NR Exclusive: Interview with Hoon Lee, the voice of Master Splinter in Nick’s TMNT

nickelodeon teenage mutant ninja turtles

Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is returning with new episodes starting Friday, January 25, at 7:00 p.m. (ET/PT). The premiere episode, “I, Monster,” will have the turtles fight against The Rat King. It’ll be part of the “Total Turtle Takover” that will last until 9:00 p.m. (ET/PT). After that, new episodes will air on its regularly scheduled time of Saturday 11:00 a.m. (ET/PT) timeslot beginning Saturday, Feb. 2.

We had the chance to chat with Hoon Lee, the voice behind Master Splinter. We talked about the influence of the Turtles during Lee’s childhood, his other projects, and the state of Asian American actors.

John “Spartan” Nguyen: Hey Hoon, how’s it going?

Hoon Lee: Good, good.

So how does it feel like to be the master of the Ninja Turtles?

[Laughs] I don’t know if they actually have a master, because they’re never listening to what I say.

It’s great! I’m having such a great time. I’ve been enjoying it so much.

Have you ever been a fan of the Turtles when you were younger?

Yes. I read the original black and white comics all the way through. For the Turtles, I felt like I owned them, since I was there from the beginning. That is what makes it special when I come back to these characters, knowing that you were there from the beginning.

I haven’t caught up on the new Nickelodeon TMNT. What can I expect from the new Turtles?

I think that every time the Turtles come back into the mainstream, there’s always some new spin on it. I think what’s been great about them is that they proved to be very durable characters. They kind of were born in the shadow of the Frank Miller-esque ninja obsession like Daredevil. They took that and brought it into a brand new dimension. But every time they come back in the cartoons or movies, they’ve been updated and made more current without losing their core. I think our iteration is a highly successful merging of those things. It brings it up to speed in the presentation and execution.

Now I have to ask you a very important question…who’s your favorite Turtle?

Ahhh, this question. I always feel like I’m making three enemies when I answer this question. I have to say Mikey. Gosh…

It’s alright. He’s everybody’s favorite Turtle.

I wish I was more original, but I will say that I think Mikey is such a fun character to watch. I have a good laugh with him, and he’s so sweet. Greg is doing such a great job voicing him. I will say this though – more and more as I’m watching the cartoon, I’m really enjoying Mikey’s interaction with Raphael. I think they found a great dynamic there; not just the characters, but the actors have found a great dynamic in how they’re playing off of each other. I feel like Raphael is making up ground.

Can you do a little sample of Master Splinter’s voice?

[Does Splinter’s voice] Turtles, you must remember the greatest weapon a ninja possesses…is his mind.

That’s awesome. What’s your inspiration for voicing Master Splinter?

It’s funny. I find myself thinking about a combination of things. Originally when I auditioned for the role, I had sort of a wise sensei/ancient model in my head. I’m like, “No, no, no, he’s younger, and more vital. He’s got a sense of humor about him.” And then I started thinking about various incarnations of…you watch kung fu movies?

A lot.

Yeah, I started thinking about these masters who are kind of in disguise and are like drunken fools in the village. I started thinking about that sort of perspective. When I read the script, I realized that that was what was coming off of the page. There was more a sense of someone who wasn’t more of an older parent, but a younger one. They’re still growing up and figuring things out. I feel like the story and script themselves work organically to give birth to the voice.

Since we’re still talking Turtles, are you excited for Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles movie?

Well I’m as curious as everybody else. There’s been a lot of people being upset about it. So much of it is unknown. I’m just also really happy that the universe of the Turtles, as a whole, is expanding – that people are embracing that. That’s been incredibly rewarding to see.

The fanbase that has shown up to Comic-Con in San Diego and New York has been unbelievably gracious and extremely generous. We feel like we have a responsibility to do the best job that we can.

Let’s talk Asian and Asian American casting. In the Iron Man 3 film, the Mandarin won’t be played by an Asian. He’ll be played by Sir Ben Kingsley. I know that there are those who are upset about that casting choice. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s a very complex issue. A friend of mine once was asked a question, “Do you believe there should be sort of an affirmative action for Asians in entertainment?”

And he said, “Yes.”

They came back with, “Don’t you think that kind of weakens the position?”

He said, “It would weaken the position of things were fair, but they’re not fair. We need something to equalize the playing field.”

I don’t necessarily agree with that thought. The way it’s instructed is that in our environment, if you want things to be color blind, you should be color blind all the way around. It should be any actor for any role. I think that is the ideal that we strive for. But the real question is, “Is it that way now?”

I think that it’s too convoluted a topic to tackle head on. The way I prefer to think about it is to start with characters. Start with great characters. Start with great stories and make them specific. If you want to see more Asian Americans on screen, make great Asian-American characters and stories. Don’t make characters that are flat characters. Make the ethnicity part of that amazing story and character. And I think then you’ll have a defensible position.

Ultimately that’s the way to contribute to the medium and the legacy of storytelling. It’s very easy to get lost in all the static and noise in the political discussion and forget that ultimately, what we’re here to do is make amazing stories that people will carry in their hearts for their entire lives.

That’s deep. I guess my last question is, what are your tips for aspiring actors out there?

The first thing to make sure is to know why you want to get into acting. I discovered acting somewhat by accident. I think it was very helpful in a way because I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what to expect. I was curious about it, and it offered me a very clear path to grow in a creative way, learning new things and meeting interesting people.

I think that if you go into it with an expectation of some kind of reward, it’s going to be much easier to be that disappointed. It doesn’t mean you won’t achieve it, it’s just setting yourself up. So I would say that you can keep things very, very basic. Try to put yourself into a position where you’re learning something; even more than enjoying something. That will ultimately lead to better satisfaction. Also enjoy the people around you; the actors, producers, directors, and writers. They’re amazing people, and they’re all in it together. It’s easy to put blinders on and see your path as an isolated one.

That’s why you’re playing Master Splinter. Thanks a lot for doing the interview with us.

Thank you. Thank you very much. By the way, I really love the name of your site; Nerd Reactor!

John “Spartan” Nguyen

John “Spartan” Nguyen is the editor-in-chief at Nerd Reactor and is based in Orange County, CA. He is a graphic designer and illustrator.

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