The HoloFiles

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Paul Sun-Hyung Lee Talks Working on The Mandalorian, His Love for Star Wars, the State of Fandom, and Representation

By George Bate

Fresh off of his appearances in The Mandalorian, Star Wars Holocron had a chance to speak with Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on working on the hit Disney+ series, his love for Star Wars, the state of fandom, representation, and more.

In speaking of his long-standing love for Star Wars, Lee discussed how the three trilogies had unique impacts on him at different periods of his life:

“I was 5 years old [when A New Hope released] when my dad took my sister and I to see it, 8 years old for Empire when my babysitter took my sister and I to see it, and I was 11 years old for Return of the Jedi and my sister and I went by ourselves to see it. That relationship with the movies where I was going to those movies is really stuck in my head. And then the prequel trilogy, 1999 I was working at Blockbuster Video when The Phantom Menace came out, 2002 I was married already at that point, and then 2005 I was a dad already at that point. Going from a retail job to having a kid. And then the next set of trilogies, the sequel trilogy, as a dad, bringing my kids to see it too and watching them go through that cycle and it being their first Star Wars movie in the theater. And I took them to all three of [the sequels]. It helps that I’m a big Star Wars nerd too. And then they have their own formed opinions on these movies. Talk about a full life cycle. I feel really old! [Laughs].”

As a fan, Lee felt like his wildest dreams came true when he was cast in The Mandalorian:

“I use this turn of phrase a lot, but I felt like Cinderella at the ball. You don’t expect to be there and when you’re there everything is so beautiful. And so above every other experience you’ve had working on sets and what not. I’m still speechless about it and it’s still very surreal, because it’s a universe I’ve always wanted to play in. It’s something I’ve fantasized about being a part of since I was a little kid.”

While working on The Mandalorian, Lee was blown away by the advanced technology used to bring the show to life, especially the volume:

“I got to see things that I thought I would never be able to see in terms of the technology they use…This is cutting edge tech. This is next generation stuff that is so specific to just that show. It’s amazing. I mean, the volume is transformative, because it’s immersive. You go in there and you cannot believe what’s happening in front of your eyes is actually happening. It’s so realistic. And the confluence of technology and innovation and intelligence and planning to get all that to come together is … I’m standing there and thinking, ‘I’m living in the future.’ This is the future. Like in the 50s when everyone was thinking about flying cars and stuff like that, that’s what it felt like. Because, you’re not on location. But you might as well be, because it looks exactly the same. And so that was really cool.”

Given The Mandalorian’s mammoth popularity, Lee is appreciative of what working on something this successful means for his impressive acting career more broadly:

“I have a bunch of stuff on my resume. But having The Mandalorian on there jumps it up a couple of notches in terms of credibility. I was the lead on a hit Canadian television series that is doing great on Netflix, it’s internationally known. And then, I do two episodes of The Mandalorian and my IMDB page just explodes! [Laughs] All of a sudden, everyone is looking at it. It’s amazing the power of [the Star Wars franchise] and the effect it will have on people’s careers and resumes. You look at that and you go, ‘Legit. He’s on a hit show on Disney+ and is part of a huge franchise that has spanned 40+ years. That is absolutely insane. I’m so grateful for that opportunity. I keep saying that. Grateful. Grateful. Grateful. But I am. I got to live a dream that millions have had and haven’t had the opportunity to, sort of, follow through on to get that opportunity. So I’m very grateful for it. I’m still in disbelief.”

Lee plays Carson Teva, a pilot in the New Republic Starfighter Corp, in two episodes of The Mandalorian so far. Lee was given little background information on the character, but playfully came up with his own funny backstory for Teva:

“It’s hard to play that, because it’s literally just a sketch or an outline of a character. So, what can you do to make him seem more grounded or have that gravitas of someone who has been around the block? And so I joked with Dave. It was funny…We knew he was a guy who’s been around since pre-Yavin, right? So, wouldn’t it be funny if he’s the guy that missed out on all the battles for whatever reason, and he’s super bitter about it. He wasn’t in the Battle of Yavin, because the power converters on his X-Wing weren’t working. And, for Hoth, like he’s stuck babysitting a transport as it leaves the system. And, for Return of the Jedi and the run against the Death Star, he had diarrhea so he couldn’t make it out there. And, for Scarif, he [missed it] for whatever reason. So the reason he’s patrolling the Outer Rim is because he missed out on all that service. So they’re like, ‘Well, you get the Outer Rim, buddy.’ And I joked about it with Dave and he was like, ‘Ummm…No.’ It was fun.”

