'Altered Carbon' Star Will Yun Lee: "The Conversation is Changing"

The original Takeshi Kovacs speaks with THR about what his role in Netflix's science fiction series represents in this cultural moment.
Courtesy of Netflix

[This story contains spoilers for Netflix's Altered Carbon.]

For Takeshi Kovacs, the road toward the future all begins with an apple pie.

The veteran mercenary at the heart of Altered Carbon, the visually dazzling and imaginative science fiction series from showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, based on a novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, spends most of the season occupying the body of Elias Ryker, a Bay City police detective played by Joel Kinnaman. While Kinnaman fills out the role of Kovacs for the vast majority of the series, he's not the character's original form. That distinction belongs to Will Yun Lee, who has appeared in CBS' Hawaii Five-0, Fox's The Wolverine, and USA Network's Falling Water, among other projects.

Lee appears as Kovacs in flashback form throughout the first several episodes of Altered Carbon, before stepping all the way up to the plate in the season's seventh installment, "Nora Inu." The hour serves as an epic overview of the life and times of Takeshi Kovacs in his earliest days and his original sleeve, fully occupied by Will Yun Lee. He loves. He kills. He loves again, he kills again and loses it all at the hands of someone deeply unexpected: his own sister, Reileen (Dichen Lachman), who betrays and kills Takeshi's lover Qullcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and the greater Envoy cause out of a misplaced sense of love and loyalty toward her brother. 

It's the most distinct episode of the series, anchored by Lee's deeply human performance — one that sees the actor reunited with Kalogridis, with whom he first worked more than a decade earlier.

In the following interview, Will Yun Lee speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the central role a coveted dessert played in his quest to become Takeshi Kovacs, how the role and the series at large serves as a champion for diversity, and what he hopes it will contribute to a larger cultural narrative in Hollywood.

Can you talk me through your earliest conversations with Laeta Kalogridis as you were first circling the role of Takeshi Kovacs?

I had some very loose conversations right when it was at the start. Very loose, because I was already on another project. She was hinting about something. She wasn't offering up much, except she allowed me to see some storyboard art, which filled up her entire office. It was the most detailed set of walls I have ever seen. It covered three walls, from the world to scribbles from the writers… you could tell it was going to be a massive otherworldly type of show. I started looking through the book, and thinking it was very interesting. But then I got picked up for another season of Falling Water, so I had to go do that. In that process, I kind of forgot about [Altered Carbon.] It was bittersweet. I was happy to go to my series, but at the same time, I had kept hearing all these things she wanted to do with this world.

In the course of that time, I had put on about twenty-six pounds of being overweight for the role I play, Tuck, on Falling Water. I had to gain a lot of weight for that. When I finished shooting the first season, I got a text message. I had put on so much weight, and was still in this mode of eating so much, that when I got the text message, I was driving up to Ventura Boulevard on my way up to Costco where I was on my way to get this 24-inch apple pie. Me and my wife had been eying this thing for like a week. (Laughs.) Then I get this text message: "How fast can you get in shape?" 

As your hands are hovering over the pie…

Literally, my wife's driving, and I'm looking at this text: "Uh oh." (Laughs.) Like every actor does, I gave a little nudge to the truth: "Maybe five or six weeks?" I was very far from that! We got to Costco, I looked at the apple pie, and went and got chicken breast and vegetables instead. We were still a ways off from making this a reality. I knew Laeta was pushing for a very epic episode seven, the origin story, and it had to go through an approval process because the world is so big and different. In that time, I had been doing three-a-days. I hired a nutritionist. I acted as though it was all going to happen. Cut to: she tells me to come by the office, and gives me a little glimpse at what Joel was doing. She wanted to see if I could match anything in his mannerisms, since he had shot most of his episodes already. 

I digested it, went away, and then I showed up to Canada. There was a lot of different conversations, but it was all there on the page. I threw everything out. If I'm the original Takeshi Kovacs, I felt I had a free playground for where I wanted this character to be and start. I didn't feel like I had to copy anything Joel did in terms of mannerisms. I felt what was really important for the entire show is they needed to see the optimism and hope and vulnerabilities of Takeshi Kovacs. That would allow the series to travel 250 years forward in time, and then the love between Rei (Dichen Lachman) and Quell (Renée Elise Goldsberry), that love story would be able to travel over through to Joel's story. If we didn't have a starting point, there would be nowhere to go.

Based on your story, Laeta very much wanted you specifically to play the original Kovacs. Can you describe your creative relationship? What do you think she saw in you for this role?

We started together on a show called Bionic Woman [for NBC in 2007], and she had written this original two-hour movie for NBC. It was one of the most incredible pilots I've ever read, but it never made it to air. One, I knew she was a powerhouse. It was the darkest and most layered Bionic Woman I have ever seen. It was wild! It was like Altered Carbon, but in Bionic Woman land. I wish I had saved that script, because it was so good. It was incredible. Parallel worlds! It starts with Jamie Sommers (Michelle Ryan) bloodied and battered, looking at herself in the mirror… but I digress.

Anyway, that's what started our creative relationship, and we maintained our friendship throughout the years. I got a call, and I'm not exactly sure what she saw in me, but when I signed up, she told me, "This will be the hardest shoot you ever do. I'm going to challenge. But it's time to step up as a leading man." Then she hung up the phone — and then I felt the pressure. (Laughs.) 

