Jason Scott Lee has a film career that spans 30 years that showcases his startling versatility, athleticism, and willingness to take risks.
Lee, who was born in California but raised on Oahu, got his start with supporting roles in Cheech Marin’s “Born in East L.A.” and as a hoverboard-riding thug in “Back to the Future, Part II.” Then, at the age of 26, Lee got the coveted starring role in “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.”
Suddenly, the Pearl City High School graduate was hurled into the spotlight.
While Lee, who is of Chinese and Hawaiian heritage, has no relation to Bruce Lee, he did the impossible: he made audiences believe he was. He gave a performance that was one of the best of 1993. Lee’s astonishing ability to capture the inner torment, scorching charisma, and lightning quick moves of the Master of Jeet Kune Do was an enormous achievement.
Rather than settle on subsequent roles in action movies or comedies, Lee continued to take on interesting challenges, like taking the lead of Kevin Reynolds’ Easter Island epic, “Rapa Nui” (1994). It was a massive flop in its day but now a beloved cult film.
Lee also played Mowgli in the first Disney live-action remake of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” and embodied Bori Khan in the live-action remake of “Disney’s Mulan.”
Lee’s latest projects include playing the father to Peyton Elizabeth Lee’s title character of “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.,” the new Disney+ TV series based on “Doogie Howser, M.D.” He also has a Hawaiʻi-set historical drama coming soon.
He spoke with Maui Times about those projects, his thoughts on Bruce Lee, while telling some great stories from “Rapa Nui,” “Map of the Human Heart,” and “Picture Bride.”
Maui Times: Please tell us about Benny, your character on “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.”
Jason Scott Lee: He is the father of “Doogie,” or Lahela, who is the child prodigy. He’s kind of a salt of the earth, local guy, with Hawaiian ancestry. An island boy, who pursued a career in finance and realized it wasn’t for him. He wanted to raise his kids in the islands and changed his career to shave ice truck owner. He’s driven by ʻohana.
MT: Having grown up on Oahu, is there an aspect of your own upbringing or people you know in the character?
JSL: It permeates who I am as a person and as a performer—very few times I get to play a local Hawaiian with a lot of virtue. It’s exciting to be working in the islands.
MT: Since you filmed a 10-episode season, what was that schedule like? Is it one episode at a time or do they film it like a movie and jump around with the chronology?
JSL: They package two episodes together, jumping from one episode one day and another day, but in sequence.
MT: How do you view the series’ representation of life in Hawaii?
JSL: I think it’s a show and it’s a bit of a fantasy. Our producer Kourney Kang put it right—an escapist show. Not handling any of the grit of what Hawaiʻi is. In that sense, a feel-good show and a dramedy. I try to infuse it with as much locality as I can, even in a supporting situation.
MT: I love that you’re doing Disney projects. For so many children, you were their first Mowgli, and there are generations of kids who grew up knowing you as David Kawena in “Lilo and Stitch,” and now as Bori Khan in “Mulan.” As a kid, what were the Disney movies that inspired you?
JSL: One of the reasons I did “The Jungle Book” was because I was inspired by that animation. That fascinated me, being raised by animals, and having a communion with animals and nature. I grew up with “Dumbo,” so that was one inspiration. But everything about Disney—that sort of magical-kingdom-sensibility stays with you as a kid. I never thought I’d be working for Disney.
When I was asked to do “Lilo and Stitch,” I was like, ‘Wow, Disney animation,’ so it lasts forever, and with a local spin. The essence of what Disney shows gave me when I was younger flows into the performances.
MT: You have a small role in “Picture Bride,” Kayo Hatta’s profound film depicting the sugar cane plantation days. How did you get involved with that film?
JSL: A buddy of mine was working on that project. I got invited to the set one day, I met Kayo, who said, ‘Would you be in my film? Would you be inclined to make a cameo?’ I said, ‘yeah fine.’
