For many actors, taking on a heroic lead role can be something of an out-of-body experience. For Will Yun Lee, who has a recurring role as Dr. Alex Park on ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and recently wrapped up a stint on USA Network’s “Falling Water” as NYPD cop Taka, playing the hero in Netflix’s “Altered Carbon” made that out-of-body experience a literal one.
Lee plays Takeshi Kovacs, a rebel and soldier, in Netflix’s cyberpunk, consciousness-switching original series. After participating in a failed rebellion, Takeshi’s consciousness is pulled from his body and preserved in a “stack” that is then transferred to a new body, or “sleeve,” centuries in the future.
The show also stars “House of Cards” actor Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi in his new body 250 years later, where he must team up with a feisty detective to solve the mystery of an attempted murder while battling painful memories of his past.
Much like Takeshi, who must make sense of the 250 years he spent asleep, Lee also had to play catch-up when he arrived on set. Portraying Takeshi as his 250 years-younger self was a challenge. “I was kind of nervous because I knew [Kinnaman] was playing me 250 years into the future. How much did I have to share with him?” Lee said.
After thinking hard about the character and the story, Lee found a way to connect with the past Takeshi by contemplating his trauma-hardened future self. “I realized that because my character is the original mind and soul of [Takeshi], I had a pretty big playground when it came to developing that character,” Lee said. “I knew that [Takeshi] was broken down and jaded in a lot of ways. My character had to be the starting point. The more I played into that love and vulnerability, the better it would serve the story and would allow [Kinnaman’s] character to slowly decay and become this hardened person.”
Lee also found some connections between Takeshi and himself. “I love pretty hard when it comes to people that I care about,” Lee said. “[Takeshi] doesn’t take no for an answer, and he stands up for what he believes in, and these, I think, are heightened versions of myself, especially when it comes to having these basic moral tenets.”
Just as Takeshi stands up for his beliefs, Lee also feels strongly about representation in film and television, especially when it comes to Asian and Pacific American actors and actresses and other artists of color. Despite his now-busy schedule, the 20-year veteran actor can recall the days when there were only four or five roles available to him per year.
It was, and still is, a tough gig being an actor of Asian descent, but he believes that the APA community has been steadily gaining yards when it comes to Hollywood inclusion.
“I think we have moved the ball forward a lot on the field,” Lee said. “We are still a long way out, but when it comes to ‘Altered Carbon’ specifically, it’s not so much about the amount of screen time. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that if I didn’t portray [Takeshi] properly, ‘Altered Carbon’ wouldn’t have a base or anchor to start from.”
Lee felt that episode seven was especially pivotal in regards to anchoring the show. The episode, entitled “Nora Inu,” explores Takeshi Kovacs’ origins and reflects on his relationship with his sister Reileen, played by Dichen Lachman, as well as his romance with Quellcrist Falconer, an uprising leader played by Renee Elise Goldsberry. Filming “Nora Inu” helped Lee realize that long gone were the days of standing off-camera and watching someone else take center screen.
“I felt that it was very monumental,” Lee said. “It was monster-scale television that I got to do. Usually I sit on the sidelines when I do these big movies, and I just watch an actor get to do a phantom camera shot and be seen as a hero.”
Not so, however, with episode seven. “To be the guy at the center of the screen with a love interest, with a real relationship with his sister, and to get all the toys,” Lee said. “For all three of us [Lee, Goldsberry and Lachman] to have that moment and have real relationships, that I felt was a really great step in the right direction. I felt really proud of it.”
“Altered Carbon” is currently streaming on Netflix.