From Heroes to MMA Fighting
Voted by TV Guide as one of “Hollywood’s 25 Hottest”, James Kyson is a South Korean born American actor with a promising career ahead of him. He is most famously known for his role as “Ando” in the Heroes cast that was named in Time Magazine's Person of the Year 2006 issue under "People Who Mattered.” Kyson began his acting career on CBS’s JAG and has appeared on television shows such as CSI, The West Wing, Daybreak, Hawaii Five-O, and the upcoming School of Rock. In addition to television shows, Kyson has appeared in such feature films as The Livingston Gardener and Shutter. Raised in New York City, he studied communications and broadcasting at Boston University and the New England Institute of the Arts. His entrance into the world of entertainment began with a hip-hop rap group in college followed by trying a stint in improv comedy, all before moving to Los Angeles where he began training in music, dance and acting. He actively promotes health and fitness and supports various charity organizations including UNICEF, USO, and the Global Green eco campaign. Seoul Journal sat down with James Kyson in L.A. to talk about his career, his Korean roots, his experience with Japan and his upcoming projects.
SJ: Can you tell us how you got started in your career?
KYSON : I guess the seed was planted when I was in my last year in Boston, and I tried improv for the first time. It cracked open a new experience for me. I moved to L.A. in 2001, and two years later, I had my first television show audition. It was for JAG, which was a show about naval lawyers, similar to NCIS, and I happened to get cast. That was my introduction to Hollywood and the television and film industry. Two and a half years later, the first network pilot that I ever read for was Heroes. That was kind of what put me on the map and started my career.
SJ: Do you feel studying broadcasting and communication helped your career?
KYSON: Yeah, I think in some ways. I really enjoyed the diversity in that field – we got to do everything from broadcast journalism to the business of music. It felt very hands-on. I think the art of communication is valuable in life. It was a nice overview of what the media industry is, and the role that media has in our society.
SJ: You mentioned doing improv. How was that experience?
KYSON: The very first time was amazing. The sense of getting permission to play, which we often forget as adults, was liberating. I continued after I came to L.A., at places like UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre) and The Groundlings. I learned that there was actually an art form that I didn’t know about. Improv was interesting to learn, and I think it comes in handy for both life and acting. One of the biggest ideologies in improv is “Yes And” — being open and offering something in addition; that’s just a good tool for living life. It’s also a very integral part of acting, when you are receiving, listening, or being simply present to what’s happening across from you or in your environment, but also bringing something or offering something of your own to add to the creation of the story.
SJ: I understand that you were in a hip-hop group in college?
KYSON: Yeah, that was the first introduction to performing for me. In New York, you grow up around a lot of hip-hop music, and that was my first love. I ended up meeting a group of guys in Boston that taught me that art form, and I started performing. I still have a strong connection to music, and I try to think of life as music. Life is a musical score in some sense; in the various stages of my life, different music represents those different chapters.
SJ: Do you still sing and dance?
KYSON: A little bit. My wife is a singer-songwriter and also a neuroscientist. She’s a scientist during the day, and sings at night with a band. After we got together, she really catalyzed music back into my life. I was away from it for a while, but I picked up the guitar again. I feel like slowly it’s becoming a very important part of my life again.
SJ: Are you looking to do any musical roles?
KYSON: I’m open if there’s a musical movie or stage production. There was a feature film [White on Rice] that I filmed in Utah, and my character was a musician based on an actual person. That’s where I got my first guitar that I still have. It was 2007 in Salt Lake City. We all ended up going to a guitar school or a guitar store. I remember spending time with the person that my character was based on, just learning some of his songs. I’d say that was the first time where I married the two worlds in my life. I felt like it was such a good synergy for acting, and there was a nice symbiosis between the two.
SJ: I understand that you had to learn Japanese for Heroes. Can you tell us about that?
