Dexter’s CS Lee investigates the Holy Land

“I knew Dexter reached a global audience, but I was surprised that so many people here knew who I was,” says CS Lee.

Dexter star C.S Lee with other celebrities in Israel  (photo credit: Courtesy Golan Heights Winery)
Dexter star C.S Lee with other celebrities in Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy Golan Heights Winery)
There’s a lot to see in Jerusalem, but last week a first-time tourist here became one of the sights: CS Lee, better known as Dr. Vince Masuka on the TV series Dexter, found himself drawing crowds wherever he went: the Old City, the Mahaneh Yehuda Market and various other spots around Israel.
“I knew Dexter reached a global audience, but I was surprised that so many people here knew who I was,” says CS Lee.
Lee is here as part of an America’s Voices in Israel group of television and movie actors that includes award-winning actress Lea Thompson (Switched at Birth, Back to the Future); Thompson’s husband, Howard Deutch, who has directed music videos and films starring Billy Idol, Bruce Willis and Selena Gomez; their two daughters, actress Zoey Deutch, who stars in the movie adaptation of The New York Times bestseller, Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters, and musician Madelyn Deutch; Vivian Bang, who co-stars in Sullivan & Son; and Anson Mount, who is the lead actor in Hell on Wheels.
Irwin Katsof, director of America’s Voices in Israel (part of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) is leading these performers to sites of contemporary and historical importance all over the country, as well as introducing them to prominent Israeli leaders.
Lee has been enjoying his first visit to Israel.“The first couple of nights we were in Tel Aviv. I didn’t realize Israel could be so beautiful and have such a great nightlife.... You always read about war and politics in the media.”
The actor found some moments on the tour very sobering.
“Yad Vashem was a highlight for me, it was a very moving experience. And we went to the Golan Heights and saw the border with Syria. We saw and heard some fighting and that was startling, to be so close to the war. It was really eye-opening...
I know that people here deal with that on an everyday basis.”
Lee is soft-spoken and very appreciative of the opportunity to visit Israel, but his heartfelt responses might not be what you would expect from the guy who created the often foul-mouthed, quirky Masuka.
“That’s definitely part of me, what you see up there [on Dexter]. The writers have written what they’ve written but it was up to me to make it come to life, to give it the nuances,” says Lee, who was born in South Korea but who moved to Canada as a child and then moved to the US.
While in the early seasons there was less focus on his character, because Masuka was not that prominent in the first novel of the series on which the show was based, the character grew into an audience favorite.
“That’s part of my personality leaking through,” Lee says, although the actor, who studied at the Yale School of Drama, sounds far more straitlaced than Masuka, many of whose predilections cannot be mentioned in a family newspaper. “After eight years, it became easier and easier to tap into the character... I would do a little bit of improvisation to make the character more sexually deviant. The writers caught on and started to go for it. I felt I could have been fired, but they never said stop doing that. And we had fun with it.”
Lee was instantly drawn to the character when he first read the screenplay for the Dexter pilot, although he had no clue what a phenomenon the show would become.
“None of us thought it would go on this long. When I read the script for the pilot, I knew it was different from anything I’d ever seen. It was a lot of fun to be part of,” he says.
The darkness of the show, a huge part of its appeal, was an interesting challenge for the actor. “It was all about situations you don’t see and aren’t part of in real life,” he says. “I got used to being around bodies and body parts, killers and killing. Of course what you see in the show isn’t real, but it looked pretty real. I’m OK around those things. I’m not squeamish. It’s fun to pretend for a moment, it’s like how kids pretend to be monsters.”
Once he returns from the Middle East, “I’m just another unemployed actor waiting for my next gig. It’s a situation we actors are all too familiar with.”
While he hopes “to get on a show that’s good,” he’s also interested in making movies, as both an actor and a director.
He wants to direct a feature film “about the experience of being an Asian immigrant.
I’d like to make a movie that is connected to my immigrant experience of growing up in a white suburb in Washington State and trying to fit in to the world around me.”
His parents, who run a small store, were always supportive of his acting ambitions.
“My parents were always busy working. I had to grow up right away. My parents were immigrants but it wasn’t the ‘Tiger Mom’ kind of experience. Maybe deep inside they worried about my future as an actor, but they didn’t express themselves.
When I was a struggling actor in New York, they kind of brought up the subject of trying something else. Then I got the show and it eased their worries.”
As a kid struggling to fit in, Lee found refuge in the movie theater, particularly art house films. “I was drawn to foreign films and independent films. It gave me a sense of belonging growing up in the US as an immigrant. I always felt that films had a special place in society.
Films can change people’s morals and emotions. It’s a very powerful medium.”
Anyone who has seen Lee on Dexter will be more than a little curious to find out what he has to say as a director.