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Japanese Korean American actor Brian Tee knows you’ll fall in love with Lulu Wang’s Expats. Based on the novel The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee, which also stars Nicole Kidman, Sarayu Blue, and Ji-young Yoo, the upcoming Amazon Prime Video drama series follows three American women as their lives intersect following a family tragedy. Tee plays Clarke, the career-focused father who brought his family to Hong Kong before a devastating crisis tests their limits. Tee spoke with me about Clarke’s psychology, which of the parents he relates to more, and why he believes Expats will capture your heart.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jalen Jones: Tell me about the qualities you hoped to bring out through your portrayal of Clarke. What do you hope viewers can learn through his character?
Brian Tee: Well, I think the qualities of Clarke are very similar to the qualities that I hope to bring as a father. He leads with love. He tries to nurture and protect as best as he can. And the qualities that I've learned and grown to manifest within my own life are very similar to Clarke's.
I honestly think in a tragedy such as this, everyone experiences things so differently. It's not just Clarke's experience—it's Mercy's experience, it's Margaret's experience, it's Hilary's experience, it's David's experience, and they're all vastly different. Each one processes it in a different way. I think that's the brilliance of our show. People coming in to watch see these universal themes and really can relate to each individual character. Especially when they come together, it makes for such a compelling, and really gripping, riveting show.
JJ: What would you say makes Clarke's parenting style and his approach to the central tragedy of this series so different from Margaret's? Whose approach would you say you align more with personally?
BT: Oh, I'm Clarke through and through, as far as me aligning most. Clarke's trying to hold everything together, right? But I think that stems from this deep sense of guilt, because he was the reason why they're there in Hong Kong as expats in the first place. It was through his job, and his career that he wanted to propel. He basically exported his whole family out of the comforts of their home and into a brand new environment, and said, “Hey, you guys, go figure it out. You guys go assimilate and try to find your community, while I work up the corporate ladder.” In that sense, especially when the tragedy happens, it's this path of overcompensating, and trying to hold things together, yet dealing with his own grief and turmoil—the tragedy that they go through is something that you would not wish on your worst enemy.
The experience of Clarke is so incredibly dynamic and nuanced, and arched in so many layers. You really delve into his experience. From episode to episode, you can feel something new and something different, because in grief, there are so many different levels, on so many different stages. It’s hard to compare Clarke and Margaret because their experiences through that are so different. They're going through their situations and family dynamics in very different ways, yet trying to love one another and be together. That's what really makes this television series so compelling.
JJ: Clarke and Margaret's family are inherently multicultural, as expatriates. Did your own multicultural identity contribute to how you approached your scenes?
BT: Yes! For the multicultural dynamic, as far as my personal family is concerned, it's very nuanced. It's an experience that not everyone gets to be a part of. Do those influence my character? Absolutely, 100 percent. But what I also find is that in this show—and especially through our characters—there's this deep sense of humanity, layered upon everything that everyone can relate to. So even though I am an island, in an isolated situation with a very multicultural unit, I think tragedy is tragedy. Love is love. And the experiences that we've experienced in the show are pieces of humanity that are different, yet completely relatable.
That is the brilliance of Lulu Wang. Her being able to bring a microscope down to these kinds of situations, yet expand them to a very universal and worldly experience is something so incredibly dynamic. Audiences will really fall for it once they come to watch this television series.
JJ: Without spoiling anything, what episode of Expats did you find most rewarding, and why?
BT: Without spoiling anything!? Ah! I am a fan, gosh, they're so good. All of them are so good. Don't make me do this!
BT: I am a fan of episode…I'm gonna pick two: episode four and episode five. In episode four, you really feel and see the culmination of what Margaret and Clarke are going through—I'll leave it at that. Then for episode five, I think it's the brilliance of the migrant workers, and watching this experience through their POV is something that Lulu was very, very keen on doing. It really allows the migrant workers to be a part of this community, and a part of this experience, because it's not just about the characters that are experiencing the tragedy—the privileged ones—it's also the immigrant workers’ experiences. Through their eyes, their turmoil, their tragedy, and their hardship you really get to feel and relate to that as well.
JJ: Those are my two favorites, too! Well, thank you so much for sitting down with us! It was great talking to you.
BT: Cheers! Thank you, you as well.
Expats is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Published on January 29, 2024
Words by Jalen Jones
Jalen Jones is a Black and Filipino writer, poet, director, and all around creative who came of age in Eagle Rock and the greater Los Angeles county. Over the years, he has hosted a children’s workout DVD series, directed an Emmy Award-winning public service announcement, and produced the NAACP Image Award nominated short film, The Power of Hope. Passionate about portraying the real, the unpinpointable, and the almost-unsayable, Jalen has published a wide array of poetry and creative work that lands on these very discoveries. More than anything, he hopes to build a house out of words that can make anyone and everyone feel like they belong. Find him on Instagram @jalen_g_jones and online at jalen-jones.com.