A version of this story about Orion Lee and “First Cow” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
In Kelly Reichardt’s masterfully understated “First Cow,” Orion Lee brings gravitas and grace to the role of King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant in 19th-century Oregon who may be a visionary and may be a hustler. As the mastermind of a biscuit-making business with a would-be baker who goes by the name of “Cookie” (John Magaro), Lee’s King-Lu has a quiet answer for everything, except maybe the problem with realizing his dreams in a society that won’t accept him as an equal.
For Lee, the role was the biggest in a career that has been spent largely on the stage, and one that he was eager to tackle from the start. “I knew Kelly Reichardt’s work from (the 2013 drama) ‘Night Moves,'” he told TheWrap. “I remember watching that and just thinking, ‘This is amazing. I’ve never seen a slow thriller before.’ I was on the edge of my seat throughout the movie, but there were no explosions, no car chases, no guns. But it was thrilling from start to finish.
“And when I read the ‘First Cow’ script and came to the end of it, I wept. The movie does something very special in the way it talks about friendship. When you meet a friend for the first time, it’s not like love at first sight. There’s no fireworks. It’s just something that happens, and then you continue until you reach a certain point.”
While Lee has played small roles in movies like “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Justice League,” he had never before played a lead on screen. “At first I was a bit nervous of that,” he said. “It goes to the impostor-syndrome thing. But I knew I could do scenes. I’ve done so many scenes before — audition scenes, scenes in drama school. And so I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to pretend I’m doing a scene and not a full movie.’ It just happens to be this scene and that scene and that scene and that scene, and that adds up to a whole film.”
Lee had a couple of weeks of rehearsal with Reichardt and Magaro. “We never really talked about the script or the characters,” he said of building chemistry with Magaro. “We just hung out, really. I think part of the reason it comes across so well on the screen is because we hadn’t worked it out. Every time I got on the set, I was like, ‘Let me listen to Cookie.’ And because of that, it was two characters really listening to each other.
“When you’re watching two people listening to each other as opposed to two people talking at each other, that’s beautiful and rare.”
In a conversation with Reichardt, Lee said, the veteran indie director told him, “In my movies, I like to exist at the edge of not knowing whether I’ve told this story or not.” Because of his own doubts about playing the role, that advice made sense to him.
“It resonated with me because I wasn’t quite sure whether I was telling the character’s story,” he said. “That gave me the confidence to say, ‘I’m just going to let the story carry the character and let the audience decide who that character is.'”
As to whether the attention he’s received for “First Cow” will affect his career going forward, Lee is uncertain. “I’ve definitely had one job where a director has said she saw ‘First Cow’ and loved my voice,” he said. “For the rest, we’ll see.”
Then he stopped and laughed. “It’s not that she didn’t like the way I look,” he added. “It’s an animated movie.”