He also talks about the family dynamic, the experience of getting to shoot in Hawaii, and more.
From show creator Kourtney Kang (Fresh Off the Boat), the Disney+ original series Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. follows Lahela Kamealoha (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), a 16-year-old prodigy who is trying to find a balance between her very adult medical career and life as a teenager in Hawaii. Everything from the blurred lines of her doctor mother (Kathleen Rose Perkins) also being her supervisor at the hospital, to surfing with her father (Jason Scott Lee), to saving a stranger on the side of the road, to wanting her crush to return her feelings, are all part of a typical but sometimes very complicated day for “Doogie.”
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, which you can both watch and read, Lee talked about what made him want to play this character, not being behold to the original series (Doogie Howser, M.D.) that inspired this one, the experience of getting to shoot in Hawaii, the family dynamic, how much more he still feels could be explored with these characters in possible future seasons, his longtime history with Disney, and an early meaningful experience he had on set that meant a lot to him.
Collider: This is a really fun, sweet show. You’ve played good guys and heroes, and bad guys and villains, and you’ve done all of that exceptionally well, but on this show, you get to play the everyday guy who’s a dad that loves his wife and his family. What was appealing about that for you? What made that something you wanted to do?
JASON SCOTT LEE: It’s a nice departure from some of the more actiony things I’ve done and also some of the more serious dramatic things. And of course, during this time of the pandemic, because I’m a Hawaii resident, it was very appealing that they were gonna shoot in my backyard. And the people behind it – the producers and the creators – I really enjoyed a lot of their work that they’ve put together. The combination of all those things, with working in Hawaii and being able to play a local guy, I thought I could add a lot to it because I was raised on the islands. Those were a lot of pluses to keep me on the board.
Had you been familiar with Doogie Howser, M.D.? Did you know what the series was?
LEE: Yes, I’ve seen the show. I used to watch it when I was younger, and I thought it was very appealing. When I thought about a reboot, and then I thought about the re-imagining of a young girl and the mother being more of the comrade in arms with her, and the father being a bit of a different kind of character who’s more laid back, local island style, and a surfer guy, I thought, “This could be really interesting.” It helped, having the foundation of the Doogie Howser show, as a template for this.
I think it really helps that it’s said, really early on, that it’s a TV show in this world and it’s used as a nickname for his daughter, but it’s not something that you have to feel beholden to and you get a sense of freedom with it because you don’t have to stick to a certain expectation.
LEE: Yeah, and that left it wide open. What we did with the new episodes of Kamealoha, a lot of it is a big adventure. There’s a lot of outdoors stuff and a lot of things in the ocean. I think that really broadened it, instead of just keeping it indoors or in the hospital. It widens the dimensions of it.
When you have such a beautiful backdrop to work with, is it ever challenging not to be distracted by where you are and the sheer beauty of everything while you’re also trying to make a TV show?
LEE: Yeah, absolutely. You’re sitting there and it’s a beautiful sunny day with blue skies and white clouds and light trade winds, and you’re sitting on what is your home set or at a rented house on the beach, and you’ve gotta pinch yourself thinking, “I’m working and this is pandemic time, but this is probably the best it can be.” I enjoy that the material is light and it’s family oriented. Knowing that you’re creating a show for that demographic of the family watching it together, it’s very comforting. It’s a nice appeal.
Your character is very drawn to the ocean. It seems to be the thing that really centers him. Why is that something so important to him? Is that really what keeps his focus in life?
LEE: In creating the character with (showrunner) Kourtney Kang and discussing it with (executive producer) Jake Kasdan, we came to the point that for Benny Kamealoha, that’s his zen. That’s where he finds his peace and where he centers himself. Whenever troubles arise or he realizes that someone is in crisis, he goes to the ocean, and that’s a very Hawaiian thing. There have been a lot of stories within the Hawaiian culture about people who have had injuries, like broken necks and things like that, and old people will say to go to the ocean, say a little prayer, throw water on your neck three times, and just go sit in the ocean. A lot of people swear by it, after not having to go through the surgery for an injury because they’ve been healed and don’t have any more pain. There’s a lot of believability in some of the stories that we created around Benny going back to the ocean. There’s a lot of foundation to it, culturally. It creates a very authentic Hawaiian cultural experience, that we fuse into the show. Also, with Benny, a lot of it is that Ohana is his thing. The family unit is his value. The priority is that he supports Clara and Doogie, or Lahela, on their medical quest.