KYSON: It was a lot of work, especially in the first season; I think 90% of our dialogue was in Japanese. I had a coach, who was also a translator. We would work through that process together so that I had a relationship with it; obviously, when you are translating between two languages there are a lot of nuances. I’d say I was averaging 30–40 hours per episode, just trying to work at the language. And I’d say by the third season or so, I got into a nice flow and by then my language skills had improved. It was definitely a system in which we had to work together.
SJ: Were you mimicking the sounds or were you actually learning what you were saying?
KYSON: Both. We’d start by learning basically all the words and the meanings. Next, we would play with different phrases, talking about the character or the scene or the context – casual things like that. After we had translated the script, I would do several stages of rehearsals; I would rehearse it in English just to see what the scene felt like naturally, and then I would also rehearse it in Korean because that’s the language that I speak. I wanted to see what it was like to adapt it in a foreign language first, and then finally I would rehearse it in Japanese. That was my process.
SJ: So you were rehearsing in three languages? Were you learning Japanese outside of what was in the script?
KYSON: Yeah, I tried to do so the first couple of seasons. I went to a language school for a session and then I realized it wasn’t feasible with my filming schedule. During each hiatus every year, I filmed about two feature films. Luckily, during our first hiatus I actually got to go to Japan for a film. It was a movie called Shutter, which was about spirit photography. We filmed it in Tokyo. It was a great experience for me because after filming the first season of Heroes, I actually got to be there, be in that environment and just take it all in. That was helpful.
SJ: How did you like the experience of going to Japan?
KYSON: It was really cool. My father actually went to graduate school there. He worked for a Japanese company for about five years. When I was between the ages of one through six, he was going back and forth a lot, so there was this strange sense of feeling at home even though it was my first time there. I think it was because I recognized a lot of the mannerisms from my dad, which is sort of like a sensibility. I lived in Seoul for the first 10 years of my life, and there’s a lot of synergy and similarities between Japan and Korea. They have an interesting relationship because there are many similarities in history and in energy — both cooperative and also antagonistic. I definitely felt something when I was in Tokyo. I felt really welcomed and I felt a lot of kinship.
SJ: Have you been to Korea since you moved here when you were 10?
KYSON: Yeah, I’ve been there four times. One was for the International Film Festival in Busan. That was quite an experience because it was my first time to the festival, and also it was my first time I was exposed to the Hollywood of Korea and their entertainment industry. I just hadn’t realized the scale of that. I thought of Korea as a small country, and when I was born there, it was still a third world country. It was a bit of a culture shock, and very interesting, too.
SJ: Is there anything about Korean culture that you miss?
KYSON: I love the food. I don’t really get to have it often because we rarely ever visit Koreatown. It’s not in my life a lot, and I’d really like it to be.
SJ: What’s your favorite Korean food?
KYSON: All the vegetable side dishes. I love the variety of it, because I get to sample many things at once.
SJ: Have you done any roles in a Korean movie or TV show?
KYSON: Not in Korea. There were some talks, but it just didn’t work out. I’m definitely open to the experience. I’ve heard information and stories about how things work there, and it is very different than Hollywood. We have a very strong infrastructure in Hollywood – it’s unionized and there’s a system that’s been in place for a while. In Korea, I think they’re still figuring that out although it has really boomed over the last five years. They’ve become a really strong presence over Asia, but I think in terms of the industry they’re still kind of working out the nuances.
SJ: When you first moved to the U.S. when you were 10 years old, what kind of challenges did you face?
KYSON: New York is an amazing city. It’s also a very tough city to grow up in as part of a working class immigrant family. It was hard, especially for our parents. I remember (in South Korea) my dad was an electrical engineer, and my mom was a teacher, and none of that had any credibility here; they had to become laborers. I started working for my dad’s store when I was 10, and it was gritty and labor-oriented. I think that was probably the toughest part, just kind of learning to survive. There was a lot of growing up on the streets and raising yourself with other kids. It’s definitely a different experience from the West, or in Southern California where there’s a lot of land. I’m very community-oriented in my lifestyle, but it taught me a lot about adaptability, and to assess situations quickly – I guess you can call it street smarts.
