Let it be known that James Kyson Lee is ripped.
The actor who first gained fame as Ando, skeptical sidekick of the time-traveling Hiro on NBC's "Heroes," is a part-time baller (a point guard for the celebrity hoops squad the Hollywood Knights) whose workout regimen has been featured on TV Guide.com.
Lee confidently strides into his publicist's offices with a hipster haircut, open shirt and thick wristbands over veiny forearms. His TV character gained powers of his own last season, including the "Ando Blast" (no, that's not a protein shake). But the actor was reduced to a mere mortal when it came to learning guitar -- to play an Asian Quaker surrounded by Mormons -- in the new film "White on Rice."
"My character was based on a real musician named Tim, a very talented guy," Lee says. "We filmed the movie in Utah. The first day we got to Salt Lake City, we all went to a guitar shop and I bought my first acoustic guitar, an Ibanez. So I got lessons from the real Tim.
"And a few days later, we're onstage together with his band, performing a song for a scene in the movie. It was Halloween, so I was dressed as the Quaker Oats man, he was in an Uncle Sam outfit, the drummer was a big bear; it was just a lot of fun."
Lee had worked with director and co-writer David Boyle on the filmmaker's previous feature, "Big Dreams, Little Tokyo," so he was happy to jump into a supporting role in "Rice." The new comedy concerns an offbeat Japanese man-child, Hajime (Hiroshi Watanabe), adrift since his divorce and now living in America with his sister's family. Jimmy, as he's called, falls for Ramona (Lynn Chen), not noticing she only has eyes for Tim (Lee).
"It was heartwarming and a charming story, and the backdrop just happened to be this Japanese American family. It could have been Anytown, USA, any family," Lee says.
The film skillfully negotiates the squiggly line between absurd comedy and Jimmy's potentially worrisome behavior.
"He has innocent intentions. But he has lines like, 'It's not because I'm following you, or watching you sleeping.' He says it with such a straight face," Lee says of how the titular phrase (sticking close to someone like "white on rice") applies.
"But the phrase also refers to families sticking together. It was the first time I'd heard it and I wasn't sure about it because I didn't want it to get any kind of misinterpretation, but it stuck. No pun intended."
Much of Tim and Ramona's relationship is depicted in subtle moments, such as when she comes to his new apartment and sees no furniture, a moment born of the improv casting sessions in which Lee participated.
"I said, 'I've got Street Fighter coming in, a ping-pong table, Foosball -- I'll use that as a coffee table, whatnot,' " says Lee, channeling his character as Ramona finds him strumming his guitar on the floor. She nods, smiling: That's just like him, she seems to be saying.
Perhaps just as notably, Lee's role is that of a regular American guy. He has a band he's serious about, a good but unexciting job and a beautiful girlfriend. He just happens to be Asian American.
"It's true. It seems like a lot of mainstream movies, they have to create a reason for an Asian American character to be there," Lee says. "I think that's why I really like the characters of this movie. Sure, it's a Japanese American family, but they're all very relatable. Tim's in a decent job . . . but his passion is somewhere else. He enjoys success but is definitely going through the intricacies of relationships."
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Where you've seen him
James Kyson Lee plays Ando Masahashi on NBC's "Heroes," a role for which the Seoul-born actor is still learning Japanese. Lee has racked up appearances in shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Las Vegas" and "The West Wing"; his films include "Shutter" and SyFy's "Star Runners." He has fond memories of his first film lead, in a "really offbeat comedy called 'Asian Stories (Book 3)' [there were no other 'Books']. It reminded me of stories like 'Sideways,' where you feel a lot for the protagonist, but his life's in such a shambles. I know it's in the video store somewhere; if people get their hands on it, kudos."
-- Michael Ordona