HOON LEE: How To Play A Foul-Mouthed, Transvestite Hacking Genius With Aplomb

Story by Paul Nakayama.

It’s hard to imagine, but Hoon Lee, the 39-year-old actor who plays Job, the F-bomb dropping, bald transvestite hacker on Cinemax’s Emmy Award-winning original series Banshee, is the same actor voicing the sagely Master Splinter on Nickelodeon’s hit reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And the award-winning stage actor didn’t even plan on an acting career. Instead, the Harvard-educated Lee studied the visual arts and worked in graphic design during the first dot-com bubble.

“I think that all these creative processes cross-pollinate easily,” he says of navigating deftly between designing and acting. “It doesn’t mean that the skill sets required to perform at a higher level are not specific and hard won, but like with romance languages, if you are fluent in one form of creative activity, you have a fighting chance at picking things up quickly in another.”

Lee’s role as the voice behind the iconic Master Splinter is something of a personal passion. The Korean American grew up on comic books and animation and still considers himself a fan. When asked if he’ll use the wise Yoda-like sayings of Master Splinter as a parental tool, Lee laughs and replies, “My son’s a little young for Ninja Turtles, but I’m hoping he’ll get into it. But the cynical side of me thinks that he’ll say, ‘Aw, Dad, that’s so lame.’”

Lee’s other gig on the action drama Banshee, as the loyal criminal associate of ex-con and master thief Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), who assumes the identity of sheriff in the small town of Banshee, Pa., has made him a fan and critic favorite. “Job is a character that is fairly extreme, and I wouldn’t have really pegged that for myself,” admits Lee. “In the casting process, it’s a succinct description of who this character is supposed to be, so it’s sort of an illustration of the intense generalization that happens in show business, which in and of itself is a reflection of greater societal generalizations that happen. But Job being such a strange collection of things — a transvestite, criminal, computer hacker, foul-mouthed diva — you begin to butt up against the inefficiency of the encapsulation of those terms. I find it very interesting because when people react to Job, I begin to see their own mechanisms for understanding who he is.”

In preparing for the role, Lee found that his background in tech helped inform Job’s character. But there was nothing that could help prepare him for the unique wardrobe requirements. “I had to trim down to fit into those leather dresses, and even then I’m strapped in to the busting point,” he laughs.

When asked about playing a unique Asian American character, Lee responds, “That’s tricky for me as an actor because when you choose to identify yourself or a role as Asian American, it kind of grants permission for other people to use that as the primary identifier, and that’s a really difficult balance to strike. Job is of Asian descent because I’m of Asian descent, but in descriptions of him, the race dimension is only one of many.”

Instead, Lee feels there may be a universal message in characters like Job. “What people are hopefully enjoying about him is that he’s somebody that is explicating that search for who he is, and he’s welcoming all the complexities that it means. And that’s something that anyone who has felt on the outside, and that’s most of us, can identify with.”

Banshee returns for a second season on January 10. 

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here