Reggie Lee is used to playing the villain. He made his big-screen debut in 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious,” as a street-racing, snakeskin pants-sporting gangster. In 2007, he appeared alongside Chow Yun Fat as a scraggly and crude Singaporean pirate in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” And when “Safe” hits theaters on April 27, Lee will be the antagonist once again, this time as a member of the Chinese Triad gang.
Off-screen, however, Lee is nothing like the villainous characters he so often portrays. To describe a Hollywood actor as humble and down-to-earth would, in many cases, be an exaggeration, but such words are perfectly fitting for Lee. Despite a blossoming career in both film and television, he takes nothing for granted, and credits his success to hard work and determination. It’s hard to envision Lee as a “bad guy” — until he explains why he enjoys those roles so much.
“I love when you get to go badass, and then you get to see what makes the character break down,” he explains. “Because you see the humanity. At the end of the day, I think that’s what I like to portray most.”
Lee’s character in “Safe,” an action film starring Jason Statham, is no exception. The story centers on a 10 year-old Chinese girl who has a rare talent for memorizing numbers, and she is wanted by the Chinese Triads, the Russian mob, and New York’s own corrupt police officers and politicians. A massive criminal chase ensues after Lee kidnaps the girl, played by Catherine Chan, with Statham acting as the buff hero who fights off the various gangs. For Lee, “Safe” is more than just an action-packed film. It has an emotional depth, he says, that extends beyond his “bad guy” character.
“I get so attached to this girl,” he says. “She’s under my care for a year, and I start to develop fatherly feelings for her. This [role] has a lot of heart to it. I loved that. I get to show this vulnerability.”
Although Lee has gained recognition over the past decade playing tough guys, he began his acting career on a slightly gentler note. His first major gig was performing with the national tour of “Miss Saigon” in the early 1990s. Soon after, he was cast in the 1994 Broadway revival of “Carousel.” Since then, Lee has stuck to roles in film and television, but he still considers himself a theater person.
“It was my dream to be a triple threat,” he says. “To get to New York and do a Broadway show.”
When Lee told his parents this, at the age of 10, they told him no. Lee laughs when he remembers their response, describing it as “very Asian child syndrome.” Lee was born in the Philippines, where he lived until he was six years old and his family moved to a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Undeterred by his parents’ disapproval, Lee enrolled in dancing, singing, and acting classes, and had a summer internship at the Cleveland Playhouse in high school. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles, where he launched his career in musical theater. After finishing “Carousel” in New York, he returned to L.A. and began auditioning for film and television. His big break came in 2000 when he landed the role of Lance Nguyen in “The Fast and the Furious.”
The film made $40 million at the box office opening weekend, nabbing the number one spot, and jumpstarted the careers of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. But it didn’t propel Lee’s career as he had hoped it would. The next few years were quiet, he said, although he guest starred in different television series from time to time. When he was cast in the third installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” playing Chow Yun Fat’s second-in-command, this “drought” ended. Lee soon landed the role of Secret Service Agent Bill Kim on the television series “Prison Break,” and since then, he says, it’s been “crazy busy.”
In addition to “Safe,” Lee currently stars in “Grimm” on NBC, a procedural fantasy drama that combines crime solving with mythology. Lee’s character, Sergeant Wu, isn’t involved with the show’s mythological aspects, but his dry sarcasm has made him a fan favorite.
“I don’t play a regular guy at all, never,” says Lee, laughing. “I love being the character actor. I get to stretch my muscles a little more.”
Between “Safe” and “Grimm,” which was just renewed for a second season, Lee is optimistic about the future. He recently finished shooting “Here Comes the Boom,” a film with Kevin James and Salma Hayek, and has a small role in “The Dark Knight Rises,” which is scheduled to hit theaters in July.
“I’m the type of actor that, if I’m not filming something, I’m in class,” he says. “It’s one of those crafts that I think you stay in because you can never master it. So there’s always a challenge.”
In the meantime, though, he is satisfied with what he has accomplished. And his parents finally came around to the idea that acting is more than just a hobby.
“I took my Dad to the premiere of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ and I took him on the red carpet,” remembers Lee. “People were yelling my name and asking for autographs, and I said, ‘Dad, are you doing OK?’ And he said, ‘I have chills right now.’ I was thrilled.”
Article originally appeared on backstage.com. Link here.