Asian actor Orion Lee took a gamble when he left the world of finance to become an actor. Now, a graduate for LAMDA, he counts a supporting role in Bond film Skyfall in his filmography, as well as roles in two films at this year’s London Film Festival: X + Y and closing film Fury. We ask him about his journey into acting, his work with promoting East Asian talent into the industry and his thoughts on how East Asians are represented in the media:
Flickfeast: How you got into acting?
Orion Lee: I used to work in finance in Australia and I did an acting class in the weekend. After the third class, I thought: ‘this is something i want to explore’ and it took me eight months to shift my stuff around so that I could spend a year to try acting. I did things like student short-films and night classes in NIDA, Sydney (Australia’s version of RADA). I enjoyed it and I realised that I wanted to take it to the next level, so I applied to NIDA but I didn’t get in. At the time, I remember the head of acting of NIDA basically said ‘if you study here, you’re not going to be able to work here.’
He was basically saying that as an East Asian in Australia, you’re not going to get work and part of the reason that you go to drama school is to get local contacts and eventually work in the local industry. So he recommended that I go to Singapore, China or Hong Kong but because I don’t speak Mandarin fluently, I knew that my niche is a well-spoken English speaking Asian. I chose UK because I wanted to go through a traditional training system.
I didn’t know if I was going to be any good at acting and I wanted to come out of the process of learning something, so that if i were to go back to finance, at least I learnt something. But then I got into LAMDA, got an agent and I have been acting ever since.
FF: How did you get the roles in X + Y and Fury?
OL: I got the auditions via my agent. For X + Y, I got the notice really late that I was involved in the project. After I got the call saying they wanted me, I got another call asking me to come in for costume the following day. It was great – I went to Sheffield and shot a scene before flying to Taiwan to shoot a few more scenes. It was a fantastic experience. It was really special because Morgan Matthews (director) got a great team involved and they are a great bunch.
FF: What was working on Fury like?
OL: The thing is that my original thing is I rock up, I have a few lines with Brad Pitt, I say something, he threatens something and he hits one of my character’s prisoners and then I leave. But the direction from David Ayer (director) was like ‘just go with it, let’s see what happens’ so I get on set, I say my line and suddenly, this brawl breaks out so it goes from a few lines with Brad Pitt and I leave to a few lines and a fight. But it was crazy because it was this huge, muddy field, and everybody’s in their gear and it is slippery – it was a lot of fun!
FF: What other films are you looking forward to in the festival?
OL: I’m interested in East Asian cinema, those films are the main ones I am looking forward to, such as Kung Fu Jungle, starring Donnie Yen. Like everyone else, I am interested in the galas. I am more excited to watching X + Y on the big screen than watching Fury as i am a very small cog in a big machine in Fury and a bigger cog in X + Y.
FF: Let’s talk about your work on the East Asian Talent Showcase:
OL: It’s an effort to promote East Asians in Britain to theatre, film and TV and the thing is we work in a collaborative industry; everything happens because everyone works together, the writers, directors, actors and production; everyone works together and something gets made.
It can be isolating when you are just starting out and don’t have a lot of contacts or you trying to become a writer, director, actor so I organise a get-together. Originally, there was a general gathering so directors, writers and actors can get together and show their work and meet each other and things can progress from there.
So from that, various things have come together; directors have worked with actors and gone to Edinburgh with their show, there has been a sketch comedy whose director wishes to test them before live audiences, which has gotten 8.5 million views on YouTube. To promote the East Asian community, I do the same format, but with an East Asian slant. The first one was very successful, we had casting directors and the literary director from the RSC and it is a great opportunity to collaborate and help each other. Actually, two people did a web series but met a director at the showcase, who liked their project and now, they are working together.
FF: What is your opinion about how East Asian people are represented in the media?
OL: I think that I am very lucky in that I have come into the industry at a point where there is a lot of interest in East Asia and quite frankly, this is due to the rise of China as an economic power.
That just kinda happens from generation to generation; when I was growing up, my parents wanted me to learn English because that was the most important language to learn and then when I was in Australia at a certain age, everyone was learning Japanese because Japan was such an economic power, and now it is Mandarin.
Having said that, I do not believe there is a thing as specific direct racism but I think there is a lot of ignorance about our culture. If ethnic minorities are written without a certain degree of background knowledge, they will go with a stereotype so you end up being DVD sellers and Chinese takeaway servers.
Stereotypes are bad because there is a lot of Chinese people working in takeaways but this just adds to the stereotype in certain minds and there is such an opportunity to say ‘no, we’re not like that’.
So, if there is someone working in a takeaway, let them also be a graffiti artist or designer as a passion or hobby. Let’s have people be three-dimensional characters because that is what we are in real-life; we have different interests. So a character may be an immigrant DVD seller but can also be studying at night to hopefully go to university.
FF: What will you be working on next?
OL: I’m auditioning for various projects – I have a small part in a TV film, which is about the inventor behind forensic DNA analysis. I am also planning to go to Taiwan to learn Mandarin because I had such a great time while filming there for X + Y and planned to go back. Mandarin is a language that I am really interested in.