"The Greatest Acting Exercise of My Life": Nelson Lee on 'Civil War'

Storm Santos


For the past two decades, Nelson Lee (Class of 2000) has brought a myriad of roles to life across film and television. The Taiwan-born, Canada-raised actor captivates as reporter Tony Zhao in Civil War, the cautionary tale from writer-director Alex Garland. Lee recounts memories of working on big-budget projects from Disney and the CW to the intimate, human dramas the actor longs to tell.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


It’s good to see you. I’ve been wanting to chat with you for a long time, and this is kind of the perfect moment with the release of Civil War. Which is awesome, by the way, and you’re awesome in it. I left the theatre with such a visceral reaction of delight and shock.

It’s difficult to make a film that everyone agrees on. There will be people who love it and people who say something else. For the most part, everyone walks out just wanting to talk about it. Everyone is unified with this sense of shock and wants to discuss the film’s meaning.


There’s so much to say about Civil War, which we will get to, but first, I want to talk about you. A few years ago, in an interview, you shared the moment you knew you wanted to be an actor. I wonder if you’d share that again here?

At the time, I was living in Europe, in Prague, I studied business at university, which was awful, and I quickly changed to philosophy. I was just kicking around Europe for a while, doing plays and acting when I could, but could never get the courage to say that I was an actor. I lived this very beautiful Bohemian life and was at a crossroads. My friends and I wanted to open a bar; we put our names down on a place, but I just kept going back in my head, thinking about what brought me joy. It was always performing.

My roommate at the time was applying to The Academy. I’d heard of it before but didn’t know what it was, so I applied, too. She didn’t get in…but I got in. I was in Prague, this beautiful place, but realized there was still work to be done.


I had a similar time when I was living abroad. Something in me needed to come back to the industry. I’m in good company. Tell me about Mulan, Stargirl, and Ahsoka—these big tent-pole productions. Do you feel the stakes and the scale of working on those?

Mulan was, and still is, the largest thing I worked on…with something like a $300 million budget. You feel that. They built everything; that’s where that money is. You’re in these sets that are real and practical…this big throne room, all these palaces you walk through. I remember this massive crane shot that came up, and the director was talking on a god mic because it was so far away from everyone. This big voice called out, “Action!” I remember being so giddy, like a kid, thinking, “This is my job.” [Laughs.] I’m getting to do this, and it’s epic and beautiful.


Do you like working with physical props and sets?

It’s like with Shakespeare: “All the work is done for you.” When you have those words, those costumes, you just have to believe in the situation. I’ve done video games and they’re different. Still super fun, just imagining. It’s like being in acting school again: here’s a block, and it’s my horse! [Laughs.] They’re two different things. It’s nice to have that immense realism to help you.


Elephant in the room…let’s get back to it. Civil War. It’s still so fresh in my mind. How’d you get the part?

Alex Garland is a hero of mine. I’ve admired him for a long time, even back when he was just a writer. Ex Machina was my favorite film of his. It’s been supplanted by Civil War.

The audition for it was very secretive. We didn’t know a lot about it; we knew it was from Alex Garland. I sent in a tape and heard back: “Alex wants to have coffee with you.” He’s so hands-on that he wants to meet you…that’s how he is. I sat down with him, nervous, and we had a coffee. Time went by, and they called me again, saying he wanted to have another coffee. We talked about everything so in-depth. It was so old-school Hollywood: “The part’s yours if you want it!”



The car scene is great. Hilarious. Energetic. I’d love to hear about filming it.

That scene was fun because it marked a turning point. We go from a rockstar journalist to someone who’s terrified for his life in the very next scene. The part of me reaching out and being in the car was me; the part where I’m dangling between the cars was my stunt double. It’s fun…you just have to believe that situation.


Your character meets an unfortunate death. The film deals with a lot of relevant themes without being heavy-handed or explicit. That scene, in particular, felt, in a way, the most real: it deals with identity and the idea of being a “True American.” That’s why your character is murdered: because of where he’s not from.

I grew up in Canada, in New Brunswick, and was the only Asian in my neighborhood. I was asked, “What kind of Canadian are you?” How we see ourselves is so important. The film asks this question. That’s one of the moments in the film where that question is crystallized. We know we’re going to die, but it’s going to be in order of skin tone. There was no escaping that.


