Actor C.S. Lee may be best known for his co-starring role in “Dexter” as Miami Metro Police forensic specialist Vince Masuka, but the actor traces his interest in acting to his roots at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts — and his high school years in Vancouver, Washington, where he played basketball and football.
“We would go to the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver and see a double feature on Friday nights, and I remember being there one time with some of my football buddies and we’re watching ‘Cannery Row’ for some odd reason,” Lee said, thinking back to his adolescence in Washington.
“I remember being hooked into the movie and I could feel other people being hooked into the movie, even these big, gnarly football buddies, tough linebackers, and I’m like, ‘This is amazing. This is the power of film,’ ” Lee said. “It gave me a sense of hope that film could actually make good changes to society.”
While Lee still dreams of someday making a movie about his coming-of-age in Vancouver, he keeps busy as a working actor, including a recurring role as Sgt. Jimmy Kee on CBS’ new show “East New York,” which premiered last week and airs new episodes from its first season at 9 p.m. Sundays.
A rare cop drama that’s not part of an established franchise these days (e.g., “Chicago” something, “Law & Order”), “East New York” follows newly appointed deputy inspector Regina Haywood (Amanda Warren), who runs Brooklyn’s 74th Precinct. Jimmy Smits stars as her boss and mentor. Lee’s Kee was seen in the pilot running roll call and appears in this Sunday’s episode as the desk sergeant.
Unlike some of Lee’s past roles — quirky characters with an oddball streak like Masuka in “Dexter” — this time Lee plays the straight man.
“He runs the day-to-day operations, doesn’t go out in the field, and he’s pretty much behind the desk,” Lee said. “He’s a lifer. He loves his job, believes he’s doing a good thing.”
Although he’s technically recurring, Lee has been in all six episodes filmed through mid-September.
“I am just grateful to be part of this cast, because we have a lot of old-school New York actors in here who have been around forever and always put out great work: Jimmy Smits, Richard Kind, Ruben Santiago-Hudson,” Lee said. “If you’d mentioned those names in the theater world and the acting world, they’re regarded very highly. And then, man, Amanda Warren, talk about showing up for an opening party. She can do such a wide range and she’s so brave and just amazing to watch.”
Lee was born in South Korea and immigrated with his parents at 4, first to Hawaii, then Fairbanks, Alaska, before settling in Vancouver in first grade. Growing up in a working-class family in Vancouver, Lee latched onto sports but began to notice the senior football stars were also doing theater.
“Why are they doing that?” Lee recalls wondering. “I always had these questions of, ‘Who am I? Do I belong in this community? How do I fit in?’ ”
He decided he wanted to direct and got into New York University’s film school but couldn’t afford it. A full-ride scholarship to Cornish after his 1990 graduation from Hudson’s Bay High School offered an acting path to the entertainment industry.
After earning his bachelor’s in fine arts in 1994, Lee worked in Seattle at Intiman Theatre, traveling with an outreach show for high schoolers that addressed issues like bullying, racism and sexism.
Around 1996, Lee landed the role of Sulu in Theater Schmeater’s “Star Trek” parody, “Star Dreck: The Musical.”
“Leonard Nimoy heard about the show and he actually came to our performance and he loved it,” Lee said. “Shortly after that, Paramount heard about us and sent a cease-and-desist letter and that was the end of that run. But we had a good half-a-year and sold out every show.”
Lee is most widely recognized for his 2006-13 role in “Dexter”; while his character Vince survived the original series, he wasn’t invited back for 2021’s “Dexter: New Blood.”
“I was a little bit disappointed I wasn’t involved in that, but I understood they were trying to create something new that didn’t have a connection to the Miami Metro people,” Lee said. “I still do get a lot of fans telling me they wish they could have seen [Masuka].”
Lee did notice an Easter egg related to his old character in the new show.
“You see in Batista’s email inbox [that Detective Joey Quinn] emailed Batista and the subject line is, ‘Hey, are you gonna go to Masuka’s bachelor party?’ ” Lee said. “Someone screen-grabbed it and sent it to me. So apparently I’m getting married.”
In addition to his ongoing role in “East New York,” Lee will be a guest star in an episode of Netflix’s 2023 live-action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series, playing Avatar Roku.
“They’re really trying to follow the book and honor the original cartoon very closely,” Lee said of the series, which has a cult following.
“My understanding is my character is a big presence in Book Two and Roku becomes sort of a Yoda-like father figure to Avatar Aang, who is the lead. If they follow that, I would be very happy to go back and do more ‘Avatar’ stuff.”