Story by: Ben Landau, Photos by:
Justin Lee is a man of many titles. He is an actor, producer, entrepreneur and undefeated mixed martial artist. Most know him simply as Annyong, the adopted Korean son of Lucille and George Sr. from Fox’s beloved ex-sitcom “Arrested Development.”
The show, which centers around the Bluths — a formerly wealthy, routinely dysfunctional family with legal problems — is widely recognized as one of the defining comedies of “the aughts.” Although it suffered from low ratings in each of its three original seasons, the multiple-Emmy-winning riches to rags story won much critical praise for its dense, pun-based comedy — so much, in fact, that in 2011 the prominent entertainment website, IGN, named it the funniest show of all time. This is in part thanks to Lee’s character, Annyong Bluth (a name given to him after his initial greeting is mistaken as an introduction). With his dead eyes and iconic bowl cut, he was the catalyst for some of the show’s most memorable humor.
Now, nearly seven years after it was canceled, “Arrested Development” is gearing up for its 2013 return to the small screen. Groove Korea sat down with Justin Lee for a Skype chat on his 23rd birthday to talk about his new web series “One Warm Night,” his Korean roots, his passion for mixed martial arts and working on the set of “Arrested Development.”
Groove Korea: Tell us about your current project, “One Warm Night.”
Justin Lee: “One Warm Night” is a nine-episode series produced by The Actors Room in association with Last Chance Productions. It’s an absolutely amazing, amazing series – unique, crazy, quirky. It has a ton of mystery, very suspenseful. It’s filled with a lot of misfits, oddballs. You got the ninjas, some FBI here and there, it’s a really crazy ride. We (the cast) are all from The Actors Room, which is a world-renowned acting school coached by Steven G. Lowe. It’s like a very big family there and everyone is expected to work at this very high level of professionalism. It’s a ton of fun.
What is Black Canvas?
Black Canvas is a production company that my business partner, Ryan Tsang and I started a little over a year ago. We’re working directly with Last Chance Productions — we kind of like to call them our parent company. Steve Lowe, like I said, he’s my manager, but he’s also a great mentor of mine, a really great friend. I’ve just been really learning a lot under him. This experience with “One Warm Night,” and of really getting hands-on — not just on the acting side, but on the production side as well — (we’re) really understanding what it’s like to manage a production, what it’s like to produce, and my partner Ryan and I are the production managers on the show.
Any dream projects moving ahead?
Well I’d love to do an MMA (mixed martial arts) movie, now that it’s becoming a little more popular. But, I want to do one that isn’t so cheesy or low concept. Hopefully that role comes around. Like I said, acting has always been a passion of mine, but I love MMA as well. I’ve been competing in martial arts for a little over 18 years now, so I’d love to intertwine the two and try to find a way to make the two correlate.
Any plans to fight professionally?
I’ve been offered professional fights before. But, as of now, my main focus is acting, as well as production, and it just takes so much time. To be able to fight professionally, that’s a full-time job. You have to really commit your diet, your lifestyle, and right now, I can’t really give it the commitment that a professional career, just like any professional career, would deserve. But I’ll tell you what, I always thought a show like celebrity mixed martial arts, or something like that, would be extremely interesting. I think a lot of celebrities would be interested in that as well. Maybe add some charity component. It would be great.
Tell us about the casting process you went through for “Arrested Development.”
The role of Annyong was actually for an 18-year-old. I went to the first audition and they wanted me to go to a callback. The same day they asked me to go to another audition over at Culver Studios. When I went into that audition room, the producers were there, Mitch Hurwitz was in there. And I had no idea who Mitch Hurwitz was at the time. I was very, very young. So I think that might have been a good thing. I didn’t quite understand the caliber of what I was getting myself into. I just knew that I was doing something that I love. Just followed my heart and had a good time with it. And on the drive home I got a call that I had booked the job for Annyong Bluth.
It must have been crazy on set.
Oh, absolutely. Everyone is amazing, both professionally and personally. I mean, to work with them (the cast and crew) was an absolute blessing. All of them.
Now, we know you were more of a supporting character, but how does it feel knowing that you played one of the most iconic Korean characters in American TV history?
Oh, man (laughs) … I keep getting that from people, but it feels good. One of my biggest motivations is to leave a positive impact behind, to leave a legacy; and if that’s through Annyong Bluth, then I appreciate everything that it’s helped me do.
So tell us about the new season. Is it actually going to happen?
I can’t say too much. As always, everything is very hush-hush, but season four is in development. They are working on it and yeah, like I said, I’m very excited for all the cast members, because they definitely deserve it. This was, and still is, an amazing, amazing show. It was just so ahead of its time.
Did your parents grow up in Korea?
Yes, born in Korea, for the most part raised in Korea. My dad moved here (California) when he was in his early 20s, my mom when she was 16.
What role does your Korean background play in your life?
A huge role. I grew up in Mission Viejo, so it’s a pretty predominantly Caucasian neighborhood, especially when I was growing up there 10 years ago, and man, it can get confusing with two different cultures mixing together and trying to figure out what’s right or what’s wrong. It can get very confusing. But the thing I do appreciate is that I can see the positives and negatives on both sides. When I decide to raise my own kids, I can choose to pick the parts that I love about Korean culture and the parts I love about American culture. So, I think it was a blessing to experience all that.
So what are some of those parts you love about Korean culture?
Well, I love the food (laughs), and I generally love the work ethic. I have a lot of pride in the work ethic of Koreans. I look at my whole family, and what they had to do as immigrants not knowing the language to make it. My grandpa, when he first came out here, he started out with nothing, barely any change in his pocket. Brought his five kids over here. Was washing windows. He even wrestled for money. Eventually he made his way to owning his own liquor store. It’s his struggle that pushes me.
Have you ever been to Korea?
Yeah, I love Korea! I actually just went last year. My girlfriend (Amanda Rice) is an international model and she was out there for a couple of months, so I went out to visit her last October. It was a ton of fun. The last time I went was almost 10 years before that, so a lot had changed. The economy has taken off. I have to say, I’m extremely impressed with their subway system.
Any dreams of crossing over into the Korean market someday?
I always try to be open-minded about everything. I would love to integrate Korean and American culture a lot more. Korea is huge on entertainment. It’s their money-maker. Look at Psy with “Gangnam Style.” I’d love to work with him.
What was your favorite memory working on set?
One of my most memorable moments shooting “Arrested Development” was working alongside Tony Hale. Tony and I always had the funniest scenes together, where we would be wrestling and fighting with each other, always a blast to shoot. In one of the episodes Buster and I run into some sibling rivalry, so you see Buster kinda throw me around, and you get to see me kind of do a double-leg-blast takedown on Buster.
In between takes, makeup and wardrobe had to constantly come in and fix us up. That same day, I also got to do my own stunt, which was really exciting. For one of the shots I come out of nowhere and ambush Buster. It looks like I was a ninja hanging on the ceiling because when Tony walks through the doorway, I drop from the sky/ceiling and tackle him from above. We had a pretty tall ladder, so I went to the top of the ladder and when Buster came walking through the door I had to jump off the ladder and bonsai onto him (laughs).
It was a ton of fun, came out really well, and I’m just glad that Tony is a sturdy guy, ‘cause that could’ve ended ugly!