Rex Lee started out as Ari Gold’s punching bag on Entourage and ended up his protégé. Now Lee, an openly gay actor who has been called “debatably the most prominent gay Asian ever on TV,” has a recurring role as the blithely nosy Mr. Wolfe, a guidance counselor, on Suburgatory. We spoke with Lee about his inevitable Suburgatory nude scene, the highly suspect Entourage movie, and working with Jeremy Piven.
How did you wind up going from a show like Entourage to a show like Suburgatory?
Last spring, before we started shooting the last season of Entourage, I was really tense about what my next job was going to be; I just thought, worst case scenario, casting directors in L.A. are going to be very short-sighted and unimaginative and decide that I can’t play anybody other than Lloyd from Entourage. And so I was reading every pilot I could get my hands on, and I just wasn’t right for anything. And then just out of the blue, the people at Suburgatory sent me the script for the pilot, and they said, “Look: There’s this small role in the pilot, it’s small enough that we’re not going to make you audition; if you want to play the role, it’s yours.” I thought that the scene they wanted me to do was cute, and even though it’s just in the pilot, I can always say, “I was in the pilot of this really cool show!” So I went in, and one day of work turned into a season of work.
You are one of the few men on the show who has not gotten naked yet. Have you noticed this?
[Laughs] Yes, I did notice it. And I don’t know what to say about that, exactly. I’m not really clear on how much warning everybody got before they got naked. I’m a guy who struggles with his weight, and between the pilot and shooting the rest of the season, I did a sort of fad diet, and I lost about 30 pounds and went to work feeling very confident about my body. And as it is with a lot of those diets, once I wasn’t on the diet, I started to gain it all back. So as the season went on, I was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And I didn’t know that everyone was going to be so naked all the time! And as I started to notice, I thought, “Ohhh, should I start asking questions about whether I’m going to get naked at some point?” I mean, on the one hand, I don’t feel like taking my clothes off, but on the other hand, I don’t want to be left, out either!
Any news about the possibility of an Entourage movie? Is Doug Ellin just pulling our leg, or is this really a possibility?
If you had asked me this question a week or two ago, I probably would have been less optimistic — which doesn’t mean I’m more optimistic this week, but what I mean is: A week ago, I would tell people, “We really need Doug Ellin to write a script, and if that happens, we can move forward.” And because he was engrossed in this pilot he was writing for HBO called 40 — and this isn’t a discussion I’ve had with him, but I just thought, He’s busy, he doesn’t have time to write this if he’s writing something else. But in the past week, he’s announced that HBO is not moving forward with that pilot. So I don’t know what that means for Doug Ellin and the time that he has to devote to this. So it’s a little up in the air, but maybe the chances are incrementally better than they were last week. But I don’t know.
Do you have enough distance from that character for a movie? Are people still coming up to you and telling you that you were the only likeable person on the show?
[Laughs] I don’t know if anyone ever really said it that way. Most people said they liked me on the show. They didn’t say everyone else was unlikeable. Lloyd was sort of like the everyman character in this fantasy show. He was a guy who was working like a dog to try to get ahead in the world, and like a lot of people, he had a boss who wasn’t necessarily mindful of his feelings at all time. So there was a lot to relate to.
You had said in some early interviews that you wouldn’t want Lloyd to become an agent, which of course he did. Was that bittersweet for you?
The first thing I should point out is the reason I didn’t want Lloyd to become an agent was purely selfish as an actor. I just thought to myself, If Lloyd continues to be Ari’s assistant, that means Rex will get to act with Jeremy Piven. And I didn’t want there to be a situation where that changed, and I was afraid that if Lloyd became an agent, that it would. And it sort of did. I’m not complaining, but it was strange.
So you liked working with Jeremy Piven. Can you tell a particularly memorable story?
Okay. I’m going to start telling you this story, and you’re going to ask me for details, and I am not going to give them to you. So I’m warning you, all right? There was this one scene that Jeremy and I did together. And there’s this weird sort of protocol when you’re working with another actor, where it’s not cool for one actor to direct another actor. But whenever Jeremy had an idea about something, and it was just so good that he couldn’t not share it, he would share it. There was this one scene that he and I did, and he said to me, “You know, the next take that we do, you should say this.” He was basically feeding me a line. And I said, “That’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard. If I say that, and it makes it into the final edit, everyone will always, always remember that moment.” And for some reason — we probably did four or five takes of that scene — I never, ever remembered to say what he told me to say. I wasn’t deliberately not saying it because I didn’t want him to give me a line; I kept forgetting to do it. And therefore, there’s no take where I ever did it, and I will always, always regret that I never said those words. And now you’re gonna want to know what they were, and I’m not gonna tell you.
That’s frustrating. Were there any guest stars who were particularly fun to work with?
James Woods. You know, James Woods is really reputed to have a very large penis, and I was aware of his reputation. So there was one take where I pretended to mistakenly call him “Mr. Woody” instead of “Mr. Woods,” and he gave me this look like, “If we weren’t in a place of business, I would punch you.”
Your character is Korean on Suburgatory; weren’t you Chinese on Entourage?
That is correct. I am, in life, Korean. You know, on Entourage, I feel like there was this split second when I could have said to Doug, “I just want to make sure you know that in real life, I’m Korean.” And I didn’t say it. And I’m kind of unclear as to whether or not he made the character Chinese because he thought the character was Chinese, or if he thought I was Chinese and wanted to make me feel comfortable by making the character Chinese as well. But from that moment on, Lloyd was Chinese.