Stanford alumnus and Broadway star Michael K. Lee ’95 made his American television debut earlier this year in Netflix’s “XO, Kitty,” a spin-off of “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Lee played Professor Lee, a teacher at the South Korean international school to which Kitty, the protagonist, transferred.
Lee was passionate about the performing arts from a young age. At Stanford, he performed in “Gaieties,” sang a cappella as part of Fleet Street and directed a show as part of the Asian American Theater Project (AATP). He started out on Broadway in the United States and now has a successful career on Broadway in South Korea. He wrote to The Daily about his time at Stanford, his career and his role in “XO, Kitty.”
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: How did you begin to pursue the arts as a career?
Michael K. Lee [ML]: After my sophomore year in college, some of my dearest friends were graduating. At that point I was a human biology major, and I thought my natural path in life would be to become a doctor. But my graduating friends were all set on getting started in the entertainment industry, an idea that never entered my mind. Perhaps it was because I was from an immigrant family — a Korean family — the idea of veering off of a pre-professional life course seemed more than impossible: non-existent. So, I was intrigued by my friends’ decisions and decided to tag along.
That summer we all went to Los Angeles, got a two-bedroom apartment and went for it. They all had various levels of experience in the fields that they were heading into: film production, writing, computer programming. I had little to none. So I got a job telemarketing videos to help make money and applied for internships to film studios. I landed one, where I ended up being a production assistant, which was really hard work.
TSD: How did you keep pursuing the arts during this period?
ML: In order to maintain my sanity and happiness, I started taking musical theater classes at East West Players, the first and foremost theater of color and Asian American theater company in the country. There, I was able to work on my craft of performing, and just [letting] go and [being] myself. I learned more about myself and met a lot of actors in the community who were really making a go of their lives as artists. It was incredibly inspiring and exciting. Through them, I saw that the pursuit of life in the entertainment industry was possible and even noble. That summer I decided that I would change the course of my life.
TSD: How did you get started in Broadway?
ML: It was during the course of my classes that several people suggested that I audition for one of the current hot Broadway shows at the time, “Miss Saigon.” At that time, because of the dearth of Asian American actors in musical theater, shows would hold open auditions on a regular basis. I went to my very first open audition and stood in line for five hours. When I finally got a chance to get in and introduce myself, I was in the room for about four minutes, and that was it! However, I must have made an impression because I immediately got called back. I was later asked to fly out to New York City for a final callback for a Broadway replacement/understudy position.
TSD: What led you to move to South Korea?
ML: In the U.S., more often than not, I was competing for roles which required Asian or Asian American actors. The producers and creatives who had a wide enough artistic scope to see beyond race and ethnicity at the time were few and far between. It’s gotten better since, but still is a pretty significant challenge. Coming to Korea, my first job was as an American soldier in “Miss Saigon.” Rather than an Asian character, I was playing Americans, Frenchmen, Australians! Coming to Korea, I would be able to expand my repertoire and continue working on my craft much more extensively than anywhere else.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, Korea was the right place for me and my growing family. I first started in Korea in 2006, and I had my first son in 2009. As a stage actor, you always go where the work calls for you. Even when I go on tour here in Korea, I could always find a way to get home if I wanted to, whether by car or train.
TSD: What has been your experience living in South Korea?
ML: I came to South Korea after about 10 years of working in the United States. It was a culture shock in terms of the language and traditions, but the process was very similar. Because the U.S. and Broadway have a longer history of theater and theater training. Honestly, the skill level of the performers in Korea then was not as high as in the US. They made up for that with two to three times more effort during rehearsals. I am always in such awe of how hard my fellow Korean actors work.
However, having been in the business for almost 30 years, the one thing that is very clear to me is that theater people are theater people — no matter where you are. I’ve played so many places now, but the energy and love is the same. As they say, “There’s no people like show people.”
TSD: What was your experience working on “XO, Kitty”?
ML: “XO, Kitty” was such a fantastic experience. It was my first regular role in American television, and what a joy it was to be able to join the “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” universe. The cast and crew were incredibly lovely, and doing an American project in Korea — my new home — was something that was indescribably special. Both my worlds collide in the most wonderful way. Professor Lee was a part I really wanted and a character that I felt I could breathe life into.