Expat Thespian – Kevin Lee
At a soaring 6 feet 5 inches tall (or 198cm) Kevin Lee stands head and shoulders above 99% of foreign actors. His literal & metaphorical commanding presence is the reason for his success. However, the only thing taller than this expat thespian is his dedication to the craft in the divine country, The People’s Republic of China.
How long have you been acting in China? Approximately 5 years.
Where are you originally from and why did you choose to leave home? Originally from Cambridge, England. I grew up watching Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies and a dream of mine was to one day visit the motherland of martial arts and study gongfu.
Do you sometimes feel type cast in China and how do you break into other roles?
Yes! 90% of the time. At 198 cm, inevitably my height plays a major factor. Many roles I’m not suitable for, however there’s a positive flip, as many roles I am suitable for. The advantage is I get to play roles most actors aren’t able to do. Which means more stand out-roles as a foreigner.
Generally, If I’m unsuitable for a role due to my height, I would often say, “Well give me a shot to at least audition and let me try and wow you with my acting skills.” I absolutely love and breathe acting and often hone my skills on a weekly basis.
The Chinese industry is booming right now. How do you see expat actors in China as part of this growing success?
China’s film industry is certainly booming and I feel privileged to have had a role in one of the biggest, most successful movies in recent times… Wolf Warrior. China has a fantastic platform to gain valuable acting experience, build a solid acting reel, and move on where acting is taken more seriously. Plenty of opportunity here, but to make a name for yourself in China as a westerner is no easy feat and no foreigner has yet to break this space.
You attended the London School of Dramatic Arts. What aspects of that training has assisted you in your craft while in China?
It’s helped to a certain degree. When it comes to castings, I feel my training has given me the edge over majority of the foreigners here. But when it comes to the selection process, it often comes down to a few variables (Money, Look, Connection) and there is also the darker side of production, but I won’t go into that.
What was your funniest moment on set?
A shoot on Netflix’s Marco Polo. I pranked one of the actors, now a very good friend of mine. He told me not to tell others about this prank and I agreed. Unfortunately, another friend was with me when I pranked said actor and had already shared the experience with other friends…snow ball effect! By the next day, 80% of cast & crew had heard and asked to listen to the phone recording.
What was your worst moment on set?
One that comes to mind is working on my most recent movie, Journey To The Dream, a movie being produced by the Russo Brothers. I play the main villain, a role that took a lot of mental preparation. Every morning around 4am, I’d wake up, get to the make-up room and endure 5 hours of facial prosthetics.
Upon entering the set I’m greeted by the director, protagonist, crew, all wanting to take pictures. I felt like a movie star, was beginning to get pumped, adrenaline started to course through my veins, but 18 hours later things took a turn for the worst. Began to feel agitated, itchy, and annoyed. I couldn’t bear wearing the mask anymore and wanted to rip it off my face. I told myself, If I can get through this production, I can achieve anything as an actor.
As you are well known in China, what is a day in the life of Kevin Lee like?
I won’t make myself bigger than who I really am. I’m well known in the industry, yes, especially in Beijing, amongst fellow thespians, directors, action units and casting directors.
My routine generally consists of waking up, stretching (I have an herniated lower back ) and breakfast. After that I like to watch a movie, then ready my body full of nutrients so I’m well equipped for the gym later that day. I’ll often go to a coffee shop and work on my screen play. I also like to improvise, come up with characters and play with accents. But when I have free time I’m home with my wife and daughter.
What was the experience like to meet action superstar Wu Jing?
When I first met Wu Jing, I was kind of shocked by how things unfolded. I literally stopped Wujing as he was about to leave the embassy, we chatted for a few minutes, exchanged contact details and low and behold, 6 months later, I was in his China blockbuster. Wolf Warrior was my first role ever in a feature film. This movie really kick started my career and fast tracked me to a higher platform.
Your personal quote is “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” What’s the story behind this?
Absolutely! This takes me back to my sales days back in England. I was always a good sales rep, but too honest. Never did hard sales, I was just good with people. My boss, sat me down one day and said to me. “Kevin, how often do you ask for the business?”, I replied, “I don’t, I just draft up a proposal, call the prospect back to try to arrange a new meeting and I know there’s a 50% chance they’ve signed elsewhere.” My boss said, “Next time, ask them for their business before you leave the meeting.”
Since then, I have always lived by this method, that sometimes in life, things are not just handed to you. You have to go out and earn it, work hard for it and there are often occasions where you must ask for something. Too many people are afraid to ask. There have been roles I have singed because I have used this method.
You’ve worked alongside legends like Jackie Chan, Jean Claude Van Dam, Steven Segal, & Mike Tyson. Any advice for young actors when we’re in the room or in a scene with these heavy weights?
Respect! As an actor, it’s so important to respect time. Don’t be late, don’t ask for pictures, wait for a convenient time. Try not to disagree with a suggestion, I notice stars tend not to like this. Remember, they’re the stars, not us. Just be professional, do a good job and really enjoy the experience.
China’s Film industry is on par to beat Hollywood. What kind of impact do you think that will have on Asia in general?
When we say beat, we are mainly talking about a mainland movie being a success in China. Take Wolf Warrior 2 for example. This movie is the biggest blockbuster of all time in China and sits second in the world for highest grossing movie. However, it was not successful outside of the mainland. So, what does this suggest?
I think more of Hollywood is coming to China because the money is here, the opportunity is here and it costs less to produce. But, I don’t see China becoming the next Hollywood anytime soon. For Asia, it’s of course very promising. I have seen a lot of co-production films with Thailand, Philippines, India and I’m sure this will continue indefinitely.
What strategies are you taking to make yourself more known in the western film industry?
Moving forward, my strategy, is to continue to do what I am doing. Work hard, keep improving, meet with new industry people and get a better show reel. Referring back to my earlier quote, “Hey, Mr. Director, please, if you have time, check my reel, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised.” If you don’t ask, you don’t get. So, create your own opportunities!
I was lucky enough to get a manager in Los Angeles. Albeit, living on opposite ends of the earth doesn’t help but I would often get castings for international movie’s which has been a great experience. This came about by updating my IMDB and being part of successful movies in China.
What advice do you have for expat actors?
Get out there and meet people in the industry. Be humble, professional and don’t make your first job about money. Make it about experience and getting to make new friends and contacts. A lot of expats here have these crazy high prices and wonder why they never work. Unless you can offer something other expat actors can’t, then what’s in it for the production to hire you?
For most, it’s a very competitive market in China. So, think smart, there are no unions here, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Don’t get drawn into expats convincing you otherwise.
How do you view the glass ceiling concept? Does it bother you?
Does it bother me…no! Did it before…yes! You come to realize there are certain things in life you must accept and this is no different. As expats, we hit that ceiling here at some point. Myself for example, I have now been on 4 featured film posters and it has done very little for me.
There are limitations here in China for expats and from what I can see, there are no famous foreign actors in China. Some have been acting for 10 years plus and still doing the same low budget gigs. But I get on with it and continue to be ever grateful for all these opportunities. However, I for one would love to be proven wrong.
What’s next for you?
I’m waiting for, Journey To The Dream, to be officially released so I can get involved with all the media that should surround this movie and my character. Playing an integral part should hopefully give me quality recognition. We’re also producing our first movie which will start pre-production in March.
The “Big Dog” has spoken! Kevin Lee sets a high standard for what an expat thespian should be doing to create their own opportunities. He is a shinning example of the old adage, “Go Hard or Go Home.”
I hope you enjoyed this interview about Kevin Lee. Please reply in the comments below with your thoughts on this post or inquiries on acting in a foreign country.
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Till next time thespians,