‘Beef’ star Joseph Lee on working with Ali Wong: ‘It was just fireworks from the get-go’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

Much like his character, George, on the Netflix series “Beef,” actor Joseph Lee is also a fine artist. But that wasn’t necessarily why Lee found playing George so rewarding. “I think him being an artist might have just been another outfit for me,” Lee tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “It could have just been just another cardigan that I wore on the show. That really wasn’t like the priority for me.”

Instead, Lee explains, the fact that George was an artist meant he had some personality traits Lee could understand. “There’s a certain layer of sensitivity, insecurity, and the struggle to be vulnerable that I really connected with on that level,” Lee adds “Those are the kinds of elements that I really wanted to extrapolate with George.”

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Lee has appeared in a variety of projects in recent years – including 2018’s “Searching” – but “Beef” represents a breakout for the actor. George is the husband of Amy (Ali Wong), the woman who comprises one-half of the title disagreement that occurs after a road-rage incident. (Steven Yeun, who Lee has known for years, plays the other warring party.) The show’s casting directors, Claire Koonce and Charlene Lee, have said finding the right actor to play George on the Netflix series was quite difficult, largely due to his contradictions: George has a relentless positivity that belies a deeper pathos. “If it was just someone who was so easily dismissed, then I think that lowers the stakes of the story,” Koonce previously told Gold Derby about George.

“As an actor, you never want to step into a role judging your character,” Lee says. “For me, what helped that was to kind of see George almost like a golden retriever – a childlike point of view. It was actually really liberating for me because it was nice to kind of get back into some of those childlike impulses. When you see George, he just has this purity for the things that he loves when it comes to his family and his art. So it was nice to be able to tap back into those kinds of elements of your own childhood. And then just to be free without judgment.”

Lee shares the majority of his scenes with Wong and while the pair had known each other previously – she had purchased one of Lee’s paintings in real life – their connection was even a surprise to the actors.

“Our first workshop was our chemistry read, and it was just fireworks from the get-go,” Lee says. “Just something special was happening – whatever Ali was giving me, I was taking and dishing back, and just not even from a heavy, actorly level. Just in that presence. We just felt like there was something there.”

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Once he was cast, Lee says the pair didn’t have specific discussions about George and Amy’s relationship but rather focused on getting to know each other better on a personal level. “I think when you can establish that comfortability, we can have the trust and we can also test each other in ways that I think only couples can,” he adds.

“Beef” has been hailed for its cast, which also includes Steven Yeun, Ashley Park, Maria Bello and fellow newcomer Young Mazino. “Young and I really connected as well because, in many ways, this kind of is our breakout moment,” Lee says. “It’s just been really fun to be able to share this kind of ride with another classmate. 

This was a big year for Lee. In addition to starring in “Beef,” he also appeared in the acclaimed third season of “Star Trek: Picard.” But the Netflix show from creator Lee Sung Jin provided him with an opportunity he won’t soon forget. 

“It’s definitely spoiled me, that’s for sure,” Lee says of “Beef.” “Moving forward, I would like to continue to challenge myself and continue doing things that are maybe a little bit different from George. So much of George was for me glued to the writing and that’s what I really fell in love with. I hope that I can continue to work with more incredible writers and filmmakers and castmates but it’s really going to be tough to top something like ‘Beef.’”

All episodes of “Beef” are streaming now on Netflix.

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