There’s Something About Nancy
Look for the name Nancy J. Lee on any search engine or social media site and you will find a YouTube video of her performing an eerily realistic impression of Kim Kardashian, a blurb about “Lost’s” own Daniel Dae Kim attending her stand-up comedy show in Hawaii and a list of acting credits, the most recent one being attributed to the upcoming Korean American Hollywood film directed by Christine Yoo, “Wedding Palace.”
To any stranger browsing the internet, Lee seems to have been in the show business since birth, as many successful actors in Hollywood have (think Leonardo DiCaprio or Drew Barrymore). But before Lee transferred to UCI for its drama program as a junior, she was a religious studies major at UC Riverside for two years with no prior experience or interest in acting.
Lee was born in San Francisco and raised along with her two siblings in the Bay Area by her well-educated parents, who had both graduated from universities in South Korea before going on to graduate school in the U.S.
“Obviously, education has always been extremely important to them,” Lee said. “I have an older brother who is now one of the top attorneys for Apple and my younger sister graduated from UC Berkeley and is now attending grad school for psychology.”
But growing up referring to herself as the “typical middle child,” Lee only wanted to be a back-up hip hop dancer, a hairstylist or an FBI agent. It was her parents who urged her to apply to college, and after applying with low grades and SAT scores as a religious studies major –– a major that, according to Lee, was unpopular and therefore easier to get into –– she was accepted to UC Riverside.
During her time as a religious studies major, Lee was apprehensive about her future, so she decided to volunteer as an actor in a student-directed Shakespeare scene for a class. One small taste of the acting bug and she applied to transfer to UCI’s top 15-ranked drama program. Even after getting in, Lee was still unsure of her calling and thought about switching to a psychology major because she thought it was more practical, or even criminology in hopes of holding onto her dream of becoming an FBI agent. But she stuck with drama.
“Finally, I found something that challenged me and made me feel open,” Lee said. “I had to explore myself internally. It was difficult. But the hardest art in my opinion is stand-up comedy.”
However, despite the difficulties of this art form, Lee overcame those obstacles and is now a seasoned comedian, having performed at venues such as Laugh Factory.
Although she has many years of experience in stand-up comedy, Lee didn’t develop an interest in the business until after graduating college.
“My acting teacher at that time pushed me into it. I’ll never forgive him,” Lee jokes.
Fast forward to 2011, after a few roles on TV shows and short films. Lee was agent-less that year, and she hadn’t auditioned for any roles in a while. A friend, Karyn Lee, forced her to crash an audition that called for someone who could play an older Korean woman.
“I wanted to quit everything at the time. I was very depressed,” Lee said. “I walked in to the audition office and I met with the casting director. Unfortunately, there was no part for me so I didn’t audition. I was about to walk out the door and in came Christine Yoo, the director, on her way to the bathroom.”
Lee had met Yoo once at a theater show she did earlier with the Propergander Group, but she had no idea she was the one directing “Wedding Palace,” the movie for which she was going to audition.
“She told me to hold on a minute while she talked to the casting director. She came back out five minutes later and said, ‘You’re in the movie,’” Lee said. “I couldn’t believe it. No appointment, no audition, no agent, but now I’m in a feature film!”
A film that has already won numerous awards at Asian American film festivals and is out on September 27, “Wedding Palace” has been called “the Korean-American ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’” and is a comedy in which Lee plays an aunt in a big, traditional Korean-American family, one that believes their son will be cursed for life if he doesn’t marry by the age of 30.
“My character is a doctor because the family is very well-educated, as a lot of Koreans are, it seems. My character is kind, dramatic, smart, passionate and funny. I basically play my mother. If I am like my mother at all, that would be an honor.”
Lee might be rising to the ranks of famous Asian Americans in the media now, but her path has shown how much hard work it takes to make it here.
“Here’s the heavy truth: you’ll never figure out life before, during or after college,” Lee said. “It doesn’t matter what you have planned out. You get curveballs thrown at you in life that you didn’t plan for. All you can do is pursue what you love, give it your best effort and roll with the challenges.”
Take it from a stand-up comedian that once majored in religious studies.