You mentioned working with Alex and his style of getting up close. Can you tell us about rehearsals and your time on set?

He’s an amazing director in how he sets up the world and then just leaves you alone. It’s funny, in the beginning, I was worried he didn’t like me. [Laughs.] He didn’t pay me much attention, but that was good; he only said things if something went wrong. At the end of filming–we shot that death scene for 10 or 12 hours–he stopped me and said the kindest thing: “I hope you know how good you are.” I sighed in relief; I was worried I was about to get fired!

It was the greatest acting exercise of my life. I tried to be open to capture the reality of these people’s lives. The dialogue is so sparse.


Is there a challenge in that?

Sure. Sometimes, it clicks very easily, and sometimes it doesn’t. His trust in the skill of the people working and in the world that was created–like in that opening scene with the suicide bomber, he was personally going around with a bucket of blood, pouring it on individual extras just to get everything right. You see that frame for like two seconds, but that’s the kind of detail he has as a director. That’s how hands-on he is.

We filmed most scenes with something like eight cameras rolling at once. It was like theatre in that way.


A full-body performance.

There was no “Oh, it’s not my coverage right now.” I’m not trying to cheat out to a camera; I’m just being in the moment and reacting to what’s happening in the scene. I’m just playing the scene. And you know, having someone like Jesse Plemons to play off of is a fun and easy thing to do. I’ll take that any day.


And he’s married to Kirsten Dunst. They’re in so many things together now. I love that. Did you observe the two of them on set together? 

You know, Jesse took it very, very seriously. He didn’t speak much to her. [Laughs.] He hid away on his own. At the end of filming that day, where he murdered me probably like 100 times, he just started crying. He came up to me, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” and hugged me. It was this beautiful moment. And you can watch her [Kirsten Dunst] just stare for hours. It’s a masterclass.


She nails the world-weary-journalist-who’s-seen-too-much.

We’d just watch her. Just get to watch her all day.


I’m so happy you had that experience. Let’s talk a bit more about representation. You’ve had a career for a while now. What’s changed, and what still needs to?

I came out of school in 2000. The things that were available for me at the time–I shouldn’t complain too much because it did employ me, it was my bread and butter, and I worked a lot because of it–were “Asian Gangster.” People would say I wasn’t “Asian enough” to play the nerdy scientist roles; in their mind, they needed the stereotypical “Asian” for those roles. That still exists today, to an extent, but it’s gotten much better.

It’s crazy that it took something like Crazy Rich Asians for everyone to go, “Oh, Asians watch things!” [Laughs.] It took that movie to sort of blow the doors off. There are Asian characters in shows as leads and supporting roles…it’s wonderful, but we shouldn’t start to “celebrate.” I think that’s dangerous. I would like to see characters that don’t need the explanation, “This Tim, I met him when I was in Japan.” We can just be human.


What about the stories that interest you? I see a lot of Lightsabers and Transformers behind you. You’re no stranger to those big franchises. 

I love that stuff. But you know, at the end of the day, beautiful dramas are something that I’ve always been drawn towards. Just these real human stories. Those are some of my favorite things to come out, those small things. I love being a part of those big series’ too, and I’m a fan of them, but questions about why we’re here, why we behave the way we do…the relationships on Earth, and those human qualities being explored never get tiring. It’s a thrilling and amazing thing. And it is always different because the people are always different. That’s what makes it special.


Civil War is in theaters now. This isn’t a promo or anything, but it’s worth the watch–even just to see you at work, at play. What else is coming up?

That’s it right now. It’s back to the grind of finding work.


Which you will. I appreciate your time here today and am glad we could make this work. Congratulations on Civil War.

Thank you. I love The Academy. It taught me that this, acting, takes time. It’s not a sprint. The Academy was instrumental in making me who I am as an actor and person. If I’m available, I’ll do anything I can for The Academy. Definitely always ask.


We certainly will.

You can stay up-to-date on Nelson Lee through Instagram. Catch him on the silver screen in Civil War, playing in theatres worldwide.