ason Scott Lee is the wonder boy of Asian American actors, as in, Wonder what happened to Jason Scott Lee. Who can blame us? No other Asian actor has wowed us so completely with so much emotional intensity and physical power showcased in so many quality roles -- only to disappear like some one-hit wonder.
During a glorious four-year golden age that began in 1990, the young paragon played an Inuit Eskimo (Map of the Human Heart), a Polynesian prince (Rapa Nui), an Indian wild boy (Jungle Book) and practically every Asiatic ethnicity in between, including the ultimate icon of his own: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Five have been bona fide romantic leads in quality films -- a major achievement for anyone, all the more so for an Asian actor in Hollywood.
For most, what made Jason Scott Lee so memorable was his primal physicality. Sweat glistening over rippling muscles, Lee has battled, raged and made hot love -- not exactly the images Hollywood links with Asian men. Like a true hero, he has saved studios big bucks in wardrobe costs and spared millions of females the rigors of imagining the physique attached to those smoldering eyes and full lips. And just when the world burned to see and know more, he disappeared.
So what happened to him?
After Jungle Book (1994) and the cinematically beautiful, financially ugly Rapa Nui (1994), Lee sleepwalked through several forgettable movies. The last most of us saw him, he was Aladdin in the 1999 Hallmark miniseries Arabian Nights -- unless you were in London the following year and caught the stage production of The King and I or a series of B movies (Dracula Resurrection, Prophey IV) or noticed his voice in a Disney cartoon feature (Lilo & Stitch)
Few Hollywood careers have risen to such a sustained crescendo, then dropped off so precipitously just when the world was hungering for more. But, as we discovered, Lee doesn't share the priorities that drive most actors.
Jason Scott Lee was born in Los Angeles on November 19, 1966 to a Chinese-Hawaiian father and a Chinese mother, third of five children. He was two when his family moved to Oahu. A year after graduating from Pearl City High with a mediocre record, he returned to the mainland to enroll at Fullerton Community College. Before long he turned to acting. His sand-and-surf physique caught the eyes of casting directors. He landed a series of minor movie roles beginning with a chicano in Born in East LA (1987), a Corean American in American Eyes (1989), a hoverboarder in Back to the Future Part II (1989), a Vietnamese in Vestige of Honor (1990), and Kyle in Ghoulies 3: Ghoulies Go to College (1991).
What put Jason Scott Lee on the map of rising young actors was Map of the Human Heart (1992). As a young Inuit named Avik, Lee starred in a beautifully photographed and memorable saga of identity and passion opposite Anne Parillaud (Nikita). It was an ideal showcase for Lee's emotional intensity and raw physicality.
Before Map made its way into theaters, Lee auditioned for The Last of the Mohicans. He was deemed not to have the right look to play a Mohican. But the casting director thought highly enough of his acting ability to suggest him to a friend casting the lead in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993). The young actor's success in capturing the icon's moves and moods brought international celebrity, making him a latter-day reincarnation of Bruce Lee to the under-40 set.
Dragon opened many doors, but Lee seemed to take only those leading to the great outdoors, notably Rapa Nui and Jungle Book. Having been typecast as Primal Man, Lee seemed averse to roles calling for street clothes. His passing from the limelight coincided with his immersion into his small farm in a remote area of the Big Island.
Lee has emerged periodically to do movies. Most recently, he spent the late summer and fall of 2003 in Kazakhstan filming a historical epic with the working title Nomad. When we caught up with him, Lee had spent several weeks recuperating on his farm. During our conversation his mood ranges from gentle and contemplative to indignant. Through it all, he seems to draw strength and serenity from the holistic philosophy around which he has built his second incarnation.
GS: How did you become involved in The Nomad?
JSL: The script was presented to me a while back, I think maybe a couple of years back and I had read it and really liked it and expressed my interest in it. Much later they eventually contacted me.
GS: Who sent you the script?
JSL: I'm not sure. From what I understand, the director had seen Map of the Human Heart and I guess he felt that I could play this one character that had an age change.
GS: How big is the age change?
JSL: Twenty years.
GS: What age do you start at?
JSL: In my late thirties, and then aging into the fifties.
GS: I understand you're playing the advisor to the future king of Kazakhstan.
JSL: I'm sort of his mentor and teacher.
GS: Is it a physical role?
JSL: There are some fighting sequences.
GS: Your work has largely been in adventure and action. Is this along the same lines?
JSL: It's a more dramatic role with bits of fighting sequences set against an epic backdrop.
GS: Who is the king of Kazakhstan that you're mentoring?
JSL: He has two names. One is... [long pause] Forgive me! When I leave work I'm completely removed from it so the names and things... [laughs]
GS: That's okay. You've said that you only do one movie a year because it's so grueling.
JSL: Yeah, it takes about a month, maybe even a month and a half to come down off a trip like that.
GS: And you're not even done with it.
JSL: I'm not finished and that was four months of intensive involvement in a foreign country.
GS: Is it based on a true story?
JSL: The Kazakh people I guess are wanting their story to be brought to the world. Their country is kind of an obscure place. They just want to be accounted for.
GS: Are they really a branch of the Mongol race?
JSL: Yeah. You know when people say Asia very few times that area central asia gets accounted for. People mostly take into consideration Japan or Corea or China and places in the far east, India or so. This area surprised me quite a bit. I found the people looking very very Asian with some influence from Turkish tribes.
GS: Are they closer to the Genghis Khan stock?
JSL: Oh yeah.
GS: If you're walking around there, they can't tell you're not a Kazakh?
JSL: No, sometimes people start speaking to me in Kazakh.
GS: Are you playing a Kazakh? They weren't casting you because the mentor was maybe Chinese, Japanese or Corean?
JSL: No, that's what I mean. The impression that people get when they say Kazakhstan or Central Asia. These are all warring tribes with their heritage in the Mongol era. You look at what Genghis Khan did during his lifespan and what his sons did, what kind of territory they occupied. It was massive, it's bigger than China. In fact, they owned part of China.
GS: Does this take place during the Genghis Khan era?
JSL: This is much later. It takes place in the 1600s.
GS: Are you doing a lot of horseback riding and swordsmanship?
GS: What were the conditions like in Kazakhstan?
JSL: The culture and the food is very different. There are some western establishments but I always found myself eating more of the Uygur food or the Kazakh food. A lot of other tribes like the Uzbek people and their food is fantastic. I was leaning more on that kind of food. The city that we were staying in is fairly cosmopolitan.
GS: What city is that?
JSL: It's called Almaty.
GS: Is that the capitol?
JSL: It used to be but they moved the capitol up north to a place called Astana, so we stayed in Almaty.
GS: Would we consider it modern?
JSL: They have automobiles, they have electricity, they have air conditioning. They have quite a few modern conveniences.
GS: So it wasn't like when you were filming Rapa Nui?
JSL: No, Rapa Nui is much more primitive.
GS: There wasn't much hardship?
JSL: Not in that sense, but in the sense of climate changes and locations. Logistically it was pretty heavy duty for the crew. It was hard, the pace.