SJ: So, your original name is Lee Jae-Hyeok? How did you get the name James?
KYSON: My original Korean name is Ji-Hoon. It later got changed to Jae-Hyeok. We arrived in New York on a Saturday, and then on Monday they were enrolling me in school, in fifth grade. I think on Sunday, we were staying with our uncle Charles, and there was an ABC Movie of the Week [on TV]. James Bond was playing, and my uncle was like, “We need to give Hoon an English name so that he can enroll in school.” Someone said, “What about James?” and then that just kind of stuck. So I was named after James Bond. It seems kind of fitting, looking back now, that it was after a movie character.
SJ: When did you first realize that you wanted to be in the entertainment industry?
KYSON: I think the improv experience planted a seed, but I didn’t really know what that was. Even though I grew up in New York City, which is steeped in performance culture, I wasn’t very connected with it at all. When I was growing up, being an actor or going into entertainment was not a thing that people considered or pursued. It was just something that you consumed or watched, so it was never part of my reality. It wasn’t until I came to L.A. and met people that I was able to see a practical version of that industry. I think that’s when it became more of a reality.
SJ: Were your parents supportive?
KYSON: After they found out, but I didn’t really tell them until I got my first gig. When JAG was about to air, I think it was November of 2003, I called them up and said, “Hey, I’m going to be on this TV show on CBS. This night, this time.” They were like, “What are you talking about?” They watched me and I think they were just curious. They still didn’t understand how I entered that work, but they were just a little fascinated that I was now on television. Once I started filming, they realized that, “Oh, people have careers out of this.” When they saw that it was part of the social conversation, the zeitgeist, they changed their perspective.
SJ: I understand that you sold your car and moved to L.A. with one suitcase and a one-way ticket. Did you move with the purpose of entering the entertainment industry, or were you just trying to find a new environment?
KYSON: It was about exploring life, and it was kind of that rite of passage. I grew up on the East Coast my whole life and I knew going back to New York wasn’t my path. I finished school in Boston, and I just felt like the next chapter was about going on to uncharted territory — unfamiliar environments and discovering what I wanted.
SJ: Can you tell us what the typical process is when getting a role on TV or a movie?
KYSON: Normally, you get a call or an email saying you have an audition for a show, and they would attach what’s called a “side,” which are pages of the script that your scene is part of that you’ll be reading for.
SJ: Who’s contacting you? Your manager?
KYSON: Yeah, your agents, your manager — your representative. Usually it’s for the next day or the day after, if you’re lucky. If it’s for a movie they usually have a script, which they send to you to read and get a sense of what the world is and what the story is. When you get there, depending on the project, the producer, sometimes the director and the writers are there; it’s a room with various people and a camera. The casting director will be there to do the audition. It’s really a case-by-case scenario; you may be in there for 30 minutes, trying it in different ways, and if it’s not a major project or part, you might only be in there for three minutes. Sometimes it might just be a room with the casting people and they are putting you on tape because no one is in town, and they’re watching it later in another state or country.
SJ: Have you ever done an audition where you felt you “nailed it” for sure?
KYSON: That’s a loaded question because you want to feel like you did the work you prepared. For me, that is the goal. “Did I do the work that I could be satisfied with?” – a lot of times the answer is yes, sometimes it’s a no. Depending on what the feeling is afterwards, I learned not to put so much value in that because there are so many times when you feel really good, did everything that you wanted to do, and still don’t get the role – and that could be for millions of reasons. There have also been times when I’ve done an audition I didn’t think twice about, and I got the role. So I think the most important thing to ask is, “Was I satisfied with what I did?”
SJ: After you found out that you got a role, is there some kind of training that you do? Or is it case-by-case?
