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‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Star Ki Hong Lee Talks About His Role In The New Netflix Series [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

By Adrienne Stanley | April 07, 2015 04:29 PM EDT

Korean-American actor Ki Hong Lee is one of the breakout stars of the infectious Netflix comedy,“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He portrays Dong Nguyen, an undocumented Vietnamese delivery man who aspires to gain U.S. citizenship, while trying to win the affection of Kimmy Schmidt. Created by “30 Rock” executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” provides wry social commentary on issues like immigration, kidnapping, cults and New York City gentrification.

KDramaStars spoke to Ki Hong Lee during a phone interview where he talked about his role in the Netflix comedy, his role in the sci-fi franchise “The Maze Runner” and his love of the variety show “The Return of Superman.”

Since his acting debut in 2010, he appeared in several teen comedies and primetime dramas, which aired on American television. He gained the attention of audiences in 2014 with his portrayal of Minho in “The Maze Runner.” Now, he is winning over new fans with his supporting role in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a very unique show, with a compelling script. The 28-year-old actor was motivated to the join project, after receiving a casting call. “I am a big fan of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock,” he said. “I knew that I would be in good hands by joining their project. Ellie Kemper is also a great actress. She was amazing to work with.”

His appearance in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” also provided him with the opportunity to film in New York City and venture out of his home base in Los Angeles. He enthusiastically mused, “I had the chance to go to New York [for the filming]. It is always great to get paid to do the job that I love.”

One of the biggest challenges of joining the show involved his promotional schedule for the film adaptation of the young adult series, “The Maze Runner.” He portrays a key figure in the series, Minho, the keeper of the Runners. He discussed his rigorous scheduling, stating, “I was literally promoting the first film from ‘The Maze Runner’ series, in New York. I shot the my first episodes of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ while I was promoting the movie. We were filming ‘The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials,’ in New Mexico. They would fit me into the schedule for ‘Unbreakable’ and I did a lot of flying back and forth, on the weekends.”

The fact that he had to juggle a television and film role reflects the recent increase in opportunities for Asian and Korean-Americans in Hollywood. While he is grateful for the ability to appear in more projects, he pointed out the need for representation in all aspects of the Hollywood film and television industry. “I think it is great to be busy but there definitely needs to be more representation in Hollywood,” he said. “Not just actors but directors, writers, video heads, and show-runners. There is slow and gradual change.”

He provided an interesting perspective on his approach of Dong in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and Minho from “The Maze Runner.” He stated, “As an actor, you have to need ground yourself in whatever character you are playing and make it into your own reality. In my mind, Minho is just as real as Dong. They are both characters that exist in my world. It just so happens that ‘The Maze Runner’ is set in the future.”

He continued to deliver his insight regarding the character of Dong. “Dong just happens to be a more contemporary character, who can be found in the world that we currently live in,” he said. “Dong is a recent immigrant who is very excited to be here [in the United States]. So, he doesn’t get all of the pop culture references. He knows that he has to work really hard. He knows that he needs to do his best to get his G.E.D, in order to pursue his dream.”

“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” delivers an obscure kaleidoscope of characters that includes Jacqueline Vorhees, a distraught Manhattanite. Jane Krakowski is brilliant in the role which comes off as unseemingly detestable unless viewers have spent extensive time in New York City. She is a caricature of a sheltered Midwesterner who relocates to Manhattan and while befriending people like Logan avoids pedestrian types like Kimmy Schmidt or Dong.

The relatability of these characters became the next topic of discussion. When asked about the contrast of Logan and Dong, he said, “I think the actor who portrays Logan, Adam Campbell, does an amazing job. The relatability of the characters is a testimony to the smart and creative writing on ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.’ The writing almost makes social commentary about the types of people that are depicted. What I have gained from the feedback of the show, is that a lot of people have really liked it. That is a testimony to how great the writing is on the show.”

He was honest when asked about his K-Drama viewership. He said, “I haven’t watched Korean drama in a while. One of the last dramas I watched was ‘Autumn in My Heart.’ It was the show that launched Won Bin’s career. It was really sappy love drama about this girl that is caught in a love triangle and she has leukemia. I thought that Won Bin was so cool.”

While he may not marathon K-Dramas, he is an avid viewer of Korean movies. “I try to watch every Korean movie that I can,” he said. “ I love Korean film. I think would love to do a Korean movie, one day. It would be wonderful to work with a Korean director or maybe be part of a U.S.-Korean project. Koreans are excellent storytellers.”

His admiration for acclaimed director Bong Joon Ho was reflected in his next statement, “One of my favorite recent examples is ‘Snowpiercer.’ Bong Joon Ho is a great director. I would love to work with him. I think for me, it would be nice to be part of a story that focuses on being Korean-American. Participating in a co-production is definitely one of my dreams.”

One of his favorite Korean television shows is the variety program, “The Return of Superman,” which he binge watches on YouTube. He enthusiastically spoke about the series and Song Il Gook’s interaction with his triplets. He said, “I love the show ‘Return of the Superman.’ It’s a show where the dad is a K-pop star or a celebrity. The three triplets, I am in love with those kids. I watch that show religiously on YouTube.”

He continued to explain the infectious quality of the show and his desire to appear as guest, in the future. “They are hour-long episodes but I marathon them like people have been watching ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,’” he said. “If I have kids in the future, I would love to do that show.”

Season one of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has wrapped up and it is slated for a second season. The first season concluded with an open-ended plotline for Dong, suggesting that he could appear in the subsequent season. Ki Hong Lee maintains a packed schedule in the interim, including his role in the upcoming film from Wong Fu Productions, “Everything Before Us.” The movie, which is slated to premier at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, is set within a dystopian society where relationships are evaluated on a scale similar to credit scores.

He provided further details for “Everything Before Us,” stating, “It follows two different love stories. It is set in a world where your relationship history is logged like your credit score. You have to go to this place that is like the DMV to figure out your score. It’s a very interesting take on what the world would be if your relationship history was out in the open, for everyone to see.”

Having previously appeared in Wong Fu Productions videos on YouTube, he expressed his pride in the project. “I am very proud to be part of the Wong Fu Productions movie,” he said. “They have wanted to make the project for a long time. They were able to make their own way without a studio saying who they had to cast. I am proud that they were able to do it themselves.”

Even though he placed fourth on People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive list in 2014, he has humble expectations for his next project. The recently married actor, enthusiastically stated, “My next project will really have to be my marriage. I got married recently, so I am just focusing on that before diving back into work.”

The first season of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" can be found on Netflix.

Tagged :  unbreakable kimmy schmidt, ki hong lee, the maze runner

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