Christopher Naoki Lee, who plays Ken Uehara on The Terror: Infamy, talks about how much George Takei helped him prepare for this role, why Ken is so willing to stand up for his rights and how Ken and Amy’s relationship changes.
Q: How did you prepare for this role that is so deeply rooted in history?
A: I read a lot of books, news articles, watched documentaries, just anything I could get my hands on to know more about what was happening, just from a firsthand perspective. Then the writers and the producers of The Terror, they were kind enough to send an extensive reading list as well, which was so helpful.
I also specifically recall, on the first day of set, I took just 15, 30 minutes to sit in the space that they created for the barracks within the camp. Obviously there’s no real true comparison to what Japanese Americans in the ’40’s had to go through, but just being in that space, familiarizing yourself, you could feel the heaviness of what story you’re trying to tell — to know how difficult it may have been or the things they had to do on a day-to-day basis just to stay alive and stay sane.
George [Takei] was actually really quite helpful in a lot of my prep as well, since he was in the camps himself at an early age. He was often my source material I’d refer back to, and I’d ask him questions whenever we were in the green room together, just to help specify my character’s world.
Q: Early on, Ken seems to have very strong opinions about what is going on around him. What is it about his background that influences this response?
A: The stuff that I was given initially was that Ken is from San Francisco. I definitely created the textures and the backstories around him. He’s different from Chester and Walt, who are from Terminal Island. Not only in the way that he dresses and talks — I chose that Ken was a young man with a bit of education and a morally high principle based on his upbringing.
Just with that kind of knowledge, when he sees that his rights are clearly being stripped as an American, he shows up at the camp with a bit of a bad taste in his mouth and he knows he’s not supposed to be there. But I definitely also approached Ken in a way where he still deeply, deeply cares about people. He’s clearly not happy, but he’s also empathetic to his fellow campmates, just wanting to bring them together for that one united front.
Q: Ken and Amy have developed a romantic relationship in the internment camp. How would you describe their relationship?
A: I think their relationship is very interesting because Ken comes off at the beginning kind of as a bit of a charmer, trying to make the best out of a bad situation and befriending the likes of Chester and Amy. He definitely finds Amy attractive and smart — and Miki [Ishikawa] is just wonderful as Amy — but, in the end, I think they’re still somewhat products of their circumstances and this trauma of being held in these camps really bring them together. And there’s even real stories out there of couples meeting in the camps and getting married, so it was beautiful to be able to honor that kind of narrative from the writers.
But, as we kind of see in this episode, that line in the sand starts to get drawn, in terms of where their principles lie. And him just knowing Amy’s working relationship with Major Bowen, who he’s not a big fan of, kind of begins to get in between them.
Q: Ken is encouraging his fellow prisoners to fight back alongside him. What makes him different from many of the others at the camp?
A: I would say it stems a lot from his upbringing, in the choice I made for him as part of his backstory — because he was raised as an American though very much understanding Japanese values and culture so he understands the fear that other Japanese Americans may have to stand up and be vocal for what’s right, regardless of the consequences. And, as we see in this episode, pretty much to a fault he really doesn’t mind standing up for what he believes is right. Granted, he’s an early 20-year-old kid. He’s brash, he’s outspoken, so there’s a youthful vigor behind his leadership, but, ultimately, I think it comes down to his empathy for his fellow man and woman — and he’s knows they’re not prisoners, so they shouldn’t be treated as such.
Q: He answers his questionnaire, specifically the questions of whether he’d serve his country, with the answer “no” despite Amy’s requests. Why does he do this when he knows he’ll be taken away?
A: This was actually something I did a lot of research on, and George was actually very instrumental to this research as well because his parents answered “no” to the questionnaire and were sent to Tule Lake, which was a far worse isolation camp with just heavier armed guards. We talked extensively on his experience, seeing what the camp went through during this questionnaire. Japanese Americans were asked to serve a country that didn’t even believe in their patriotism, even though they were born in America, and to then also [answer] “yes,” that we forswear any loyalty to Japan, was just an extra kick in the gut. Those who answered “no,” particularly the young men, were called “no-no boys,” and they often butted heads with the authorities and even with the interned Japanese Americans, kind of like how Ken and Walt clash in this episode. So he absolutely knows what it means to Amy when he answers “no,” that as much as he loves her, he knows that this is what he must do because it’s the right thing to do.
Q: Amy changes his answers. He discovers she’s done this while in front of those that he encouraged to say “no” as they’re led away to a high security prison. Does he consider this a betrayal on Amy’s part? How does it impact his feelings for Amy?
A: It’s definitely a betrayal. Oh yes. Straight in the back. Because as brash and outspoken as he can be, he was ready for this decision. He even tells her, look, you don’t want the man that answers “yes” to those questions because that’s not who he is. But Amy is blinded by her passion and love, and it’s totally understandable and justified. For Ken, the way I looked at it was she tried to change who he was, with changing those answers, and that’s just a no no for Ken. His feelings for Amy? I’d say absolutely he’s mad, he feels betrayed, but does he still love her? I don’t know. You’ll have to kind of see, I guess.
Q: What are you most excited for people to see this season?
A: Too many things. I love shows that blend genres together and this one has such a great combination, in the historical context as well as that Japanese horror element. I’m excited for people to see how the yurei story unfolds but also that they’re drawn into the human stories in the camp and how we deal with the real circumstance of war. Honestly, I hope people will run to Wikipedia after and look up the historical facts. There’s just so much history of America. I’m also really excited for people to see the diverse players involved with the storytelling. The level of collaboration on this project was incredible. Lily [Mariye] directed the hell out of this episode.
Read an interview with Cristina Rodlo, who plays Luz Ojeda.
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