By Dawn Lee Tu
Alice Lee has been in the game for a decade and there’s a good chance you’ve seen her before.
Her impressive body of work includes Broadway (award-winning Spring Awakeningand Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark) and off-Broadway (Heathers the Musical), indy film (Jack, Jules, Esther and Me), television (Switched at Birth, Son of Zorn, The Mindy Project, Two Broke Girls), to reality-music talent show Rising Star. She finds time to cover songs and release original music on her YouTube channel. Lee is also the fresh-faced Asian customer service agent in the Discover Card commercialthat always sparks a fresh round of “Spot the Asian,” my favorite game to play while watching TV.
She can be seen in Safe and Sound, premiering January 12th on Amazon Prime Video. Safe and Soundis an part of Philip K. Dick’s anthology Electric Dreams, a sci-fi anthology series of ten epic, ambitious and moving standalone episodes, each set in a different and unique world – some which lie in the far reaches of the universe and time and others which are much, much closer to home. While the stories may be worlds apart, central to each is the poignant and warm exploration of the importance and significance of humanity.
Each episode is inspired by one of Philip K. Dick’s renowned short stories and has been adapted by leading British and American writers including Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander),Michael Dinner (Justified), Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Matthew Graham (Doctor Who), David Farr (The Night Manager), Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim) among others.
Lee and I talked over the phone about her latest breakout role, balancing her love for singing and acting, and how she cultivates her creative energies.
What are three words that describe you and a little bit about your background?
Did you say three? Just three? Hmm. Outgoing, friendly, curious, lively. (laughs) I’m extroverted and I talk to people and I like adventures. I’m always down for a good time! I was born in Chicago. My parents are Korean. They came over here around the 50s. I did a bunch of music and acting stuff there (Chicago) in school and then I went to New York University. I lived in New York for seven years and did a bunch of musical theater and broadway, and then I started to pursue acting. Then I moved to Los Angeles and I’ve been here for three years. I love it here, it’s awesome!
You’ve spoken previously about your love for singing and you’ve done so many things: Broadway, Off-Broadway, television, and film. What do you enjoy doing and how do you balance all those different venues?
Honestly, it’s all apples and oranges. Each thing has its own perk and awesomeness. I’ve loved and always grown up singing, because singing comes most natural (to me). With acting, I haven’t taken classes or anything. I’ve felt lucky and hope I’ve had really good instincts. I’ve been able to maneuver my way. I love all of it; each one has its own excitement. I love how I get to do something different each time. Whether it’s singing, acting, or theater, each has its own personality so it’s cool to be able to do all of those. Right now I’m mostly focused on acting.
How do you cultivate your creativity?
I think part of it is… I sometimes, even when it doesn’t feel like it comes to (me), I just do it. I know it’s so cliché but if something comes to me… just being consistent, which I’m trying to do more. It’s actually consistently doing (and) action, rather than oh, I have to think of something. Doing, I think I just do it.
What does it mean for you to be an Asian American performer at this moment, especially since people are wanting to see more diverse roles and stories in television and film?
I think it’s awesome. I’ve been going at this for 10 years, which is crazy. I can’t believe it’s been that long! I think it’s awesome that there’s more of a desire for diversity. Of course, I think it’s necessary and I’m really, really grateful over time I’ve been able to go out for Asian-specific roles but also go out for “open” ethnicity stuff, which I think wasn’t the case before. Then, it would be very stereotypical, but now I’m grateful I can now go out for more stuff. I think there is room for more opportunities, for sure. I think it’s great, but there’s still more to go.
You mentioned that before the roles you went out for were more stereotypical, have you seen a change in the opportunities?
I do, I do. In the past I used to go out for more nerdy, English isn’t my first (language) (roles). But these days, for sure I feel like even the character I played in Electric Dreams, Milena, is so open and she’s a cool chick, actually a rebel and a badass. I started going for more stuff. Maybe it’s my personality but I’ve played a couple of mean girls – (laughs) not that that’s my personality – but I’m more (into) maybe the chill (roles). There’s more stuff, more variety in roles, for sure.
Who inspires you? Which Asian American actors and actress have inspired you over the years?
There’s a ton. Sandra Oh is amazing, I used to really love Zhang ZiYi. A lot of the Asian American guys like John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim. I love Jamie Chung as well. There’s more people… but we need more names to think of.
Any iconic performances come to mind that inspire you?
I loved Elizabeth Moss in Handmaid’s Tale, obviously she’s amazing. I wish there were more roles like that for Asian Americans. And that’s reason why I search for names… it’s because I wish there were more iconic roles that could be named more easily. (Even though) I could say names easily like so-and-so played that role, but (that role) wasn’t that inspirational, you know? One day I wish there could be more iconic – when you think of (them), bam! – roles for Asians.
Since you mentioned Milena, tell us about that episode, Safe and Sound, in the series Electric Dreams and your experience playing Milena.
It was super fun and amazing. This episode was cool. It takes place in the future, and all these kids have “dexes” which are these devices that are like our phone but different. (The future) is all just a system and Milena, goes against the grain and doesn’t have a dex. She’s an outsider but she’s so kind to Foster, played by Annalise Basso. She’s amazing. Milena’s a good rebel but she gets fucked in the end I think… being good fucked it up! Milena was really cool to play. She was different, badass, she doesn’t care, and a rebel. (She) was cool to play instead of a goody-two-shoes. She was really loose and didn’t give a shit and that was cool.
What’s compelling about the story of Safe and Sound?
These days might not be as far away as we think with technology. My episode… addresses how things can be kind of fucked… class issues still exist in this world, but in a different way. It’s a reflection of our society and it’s actually not that far (away). But how do we fix that? Seeing hope in what we’re watching and being like, oh that’s not cool. (The episode) is a reflection of what’s going on now, but in a different way. It’s super fun and super cool and it’s futuristic which is always fun to watch, but at a deeper level, there are some issues (that) people… see (and) can talk about.
What’s next for you? Any passion projects you’re working on?
Right now, I just finished a movie in New York, an independent movie, which was super fun. Jillian Bell is in it, she plays… the lead in Brittany Runs a Marathonand it’s going to be a very fun indy fun. I just finished that and right now I’m just auditioning. Otherwise, just doing the grind and excited for Electric Dreamsto come out and for people to see it. I’ll be doing more (songs) in the new year but right now it’s more acting. I should get back into (singing), I should start doing more stuff, more YouTube stuff probably.
About the author: Dawn Lee Tu does a lot of things including teaching and writing and is sometimes known for being quite knowledgeable about short hair, ice cream, and Asian American things. You can find her on Twitter at @dawnleetu