Reasons for Pride: Everyone Loves Rex Lee

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com April 17 2013 6:00 AM ET

Rex Lee sashayed into our hearts as the Lloyd Lee, the long-suffering guy Friday to power publicist Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) on HBO’s Entourage. But these days, Lee has traded his designer shades and skinny lattes for the provincial charm of the fictional town of Chatswin, N.Y., in ABC’s sleeper hit Suburgatory, which airs a special hour-long season finale tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern.

The out Korean-American actor once again portrays a gay man, as Mr. Wolfe, the guidance counselor who often seeks counsel from the show’s teenage protagonist, Tessa (Jane Levy). While Mr. Wolfe was originally intended to be a minor character, fans responded so well that show creator Emily Kapnek wove Wolfe’s storyline into the show’s broader narrative.

In this exclusive interview, Lee reveals what the rest of the season holds for Mr. Wolfe, what would happen if Lloyd and Mr. Wolfe ever met, and what it takes to keep your sanity and sense of self afloat in Hollywood.

The Advocate: Mr. Wolfe has been featured prominently in a couple recent episodes — including when Chef Alan cheated on Mr. Wolfe! Do you think there’s any chance that we’ll see some resolution there?
Rex Lee: Well, it’s interesting. I’m going to go ahead and say that there’s not a lot of resolution. There will be an episode where the story moves along a little further, but then after that — I don’t know why it was done this way — but it doesn’t really resolve before the end of the season.

It’s funny, the actor that plays Chef Alan [Evan Arnold], my boyfriend, I’ve actually known him a really long time. I've known him longer than anybody else I work with on Suburgatory. So we occasionally email back and forth and he's like, "Have you heard anything? Are we getting back together?" I'm like, "I'm really sorry, I don't know anything!"

Mr. Wolfe was integral in helping Tessa assimilate to Chatswin, and by the same token, Tessa inspired Mr. Wolfe to come out.
I love that about their relationship. And that’s not an accident. I think from the beginning, Emily [Kapnek], my boss, talked about this. I don’t think I’ve ever had a job where I’ve thought so much about the backstory of the character before the show ever started. We had a lot of conversations about the idea that he was this guidance counselor that was sort of, not frustrated, exactly, but sort of ineffectual. His heart was in the right place and he wanted to be a good guidance counselor to those kids, and they basically have ignored him and so it’s been — well, let’s just say he’s been ineffectual, because they haven’t been listening. Then all of a sudden, this girl moves to town, and she does listen to him and she does talk to him, and he blossoms. And I love that. It definitely is a two-way street. They help each other.

Absolutely. Do you think Mr. Wolfe would be able to serve as a guidance counselor in a real-life high school?
[Laughs] I think he’d have a great deal of difficulty.

Because of that unorthodox relationship with students, or because he’s out, or any combination of those things?
I was just mainly thinking that he’s this very specific character who has his own sensibility. And I think that in the real world, he would have a great deal of difficulty relating to actual kids.

Suburgatory has this wonderful, subversively feminist nature that’s encapsulated in Tessa’s independence and even in some of Mr. Wolfe’s growing tendency to stand up for himself. Who’s behind that?
Well, you know, my boss is a woman — Emily Kapnek, and I’m not going to say the entire writing staff is female, because they’re not. I don’t think that she’s in anyone’s face about not being misogynistic and being pro-woman. … But she’s a strong woman, and I think she leads by example. And therefore, I just think that any writer or actor is going to bring some sort of thought process or storyline or performance or any of those things — no one’s going to bring something that’s antiwomen.

Looking back to some of your other roles, do you ever think Lloyd [from Entourage] and Mr. Wolfe would hang out or be friends?
[Laughs] I don’t think that Lloyd is a snob, exactly, but I think that Lloyd probably wouldn’t have patience for Mr. Wolfe. I think Mr. Wolfe is a little bit innocent in a way that Lloyd is not. Lloyd is really trying to be a man of the world and get ahead in business, and in his own way, he’s a little bit cutthroat.

Did you ever worry about the impact being an out actor might have on your career?
I certainly worried about it. I worried about it, but that worry was never going to be anything that made me do anything differently than I have. I come from a school of thinking and a school of acting that’s all about honesty. I’m just the kind of person that there was really no way I was going to be able to be in the closet and be happy. There was no way I was going to be able to be in the closet and be productive, be effective. It just wasn’t going to work. I didn’t come out to my parents until I was in my 20s. I know what it’s like to be in the closet, and it takes a lot of energy. And I don’t have enough energy to devote to that. I’d rather just be honest with people. And I’ve certainly run into people in the world who don’t appreciate me because I’m gay, but I have no need for them in my life.

Are there unique hurdles you’ve had to overcome as a gay Asian actor?
Well, maybe. [Laughs] I think that a person’s own thinking about themselves and their place in the world is significant, so I’ve definitely had to deal with myself. And then in terms of living in this artificial community that I’ll call Hollywood, it certainly comes up. … I think that the reason that we have this discussion is because Asian people and gay people are probably underrepresented. If you think about how many people exist, and the percentage of those people who are gay or Asian, or gay and Asian, I think we’re underrepresented. … To a certain extent that there’s been a bit of a lack of imagination, and this weird idea that people in the United States are only straight white people. That’s certainly something we have to combat, and therefore it’s something that I have come in contact with, and have had to overcome. So it certainly exists.

In 2011 you said you were single and looking, but that it was really difficult to find someone in the “artificial community of Hollywood,” as you called it. Have you found somebody to nest with?
No, no, no. I’m still single, but I’m a little bit more hopeful than I used to be. Not that I was ever feeling hopeless, but I’ve felt pretty good. I’ve been in therapy for a little while, and that’s a good thing, because I’m getting out of my own way a little bit. And I’m sort of recognizing my own worth more than I did, which is a good thing. You know how RuPaul is always saying at the end of his show, “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love anybody else?” I’m misquoting him, but that’s true. You have to appreciate yourself before you can put yourself out there and hope that other people will appreciate you too,

Do you think there are additional difficulties or peculiarities that make that more difficult within Hollywood?
Maybe. Probably. I mean, whatever — I’m just going to be very honest about this. Even though I’m not really dating anyone, and I haven’t found love, looking back on the last eight years of my life, I can say that some of the sex that I’ve had that didn’t lead to love, in hindsight, I can say, “Wow, that person was really attracted to me because I’m on television.” And that’s a weird piece of information to have after the fact. It makes me wonder, Oh, if I had known this ahead of time, would I still have gone ahead and had that sexual encounter? And the truth of the matter is, sometimes the answer is yes, I would have gone ahead. Sometimes I just want companionship of some kind. And sometimes sex will do. It does nicely. ... I have to accept that it’s part of my life and behave accordingly.

Do you have any particular message for Advocate readers?
As I was talking about learning to appreciate myself so that I can go out in the world and interact with people with an understanding of my worth, I think my message to Advocate readers is to just, really, be proud of yourself and love yourself. And go out into the world loving yourself.