'Banshee' actor talks cross-dressing, stereotyping

03/13/2013 9:50 AM

03/13/2013 11:54 AM

'Banshee'

Season finale, 10 p.m. Friday on Cinemax

Hoon Lee has the distinction of playing the most unusual character among a bevy of unusual characters on Cinemax’s freshman crime saga, “Banshee”: a cross-dressing, butt-kicking, cow-cursing Asian computer hacker named Job.

In real-life, though?

“The real-life part of it is bound to be horribly disappointing. I’m a very pretty normal guy,” says Lee, 39, who along with the rest of the cast and crew filmed the violent, sex-filled series in Charlotte over several months last year.

The actor is definitely unlike his alter ego on the show. He is – this may surprise viewers – straight, and has been married for four years.

But he’s not exactly average, either. Lee is a 1994 graduate of Harvard, where he studied visual art and English literature (basically “drawing and reading,” he jokes). He’s performed on Broadway, and pieced together a career on TV (on shows from HBO’s “Sex and the City” to Nickelodeon’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” for which he does voice work) and in movies (like last year’s “Premium Rush,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Oh, and then there’s the fact that his job as Job on “Banshee” has frequently required him to wear a dress to work.

“I’m not a small guy, and even if you are a small man, that kind of makes you a huge woman,” Lee says. Yet for the premiere, he basically told costume designer Patia Prouty to do whatever she wanted. “That was a mistake. That was a terrible mistake.”

“The wig (I wore) was actually a composite of like six different wigs. And it weighed a lot, it was very heavy. The corset was this custom leather corset, which I got strapped into and was very, very tight to the point where I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t even really eat, and so I was vaguely nauseous for most of the day. If I needed to rest, I just had to lean against the wall.”

“Banshee” – which is executive-produced by “True Blood’s” Alan Ball and concludes its first season Friday – follows the story of an ex-con (played by Antony Starr) who assumes the identity of the sheriff of a small Pennsylvania town (played by Charlotte and its suburbs) in an effort to reconnect with his old partner (played by Ivana Milicevic).

(Principal shooting on “Banshee’s” second season begins in April; the cast and crew will be here again through the summer.)

In a loose sense, Job is like Harvey Keitel’s character in “Pulp Fiction”: He solves problems for the antiheroes. Not long after we first meet him in the pilot, he blows up his Manhattan hair salon to escape a pair of thugs. After arriving in Banshee, he hurls obscenities at a herd of cows, then hurls punches at a herd of rednecks.

“This character is technical and intelligent, is humorous, is compassionate, is violent, is furious,” Lee says. “There are all these things, and even though he tends to show up in short bursts, every time he does show up, there’s something very clear to play.”

Lee realizes, of course, that the depiction of Job presents some unique challenges.

“As an Asian-American, (I’m) sensitive to the portrayals of minorities, and when you have a character that exists as potentially part of several niche groups, or minority groups – groups that self-identify in a certain way – I think there’s a real danger in becoming an abstract idea, as opposed to a person.

“But we worked very hard to understand internally Job as a person, so that any choices we made about his behavior or his presentation could be grounded in the specifics of an individual, not in a general understanding of a group of people.”

Ironically, though, it was an encounter with an individual in Charlotte that helped the Queens, N.Y. resident gain a better understanding of Southerners.

“I was walking on the sidewalk and I was trying to figure out where I was,” Lee says. “I was looking down at my phone, and a couple walked past walking their dog and the guy just said, ‘Hey, good morning!’ And it shocked me, because that never happens in my neighborhood, ever. So like immediately I was suspicious and on guard.

“But that’s just such a commonplace thing (in Charlotte), and it makes you really appreciative of just basic civility, and I think that those are the small and subtle things that really add to the character of a place. It’s such a nice contrast (to New York). I’m looking forward to going back.”

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