Hoon Lee gives Cinemax’s new crime drama ‘Banshee’ an unexpected dose of drag


DRAGSTER | Korean-American actor Hoon Lee took on an unusual role — that of a small-town cross-dressing gangster — in the new Cinemax crime drama ‘Banshee’ from Oscar-winner Alan Ball.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

As an Asian-American actor, Hoon Lee is accustomed to looking at, as he says, “a smaller spectrum of roles.” So when a good one comes by, why turn it down?

That experience informed Lee’s decision to take on the role of Job, the cross-dressing Korean-American gangster in small-town Pennsylvania in Banshee, a new series premiering Friday on Cinemax. Considering it is executive-produced by gay Oscar-winner Alan Ball, it’s hard not to see the similarity to another of Ball’s series where a rural gay man in drag seems not to raise eyebrows.

“Yes, when I talked to people about this role, they always referenced Lafayette from True Blood,” Lee concedes with a chuckle. “It’s as if he asks, where can we put these guys? Amish Country! Is there a niche being created [for minority actors]? But that very question implies a problem. It’s never really [an issue] to say we have another white, heterosexual male hero — it’s a trope standard to the genre.”

Banshee revolves around a recently-paroled thief who steals the identity of the town’s new sheriff, enlisting the help of shady computer hacker Job to stay ahead of the game.

Lee has done drag for theater before, but this role upped it.

“I’d done drag once in a play, but it was a farce so it was part of that comedic thing. It was very much a new experience we all had to think about and work around. I felt the production was extremely helpful.”

Lee, who is straight, has been mindful of his responsibility not just to the character, but to the communities he represents — both LGBT and Asian-American.

“What I like about becoming part of this community of characters is, we have a sense of shaping how people see these kinds of characters,” he says. “The more extreme the character is, the more interested I am in doing it. It does carry a risk; you are sensitive to that as [a minority]. Is this propagating some stereotype of Asian men as gangsters? The real trap is looking at things in generalities. If there’s a sensational quality, that’s where the problem arises.”

If Job is a stereotype, it’s not a bad one. Lean and handsome, Lee plays Job with a sassy personality; when two teenage girls gawk at him sitting on a beach in a designer wrap, he hisses, “This is Diane von Furstenberg! Now go get pregnant, Snooki.”

Lee laughs at the reminder. A graduate of Harvard University, he brings a thoughtful, analytical approach to his role.

 “What’s exciting to me about Job — and I really enjoy this character — is, I think there’s been a rich dialogue for why he does what he does. He pulls from whatever he needs to achieve his objective — that’s a computer hacker mentality. That also speaks to his cross-dressing — there’s a lot of power in the feminine side of the world, something men can’t access.

“I don’t get even asked to audition for these kind of roles very much and I think the opportunity is tremendous. If someone watches me and puts me in a container in the first few seconds, that allows me to shatter that. If they don’t, they are waiting to see what you are.“

As for the downsides of playing gay and drag, so far Lee has just been happy to explore a unique aspect of society. Even his folks are cool with that.

“My parents are from Korea and pretty traditional,” he says. “What was really curious was, when I told them about the role, their reservations had nothing to do with drag, but the potential for me to be nude. That was funny to me. It’s nice to get these reminders that your parents aren’t as square as you think.”

 This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 11, 2013.