I met with Raymond Lee at that beginning of 2023 during a week that was the perfect storm of Hollywood confabs. It was the day of the Critics Choice Association Awards and days before the Sundance Film Festival. It was also in the middle of the Television Critics Association press tour taking place at the lovely southern California oasis town Pasadena – specifically the Langham Huntington, a posh hotel that’s in a neighborhood that gives Get Out energy.
Prior to our merienda meeting during NBC day at the TCA press tour, I remember meeting Lee briefly at an HBO Visionaries event. Since then, it his career has progressed by leaps and bounds… emphasis on the leaps.
The actor stars in NBC’s revival of Quantum Leap, a seminal series that served as a benchmark for sci-fi series with its bold and ambitious storytelling for the time. Now, in 2023, Lee “leaps” into a lead role that was famously inhabited by Scott Bakula – but not exactly the same character.
This is more of a sequel than a reboot and is set in the present time. In context, It’s been 30 years since Dr. Sam Beckett (Bakula) stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished. Now a new team has been assembled to restart the project in the hopes of understanding the mysteries behind the machine and the man who created it.
The team is led by physicist Ben Song (Lee), who makes an unauthorized leap into the past, leaving the team behind to solve the mystery of why he did it. At Ben’s side throughout his leaps is Addison (Caitlin Bassett) who appears in the form of a hologram only Ben can see and hear. She’s a decorated army veteran and she knows how to do her job and she does it well… she also has a history with Ben.
Following the tradition of the series, Ben leaps into a different body each week, giving us varied storylines, all the while, navigating the question: why did Ben leap back?
Lee has been seen in many-a-TV shows and movies during the course of his acting career including Prodigal Son, Mozart in the Jungle, Scandal, Made For Love as well as Here and Now. Most recently, he was seen as a series regular on AMC’s Kevin Can F*** Himself. On the big screen he was featured in the Oscar nominated blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick. His theater resume is even more robust as he starred in Vietgone at Manhattan Theater Club, which he was awarded the Theatre World Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Debut. He also starred in Office Hour opposite Sandra Oh as well as Cambodian Rock Band at The South Coast Repertory.
His work speaks for himself, but Quantum Leap is a huge moment in his career. It’s a game changer, for sure. “I find that the biggest revelation that I’ve had is perhaps I’ve done a lot of roles and jobs to prepare me for this,” Lee told me as we sat and ate in the Tap Room at the Langham.
“I’ve had to wear a lot of hats, literally and figuratively in my life and in my career to just survive,” Lee explained. “Now, this is a role where I get to really use the culmination of my experiences into one [job]. All of my hobbies, all of the different ages that I get to play, all the different occupations that I’ve had to play… I’m allowing my soul to breathe in getting to play all these different folks I leap into.”
As we continue chat and enjoy our respected meals, I admit to Lee that every time I go to “industry lunches” I never know if it is appropriate to order a burger or something I eat with my hands.
I ordered a veggie burger.
“I figured I’m sure Raymond won’t mind if I devour this burger with my grubby little paws,” I told him.
“It’s just me,” Lee said, laughing assuring me he would not judge me for eating this burger which would probably end up more on my face than in my mouth because I am a messy eater. I eat as if the food is escaping from my plate.
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“I wanted to be a firefighter,” Lee revealed to me. “In my preschool graduation speech. I said, ‘I want to be a firefighter’. I knew I wanted to be something that others view as heroic because for a little boy, being a hero is something that people can look up to, and we start to work towards that path, wherever that may lead.”
I learn that Lee was born in New York but raised by a single mom in the Los Angeles, specifically in the Koreatown and Glendale areas.
“I didn’t grow up with the traditional mom wanting me to be a doctor or a lawyer, because I actually recently found out that she herself was an actress in Korea,” Lee said. “So when I told her that I wanted to be an actor, it was not met with any resistance at all.”
In fact, Lee said his mom always told him that he was meant for more than being a doctor or lawyer. When he would shoplift at 7-Eleven and get caught, his mom would tell him, “You were meant for more”. That said, the mantra, “I’m meant for more” was a mantra that stuck with him.
He continued, “She’s always been the person to give me the most critical notes when it came to seeing a plays… She’s been supportive since day one and is still my toughest critic.”
Lee’s path was, like many in this industry, a journey. He admitted that he was “aimless”. He dropped out of high school and was working Sport Chalet before he decide to pick up the pieces and go to community college. “All of my friends were at four-year universities and they’ve moved on and I was kind of being left behind,” said Lee.
He attended community college where he had his eye on kinesiology. “I thought I was going to be a physical trainer,” he said. “I wanted to work for the Lakers because of Kobe and Shaq – we like, ‘I want to tape up Shaq’s foot!’”