I loved the opening of the show and our introduction to these characters, going from this father and daughter surfing, to then a driving test, to her then saving someone’s life. In the first five minutes, we learn so much about the importance of family, and then we see how she’s this teenager who doesn’t have her license yet, and then she’s a doctor saving someone’s life. Do you feel like that first five minutes is a good representation of what people can expect from this season?
LEE: Absolutely. It was so smart to just get right into it and really focus on this central character and her wits, her talents, and her youth. That stacks it up just perfectly for what the rest of the show is.
Was that always the opening, from the first time you had read the script, or did they develop that more? Was that something that was on the page, from day one?
LEE: From what I read, yeah. From what was brought to me for the pilot, that was definitely the standard. That was laid out pretty clear.
I think it says a lot that this guy used to work in finance and he gave that up, and now he’s running this shave ice flower truck and spending time with his family. Who was Benny before? When he was working in finance, how different was he and what was his life like before all of this?
LEE: Building the backstory for Benny, there was a lot of stress and a lot of grouchiness. He was a little more intense kind of guy kind. I believe he fell into the rabbit hole a bit with that, and then there was a point where there was an epiphany where he was like, “Wait a minute, my happiest times were when I was growing up on the islands.” And so, when he and Clara decided to have a family, that was probably one of the key factors. He wanted to raise his kids in that environment and that atmosphere. He also wanted to spend more time with them and be there for them more. One of the lines he has is, “My two favorite things, shave ice and flowers.” Flowers make everyone happy, and shave ice is an island treat. It’s a little bit of sugar and a little bit of a floral scent. He really embodies that sense of not making a lot of money, but making people happy with smiles on their faces. It really conveys that sense of the aloha spirit, that caring and giving spirit. It’s so symbolic of creating a character like that, especially being the father of the family.
So often, we see families on TV that are dysfunctional or that have a lot of tension between them, and I love how the parents on this show are the hot parents who love each other and they have a great relationship. What do you most enjoy about the relationship between these two and what do you think it was that originally brought them together?
LEE: I think their differences [brought them together]. She’s from the mainland and Caucasian, and he’s from the islands and sort of ethnic. There are certain mysteries when you look into another person and you find that are like, “Wow, that’s interesting, I never knew that,” and you’re intrigued by it. Clara, in her own world, was intrigued by Benny’s background and his upbringing and being of another culture. I think that that was part of it. She probably recognized that he was pretty flexible and adaptable, being able to jump from an extreme world like finance into being an independent businessman, as the shave ice guy.
There’s something so fun and playful about that dynamic. What have you enjoyed about working with Kathleen Rose Perkins? Does she bring a lot of fun to the scenes that you guys do together?
LEE: Absolutely. Kathleen is just nice. She’s an anti-actress. She doesn’t act like an actress. She has no airs about her. She’s just easygoing and quirky and funny and willing to go the goofy route, at the drop of a hat, and has this ease about her, going through it. That’s combined with a franticness that works so well for the character. We play well off each other. I’m more centered, more calm, more like Benny. Maybe that’s why we were cast as such.
Did you guys have a moment when this whole family really felt like it clicked and the chemistry in that dynamic was really present, or has it been more of a gradual thing?
LEE: Everybody was grateful for being able to be on a set, when we first started filming and I think the gratitude showed. All of us came in with a humility because of everything that was going on around us. We all were in the same boat together. We were all sitting around and getting tested [for COVID], so it felt like a safe zone, and we just started talking. It was a very relaxed atmosphere and I think that really helped to engage and get to know who each other was, each other’s hobbies, our likes and dislikes, who was on the phone the most time, and all of these factors. I think that really cemented it. There was a lot of familiarity, and yet there was this newness. Even with the kids, it was fantastic to learn where they’re from, what they’ve done, and what their aspirations are. I think that really helps create that bond.
I love that these are three very different children that this couple has, but they still seem to really try to relate to all of them and to embrace how different all three of them are.
LEE: Yeah. We have the genius kid, and then we have the mischievous one, and then we have this quirky young one. That’s interesting, having to you deal with them at different ages, as well as their different personalities. You’ve really gotta spend time with each child. I think that’s probably why they didn’t add five kids to the mix.
I also love that he can be the sweetest dad, but then he can also threaten his daughter’s date with bodily harm. Is it fun to get to have those moments and show that he can be a little more threatening when he needs to be?
LEE: Yeah. The threat is in play and in jest, but there’s a little underlying concern. It’s a fun thing. It’s also a very Hawaii thing. Everything is very heavy-handed, in a way, the time that I was raised, maybe not now. It comes from macho-ism and a little bit of threat there, but then there’s a throw it out the window kind of thing too. It’s fun to play that.
