Up-and-coming actors largely make a name for themselves in Hollywood, based on their adaptability to successfully portray any challenging role they’re cast in. One such versatile actor is John Edward Lee, who garnered attention last year in a minor supporting role in ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2,’ the hit adventure fantasy adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s final novel in her popular ‘Twilight’ series. While appearing as the drunken English rocker in the movie, who’s ultimately killed by the vampire Garrett, played by Lee Pace, Lee further shows he’s willing to take on a diversity of roles.
Coming off the successful run of ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2,’ Lee is next set to appear in this year’s crime drama ‘Whiskey Bay,’ which was directed by first time feature helmer Chris Brinker. The film, which is based on a true story, follows a veteran Baton Rouge detective, Bud Carter, played by Willem Dafoe, who infiltrates the most powerful criminal enterprise in the South. After taking down it’s top lieutenant and contract killer, Jesse Weiland, portrayed by Matt Dillon, the detective convinces him to become an informant. Jesse sets out to help bring down the entire organization, including its architect, Lutin, played by Tom Berenger. Lee portrays Catfish Stanton, a killer and enforcer for the Aryan Brotherhood, which is run by Lutin
Lee generously took the time recently to discuss over the phone what it was like filming both ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2′ and ‘Whiskey Bay.’ Among other things, the actor discussed what it was like working with his co-stars in both films, including Pace, Nikki Reed and Kellan Lutz in the former and Dafoe, Dillon and Amy Smart in the latter; why he enjoys acting in independent and bigger budget studio films, as well as on television; and how the theater training he received at the University of Houston helped shape him to become the actor he is today.
ShockYa (SY): You portray a drunken English rocker who falls into the clutches of the vampire Garrett, played by Lee Pace, in ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2.’ While it isn’t a large role in the film, why were you interested in taking on the part?
John Edward Lee (JEL): Well, I’m from Oklahoma, and have plenty of British punk knowledge, so it’s attractive to me to throw on the accent and do something drastically different. The role itself was fun; we got to slam around on wires. It’s also the attraction of being a part of the franchise, which is a great opportunity.
SY: Since your character mainly interacts with Garrett in the film, what was your working relationship with Lee like on the set?
JEL: Lee was great. Funny enough, Garrett is from a town in Oklahoma about 35, 40 miles from where I grew up. I’ve been to his town about 35 times in my life. So we had a laugh about that, that we’re both from small town Oklahoma.
Lee and Nikki and Kellan were all super cool. It was one of the most fun nights of shooting I’ve done. I’ve been on a lot of sets, and this was a fun set. You can tell everyone there was having a good time.
SY: Speaking of Nikki and Kellan, your character also briefly interacts with them in your scene. What was it like sharing a scene with the two of them, since they have been in the entire ‘Twilight’ series?
JEL: It was great. I known Nikki through a mutual friend she acted with in ‘Lords of Dogtown;’ a good friend of mine was in that as well. So we talked about that, and chitchatted about Nikki’s career.
Nikki was also in ‘Thirteen,’ and she wrote that. It’s a really dynamic script, and her performance in that was incredible. It was the first time I took notice of Nikki Reed, and since then, I’ve appreciated her. I think she’s a dynamic person.
Kellan and I, we chitchatted-he’s a cool dude. His career is rock-n-roll.
SY: How did you become involved in ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2?’ What was the auditioning process for the role like for director Bill Condon?
JEL: It was funny-I put this one on tape out of Los Angeles. Anytime you tape, it’s really fun, because you can get more into character, more so than a standard audition. So we sent the tape, and didn’t really hear anything back for two weeks.
Then they booked me straight off of the tape. Bill called and said, “You’ve got the job, so we’d love for you to come out.” He was just delightful on set. Funny enough, it turned out that now I’m working on another project with Shane Ladd, Alan Ladd’s granddaughter, and they are all friends of Bill Condon. He’s a really cool guy.
SY: How closely did you follow ‘The Twilight Saga’ before you were cast in the finale? Were you a fan of the book and film series before taking on your role?
