Hoon Lee is visually arresting in Cinemax’s ‘Banshee.’
by David Goldberg
Cinemax’s ADHD action series Banshee focuses on a small Pennsylvania town and the con artists, mafiosos, and criminals who hide there in plain sight. Among the stern cast of gun-bearing brunettes shines Job (Hoon Lee), a hacker whose look and gender identity change with his mood. OutSmart spoke with Hoon Lee about how TV’s most interesting gender-deviant character is being developed.
David Goldberg: Banshee looks very drab—with white people, grayish clothes, and a dreary aesthetic. But your character stands out visually with his colors and outfits, and aurally with his loud personality. Why? Are you involved in this kind of design when it comes to Job?
Hoon Lee: More than anyone in the story, Job is really a fish out of water. A lot of the time, his presentation is his open act of rebellion [against] where he finds himself. It’s about him asserting his identity in this place he can’t stand to be in.
In terms of input, it’s a fairly involved process to figure out what the design of Job is going to be for the season. I have an amazing design team, and hair and makeup and costume teams, to figure out what kind of visual things we’re going to bring to the table. It’s usually always rooted in the action of the episode and what we feel Job’s take is on what’s happening, which is usually a sideways, sarcastic, and sardonic look at the events.
There’s a lot unexplained with your character. It seems like he often just materializes in a scene with no explanation of where he’s coming from or where’s he’s going or why he’s wearing what he’s wearing. January Jones famously said that she doesn’t want to know what the Mad Men producers intend for her character because she wants to be as naïve as Betty Draper is. Are you conscious of the character’s ongoing storyline off screen, or do you just focus on the scene when you are on camera? Do you want to know more about your character?
I find personally that a lot of Job’s strength lies in his mystery and in the things I don’t know about him yet. It’s an exploratory process all the time, [so] I don’t feel the need to rush to those sorts of conclusions. That’s the luxury one has with a television show, where you have ten episodes to discover these things. The characters evolve with you.
I keep thinking that because you’re such a hit on a pretty straightforward action show with action elements, it would be great if a character like Job showed up in a huge action movie. But TV has progressed much further. Do you see that being a possibility for a character like job?
I definitely think so. In recent history, we’ve seen some of the most epic works of fantastical fiction on screen—The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Matrix trilogy. They’re pure science fiction and fantasy. In terms of objective fantasy, Job is much closer to home than an Orc or a monster is. Our show certainly has a lot of action, but the real element that hooks people is what lies beneath—the dual lives that most of us are leading in some way or another. Very few characters on our show are what they appear to be. It’s somewhat ironic to me that Job is one of the more straightforward characters on the show, because he presents himself exactly as he feels. Whatever he may be feeling, he puts it out there. It’s a very frank presentation, or at least an acknowledgement that we’re all dressing up in some way or another.
What has the reaction of your fans been like? Who are the Banshee fans, and how do they view you and your character?
I went into the role very aware that no matter what I did, because of the external qualities of the character, there was a good chance that there would be a strong reaction, both positive and negative. There could be an embracing of the character and a rejection of the character, and it might have more to do with people’s internal repertoires and prejudices than anything I was doing. But ultimately, if you want to be an actor and work at a certain level of visibility, that’s something you risk, regardless. I’ve been incredibly pleased and humbled to see the audience embrace Job as they have. And that makes me very hopeful, because Job is very sarcastic and a bit of a grump, and he’s not necessarily the guy next door. I haven’t actually felt a lot of negative backlash. I feel like the fans understand that [there’s a reason for] his behavior and presentation and his affect, but at his core you’re looking at an incredibly loyal, funny, intelligent person. You’re looking at the person and not at the wardrobe.
Has there been media pressure to identify the characters as trans, or to specify Job’s gender and sexual identity?
Yes, and I expected it. When we first started exploring the character in season one, no one had more questions and concerns about it than I did. I’ve never been asked to play a role like this before, and I wanted to make sure that we weren’t falling into the traps that exist for a character like this, which is when you start to see him in terms of labels and not in terms of character. We spent a really intense amount of time trying to articulate the specific traits and decisions that this person makes, [rather than getting caught up in why] a group of people in general would try to cross-dress or take on feminine aspects. Why does this person do it? I feel like that’s the only way to be true to that actual impulse, to not set yourself up as some weird proxy for an entire community, which is helpful. Now, when new writers come in, we have the ability to lay the framework for what makes sense for Job and what doesn’t.
Compared to the gay and trans characters on Glee, or the queer line-cook on True Blood, you’re so much more involved in protecting the identity of the character.
Any time information comes out about the character, you can’t take it back. In a show that guards so many of its secrets—that in many ways is about its secrets—you have to guard those things quite jealously.
Banshee returns to Cinemax for its second season on January 10 at 9 p.m. CST.
David Goldberg also writes about Laverne Cox in this issue of OutSmart.