When you’re someone who’s working on a show like this, where you don’t know everything ahead of time, you don’t know where everything is going and you don’t know what’s going to happen for all these characters, do you ask a lot of questions of your showrunner? Do you know what Benny could be up to in Season 2?
LEE: I think what we try to establish, in building Benny in the first season, the writers give you a heads up, as far as what they want and where they felt Benny might go. Because we established so much diversity within his character, there are so many places you can go with it. I’m wide open you to all of those changes and new horizons. I think it’s gonna be fun to see even more, the development of it.
You’ve had quite the history with Disney, from Mulan to Jungle Book to Lilo and Stitch, and now you’re doing this series. What does it mean to you to be a part of the Disney family and to keep working with them, at different points in your career?
LEE: You never set out to work with one studio. It just fell into place. Back when Jungle Book came up, I thought, “Wow!” I’d always had a childhood fascination with that character. When Stephen Sommers was putting it together, I was like “I wanna be a part of that.” I wasn’t thinking, “Ooh, I wanna work for Disney.” It was more that they had the license to it. And then, Lilo and Stitch was another fascinating foray into working with them because that was a Hawaiian-themed thing and that was the only other local boy thing that I’d done in my career. That was so long ago, it seems like. Now, I’ve been a part of Mulan. We’ll see if I can keep it going with these types of projects. Mulan was very challenging for me. It really tapped into my Chinese ancestry. All of these things have bearing on who I am and my cultural background. All of those things are so significant.
And they’ve seen you as the hero and the villain. You were pretty terrifying in Mulan.
LEE: Good. The director, Niki Caro, really pushed me to go deep with that character and her perception of what she wanted that character to be. Working with someone the caliber of Niki, she’s awesome. She really pushes her actors to where she envisions the character in the film.
Are you someone who also has frequented the Disney theme parks, or is that not something that was ever a part of your life?
LEE: Disney just permeates through everything, when you’re a child. I had an opportunity, after Jungle Book, they allowed me to take my family and my siblings and everyone to the Anaheim park to just run wild and get to the front of all the lines. That was a real treat. That was a once in a lifetime treat for us. You don’t have to wait around and are escorted through it. Those are the perks, working for the mouse. They’ve expanded so much, since Jungle Book times. It’s interesting to see how massive they have become.
At this point in your life, what do you look for in a project and a role? Are there things that you know you definitely aren’t interested in doing, or is it just more about how you feel when you read something?
LEE: Sometimes it’s just an opportunity that comes along and you’re like, “Wow, I get to work here. I get to work with so-and-so. I’d like to do that.” Sometimes it’s more inspired by the story and by the script. Oftentimes, I’m at a point where I really wanna push. I’m looking at things that are gonna give me that challenge because, after so many years of doing it, you can jump on a show and just peddle the bike because you know how to ride a bike. But there are times, like now, where I think it’d be cool to start learning something on a whole other level, that’ll help me develop even more self-development. I’m always looking for projects that do develop my character and my interests, and that will challenge me and make it worth the effort, where you feel like you’ve worked.
What was the earliest experience you had on a set that was a really positive, really memorable experience for you, that you feel like you really learned from and that really was a turning point for you, in your career?
LEE: It was early on. I was 24 or 25. I worked with this director named Vincent Ward from New Zealand, and we did this film called Map of the Human Heart. That was with a stellar cast and it was traveling to these very remote, exotic places in the Canadian Arctic. That was the projection for me, back then. If I had the opportunity to work with a team in this business, that was my projection. I wanted to go to these far away places that you wouldn’t necessarily go to, as a tourist or if you were visiting. I love the great outdoors. I love being on adventures. It checked all of those boxes. I worked with an international cast. That was the one that made a big shift for me. That was my first lead in a feature, and it was working on a big-budget art house film, as we called them back then. Now, they call them independent films. That was a fabulous experience and I took away so much from it. There were also some gnarly challenges. When I harken back to episodes in my career where I felt really stellar, those are the experience that I wanted.
Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. is available to stream at Disney+.
The series will premiere exclusively on Disney+ on September 8.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter at Collider. Having worked at Collider for over a decade (since 2009), her primary focus is on film and television interviews with talent both in front of and behind the camera. She is a theme park fanatic, which has lead to covering various land and ride openings, and a huge music fan, for which she judges life by the time before Pearl Jam and the time after. She is also a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Television Critics Association.
He also talks about the family dynamic, the experience of getting to shoot in Hawaii, and more.