On a cool summer afternoon, Ki Hong Lee casually types on a laptop at a small coffee shop in the heart of Koreatown. Sipping tea out of a plastic to-go cup, the rising star looks relaxed as he greets me with an easy smile, ready for one of many interviews surely to come for the young actor.
Lee is standing on the edge of major success. On September 19, the Korean American actor will appear on big screens across America in the 20th Century Fox film The Maze Runner, based on the bestselling young adult sci-fi trilogy by James Dashner, alongside fellow actors Dylan O’Brien, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Patricia Clarkson.
Lee stars as Minho, one of the many boys trapped in an area known as the Glade, which is surrounded by a large maze. The boys send “Runners” into the maze to find an escape from the Glade. However, the puzzle isn’t the only obstacle they face; “Grievers,” large creatures with multiple mechanical arms, stand in their way. Minho is the Keeper of the Runners and is brave, smart and levelheaded. When another boy, Thomas, is sent to the Glade, Minho befriends him and together, they set off on a thrilling, action-packed adventure.
For Lee, landing the role of Minho was a dream come true. But getting the part was like navigating through a different kind of labyrinth.
“I went to read for the casting director several times,” he says. “We got close to booking, but it didn’t happen. Then we sent a final tape to the producers around Christmastime [in 2012]. I was literally sitting at home waiting by the phone. … But there was no answer. So when 2013 came, January and February goes by and still nothing.”
Then Lee got a call from casting director Denise Chamian. She told him to buy the book and start reading it. Lee was “pumped and excited.” From there, Chamian sent Lee on a series of seven or eight more auditions.
“It was tough,” he says. “But then I got the call from my agent that I got it. Throughout the whole process, Denise and [director] Wes Ball pushed hard for me; they had my back. I can’t talk about this movie without thanking them.”
Born in Seoul, Lee left the peninsula and moved to Auckland, New Zealand, when he was 6 years old. Two years later, Lee’s family made their way to the United States. They ended up running Tofu Village, a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.
While attending school and waiting tables for his parents at the small eatery, Lee also went to church. During a retreat, Lee got roped into acting in a skit for his congregation.
“I loved it,” he remembers. “But I never took a theater class in high school. I don’t know why; I just focused on school, and I was more into sports, [like] basketball and tennis.”
While Lee did act here and there for his church, he didn’t seriously think about it until college. Lee majored in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, but not wanting to go to graduate school, he turned to acting instead. He took an acting class and decided to give it a try for one year.
“That was so naive of me,” he says. “I soon realized I had a lot to learn, and I still do. Acting is the same as any other profession; you have to put your work in.”
With the support of his parents, Lee worked hard. He studied Korean and American actors. He learned that he had to do his job well and not expect things to just magically happen. He knew he had to put himself out there and go on multiple auditions.
Lee also had to surmount his ethnicity and pursue roles that weren’t just the stereotypical Asian character. He believed that if he could hone his craft well enough, he would stand out among his peers and people wouldn’t see the color of his skin, but rather the quality of his acting. Lee pushed himself and, despite the initial rejections, stayed the course.
His tenacity paid off. In 2010 he began acting in small parts. In 2011, Lee landed a major role on the short-lived ABC series The Nine Lives of Chloe King. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” says Lee. “I got to go to work every day on a television set and live my dream. … I learned so much.” Lee’s next project is a pilot for an ABC sci-fi drama, The Whispers, set to debut next year.
But for now, expect Lee to be swept up in the whirlwind that is the press tour for The Maze Runner. And if things go well, expect a sequel, The Scorch Trials (director Wes Ball just announced that they may start shooting in the fall), in which Minho also prominently features. As for Lee, his expectations are more modest: “I’m taking everything day by day, and I’m trying to improve as an actor with each project I do. Being given a chance to do what I love is the best job I can have.”
– STORY BY CAROL PARK
This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here.