Jay Lee: Saratoga alumnus shares his successes, aspirations and struggles in the acting industry

March 28, 2019 — by Selena Liu and Callia Yuan

As a junior in high school, 2011 alumnus Jay Lee remembers practicing for his English 11 Honors Shakespearean skit — a play scene detailing the final sword fight in “Hamlet.” Surrounded by classmates who would go into professions such as engineering, computer science and medicine, Lee led rehearsal after rehearsal with his classmates.

“Even now I’m not quite sure how to articulate the feeling of seeing that 100 written on our grade report,” Lee said, in an interview with The Falcon. “But I’m convinced that moment had a profound impact that triggered some seismic mental shift."

Fast forward to first semester senior year, Lee questioned what skill sets and career path would suit him the most. With years of experience performing in both middle school plays and high school drama department performances, Lee finally decided on a college major: theater.

“In hindsight, it should have been an obvious decision, perhaps not even a decision at all,” Lee said. “By the end of my first year of college, I knew there wasn’t anything else in the world I wanted to do than to live in the arts.”

Upon graduating from USC, Lee continued to direct productions and went on to write scripts for theater companies and film shorts in the entertainment industry.

“I just closed a musical I assistant directed at USC called Happy End by Bertolt Brecht, and the other month I closed a show called Three Days in the Country (adapted from A Month in the Country) at Antaeus Theatre Company,” said Lee. “Now, I’m going into pre-production for a play I’ll be directing at USC this spring called ‘Holy Ghosts’ by Romulus Linney and a few shorts some friends and I are hoping to shoot before the holidays. As for TV/Film, I’ve done a variety of projects from network shows to smaller proofs: Colony, Bully (with Danny Trejo), Angie Tribeca, The Filth, @asst_, and a few other shows and commercials that are currently in post-production and will hopefully trickle out later down the line.”

In his biggest success to date, he landed a role in “American Vandal” season 2. The series is a parody of true crime documentaries and he plays the role of Tanner Bassett. The Falcon reached out to him to learn more about this project and his career.


Q: What was the most important factor leading to your success in the acting industry?


A: Luck. I’ve had clear enough waters over the years to be able to veer off course into serendipitous directions now and again. It’s knowing how to paddle myself forward regardless of my standing with the industry that I would attribute any sense of success I have. I happen to have been incredibly fortunate to have collided with folks who were generous enough to invite me onto their sets or rehearsal halls time and again.


Q: What has the industry taught you?


A: It’s not really a concrete lesson or skill, so much a shift in perspective. Pretty soon after I graduated college, I realized that, starting out in the acting industry, it’s very rare for a job I book to be fulfilling in a deeper, creative way, so I split my priorities to balance my time between “career” and “creative” projects. It’s still, of course, very exciting to book and terribly fun to shoot the first TV job or commercial gig, but most scripts just aren’t “Breaking Bad” or “The Office.” And that’s OK. Being an actor is a job. I don’t get to sleep much, and finding time to eat can in itself be the ordeal of the day, but by golly, I go to bed each day knowing I’ve accomplished something and get to wake up to doing it all over again. And that’s a dream come true.


Q: Has your experience at Saratoga High impacted your career path decision?


A: Absolutely. For one thing, the school provided opportunities to perform, and by the time I was a senior, I really felt that I was part of a supportive, creative community. But even with the drama department aside, I had teachers who gave credibility to my proclivity for performance as more than just a hobby, which I feel on a subtler level had a deep influence on my development.


Q: Has your attitude toward the industry changed from high school to now?


A: Can I propose that we finally divorce the words “starving” and “artist” from each other? To live in the arts, to live artfully has, in my experience (albeit still a limited one), been the closest thing to a state of grace I have ever witnessed in others, if not myself. Aren’t those the dreams to foster within each other? To strive for lives well lived?

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