Justin Lee interview: Arrested Development, Annyong, bowl haircuts & ninjas

Ivan chats to Arrested Development's Justin Lee about Annyong, Arrested Development, and saying it all with just one word...

This interview contains a plot spoiler for Arrested Development season three.

As Arrested Development returns to Netflix this weekend, we hide in the walls of the Bluth’s penthouse to talk to actor Justin Lee – a.k.a. everyone’s favourite adopted Bluth, Annyong – to talk about pudding bowl haircuts, being recognized in the street and only being allowed to say one word… 

Annyong! Sorry. You probably get that a lot. 

Yeah, it happens, but it’s part of the job. I appreciate it. It just shows that something I’ve done has had an impact. Mostly people say it to me for a positive reason. 

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How did you get the part of the Bluths’ adopted Korean son? 

Pretty basic. I got a call from my agent to go to an audition. It was a three-part audition; I did well, went to a callback, did well and went to a second callback on the same day. By that time, all the producers and writers were there. Mitch (Hurwitz) was in there.

 

Did you just have to say one word? Or did they get you to do more? 

Yeah! [Laughs] I think they wanted to see more of what I could offer! So they actually had us read for George Michael’s role. I believe it was season one, episode three, the scene where George Michael is having a sentimental moment with Michael with the Cornballer. I had no idea what a Cornballer was! 

Did they explain the character and the joke to you? 

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They did not explain anything to me! I thought it was funny that my name was Annyong. When I read what scripts I had, I thought it was funny, but it’s not like we had this road map or guide of what Mitch was going to do. We had no idea what he was going to pull! He was writing things until the last minute and for good reason. He’s a perfectionist. So sometimes I’d get new scripts that very second flying on to set. But when the writing is of that caliber, it’s so much easier. Mitch has a purpose and a reason. It’s almost like you didn’t need direction – he’s writing to the creativity you bring to your character. He’s a very, very intelligent writer. 

In series three, we find out that Annyong was the mole all along. Was that a surprise for you as well? 

Yeah, I found that out the night before! That’s the way it goes, though. I got the script, I read it and I was like “Woo hoo!” Whether they had planned it all along, who knows?

 

With all that going on, how chaotic did the shoot feel? 

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The writers, directors, the crew – they had to set everything up at the last minute too – everyone was so professional. I’ve never worked on such an amazing set where everyone, from the camera operators all the way up the producers, was on the same page. It didn’t matter if we were getting new scripts at the last minute because we all pulled together. It made it so much easier for me because I was fairly new to the industry. This was really my big job that got me started. 

You were young back then, only 14 or 15 years old? 

I was fourteen years old and I looked about ten or eleven! I hadn’t quite caught up yet… But all the actors made it so much easier on set. 

Did you spend much time on set when you weren’t shooting? 

Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, I spent more time with Tony but I looked forward to working with each of them. For example, I hadn’t worked with Will [Arnett] yet, then they told me “Oh, you’re working with Will today!” and I was ecstatic. I saw how funny he was off set so to actually do a scene with him… there was so much to learn from everyone. I think that was the greatest thing; learning from the cast. 

And there you were, with your one line… 

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Having one line was challenging! For a little bit, I just had the one line, then they gave me some more, but I thought it was easier the more lines I had! Then again, the challenge was the fun part. I had to find other ways to be interesting on screen. I had to learn that it’s not the words that matter; inflection and purpose is key to finding the millions of different ways to say one word. 

It’s surprising how many ways there are to say that one word! How would you sum up the feeling of Arrested Development – its success, growing to become such a big thing, then going away for so many years before finally returning – in the word “Annyong”? 

[Audio clip: That is so hard! In my mind, I would still feel that it’s surreal… I have to say it in a way that’s in awe, surreal… You’re getting to see how my brain works right now! Alright, let’s see… Annyong?! There you go. I’ve never had an Annyong go into falsetto before!] 

Given you were so young at the time, did any of your friends watch the show? 

Not too many did. Some of them noticed some of the commercials I had done. At that young age, I had a lot of friends watching the Disney Channel. While I was in high school, it was actually the college demographics or the seniors who would notice. But again, it wasn’t like that many people noticed me: in season 1, the show was having difficulties bringing in viewers. I guess you could say we were something of a ratings fiasco. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest shows ever on TV, but we couldn’t find the viewers. That’s why Netflix is such a great vehicle, pushing out our fanbase as it grows bigger. 

And, of course, you had that pudding bowl haircut for several years of your life. What was that like? 

