immigrant family structure, so both my parents worked, away for most of the day at their businesses. So we sort of raised ourselves, and so, you develop a different mentality, a survival mentality. I think I carr[ied] some of that with me when I moved to L.A. When I think back now, I don’t think I could ever do it again! [laughs] I remember my first weekend in L.A., I was walking on Hollywood Boulevard, where they have the Walk of Fame. And I realized if something were to happen to me right now, who will contact my family? And I think it was the first time that it dawned on me that I didn’t know a single person in the city of Los Angeles! And uh, I think that was my first real realization of "What am I doing here?" But I think in some way, it kind of worked in my favor, going to L.A. with sort of the expectations where you try to find Hollywood, per se. It’s the city where thousands of people go every year to pursue their dream, and that thousands leave.
Well, we’re glad that you didn’t get mugged that first week! So we’ve heard that it’s really hard to break into non-traditional industries such as acting and entertainment, especially for Asian Americans. Have you noticed this, and what would your advice be for young people in the audience today?
Well, Hollywood itself, I think, has changed the last 10, 20 years. You definitely see more of us in television now than you did 10 years ago. But at the same time, if you put us all together, you can probably still count us on your hand. It’s definitely small, the smallest piece of the pie. We’re sort of still the least-represented group in media, and it’s kind of strange, because as a demographic thing in the country, we’re a very significant group. So yes, being an actor, there’s many obstacles, and so much depends on talent, timing, a little bit of luck. And I think with any sort of artistry, I think that sort of difficulty and unpredictability is always going to be there.
When I look back at it now, I realize some of the most valuable experiences I know was back when I was in high school or college, are the times where I really got to learn things from life. I spent a semester abroad teaching English in Korea. And when I was a senior in college, I went to Vietnam in a culture-exchange program. And it was a six-week program, so we went to be immersed in their culture and try to live like them, which was very hard. And when I look back on it now, these are the experiences that instill different lessons. I would say, for the people here, especially high school students and their parents, yes, it’s important to get a great SAT score and finish your degree, but I would also really encourage you to really take the time to immerse yourself in extracurricular activities, whether you’re into sports or photography club or yearbook. Utilize or take advantage of the resources at your school. Because I think this generation is a very online generation, people who maybe not spend as much time together as they used to because they spend so much time online. And maybe because of that, we’ve sort of forgotten how to really interact with each other and work together. So I really want to encourage that, too.
Do you feel like you’ve made it? How would you define success?
I think the meaning of success is being able to do what you love and making a living out of it, and doing something positive with the opportunity. That what I would define as success, whether you’re an English teacher, or chemist, or graphic designer, I think being able to do what you truly love and have a passion for. Do I feel like I’ve made it? You know, some people may think so, just from the outside perspective, but an actor’s career, you’re only as good as the last thing you did, so it’s an ongoing process. But for me, regardless of what happens with my career, I want to look back and say, ‘Was I able to do work that I’m proud of? And was I able to do something positive with the opportunities that were given to me?’ And if I answer yes, then that’s when I can feel like, yes, that’s success to me.
So a lot of what you said is that you really need to give back. For those of you who don’t know, James is very involved in charity. He’s combined two of his passions, charity and sports, to support a number of causes. So can you tell us about the charities you support?
When I was in high school, I grew up watching the Bulls. I’m a huge NBA fan. It’s something that I’m passionate about. Because, actually, after school, I was supposed to work for ESPN or the NBA, but somewhere life led me away. But I do play for a few basketball teams in L.A. One’s called the Hollywood Knights, and it’s a team of entertainers, mostly actors, singers, and we basically travel overseas and visit American troops and play in exhibition games against the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, the Army. And it’s been a great experience. Our last trip was to Italy, where we did a four-city tour, and uh, it really helps you appreciate what they do for us overseas to make us really protected.
Why is community service so important to you, and important to youths today?
Well, you know, I think material success is so fleeting and one of the things I was able to experience in Hollywood is you got to see a lot of different levels of success and wealth and what people do with it. And I think at the end of the day, what is most satisfying to me, is to be able to use that, the success that was given to you, to give back in some ways.
So if you weren’t in the entertainment industry, what profession do you think you would pick?
Probably an NBA scout! [laughs] Or maybe a talk show host or something. I love hearing about people’s stories, what people have accomplished, or who’ve overcome obstacles to achieve success. Maybe it’s in the cards for me; we’ll see.