BWW Interview: Reggie Lee Takes On The Voice Of The Iconic Harvey Milk
As part of the official kick-off to West Hollywood's "One City One Pride," West Hollywood's Art Division (in collaboration with the Celebration Theatre) presents a free live-stream reading of Patricia Loughrey's DEAR HARVEY on Harvey Milk Day, May 22, 2020. Produced and directed by Celebration Theatre's artistic director Michael A. Shepperd, DEAR HARVEY recalls the too-short political career and the lasting impacting of the first openly gay elected politician, as told through the eyes of those who had the privilege of knowing him. The storied cast includes: Calpernia Addams, Caroline Stephanie Clay, Robin DeJesus, West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath, Reggie Lee, Amy Pietz, director Shepperd, David Tran, Bruce Vilanch and Brittney S. Wheeler.
I had the opportunity to ask Reggie Lee (who plays Harvey Milk) a few questions while safe-distancing.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Reggie.
How are you doing in this stay-at-home situation? Healthy and staying safe, I'm hoping.
Healthy and safe. Thank God! And discovering new ways of being. FaceTime and Zoom Happy Hours have definitely become my favorite part of the day!
Michael A. Shepperd has cast you in the title role of Harvey Milk in DEAR HARVEY. You were just a toddler when Supervisor Milk was assassinated. When did you first learn of Harvey Milk and his importance to Gay Pride?
To be blatantly honest, and ashamed, when the film came out with Sean Penn in 2009. I'm certain I'd heard of Harvey Milk before, but never knew the depth of his importance and his contributions until that film came out. I feel like his importance in history is absolutely and completely not stressed and not celebrated enough.
I take it you didn't have to do a lot of background research to prepare for this role?
Ha! I actually DID. I told Michael Shepperd that I misunderstood his email, and I thought that the part of Harvey Milk was to be split up and played by this entire, wonderful ensemble of actors. I had no idea I was reading the role of Harvey by myself. But I'm absolutely honored. When I first got the script, I immediately thought of the film. But, I definitely, as brilliant as Sean Penn's portrayal of Mr. Milk was, didn't want to be influenced by someone else's portrayal of him. So, I went to original interviews that I found online. And I discovered this compassionate, empathetic, fun, passionate, unyielding, amazingly normal human being. A human being that wasn't the least bit afraid to fight for what he believed in. But so much of what he fought for was a core belief in humanness and love. I'm so happy to have researched and discovered so much more about this extraordinary, yet normal human being. I just hope to capture even a little, in this short time we have to prepare for this reading, of his essence, his empathy, his deep understanding that we're all one.
Any particular personal significance Harvey Milk played in your life?
Well, a word that he used that basically describes how he lived his life, and that resounded with me loud and clear, was authenticity. It's something I've struggled with all my life. Being born in the Philippines and raised in the Midwest, where there were very few Asian Americans, I always wanted to be someone else, something else. His example has been a message in my life to always question how authentic I'm being, to my family, my friends, my colleagues, to people I'm just meeting. And most importantly, to myself.
Did you ever think that as a Filipino-American actor you'd be cast as Harvey Milk?
Ha! Never in my wildest dreams. But leave it to Michael Shepperd and Celebration Theatre to break that mold! They constantly push the button and challenge the norm on inclusion and possibility. They are a gift to the Los Angeles theatre community, and to the theatre community in general. And to do this reading, not just on Harvey Milk day, but also during Asian Pacific Heritage month, is a gift and an honor.
How did you and Michael Shep first connect?
Well, Shep might challenge this, and I might be completely wrong; which will put me in deep trouble. LOL! BUT, I was on a TV series called Grimm, and our creator/producer Todd Milliner, who was highly involved in producing for Celebration Theatre as well, introduced me to him. Then again, I may have met him eons before in the Los Angeles theatre community which, like I said, would put me in deeeeep trouble. I'd always known him to be the Artistic Director of Celebration, and only in the past few years have I actually seen him perform. I was absolutely floored. He is an amazing, extraordinary talent. So much respect for his talents both on and off the stage.