She set a day, I did a bit, and that was it. Next thing you know, it’s on my resume. It was more a nod to Kayo, to Kayo being a pioneer at the time. I knew it was hard to make those small, indie, micro-budget films. It was a salute to her. Kind of an honorary thing for me.
MT: I got to see “Rapa Nui” opening weekend at the Kukui Mall Cinema and it was a jaw-dropping experience. It looked like a beast of a movie to make. What are your memories of the experience?
JSL: That film changed my life in so many ways. One of the reasons I took the project was it was Kevin Reynolds and Kevin Costner’s production company. It had high value to kick off.
It was in such a remote location and was handling a Polynesian topic. I wanted to explore that aspect of my ancestry, the Hawaiian side. I got that.
I think it was a 40-person contingent of Maori actors, who were so immersed in their people and culture. It gave me insight into the power of maintaining their existence. I met a lot of wonderful actors who remain friends of mine. I walked away with this sense of a small population, family, happy with nothing, hearty people. If you dropped away everything else, could you maintain joy? It made me buy some land and live without electricity for 10 years.
The island itself really beat up a lot of the actors—waking up early, being south of the equator, and pretty cold. We’d set up campfire with a row of tents. The show was all barefoot and we did that the whole time. Our trainer, who was part of Jacques Cousteau’s crew, trained us in open ocean swimming. I swam two kilometers in open ocean every morning. That experience was so immersive. You never left the place for six months. There were a lot of babies born on that project.
MT: I have to lean in on a detail—you seriously did that whole movie barefoot?
JSL: We tried moleskin on our feet. Some instances with water shoes. They were painted shoes but a lot of it…I tore up my feet. There’s a scene with the Birdman competition—I got washed up on the surf on the reef and this wave just comes up. Once the water washes over me, I launch the carabiner and this rogue wave scraped me every which way. I got bruised up and got pulled into a safety zodiac boat. We got beat up. It was such an adventure, looking back.
MT: Another personal favorite of mine is “Map of the Human Heart.” When you’re working with a visionary director like Vincent Ward, does that make things easier, or does working to meet a vision so specific make things harder?
JSL: For me, I love working with Vincent and tried to get other projects going with him. I personally enjoy that, the auteur with a strong vision. It’s hard to get the shot at times, but it’s worth it. His visions are so otherworldly. He’s a Werner Herzog type, everything he does is risky.
MT: The scene in “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” that has always haunted me is when Bruce and Linda suffer through a screening of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It speaks to the issue of Asian representation in film. How do you feel about “Dragon” today? When was the last time you saw it?
JSL: It pops up from time to time. I haven’t seen it all the way through in a while. I like the feeling of that show. I had a lot of support in Gary, one of Bruce’s students. With the training, I felt this ability to fly. That’s what Bruce felt. I feel that’s the sense of what the guy was going for. He was trying to move at light speed and his body couldn’t keep up. The movie delivers the lightness of being. That, to me, was something I was able to capture. I’m not saying I was as proficient as he was at martial arts but there’s an essence that I was able to convey.
That scene you mentioned—it elevated the film above and beyond all the other stuff. I remember being in that scene and going, ‘wow.’ I did see after living in L.A., there was a difference in priority given to other races. All those elements of that film really helped that film.
MT: In the upcoming “The Wind and the Reckoning,” you play Koʻolau, in a film about the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani. What was making that film like?
JSL: That’s a special movie. It was like we were making a film about a pandemic in Hawaiʻi during a pandemic. It was ironic, in the sense of a story perpetuated by the issues we’re experiencing now. It also gently touches on the whole movement of the overthrow of the Monarchy and what that did. That film will show it was more of the suffering. That was an 18-day shoot. We’re working with an under a million-dollar budget. Everyone’s hoofing it and carrying gear. Natural lighting, no cranes, no real dollies, all handheld. A little bit of CGI, adding to vistas. I’m hearing really good word on it. There’s talk of a world premiere at Sundance. I have high hopes.
Photo Credit: Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution