It was early March and 33-year-old Raymond Lee was seated at a large square table next to Oscar-winning actors Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins. Roughly 20 HBO executives sat opposite, watching intently and taking notes.
This was Lee’s first table read for the yet-to-be-titled HBO family drama series written by Alan Ball, the man behind “True Blood”, “Six Feet Under” and the 1999 feature film “American Beauty”. The untitled project is the third series from Oscar and Emmy-winning HBO heavy-hitter Ball, and Lee, a Long Beach State theater grad, just got what some might say was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I got the call and they said, ‘Christmas came early. You booked it.’ And I was yelling, windows were shattering from my car, and I had to ask my friend to pull over because I was shaking,” Lee said. The next two people he called to tell the news were his wife and mom.
For Lee, the journey to this moment has been marked by hard work and commitment to living out his passion. He’s done the stereotypical L.A. actor life – working as a waiter and going on auditions – until 2012 when a string of TV commercial gigs helped pay the bills enough for him to pursue acting full-time. But Lee almost didn’t take this journey at all.
“My dream (after high school) was to tape up Shaq’s foot for the Lakers,” Lee said of Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA Hall of Fame center. So, he decided to pursue kinesiology. One class away from transferring to a university with that major, Lee discovered he had to fill an elective. He chose a theater class.
“I was always sort of scared of it, because I knew I had some sort of a knack for performance, but I didn’t want to do it and be bad and it, and then no longer have it be fun for me,” said Lee.
After one class and a small part in a school production, though, Lee was hooked. He switched his focus, took all the theater classes he needed, and then landed at Long Beach State where he began his artistic awakening.
“I’d gotten into a couple of schools and my focus was going to be theater, but I wanted to go to a place that wasn’t just good at theater but also had a good art department,” Lee said. “I came here and saw a production of ‘Titus’ and it was everything that I wanted in a performance because it combined fine art elements, and there was an overflow of dancers and incredible movers. That’s when I said, ‘Yeah, I want to go to Long Beach.’”
As Lee described it, the theater department at Long Beach State was full of ‘weirdos’ that were fearless and outrageous in their creativity. He found mentors and influencers in movement professor Orlando Pabotoy (now faculty at NYU), who taught him the art of clowning and physical performance, acting professor Hugh O’Gorman and history professor Craig Fleming, who Lee said would wake him up in class to tell him to pay attention and taught him that history is important.
“The theater department here is really good at inspiring and a lot of times for artists, inspiration is the most important,” said Lee. “You can have all the technique in the world, but if you’re not inspired to use it, then it’s useless. So, what’s amazing is that this department is never short of letting people explore the most radical parts of themselves.”
After graduation, Lee joined an over-the-top clown troupe with some of his classmates called “Four Clowns” that won numerous awards including the Top of Fringe, Best World Premiere and Best Physical Theater awards at the 2011 Hollywood Fringe Festival. He also earned a steady stream of small roles in TV shows including “How I Met Your Mother”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “Modern Family” and “Scandal”.
Last year, Lee starred in a play called “Office Hour” opposite actress Sandra Oh that was met with high praise. His role as Quang in “Vietgone,” a play about Vietnamese refugees in America, took Lee to New York where the show had a successful run off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It was as “Vietgone” was wrapping up that Lee was asked to submit an audition tape for the HBO project.
The 10-episode HBO series is in the beginning stages, but Lee said he’s working as hard for the role, including putting in hours at the gym to create his character (written to be a gym rat working out his inner demons).
Yet Lee said reaching superstar level is not his goal, and never has been.
“As long as I’m working with people that I feel are high quality people, I think I’d be very happy. This is more about me exercising my needs to perform and to tell story and to be useful,” he said.
“I just want to know that I’m good at something and I want to be able to tap out my potential of what I think I can achieve. That’s really what drives me.”
MORE FROM LEE
Raymond Lee’s photo shoot took place in the Theatre Arts building. The very same room where Lee took many of his acting classes. “I haven’t put it together yet, but there’s something very poetic about my returning here years later to this room.”
What Lee is currently watching: “Six Feet Under, because I want to get more in touch with Alan Ball’s mind.”
What Lee is currently inspired by: “I’m mostly inspired by ensembles of any form, whether it be a choir, band, theater ensemble, because it means that that group of people is so willing to let go of their own egos and willing to contribute to collaboration that they lose all of themselves and they give it all to the story. To me that’s super exciting.”