JEL: My familiarity with the series was already there. Every female in my family read every single book, but I had not read them. But I had seen ‘New Moon’ already, and then went back and brushed up with ‘Twilight’ and ‘Eclipse.’
It was cool to be a part of something so big. The series is going to be known as an iconic franchise. To be part of something of that scale is pretty cool.
SY: ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2′ has broken several records, including the largest worldwide opening ever released outside the summer period, and the third highest Thursday midnight gross ever. What is the feeling like, knowing that fans are embracing the film?
JEL: It’s been wild. Like you said, it’s a small role, but my Facebook friend requests have increased, and I’ve gotten requests for head shots. I’m supposed to head out Moscow in March for an appearance during a film festival. So it’s really been wild in a really cool way. I’m super grateful to be anyway involved with like you said, a record-breaking franchise.
SY: Besides ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2,’ you have also been cast as Catfish Stanton in the upcoming crime drama ‘Whiskey Bay.’ What was it about the character of Catfish that convinced you to take on the role?
JEL: Well, ‘Whiskey Bay’ is an awesome project, and I’m really proud to be a part of that one as well. It’s with two of my favorite, iconic actors-Willem Dafoe and Matt Dillon-as well as Amy Smart, who is super cool and talented.
Catfish Stanton is a wild, border-line sociopathic, psychopathic killer and is an enforcer for the Aryan Brotherhood, that’s run by Tom Berenger’s character. The energy of Catfish is visceral and electric. Everything I read about him seems like Gary Oldman from ‘The Professional.’ The movie has wild, raw characters.
Catfish is a really despicable guy. The trick with playing a despicable guy is to take something that you can really connect with, and find something that the audience will want to hook into too. The trick for me, when playing the antagonist, is to have some degree of humanity in the guy, so that he’s not just a comic book character. So that’s what drew me to it.
Plus, (I was drawn to) the opportunity to work with Matt Dillon, and we had a bunch of scenes together. Plus Willem is a delightful dude, and is such a legend. So to work with them, and really play around.
Plus the director, Chris Brinker, turned out to be one of the coolest directors, besides Bill, that I’ve had. He was also a producer on the two ‘Boondock Saints’ films, so that as well wsa a huge attraction for me. ‘Boondock Saints’ is one of my old-school favorite action films of the ’90s. I was a big indies ’90s guy-that’s the films I grew up on as a teenager. So all-in-all, I enjoyed the opportunity to be part of a script that had a lot of tension and merit, backed by a stellar cast and a great director.
SY: Like you mentioned, Willem is one of the actors you look up to. What was your working relationship with him like on the set?
JEL: I was watching ‘Wild at Heart’ recently, and he’s in that. He’s been an actor, in front of my eyes, since I was 10 years old. He’s a 100 percent professional, old school actor, and he’s delightful to be in a scene with. We’re filming action, and it’s a very male-driven action, so everyone’s all amped up. Willem was so great, and when we cut, we’d be joking around. He’s a fun, delightful dude, and super classy.
SY: Like you mentioned earlier, you grew up watching independent movies in the ’90s. You’ve also appeared as the lead in several independent films, including Showtime’s ‘One-Eyed Monster’ and Lionsgate’s ‘Circle of Pain.’ Do you have a preference of one medium over another, or do you enjoy acting in general?
JEL: I cut my teeth in independent films, so that’s always been a home for me. The characters you get to play in bigger studio films can be so big and larger-than-life, that who wouldn’t want the opportunity to try that? But there have been proper, independent Sundance-quality films in the past few years, like ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene,’ ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ that have been awesome cinema. As an actor, having quality scripts are fun to play, no matter where that script is.
SY: Besides films, you have also appeared on such television shows as ‘Criminal Minds’ ‘CSI: NY,’ ‘Bones’ and ‘NCIS.’ Do you have a preference of one medium over the other, or do you enjoy acting overall?