Then, theater came into the picture. He knew he liked performing because he grew up performing in choir and martial arts. He took an acting course and he said it was during this time when his decision to be an actor “solidified”.
In particular, talked about the time he saw John Cho in American Pie during this time – a very specific era of comedic cinema, mind you. It was when there weren’t many Asian American faces in film and TV. Lee said, as an actor, he never wanted to do anything that would make himself or his community look bad and was happy to see Cho wasn’t doing anything stereotypically Asian.
Lee said that Cho’s appearance in American Pie was “really cool”. He added, “I can get with him being a normal dude in college – being the MILF guy – that’s something I can relate to.”
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Lee and I learn that we are both around the same age. We share stories about our families’ treasured Encyclopedia Britannica collection and reminisce about owning a beeper. We also lived in an era when the original Quantum Leap aired.
Created by Donald Bellisario, the series aired on NBC for five seasons between 1989 and 1993. Lee watched episodes of the series when it was in syndication on the USA Network. His best friend at the time introduced him to the show and it was his foray into sci-fi. “It kind of opened up my eyes to sci-fi and the idea of real storytelling with heart at its core,” he said. “It’s this idea that time travel can not only exist as something that’s cool, but you get to leap into other people’s bodies.”
He admitted that he can’t remember specific episodes, but the concept of the show had a deep impact on him because it something him and his best friend shared. “We’d go out and play for hours, and as the sun’s going down, we go home, and then we turn on the TV and watch Quantum Leap together,” he said. “So I have very fond memories of the show.”
There is one thing that Lee had taken away from the show was the concept of literally walking the world in someone else’s shoes. It’s about empathy and it speaks strongly in episode 12 (airing Feb. 6, 2023) titled, “Let Them Play” written and directed by actor, writer, director and trans activist Shakina Nayfack.
In it, Ben leaps into the life of the Mendéz family as they help their trans daughter Gia (Josielyn Aguilera), who has dreams of playing on the high school basketball team – she’s on the team, but she is regulated to the bench because of transphobia. To make things more interesting, Ben leaps into the body of Gia’s dad, who is also the basketball coach.
Ben learns that he must help his school colleagues, fellow parents and his own family understand the importance of welcoming Gia onto the team or lose her forever. Considering the current social climate for trans youth and the trans community as a whole, this episode is hyper-relevant as it highlights trans youth as they navigate the challenging high school years, along with the pressures facing their families, educators and friends.
The episode – which is very thoughtfully handled – also features notable guest stars Trace Lysette Byers, Dilan “D’Lo” Srijaerajah as well as Shakina, who plays “Dottie”, a character that will drop some major news that will shake things up for the Quantum Leap team.
The Quantum Leap continuation is fitting for a time when TV is being wildly diversified. At times, the inclusion of members from intentionally exploited communities can feel shoe-horned, forced and tokenized. Some shows do a good job, others don’t but at the end of the day, we are living in a time when Hollywood is trying to figure out what exactly diversity is so trying to establish any sort of equity is going to be a journey.
In Quantum Leap, Lee’s presence as the lead character of pre-existing franchise that starred a white man is a bold move for Hollywood as well as a gamble when it comes to the diversity game. Whether we like to admit it or not, if this show with an Asian lead does not work, then it will impact how other Asian-led projects are viewed. It’s a scarcity model which too many are subscribe to.
On the cast, Bassett is joined by actress Narisa Lee as well as trailblazing actor Ernie Hudson. Non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park plays computer whiz Ian Wright, who is respectfully featured in this week’s episode.
Lee talked about stepping into a role where you are literally made to look at the world through the eyes of someone else. It allows him to live different experiences, meet different people and feel a sense of empathy in a world where it feels like it’s in limited supply.
“I always like to draw out character arcs, and being from theater, I’m very interested in where the character begins and where the character ends and for the audience to track all the specific moments and the crucial things that come into this character’s life that change the course of this story,” he said about playing Ben.
“I’ve been told that I have some empathetic qualities just because of the way I was raised as well. I was to be made aware of my surroundings, who I’m with… and there’s this role where I get to be so many different things. I get to be at the center of the narrative, tell a full story, and really expand upon the strengths that I think I have as an artist and as an actor. I get to do it wearing many different shoes and costumes in many different time periods.”
He added ”… and it’s also not lost on me the fact that an Asian person at this time, is being the face of empathy on a network where most of the audience is not Asian.”
Keep in mind, Lee has been acting for more than a minute and his resume is quite in impressive – but he’s never had the opportunity to be at the center of a narrative.
“When it comes to things you want, you kind of have to dream it into existence,” he said.