A 'Pitch Perfect' Chat with Rising Star Hana Mae Lee
Written by Sarah Osman
Hana Mae Lee is one of the stars of the upcoming film, Pitch Perfect, where she portrays Lilly, a shy newcomer to an a cappella group, The Barden Bellas, who helps save the day when she turns out to be an incredible beat-boxer. You can catch Hana Mae in Pitch Perfect when it hits theaters on October 5.
In addition to being an actress, Hana Mae is also a comedian and a fashion designer. When I first began my chat with Hana Mae, I asked if she would prefer to be called “Hana” or “Hana Mae.” She told me to call her whichever name made me feel sexy -- I knew that I was going to be in for a fun interview.
Hana Mae dished on her comedy duo Get Gaysian, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, and convinced me to try comedy (I’m serious. I really want to take an improv class now!)...
YH: Can you tell us a little bit about your character Lilly in Pitch Perfect?
HML: She’s one of my favorite characters in the movie. She’s so fierce; she comes off as very quiet, but she’s so sure of everything she says. She definitely speaks her mind. She’s the type of character who has actually done a lot in her life, so she has a lot of fun experiences and life situations. She’s very quiet, is one of the misfits of The Barden Bellas, and in the end, she becomes a beat-boxer, and she turns the whole group around, and they eventually win the ICCA’s -- what?!! [laughs] She helps change the style of The Barden Bellas.
YH: Do you have any prior experience beat boxing?
HML: Well, it’s funny, when I went in for the audition, they asked if I was a beat-boxer, and I was like, whatttt?! But I used to do this thing, when I was in high school... I would try to annoy my teachers and I would end up annoying the students. I would make these weird sounds with my mouth -- mmm maaa hmmmm mmmm maaaaa mmmmm -- that was my version of beat-boxing! But the studio was great because they actually set me up with an amazing beat-boxer/spinner here in Los Angeles. I got three solid lessons from him, and I have to say that beat-boxing is really cool. My favorite part was learning how to scratch; I got to do that in the finale, and that was really fun to learn. They taught me everything from the basics to scratching, and luckily they were able to incorporate that scratching into the soundtrack. It was awesome!
YH: What was it like working with so many different talented actresses for Pitch Perfect?
HML: It was interesting. It was great; everyone was so different. They cast everyone so well, and we all had our own individual personalities, which was very cool. Filming was like summer camp. We were there four weeks prior to filming -- we would have four hours of dance and two hours of singing a day. We had performances every 2-3 days, where we would perform in front of the producers and crew and whatnot. We learned all these new dances, and we danced three numbers; our music kept changing, and so our dances would change. We would have to learn all these new steps. It was crazy! But it was also really fun. We’re still friends now, we all hang out, we go to parties; yesterday we went and saw The Book of Mormon. It was really very special. We were all from a different place, yet we were altogether making this beautiful and fun movie together. Most of us were in the same hotel, and it was like being in a dorm. On the weekends, we’d go to LSU [Pitch Perfect was filmed in Baton Rouge], where we’d go to the tailgate parties. And they really tailgate. In L.A., we don’t really tailgate. But in Louisiana, it’s totally different. The first tailgate I went to they were frying up gator... so, I got to have alligator. But it was just so much fun to be in this great location around all of these great guys and gals. I had a blast.
YH: Can you tell us a little bit about your singing background? Were you yourself in an a cappella group at any point?
HML: I used to sing in my church choir histories ago. For a cappella, I had never been in a group. I read the book, and I was watching "The Sing-Off" at the time, and I was familiar with a cappella, but I had never been in a group. For my singing background, I sing a lot of Korean folk music. I actually sang Korean folk music in my audition.
YH: In addition to being an actress, you are also a stand-up comedian. Can you tell us a little bit about your stand-up, and are there any other stand-ups/comedians who have inspired you over the years.
HML: I love stand-up comedy because you get to talk about whatever you want. You create your own voice on your stage. And people think that it’s very scary, but it’s about me! I’m looking to be the center of attention, and I found it! I’m here! I started in 2009, and I had some great mentors -- Jimmy Schubert, he’s a hilarious Irish stand-up comedian, and he helped me develop my own voice. I really like Fortune, she writes for Chelsea Handler, and she’s traveled all over the world as well. I love oddballs like Demetri Martin. My ultimate person, who made me be fierce, and do whatever you want, is Andy Kaufman. He is my 100% muse. When I first started, I would do things like sing Korean folk music. And a lot of Korean music is about your life and all of the troubles and toils of growing up in rural Korea during the war. It’s very deep. But the sounds are so intense and amazing. My first comedy duo was called Get Gaysian -- it was with a friend of mine who is gay -- and we would do a Korean folk song as part of our set. Some of the audience was just like, “What just happened?!”, while others would just laugh out loud. All of the comedians got it, while the rest of the audience was sitting there going, "Should we laugh? Should we not?" But that’s the sort of inspiration that Kaufman gives. This is what it’s about.
YH: Hmmm. Now I sort of want to try comedy.
HML: You should! A lot of people will say that they’re scared or shy, but comedy is a thrill. You go up there and can make fun of yourself, or your life, and you get an instant response from your audience, so you immediately know what works and what doesn’t. I definitely recommend it, it’s so much fun.
YH: I noticed in your stand-up that you mentioned that you’re a huge fan of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Who has been your favorite queen so far?