KYSON: It is case-by-case. Right now I’m training for a project. It’s a feature film and we’re going to start filming in Chicago next month. The script was sent to me towards the end of July and it’s an interesting script. My character is a guy who had a kid when he was 18. Now he’s 30 and trying to get his life together. He’s a divorced, single dad so he becomes an MMA fighter to pay for his child support. He ends up meeting a friend from high school that helps him realize his journey. There’s a very specific world that he was a part of, so I devoted this entire month to training. If you’re an MMA fighter, there’s a whole regimen and program that need to come with that. So this whole month, I’ve been training about two and a half to three hours a day. That’s an hour of conditioning; running about five miles a day, an hour of weight training, and an hour or an hour and a half of anything from jujitsu to kickboxing. I also have to eat a certain way; I eat pretty healthy overall but I had to get a little bit more specific in relation to the training. I think I’m 16 days in or something like that. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the character’s clothes, so to speak; everything from talking with friends who had children when they were 19 or 20, to dieting and just immersing myself in that world. This is definitely one of the hardest trainings I’ve put in. Tomorrow, I believe the director and producer are coming here from Chicago and I’m meeting the other character, who’s playing my friend, to do a dry read through. There’s a lot of preparation in the different elements. I love living the life of the character as much as I can, That means everything from learning my profession, literally, to recreating that world with me in it as much as I can. For me that is one of the most enjoyable parts.
SJ: Are you training with actual MMA fighters?
KYSON: Yeah, I’m training with a lot of different people. I do weight training with different types of trainers. I’ve gone to eight or nine different schools for classes. MMA is a combination of both stand-up fighting and groundwork, so that’s Brazilian jujitsu, grappling, wrestling, kickboxing, muay thai, boxing . . .
SJ: Did you watch MMA before you got this role?
KYSON: No. I had never seen a UFC fight before this, so I started researching and I watched several documentaries, which were really educational. I watched some fights, and it’s fascinating; it’s like a whole new world, and it’s very strong in the mainstream.
SJ: So you’ve learned Japanese, you’ve learned to play guitar and you’re learning to do MMA. Is there anything else that you had to learn for your roles?
KYSON: I feel like for a lot of the roles that I’ve done, I’ve had to learn at least one thing, but it really depends on how much time I have. If I have a month, that’s great. If I have three months, that’s even better. Sometimes, especially for television, I only get a couple of weeks before we start filming. Last year, I did a movie called The Livingston Gardener. I was a television journalist, so I researched that whole path.
SJ: You mentioned getting into the mindset of the character. Do you have a hard time switching back sometimes?
KYSON: Depending on what the project or the character is, I try to create a different process. For this character, I’m tapping into a relationship with my body a lot. There’s definitely more of a masculine energy during this stage, which is good, but you just have to be aware and be responsible with that, because that could also lead to aggression and confrontation. Projects where I’ve had to play dark characters or villains, I try to create a container so that I can transition in and transition out. Especially now that I’m married and I have to be very cognizant of what I bring into the home and our relationship, so I try to create a space that’s dedicated to that process.
SJ: Have you worked with vocal coaches or acting coaches?
KYSON: I have. I've had one acting coach for the past couple of years. Her name’s Sydney Walsh and she’s been a good facilitator for my process. There are a variety of coaches – I find sometimes that they offer life experiences through conversations about their stories. The people that I’m training with now are all coaches. Coaching comes in many forms, so I try to seek that out and approach the project and the character from multiple angles.
SJ: Can you tell us about some of the different charities you support?
KYSON: The big one that’s coming up is the organization called Good Neighbors, which is an international organization very similar to World Vision. They have a program called Water for Life, in which they go to third world countries and build water wells. My wife Jamee and I have been invited to be the ambassadors for their upcoming campaign. We are working with L.A. Marathon, which happens to be on Valentine’s Day next year, to create a relay team where it’s two runners pairing up to run a marathon together — so you’re running a half marathon each. Jamee and I will be creating Team #Run4Water, where we’ll invite different celebrities, entertainers and friends, and actors and entertainers, as well as everyone else willing to participate. We’ll be running to raise money for charity to build several wells in Zambia, Africa. I believe the campaign kicks off in October, and we’ll be having a fundraising concert, where pretty much all my music friends and artists will perform, so I’ll be hosting that. And then the run is on Valentine’s Day, and I believe sometime next year we’re going to Zambia.