From there, you start digging into the character of Kovacs. What did you find?

The turning point in his life is the decision he made to shoot his father. That came from love, the love to protect his sister, and the guilt he had to not be old or strong enough to protect his mom. I knew that love was the foundation of this entire character. Everything that turned his life upside down was based on that one act of love. He gets resleeved, he's Protectorate, and then he's this killer, until he sees Rei again. It triggers this whole other layer. I wanted to find certain things that would carry into Joel's storyline. We found different mannerisms that Dichen and I could do. When I run into Renée, who plays Quell, that's the first time I had met someone who was a moral compass. I found a hint of a smile. If I could find a little bit of sunshine in Takeshi Kovacs, then Joel's resleeve would let you see how much he deteriorated and how much he's searching for internally.

Did you and Joel speak about the character at all before you started?

No, I would say it felt like a very high-end and expensive indie guerrilla film. We barely had a moment to come up for breath. The first time I had an interaction with him is when I was going to go train in a gym at the studios, and he was coming out of the gym, having just trained. We shook hands and said a few words: "Hey! This is great!" But that's about it.

Episode seven, your episode, feels like a short film. It tells you the most important beats in Kovacs' life: charting him from childhood, to joining the Protectorate, then meeting up with Quell and learning all of her ways. Finding love, losing love… so much happens within this story for you. It must have felt like a whirlwind for you.

It was a lot. It took about a month to shoot that episode. You can only do so much homework while you're on the plane and in your hotel room or in your trailer. It felt like the great things that happened were when I met Dichen and Renée. That's when we got to play. What also made for interesting television for that episode is that [executive producer] James Middleton, who played such an instrumental role when Laeta wasn't there, allowed the actors to explore and try things we wouldn't normally be allowed on regular standard television fare. He allowed me to come up with ideas for Takeshi, things that would play out in other episodes. 

For example, there's a scene where Reileen and I are walking through the forest. It's the first time we've had these conversations. I kept telling James Middleton that we needed to find something that connects the young Takeshi and Rei, me and Rei in episode seven's present, and Joel and Rei in the other episodes. Is there something physical that says it all? Could it be some version of a hug or whatever? Dichen came up with something from her culture: touching foreheads, which is from Tibetan culture. That allowed [director] Andy Goddard to film it with the kids, to let us find two moments like that in episode seven, and Joel organically found it in another great place to feature it. This is the atmosphere that a show like Altered Carbon affords you as an actor, and that's just one example.

What was your time commitment to the show?

I did about two weeks of prep, for the training and the fittings. It was a lot of training.

You went from apple pie body to Takeshi body in two weeks?

No, by the time I got to shoot those scenes? It was about six weeks.

Okay, good. That would have been too extreme.

Yeah, well, it was still pure torture. (Laughs.) I'm scattered through different episodes in the series, and we filmed for a total of about six weeks. Episode seven was the majority of it.

What have you heard from fans in response to your work in this show, and how much has the role meant to you? What kind of impact has it made?

It's definitely been a change in my career. Everything Laeta had hoped for, because she's always been fighting to give a voice as best as she could to people of color and women. She made it a point: "I want you to feel the freedom to step up as a leading man." As an Asian-American male, throughout most of my career, you kind of sit on the bench. You wait your turn. You get the ball. You do a couple of downs, and then they sit you back on the bench. But the incredible part of that is I was able to take in the incredible work I've watched over the 19 years I've been doing this. When Laeta said go? I got the jersey, I put on the helmet, and I was able to just… run. That was an amazing experience. Being a person of color? A lot of times, we're relegated to living on the edge of the screen. She took episode seven and took people you don't normally see at the center of the screen, and placed them in the center of the screen. I've gotten a lot of great feedback from different fans. I've walked into the airport and people have been like, "Oh my god! Altered Carbon!" Really being so enthused and excited about the character.

I haven't seen the outside world yet, really. I went from Altered Carbon to the second season of Falling Water, and then I jumped to The Good Doctor. I feel like everything's the same, in terms of the fact that I'm still working and keeping my head down. But I hope people get to see — whether it's me or Renée or Dichen in these roles… it just expands the conversation. They have a reference now. Dichen can play this layered character. Renée is obviously a powerhouse from Hamilton, but now she's in this light. And hopefully myself, to maybe give me a shot one day. It's a great reference point to push the conversation.

Are you up for another return as Takeshi Kovacs if there's a second season of Altered Carbon? Do you have a deal in place?

I don't have a deal, but there have been different discussions. Of course. It was such a special character to me. I put everything I had into it. I would love to explore a second season, if Netflix picks it up. It's just amazing to be in this small pocket of time where you actually feel the needle moving, from doing The Good Doctor where David Shore writes a character who could be anybody, or Falling Water where you could have a Latino or Caucasian person [playing my role]. Takeshi Kovacs? He's the same thing. It's just nice to be caught up in something that's bigger than me and bigger than a lot of things. The conversation is changing. That's the exciting thing of it all.

What's your take on Will Yun Lee's work as Takeshi Kovacs? Sound off in the comments below, and keep checking THR.com/LiveFeed for more television coverage.

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