HML: I’m a little biased, so I know Willam Belli. Willam -- the way that he portrays himself as a drag queen -- she’s so fierce and she’s so funny. Her one-liners -- “I ain’t gonna Rupologize.” -- they’re so great. I’ve known Willam since 2003. He’s been around for a while with fierce L.A. drag queens. Whenever I’m insecure or sad, I just watch me some “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. It just inspires me; you get to see men doing what they want to do, and being so confident, it’s great to see. And with “RuPaul’s Drag U”, it’s so great to see those queens help inspire women. I remember, on one episode, Raven was helping this one girl in baggy jeans and a T-shirt who was saying that she only felt cute in Junior High, but that was crushed when she told her best friend that she liked him, and he never wrote her back. Raven just shrugged it off and said, "Well, honey, maybe he doesn’t know how to read." [laughs] I think that, to be a drag queen, you have to have that fierce mantra, you have to believe that you are number one. Drag goes so much further than just hair and make-up.
YH: In addition to being an actress, singer, and comedienne, you are also a clothing designer. Can you tell us a little bit about the style and inspiration behind your line, Hanamahn? Are there any designers out there that you particularly like?
HML: I love fashion. I feel like our bodies are blank canvases. We get to dress however we want. We’re really lucky; we live in the USA, and we live with our own voice and have the opportunity to express ourselves. I’ve been into fashion since I was really young. I’ve started my own clothing line, Hanamahn, which means “just one” in Korean. A lot of my pieces are fierce and avant-garde. My first clothing collection was in 2009 where I did all apparel. Whereas in 2001, I was all about costumes; I did a lot of costuming, and I started making my own wired jewelry. My 2009 line was very leather, pointy shoulders, fierce stripes... it was all about contours of the body. The pieces were designed for a strong, confident woman. There was a jacket that said “Sex Me” on it with all these phone numbers on it -- it’s meant to be fun. My current line is all about humor, and there are actually a few Hanamahn vests that are in Pitch Perfect. The socialite wool vest that you see on the posters -- I designed it! And then there is this kintperfect vest that’s in scene 92. This season, my line is all about humor, it’s about the various handicaps that we have. I think that we all have various handicapped. Mine is called “tittles", which means “little tits.” [laughs] I’m all about having fun. I think we need to all stop taking life so seriously.
My inspirations… definitely Alexander McQueen. His work is like art in itself. His clothes are wearable art. Do you remember his first runway show in the rain? That was so inspiring. He really inspired me to become more artistic with my clothes. I really love couture. You can really explore so many things with a piece of fabric.
YH: Since you are Korean, I must ask you about your thoughts on the song, “Gangnam Style”, by PSY. Any plans to do a parody?
HML: [laughs] Well, I’m not sure if this is sad or funny, but my parents were the ones who told me about him. When they first told me about him, all I said was, “Who is this guy?”, and my dad was so shocked. He told me, “How do you not know about him? He’s all over the internet; he does this amazing pony dance!” And I was like, “Dad, the pony dance has been around for ages.” And my dad still made me watch it. There’s so many parodies of it. He has gotten so big so fast. I probably should do one... I saw him at the VMAs. He was really good. It’s really amazing what the web and the circulation of the web can do to someone’s life. It’s really crazy!
YH: As a woman in comedy, are you excited to see all of the great comedies and starring roles that women are now in?
HML: It’s super, super cool. They just did a poll for TV, and I think that it’s either 65% or 70% of people who watch TV are women. I think what Bridesmaids did was just phenomenal. It’s great how it’s opened up so many doors. But I think that, last year, it really blossomed for women of comedy to have their own voice. It’s taken quite a while for this happen. There are so many great shows out right now, like “New Girl” and “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt 23” -- they have such strong voices for women. I find it interesting how, in “Don’t Trust the B”, both of the lead girls are so different, but they both have their own voice and they’re so strong. It’s so exciting. It’s such an exciting time. And especially being an Asian woman who’s a comic. I didn’t grow up with a lot of racism. I grew up in the Valley; no one was really racist. I often forget that I was Asian in the Valley -- it was just never a big deal for me. I never really thought about my race until I came into this industry... I was told that I should do martial arts because I was Asian. Or that I should go out for the Samurai role. And I had no idea what they were talking about! I’m a comedian! So. I’ve just learned that you just need to find the humor in it. In the end, we’re all the same, just different races. It’s such a shame that racism exists, but comedy is a great way to express all of that.
It’s such a pivotal time to be a woman in comedy. It’s great that, in comedy, we just embrace who we are, and we also embrace our bodies. I grew up on stage, and I’ve always been built like a 9-year-old boy. [laughs] So, I just make fun of that. You’re not just your body -- you’re so much more than that.
YH: What can expect to see from you next?
HML: You know what, I think this is it. I’m just going to end on a high note and move out of this country. I’m done. This is it. Hana Mae, done! [laughs]
I’m so excited. I have so many ideas and so many scripts that I want to sell. I love comedy -- I want to go to Montreal to do my own stand-up. I would love to have my own show. I want to continue acting; I feel like Pitch Perfect is a bit like Clueless. Everyone in that film had such an awesome voice and all of their careers went in such a great direction. And I feel, with Pitch Perfect, we have so many talented people. For myself, I want to be known as the funny Asian girl who is fierce and ballsy. I want people to think of me as being so cool because she doesn’t let her race and gender define her. I just want to spread my little wings! I love this industry, it’s so creative and cool. I feel so blessed to be a part of this industry. It was hard to get into. Especially coming from the Korean background -- my parents wanted me to go into the FBI, which was really not my thing. I’m very excited, I feel that things are changing in a good way, and I am very excited to be a part of that.
Pitch Perfect, which also stars Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, and Rebel Wilson, opens October 5. Check out the trailer below!
Photo courtesy Troy Jensen/Current Studio.
- Sarah Osman, YH Staff