SJ: You’ve done some environmental work as well?
KYSON: Yeah. Some really close friends of mine have a company called Big Picture Ranch, and they’ve done several environmental documentaries – Fuel, which was a Sundance winner, The Big Fix, which is about the oil spill in New Orleans, and Pump, which is about renewable energy. The next movie is going to be about the soil, and it’s called Kiss the Ground. I’ve been involved with their organization, going with them to different campaigns and press conferences, and they’ve become really, really dear friends.
SJ: Who would you say are your heroes? Who has inspired you?
KYSON: It’s a big list. Teachers like Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Oprah, and Tony Robbins... people who have had really high caliber and exponential success, and use that for the betterment of society, the evolution of consciousness, and supporting education. Everyone who’s doing that kind of work is an inspiration.
SJ: Is there anyone you’re hoping to work with someday on set?
KYSON: Obviously, I’d love to work with great directors like the Spielbergs and the Christopher Nolans of the world. I appreciate the work of so many actors; I think it’s really about stories and power that inspire humanity. As I get older and more experienced in the business I'm becoming more particular about what I want to engage with. There are just types of genres that I don’t find very beneficial to society; I want to continue to choose projects and films that can serve society in some way.
SJ: What has been the most challenging part of your career?
KYSON: That’s an interesting question because I think there are definitely some psychological challenges when you feel like you’ve done great work, but it isn’t recognized. That’s just something that every actor has to deal with. The other part is just the energy of the industry. The industry has a lot of different energies; sometimes it can get ego-oriented and it tends to feed itself. It tends to become bigger the more you are around it. The challenge is whether you can navigate yourself through that. You have to be grounded and have a strong home base. Otherwise, it’s easy to lose yourself.
SJ: What do you enjoy most about what you do?
KYSON: The collaborative and communal aspects. Every production is a community. It’s a collaboration of some kind. No TV show is made by one person. The nature of the craft necessitates collaboration. Every project, whether you are on it for two days or 20 months is a family of some kind. At least, that’s the environment I love to create.
SJ: If you hadn’t got into acting, is there something else you had in mind for a career?
KYSON: Some kind of public speaking, I think. I like teaching. I also enjoy coaching. It would be in that type of field — something about sharing something with an individual or a group to help them in some way.
SJ: So you’ve just got this part as an MMA fighter. Are there other projects that you have got lined up?
KYSON: Yeah. I'll be filming a sci-fi mini series called Blade of Honor. Some of the things that I’ve filmed are coming out next year: a film called Another Time, which is a romantic comedy. I also did an animated show with HBO called Animals.
SJ: Are there any differences between doing voice acting and live action acting?
KYSON: It’s a lot freer to do voice acting, just like I found radio so much freer than television interviews. Everyone’s kind of comfortable because no one cares about what you’re wearing, and there’s this sense of Aah, I’m just hanging out and playing.” I mean, it’s still professional and you’ve got to do the work, but it’s just a lot more comfortable and free.
SJ: What achievement or role are you most proud of?
KYSON:My Marriage. The life I am creating with my wife.
SJ: Do you have other goals for the future? You’ve mentioned having children. Is there anything else?
KYSON: Yeah, I’ve been developing a media company. Our vision is to create content that help people build their best lives. Right now the company’s called LiveConnect. We’re still in the developmental stage, but we have about 19 show ideas that are forming. So yeah, that’s a goal.
SJ: What advice would you give to an aspiring actor?
KYSON: Get to know yourself, embrace life experiences, and be a great learner. Do it as a service, do it as a calling, and know that it’s a long journey. If anyone becomes a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist, it’s a given that they are spending 10 to 15 years of their lives in education, learning about their field. We’re in a strange profession, where our job is to portray real life or what feels like real life, and the best ones make it seem and feel effortless. It can be deceiving because it doesn’t look like a craft, per se. I’ve been in it 12 years now, and I realize more than ever that it’s such a craft, and it’s a lifelong craft.