Aloha Kelvin! Thanks for spending some time with myself and the fans. You’re a classically trained actor, but have channeled the “bad guy” vibe well. On top of that you’ve done comedy. Are there particular roles you like to play?
I like playing both funny guys and bad guys. Don Johnson once said, “Kelvin is my favorite bad guy!” because I played so many of them on Nash Bridges. The truth is I don’t play “villains”; I play “victims”. That’s what so-called evil people see themselves as. The first thing Robert Duval said to me on the set of Lucky You was, “I want you to be my bodyguard- you look tough!” I think I wear a lot of personal history on my face. I was a bouncer in a Tenderloin strip club when Ed Hastings (the artistic director of The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco) gave me an opportunity to join the acting company. He said I could audit any class for free when I wasn’t acting on stage. Paid me to learn. Changed my life. So even though I was kicked out of high school and never went to college I learned my craft “old school” on stage at ACT, Oregon Shakespeare in Ashland, The Huntington Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theater, and also doing improv in comedy clubs every Friday night. Comedy is in my blood. I need it. I have a hilarious film coming out called Wedding Palace with Margaret Cho, Bobby Lee (MadTV), Stephen Park (In Living Color) and I’m in Nick Swardson’s new movie Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star coming out later this fall. To me, comedy and tragedy are the “heads and tails” of the coins of human experience. Comedy is the intellectually evolved way to express rage.
As a young Asian actor, you must have had to break a lot of ground in the field. What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career so far?
Killing Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) on PRISON BREAK! I often play Dr.’s on TV… but always INCOMPETENT ones, for some reason. Bold And The Beautiful, Young and the Restless, Eastwick…but remember Prison Break (FOX)? Ever wonder who was ultimately responsible for killing Michael Scoffield? Yep. Sorry tweens, MILFs and other fans of Wentworth Miller.
No, seriously, the best thing I ever did with my art is help build an organization called Each One Reach One that diverts incarcerated youth from a life in prison to become productive community members through mentor-based performing arts and academic tutoring programs at (http://www.eoro.org) We changed lives. Back in 1985 I starred in the first American feature film shot in the People’s Republic of China. Ironically I’m still remembered by many of that generation for a rare onscreen kiss between an Asian boy and a Caucasian girl. I have originated characters in plays by important writers like Philip Kan Gotanda, who have given a voice to the Asian American experience. Perhaps my greatest achievement has not been fame and celebrity but longevity. I am privileged and destined to give voice and face to Asian/Pacific Islander-American community. It is something I take very seriously.
You’ve had a lot of success in different roles, but what’s one role you thought was perfect for you but never got?
Trekkies know of the infamous “internal memo” from the depths of Paramount’s archives- written in April of 1987 to the Head of Network TV about in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” The memo is fascinating. Wesley Snipes was in the running for the part of Geordi, a role ultimately filled by LeVar Burton but seemingly close to being taken by Reggie Jackson; Jenny Agutter at least read for the part of Beverly, I was considered for the role of Lt. Commander Data. You can see it here. I would be lying if I told you I wouldn’t have loved to have played Data. But everything happens for a reason. I’m not bitter in the least. Brent Spiner was brilliant as Data. I’ve been a fortunate English language actor of Asian descent because I’ve played more than my share of roles in the great canon of English language scripts. I’ve done a great Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet and a really fascinating Vanya from Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA My title role in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens was epic. But I still have a long list of roles I’d love to tackle. The TV and Film industries have come a long way to diversifying the picture of American society. I think Hawaii Five-0 is a landmark show for its inclusive and realistic picture of American society. Hawaii leads the country in multiculturalism. Hawaii looks like our future.
You definitely have the “local” look for Hawaii Five-0. I’ve heard you bust out the pidgin too! How were you approached to do Hawaii Five-0?
I have no idea why Jennifer, the casting director, called us out of the blue and offered us this role. I’d met her a couple times before. I didn’t think she even remembered me. She just offered us the part. I need to send her a nice card. Flowers.
Being cast for the Chief is a polar opposite of the villain roles you’ve played. Was there any special preparation or research you had to do for the part?
I actually have a lifetime of preparation and research for that role. My father worked for the municipal court in San Francisco so I was always around cops and cop culture. I play cops a lot so for research I’ve had conversations with Fred Lau, the first Asian American to ever hold the position of Police Chief, and I based my character partly on him. The other guy I modeled Chief Makaha after is Mike Cho. He’s the show’s law enforcement consultant and a former detective who spent 26 years with the Honolulu Police Department. The first thing I did when I got to the Honolulu was to “crash” a party I wasn’t invited to just so I could have a chance to meet Mike Cho. We talked story that night! Fascinating guy. A true Hawaiian hero.
I’ve seen your photo for Chief Makaha, you’re one cop with whom I wouldn’t even try to talk my way out of a ticket. Is Chief Makaha a friend of the Five-0 team…?
Chief Makaha is a VERY complicated guy.
Is he a character we’ll see in the future?
Why would we see the Chief of Police of HPD again? 😉
Oh wow…that’s all you’re going to tease us with! How long did you spend in Hawaii filming?
They flew me in a few days before shooting my scene to get the costume tailored just right and so I could do a little research. The few days on the island really helped me become my character. For me as an actor this is valuable creative time. It makes a difference when you’re trying to play a realistic Hawaiian character.
Did you get to do anything fun on your down time? Found any good places to hang out or eat?
That’s what I mean by RESEARCH braddah! Poke, the Hawaiian style of sashimi, is my favorite food. Honolulu has some of the BEST eating in the world! I really wanted to hit Side Street Inn but it was impossible to get a table without a reservation. Because of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” review the place is booked 3 months in advance with dinner jackets and pleated pants. That is unless Kelly Hu calls Colin Nishida and he insists that she come right down because she’s an old friend. It was like “local girl made good” became a huge star and came home! First thing she did, she went back to the kitchen and said “hi” to everybody. Several people in the restaurant knew Kelly’s family and we stayed ’til way after closing time and all the waitresses and cooks hung out ’til morning listening to Kelly Hu “talk story” over poke, pork chops and beef kalbi that done “broke da mouth”! It was epic. One of the best meals I’ve ever experienced.
The best thing I got to do in Hawaii however, was working for the “Kokua For Japan Benefit Concert” along with Kelly, Daniel Dae Kim. We were honored to help raise $1.6 million for Japan relief. It was a privilege to be able to do something to help. Thanks again Kelly Hu. She’s a really good hearted and generous person. And yes she’s even more beautiful in person.
I love Side Street Inn… great food! With this episode behind you, what other projects are you working on?
Been doing a lot of work for Japan relief lately. You can still donate at www.kokuaforjapan.com. I host a show on LA Artstream called “Creative Current”. I interview artists of all kinds and discuss their passion and craft. I have a film called Silver Case screening at The Cannes Film Festival on May 15 starring Eric Roberts and Seymour Cassell. Look for Wedding Palace in theaters this summer. And please come visit me often @ www.KELVINHANYEE.com to keep “up” on all things Kelvin Han Yee.
Last but not least, I want to thank you Officer 808 and all the people of Hawaii that I met and worked with. I always feel the Aloha spirit so strong in Kupa`āina. I try to make Chief Makaha a truthful representation of Hawaii and of Honolulu Police Department. Hope you enjoy my work. Mahalo!
Thank you Kelvin…we’re all looking forward to the finale and seeing Chief Makaha. SHAKA! \m/