Lee is enthusiastically open to reprising his role as Teva, either in The Mandalorian, Rangers of the New Republic, or even a buddy cop-style show with Dave Filoni’s Trapper Wolf: 

“Oh my god, yes, yes. Like a million times, yes. Of course. I mean, jeez, I got a taste of how cool that universe is with those two episodes of The Mandalorian. And I would absolutely…any fan would say, ‘I would do anything you need me to do. I will go off buildings. I will kidnap pets. I will do all sorts of nasty things just to be able to do the show.’ [Laughs]. Yeah, you know it starts with the people who are fantastic on these sets. Jon and Dave and the powers that be. The set is an absolute pleasure to work on. Everybody is so kind and professional…and they’re giddy about Star Wars. I mean, it’s the ultimate sort-of nerd camp! You get to go there and play and dress up and then you have all this fantastic technology you get to play with. The costumes. If you love Star Wars, you’d leap at that. So, yeah I’d do that.”

Lee has some insights regarding what it’s like to act alongside Dave Filoni:

“I think I have a lot of fun with Filoni too, because he hates being in front of the camera [Laughs]. He hates it!…The episode that we were in together, he took that role because I was doing it. He thought it would be fun. So that’s a big win for me too, man. To act with Dave Filoni.”

Working with Filoni behind the scenes allowed Lee to catch a glimpse of what The Mandalorian executive producer and writer was working on with Ahsoka in the series:

“So, being on the set, it was amazing, because Dave actually showed me some of the work and rough cuts of the Ahsoka episode. I didn’t even know Ahsoka was going to be in the episode, but Dave’s like, ‘Because I’m your friend, I’m going to show you,’ And so, he shows me some of the footage of Rosario Dawson with Grogu. It’s that beautiful shot with the huge moon and they’re sitting and meeting each other. And I was like, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ I mean, I’d heard rumors, but that was the first time I’d ever saw that.”

As a massive Star Wars fan, Lee was surprised and blown away by the appearance of Luke Skywalker in the season 2 finale: 

“That was a complete and total shock. I honestly did not expect it. I was hoping…The Dark Troopers are pounding against the door and they’re hopelessly [under threat]. And you see that single X-Wing fighter. And I will admit, for a split second, I thought, ‘Oh my god! It’s Carson Teva!” [Laughs]. Then I was like, ‘No, you idiot.’ I was thinking, ‘It’s Luke. It has to be Luke….There could be no one else.’ No one else could save them. And then the little reveals…the cloaked figure, the gloved hand, the green lightsaber, the Force, and I’m still getting goosebumps now just thinking about it….How could it be? And he just mows right through them. And the door opens and it’s him. And it was just pure. As a fan, my heart wept with joy, because he was there. And I’m still kind of processing how wonderful it is…That whole reveal with Mark Hamill, it just killed me. And I loved it. It was just so perfect. And that’s the beauty of that set is you get little snippets, but they still save lots of surprises. I’m just blown away by it.”

