Jason Scott Lee Takes on BrynnerDate: 14 April 2000
Jason Scott Lee is best known for his action film roles, but he's looking forward to his West End debut in The King and I. He talks to Whatsonstage.com correspondent Nick Smurthwaite about tackling the legacy of Yul Brynner.
You'd assume any actor taking on the role made famous by Yul Brynner in The King and I, both on stage and film, would be pretty nervous about filling his illustrious predecessor's black silk slippers. Not Jason Scott Lee.
Though little known in the UK, this striking Chinese-Hawaiin actor, best known for portraying kung-fu star Bruce Lee in a 1993 biopic, has a look of quiet confidence when I suggest he has a huge hurdle to clear. One begins to wonder if playing the King of Siam may have gone to his head.
'Yul Brynner had a wonderful physicality and presence, but I hope I have been able to find other things that bring the story even more to life,' says Lee. 'I'm not concentrating so much on the macho qualities of the king, more the humour and sexuality.'
You could argue that Lee has already proved his macho credentials with film roles such as Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Soldier (1998) and the live action Jungle Book (1994), filmed in India, in which he played Mowgli. When you've been face to face with a grumpy wolf, as Lee was during the filming of Jungle Book, nothing ever seems quite so scary again.
'The wolf took a fancy to my loin cloth and when its trainer tried to restrain it, we suddenly had the full force of its anger - bared fangs, arched back, hair standing up on its neck,' he recalls. 'All this was about three feet from where I was standing.'
Lee looks as if he could handle himself pretty well in a one-to-one with a wolf, with or without the loin cloth. Though he was born in LA, his childhood and adolescence was spent doing vigorous outdoor things on the Hawaiin island of Oahu. He was a good enough volleyball player to consider taking it up full-time.
At 19, he returned to Los Angeles to attend college and got hooked on drama, thanks to an inspirational teacher. 'This guy really inspired me and invited me to join a little studio theatre he ran where we did a lot of European stuff and Russian farces. It only held 50 seats but it was enough to make me feel this was what I wanted to do.'
Having acquired an agent, Lee went up for his first film role.and landed it. He played an illegal Asian immigrant in the comedy Born in East LA. Small parts followed in Back To The Future II and American Eyes, then a featured role in the critically acclaimed art-house movie, Map Of The Human Heart, which bombed at the box office.
His first taste of commercial success came with the Bruce Lee biopic which changed his life in more ways than one. 'They'd had problems casting it because a lot of actors had a hard time with the kung-fu, and a lot of martial arts people had a hard time with the acting. Having been very athletic, I was probably the first person they saw who was OK on both counts, although I'd only done T'ai Chi, not kung-fu.'
Jason was also a huge Bruce Lee fan. 'My father used to take me to all Bruce Lee's movies and, as a kid, I had the posters and the T-shirts. I was amazed to find myself playing my hero,' he says. 'I trained for six months. The thing about martial arts is that it's not just about physical prowess, it's also about having mental control. It should generate a lot of internal energy and close the gap between what you think and what you do. I'm sure it helped to increase my power and spontaneity as an actor.'
Rehearsing six days a week with Sundays off for good behaviour has played havoc with Lee's normally strict martial arts regime. Once The King and I is up and running, he plans to resume his rigorous daily Ji Kundo work-outs. He'll also be instructing some fellow members of the cast in this elegant if lethal form of combat.
This sumptuous revival of The King and I, one of the most successful musicals of all time, ran for two years on Broadway in the mid-1990s and picked up 13 awards. In terms of costumes, props and overall design it promises to be one of the biggest spectacles the London stage has seen for some time.
What attracted Lee, however, wasn't the fancy silk waistcoats or the jewel-encrusted elephants (pretend), but the chance to get his pearly-white teeth into one of the meatiest roles in musical theatre. 'A lot of the action films I'd been doing failed to satisfy my needs as an actor,' he admits. 'I loved the complexity and depth of this character. Also, you feel empowered as an actor by doing theatre. Film and TV are basically a director's medium, the stage is an actor's place.'
And it's a rare thing indeed for an actor with Lee's ethnic pedigree to have an opportunity to play a stonking great lead role in one of the world's most prestigious venues. My guess is that he'll reinvent the King of Siam as his own.
The King and I is previewing at the London Palladium from April 18.