Have you worked with any of the DEAR HARVEY cast before?
I have not had the pleasure of working with any of this incredibly seasoned, lauded, talented cast but I certainly know who they are. Bruce Vilanch is just LEGEND as a writer and actor. And I saw Robin DeJesus' amazing Tony-nominated performance in BOYS IN THE BAND on Broadway. And Amy Pietz,and all of them! So talented! Couldn't be more thrilled to share a Zoom call/reading with them!
You moved to Los Angeles in 1992 instead of going to Harvard. What was your parents' reaction to first being accepted at Harvard? And then to you deciding not to go?
"WHAT????!!!" was their reaction. No, seriously, they knew where my heart was. It wasn't their first choice, but I totally get it now. I think it's that immigrant mentality of wanting stability for your kids. They have been the most supportive, loving parents, in every way possible. I remember walking the red carpet for the first time with my dad at the Pirates of the Caribbean premiere and asking my dad how he was doing. He just said, "I'm getting goosebumps." It was nice to share that with him after all they've done for me.
How long did you have to 'pound the Hollywood Boulevard pavements until you booked the national tour of MISS SAIGON?
Fortunately, not too long. I wish I had a more "I really had to pound the pavement" story! But, it was definitely several months of struggling to find a groove. But, I can't believe I had to come to L.A. to get a national tour of a Broadway show! I was so happy to get to originate that first national company in Chicago. Time of my life! Also, I'd never seen so many Asian Americans in this industry in my life! I was always used to being the only one in the cast.
I have to ask, was the role of The Engineer played by a Caucasian or Asian?
Asian! And Filipino at that. Raul Aranas. Amazing actor.
Tell us about your experience dancing for Prince on the MTV Video Music Awards. Details please!
Wow! You really dig deep. LOL! Well, I was hired as a dancer for the amazing Prince for the MTV Awards. Sean Cheeseman was choreographing and we had learned choreography. Prince would come to rehearsals dressed as he does for a performance. Completely color-coordinated. Always so fashionable. I remember they wanted to pay the dancers less because it was a large group. And he fought for us to get the pay we deserved. He was always softy-spoken, but you knew he was in your corner. When we got to the venue, which was the Universal Amphitheatre at the time, I remember being told that we were going to scrap the choreography completely and just improv! Also, we all just wore sort of a bathing suit-type costume and just had gold and blue body paint! Very much to the surprise of MTV at the time. All such a crazy ride! But Prince was amazing and full of surprises as usual and it was an experience to remember. One for the books. To say the least!
Can you share any tips for being creative and productive with your lots of extra time at home?
Ooof! This was a bit of trial and error. Or maybe there's no such thing as error since it IS a pandemic. The first week was like a vacation. A television show I was on, suddenly stopped. We were in the middle of filming a 2-part season finale. So, I'll say the first week felt like a welcome vacation. The second the same. And by the third, I was definitely getting antsy. I needed to find some structure. Something to do. I'll have to say that structure is key. To give oneself a timeline and to work on something you're passionate about for a few hours each day. It doesn't need to be long. But, I found the longer I sit there, the more I get engaged and feel that creative energy. Anything creative is a muscle. So I feel like it atrophies when we don't use it. Just sit there and do what you do. Give yourself a few hours. Also, there's nothing that inspires me more than good work. There have been so many opportunities in quarantine to watch quality TV shows, movies. Not to mention, so many streams of people performing live, and also so many opportunities to watch stage work on streaming TV. It feeds me, constantly. Do both. Watch wonderful material. And do what you do several hours a day; whether it's acting, writing, singing, dancing, producing. Get past that first hour and you'll see that you miss that drive.
What does the celebration of Pride mean to you, Reggie Lee?
Simply, I think it's a wonderful reminder of inclusion and the freedom to be authentically you. Whatever that is. A reminder to love yourself, a little more. And to treat others with that same respect.
Thank you again, Reggie! I look forward to checking out DEAR HARVEY this Friday evening.
To RSVP for this free live stream DEAR HARVEY May 22, 2020 @ 5pm PST, log on here.