In discussing Star Wars fandom more broadly, Lee sees the Star Wars universe as having something for everyone and believes that fans should embrace the content they emotionally and personally resonate with:

“As much as there’s hate for the prequel trilogy, there’s a whole generation of kids where that was their jam. Those were the movies they saw when they were growing up. So there’s a link that they’ll have to that that I don’t have. And it’s great. I’m in the 501st and I actually know a couple of members and that’s their Star Wars growing up. One of them is a huge Jar Jar fan. And you go ‘okay man, that’s cool!’. That was his favorite character growing up and I don’t want to steal his joy. And it’s the same with the sequel trilogy. Everyone has their differing links to it and it speaks to them personally as well on different levels. For me, that’s fandom in a nutshell. We all associate these movies personally. We internalize them, personalize them, they mean different things to all of us. The best parts of fandom is not judging that. The best parts is finding things that we love and being able to talk about it and getting some insight into certain things that we’d go ‘I don’t think that was the best’. But if you learn something about it, I think that’s pretty cool. For me, that’s what fandom should be about. Just sharing that love and that joy and learning new things as much as we can.”

Despite the joy people can get from Star Wars, Lee notices that sects of fandom have become quite competitive and negative:

“It’s gotten weird in terms of the gatekeeping that’s going on. Someone will stand there and say ‘you’re not allowed to be a real fan unless you’re able to answer these questions’. Fandom isn’t a pissing contest. You’re not a bigger fan because you know more about the Expanded Universe or this or that. And so it’s one of those things, more and more, it feels like fandom has become about scoring points. Or being the most this, or being the most that. And I think that’s the worst part of fandom honestly. It’s not a contest. And somebody knowing more about something that you isn’t something you should feel bad about. And you shouldn’t feel better about yourself if you know more than somebody else about certain things. Because, at the end of the day, it’s like, ‘What are we geeking out over, right?’ Nerdy things that really should be things you enjoy. So let’s not turn it into a contest. Fandom isn’t a contest and it never should be.”

On a touching, final note, Lee speaks about what it means to be a person of color acting in such a prominent franchise dear to his heart:

“It meant so much. The world really. Because it’s being given the opportunity to play in a universe I thought I’d never have a chance to do that. Growing up, watching these movies and wanting to be a part of it, there’s a part of you that’s like, ‘That’s me up there.’…There were no Asians in Star Wars. So you gotta play someone with no face or with a helmet on the whole time, because you can’t be Han, you can’t be Luke, you can’t be Leia, you can’t be any of these characters. Because nobody looks like you who’s up there. And it makes a big difference. And for myself, as a professional actor and a fan, to get that chance to be there and be a representative of Asian Americans, and Asian Canadians, and Asians in general, I think is fantastic, because, for the next group of fans, they can look and say, ‘Holy crap! There are Asians in space. And they don’t have to die. And they can play cool characters. They don’t have to be relegated to the background like pilot in the third row who gets blown away in the second reel. It means a lot. And it’s so funny, because you said, ‘Directed by an actor of color.’ And I was like, ‘Person of color? Carl?’ I didn’t even think about the color of his skin, because he’s such an icon. Carl Weathers. Superstar. Iconic action hero from the 80s and the 90s. This is a guy who has built an incredible career for himself and has represented his community so well. And for me to take a small step and take this small role and turn it into something Asians and Asian Americans can look at? Yeah, it means a ton. It’s funny, because a lot of people say, ‘Star Wars is being ruined by the social justice warriors.’ Man, it’s a galaxy. It’s an entire galaxy and there’s so much. Just purely scientifically speaking there should be so much more than the Swedish all-star team at the top of the screen…And so I don’t see how more diversity affects fandom in a negative way, The narratives aren’t that much different. It’s really about getting more people involved…Equality doesn’t mean less rights for you. It means extend the same rights to everybody. I think that gets lost in the message sometimes, because I think some people are unfairly meant to feel like they’re being persecuted for something out of their control as well.”

It was a genuine pleasure to speak with the incredible Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on a range of interesting topics. Lee was kind and endearing and we hope to see more of him flying around in an X-Wing as Carson Teva sooner rather than later!

Images courtesy of Disney+ and Lucasfilm

The HoloFiles

The HoloFiles is a website and series of social media accounts, including Star Wars Holocron, Marvel Tesseract, DC Motherbox, Film Codex, and Horror Necronomicon. We love cinema and television, and aim to spread positivity across different fandoms. Come to us for news, reviews, interviews, trivia facts, quotes, behind the scenes photos, analytic features, and more!