JEL: About five years ago, I said I wanted film, but things have changed so much. HBO and cable television have been really spearheading a shift in the way TV is presented. Now, TV is presented in an eight-hour cinematic format, sort of like a film.
So it’s hard for me to answer that question, because I adore so many television shows these days, that five years ago I wouldn’t have. We were still in that mindset that everything has to be read and shot in a certain way, and that’s how TV’s done. Then shows starting coming along, like ’24,’ that started pushing the edge of what’s television coverage, and what’s the difference between the tone on television and in cinema.
The stuff that I grew up on, like sitcoms, will always be around, but there didn’t seem to be much room for dark, dramatic content before. so I adore television now, but films have always been my passion. That’s were I’ve worked the most, and where I like to hang out. But TV’s becoming very interesting.
SY: Before moving to Los Angeles, you majored in theater at the University of Houston, and studied with Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson. What is it about theater that you enjoyed so much, and would you be interested in returning to theater in the future?
JEL: The thing with theater that interested me was that it was all real, right there in the moment on the day. But the one thing with films that’s great versus theater is the money, so you can’t ignore that. (laughs) But I love theater-it’s such an honest, artistic medium; there’s no re-takes. I’ve done live-audience performances that haven’t been quite live-there’s a delay. But with theater, it’s right there.
But films are where I grew up. My focus in theater as a major was to put my experience there toward films and television. For me, though, that’s the modern, artistic medium. The most widely consumed art form on the planet used to be books and theater, but now it’s digital, film and television.
SY: Did your experiences in theater influence the way you act in films and on television?
JEL: Oh yeah, that’s where I came from. I take everything from theater, as that was the basis for all of my training. We had a classical, theatrical program with stage combat, stage movement, make-up and voice.
The one thing I do miss about theater is that the script is the script. Nothing can be changed, because that’s the script. You don’t change the words; you read the words and make them work for your character. I don’t think there’s a film set that I work on now where improv isn’t encouraged. So I do miss that about theater, because it grounds an actor in the fact that there is a Bible that we run by.
So that’s an element that I take from my theatrical training, that I brought into film and television that I’ve had to adjust to. The words in the script aren’t always the words the director wants to hear. The talent might bring in an intuitive line change, and it works. So that’s been pretty cool, combing the two styles and schools.
SY: Do you think that improv can influence and help develop your character to some degree?
JEL: Absolutely, 100 percent. I think there are very few directors who stick very closely to the script. I know that the Coen brothers are very rigid about staying on script. But without improv, you wouldn’t get the likes of the Will Ferrells and the Tina Feys and the Alec Baldwins of the world, with their genius. You have to think there’s genius writing and then such genius presentation and interpretation by the actors, that they come up with such zany, in the moment impulses that take the writing to the next level.
SY: Would you be interested in directing in the future, besides acting?
JEL: Certainly. I’ve directed a documentary on Alcatraz (‘Alcatraz Prison Escape: Deathbed Confession’), about the prison escape of 1963. I’ve directed a few short films, and I’m directing a commercial on the (January) 15th for a watch line, based out of the United Emirates.
I adore filmmaking. I was a photography major before I was a theater major. I love cameras and compositions and overall aesthetics. I’m into lenses and all of the equipment that come along with filmmaking as a whole.
SY: Besides ‘Whiskey Bay,’ do you have any other upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
JEL: ‘Whiskey Bay’ is the biggest thing right now, and it’s set to come out in the spring or summer, I think. Chris is working towards the Venice Film Festival, and it’s really receiving a strong festival circuit. Then, like I said, I have the upcoming commercial.
I’m also shooting an action revenge film, called ‘Savage Mutts,’ next month with Ron Perlman and a delightful young actor, George Finn. It’s a standard crew of guys we’ve been working with over the past few years that the movie’s writer and director, Nick Agiashvili, has been working with. This one I’m really excited for, because Ron’s become a friend, and we’re doing a film that has offered a lot of exciting opportunities.
Written by: Karen Benardello