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I think most people thought I was trying to rock it! For the people who watched the show, they liked it. I guess you could say I was kind of a nerd in high school, so I was in the upper division math courses – I embrace my inner nerd. [Laughs] But it was actually a benefit. Probably the best part is I’m a freshman and I’ve got these senior girls who found out that I’m on this show through a senior guy, one of my brother’s friends, and they sit behind me and they started just playing with my hair. This kind of kept going for the rest of the semester. They just liked playing with my hair.  You know, a 14-year-old kid, starting to find his interest in girls, and you have these pretty seventeen-year-old girls touching his hair. I wasn’t complaining! 

Do you still have The Bowl? 

It’s different now! But no matter how I cut my hair, when it grows out, it will always grow out into The Bowl. I just naturally have a bowl. I think that’s why Annyong was meant for me! [Laughs]

 

Do people recognize you in the street without The Bowl? 

It’s not actually the bowl that gets me recognized – it’s the face! I’ve grown up so much now. Nine years, I’m a foot taller, puberty has happened… But I still appreciate it. Now, I’m hearing stories of people naming their cat Buster and their dog Annyong. I never realized that one word could leave such a positive impact! And that comes back to it again: I’ve never had anyone say “Annyong” to me in a bad way or to make fun of it. It’s because they’ve had a positive experience with something I’ve done. Ultimately, if I can leave some kind of positive impact by doing something I love – something that, you know, isn’t the most Samaritan of work – if I can leave a positive impact, that’s all I want. 

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What are you up to now? 

I’m still in training at The Actor’s Room, which is a world-renowned acting studio run by Steve [Lowe], who is also my manager. It’s really helped to find my passion in production. I’ve opened up a production company with my business partner, Ryan Tsang. We’ve been keeping ourselves busy working on a lot of new media things. One of them is One Warm Night, a nine-part series produced by The Actor’s Room – several episodes are available to watch on OneWarmNight.com. It’s a fun, quirky, crazy series – similar to Arrested Development in the way we have a large ensemble cast and add a little mystery and suspense to it. It’s a comedy about this beautiful girl who invites all her ex-boyfriends to this room. Pretty soon, they’re in a game of cat-and-mouse as this plot to murder them all arises… The FBI gets involved. A ninja gets involved. 

Sorry, did you just say ninja? 

Yeah, there’s a ninja! He does his own stunts too. The guy’s crazy. We’re really fortunate – the show has started to grow into itself. And like Arrested Development, you have to pay attention. Our writer doesn’t like to write dumb. The script started as a class to teach character development but we decided to shoot it and realized we had a show. There are no real guidelines on how to do a new media show so we’ve just been making things up as we go. It’s also given the actors opportunities to get involved with the community. We’ve been reaching out to charitable organizations, such as SAFE (Suicide Awareness for Everyone), and we’ve had cast members do some guest speaking. It goes back to if I can use acting or my position in any way to help others or to leave this world that much better, I’m all for it. That’s probably been the best thing about being part of One Warm Night is what it’s helped me to do. It’s just been picked up for a second season. This is the most complex role I’ve had to date, so I’m really looking forward to it.

 

And, of course, to the return of Arrested Development. How did you feel when you heard it was definitely coming back? 

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Excited doesn’t even begin to express when I found out everything was coming back. I’m just really, really happy for everyone. The cast, the crew, the writers. I couldn’t think of a better group of people that deserve this show to come back. It still just feels surreal and I think even when I’m watching it on May 26th, it’s still going to feel surreal. I’m excited to see how everything pans out. 

Going back briefly to the whole mole thing, the political climate has changed a lot since Arrested Development left. If Annyong was unveiled as a Korean mole now, following Olympus Has Fallen and the Red Dawn remake, do you think the story line would become something bigger? 

Well, you know, I think season three did a good job leaving it open for Annyong. There’s a lot of room for him and Mitch does like to write current about what’s going on in today’s world. He does throw in politics tastefully while still making it funny and still taking the risk – I don’t know how he gets away with some of the things he writes. But with everything that’s going on politically, it does leave a lot of options… 

Okay, look. We’ll just ask. Are you in the new series? 

I’ll tell you this… anything is possible! 

So that’s a yes? 

I never said that! 

Have you seen much of it? 

The premiere was at the beginning of the month and we got to see the first two episodes and it’s funny. It’s a cool concept because you’re not going to see all the actors in every episode. It’s setting up the back story to the family, which has disbanded without Michael, who’s the glue who kept them together. You can see how they’ve all gone into a state of (ahem) Arrested Development. The first two episodes are following Michael around, but the others are following Gob around or Lindsay around… 

Or following Annyong around?

We’ll see! 

Ivan Radford is an Arrested Development addict and has blue himself on several occasions. He also runs a video on-demand reviews site called VODzilla, where he’s interviewed the rest of the Arrested Development cast.