Story by: Ben Landau, Photos by:
Hana Mae Lee is one of the breakout stars of “Pitch Perfect” — a “Glee”-meets-“Bridesmaids” procedural that, thanks to a razor-sharp script and an ensemble cast of talented young thespians including Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, was one of 2012’s most surprising hit comedies.
Directed by Jason Moore in his big-screen debut, the film centers around The Bellas, an all-girl a cappella group vying for a spot in the coveted International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. After a disastrous performance in the previous year’s finals (spoiler alert: projectile vomit involved), the rag-tag Bellas have a choice: either evolve with the times or risk being relegated to a cappella purgatory — a place where the girls are forced to sing yawn-inducing covers of Ace of Base in flight attendant unis forever.
As Lilly, the group’s resident beat boxer, Lee plays a cross between Napoleon Dynamite, Milton Waddams (a.k.a. the stapler guy from “Office Space”) and a woodland pixie.
Meek, wide-eyed and prone to hushed non-sequitors like “Do you guys want to see a dead body?” Lee steals scene after scene with her bizarrely magnetic performance.
In addition to her nascent acting career, Lee is also a stand-up comedian (she’s been known to sing traditional Korean folk songs on stage) and owns her own line of clothing and accessories called Hanamahn (meaning “just one” in Korean).
We caught up with the quirky young polymath to discuss the art of beat boxing, her animated inspiration for Lilly, and her love of K-pop.
Groove Korea: Tell us about the casting process for “Pitch Perfect.”
Hana Mae Lee: For the audition, we also had to prepare a song. I sang an original Korean pansori song (traditional vocal and percussional music) and did some awesome improvising, which involved me doing a monologue of Lilly breaking up with her boyfriend. Oh, she was furious — he broke up with her via text! Horrible gesture. After that, I did some awesome “noises” with my mouth — it is incorporated in the film, where Lilly is next to Donald in the bus — since at that time it was the only “beat boxing” I knew how to do. And bam! I was cast.
You did all of your own singing, dancing and beat boxing in the movie. What kind of training was involved? Did you have any of those backgrounds going in?
I’ve studied dance since I was in elementary. Then when I was in high school, I used to choreograph for skits. I especially loved hip-hop, which came in handy for the film. Singing, I grew a strong hobby for. I studied a little bit in high school, but never K-pop professional. I sing Korean pansori in some of my comedy sets.
As far as the beat boxing goes, I was pretty much a novice. The studio set me up with DJ Spencer, and he taught me all the cool beats.
We shot in Baton Rouge, LA, and had three weeks of rehearsal before filming. Every day we had four hours of dance and two to three hours of singing. It was like band/dance camp.
For those who haven’t seen the film, describe your character Lilly. Who or what did you use as inspiration when bringing Lilly to life?
Lilly is known as the quiet one of The Bellas. But, she is one to speak her mind fully. Even though she is soft-spoken, she is extremely confident and competent; an extremely layered character where you would really want to read an autobiography of her. By the end of the film, Lilly becomes this aca-awesome beat boxer. She helps bring the group color — and yes, that pun was intended — and helps make The Bellas aca-amazing.
I loved playing Lilly. She was definitely a character that stood out when I read the script. My inspirations to bring Lilly to life were MTV’s “Daria” and Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas”.
Lilly has some incredible one-liners in the movie. Which is your favorite? Was anything improvised?
(Hana laughs.) “Do you want to see a dead body?” is my favorite line. I have a couple of outtakes on the “Pitch Perfect” DVD that I did improvise, a Hana Mae Lee exclusive: “I like to watch babies cry, on my leisure time,” and “I like it when pretty boys dress up in drag and perform for me.” But for most of my lines I stuck to the script. Kay Cannon, our screenwriter, had some epic lines for Lilly and I was excited to execute them.
What is Hanamahn? How did it start?
Hanamahn is a clothing and accessory line I created back in 2009. It means “just one” in Korean. I started out with wire-wrapped rings and all my rings are one-of-a-kind pieces. After I make a collection, there are no more recreations of the certain novelties I use. Very special. Very detailed. Every piece is woven by hand and specific. My apparel is all about the confident, fierce woman who loves being looked at.
As a designer, do you take any inspiration from Korean fashion, or Asian fashion in general? Any favorite Korean trends or brands at the moment?
I absolutely am inspired by Korea. I love recreating the hanbok (traditional Korean dress). I made this “paradise” jacket in 2010, where I took a vintage silk hanbok and made it into a fierce, shoulder-defined cropped jacket. That was one of my favorite pieces.
Also, for the “Pitch Perfect” premiere I made my outfit. The skirt was a reconstructed vintage silk hanbok, and the top was an Italian lamb leather extravaganza! As far as Korean trends go, oh my God, can I just openly admit right now that I love Korean fashion? All the clothes I see on the K-pop stars are absolutely epic. 2NE1 and Big Bang, wow.
What role does your Korean background play in your life?
Work hard, work hard, work hard. Think you did good? Do better.
Any dreams of someday crossing over into the Korean market? You obviously have the singing chops.
Big Bang, you looking for a girl to be in your group? Holla!
You seem to have many outlets for your creativity. Is there any one in particular that you’d consider your passion?
I have passion for all of them — that’s why I do it. Without passion, you’re just on cruise control. Total snore, total bore.
If you could spend a day as any person — past or present, real or fictional, cartoon character, deity or other — who would you choose and why?
Picasso and Alexander McQueen. Picasso, because I just want to know how it feels to have so many ideas and to execute them so beautifully. It’s so interesting to me.
Alexander McQueen, because he was my inspiration to become a fashion designer. He mixed art with clothes and did it so well.
Finally, what’s next for Hana Mae Lee?
More great movies, more great TV shows and more Hanamahn!