When hearing Hoon Lee’s performance as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ father figure Splinter in the updated series on Nickelodeon, it’s clear that the actor has a lot of affection for the rat sensei. And after speaking with Lee in the Nickelodeon offices, that’s exactly the case. Lee’s approach to Master Splinter is a mix of equal parts martial arts master, father, and teacher and he doesn’t take the responsibility of playing the any of those roles lightly.
MTV Geek: What can fans expect to see in the new episodes that are coming up?
Hoon Lee: The first of the new episodes is called “I, Monster” and in this particular case a new villain is introduced, The Rat King. And that proposes a particular challenge for Splinter, obviously. I don’t want to give away too much about it, but I think there’s going to be a real struggle for Splinter. So I’m really excited to see how people react to it.
Geek: Splinter, he’s the character who doesn’t always get to go out and fight, he’s just mentor, is he going to get to see a little bit more action?
HL: I think the promise of the characters as a whole – because he’s a younger and a bit more vital, and not necessarily hobbling around – that’s part of their thought. It changes his relationship to The Turtles in that way because where before he might have been unable to join them, now if he doesn’t join them, you ask the question why. What is he trying to teach them? What is he trying to protect himself from? They become more interesting character questions. So that’s something being explored going forward.
Geek: Is that something you would like to, as the actor behind Splinter, is that something you hope for?
HL: Yeah, absolutely. By making him younger too, one thing that’s kind of great is the relationship of Splinter as “the father” – and that’s reenforced a lot in our show – it feels more like a traditional father/child relationship – in terms of the age gap – and as a father myself, it’s something you’re figuring out, it’s not something you’re born with. It’s something you’re learning on the fly. To introduce that level of complexity and potential doubt and character growth into Splinter makes their relationship richer. in the same way that you maybe think about your own parents, you think about those times and you realize that they didn’t have the answers all the time. In some ways, that puts you in a different place with your parents. In many ways it can make your relationship with your parents much richer because you start to see them as people, and not just authority figures and sources of nurturing and comfort.
Geek: It sounds like that’s something you look to when playing Splinter, especially because you are a father.
HL: Yeah, he’s a character that, in many ways, has taken on an additional charge in the form of April. But literally feels that – they call him father and mother is the ooze – it’s this kind of great sense of people that are all displaced, not just by their environment, but by their creation. They stand alone in this world as unique beings. And to find the family in that is really, really important. And I think that’s a very strong compelling in any medium, but I think it’s something that kids can relate to at a level that goes beyond the action and the comedy, but makes them think about their own role in their family structures and their peers and their friends.
Geek: Do you feel being Splinter and being the all-knowing character on the show, do you feel that there’s a responsibility, in your performance? Or in the writing of the show?
HL: Yeah! What’s been great about it, I think that responsibility has not been taken at face-value. There’s this line that some of the fans haven picked out, where he talks about winning, almost at any cost, and he doesn’t really mean in that way. The way I interpreted it – I believe he was talking to Leo – Leo’s sense of fair play is in effect, and Splinter points out that there is often a distinction beteen being caught up in the rules and being true to your objective. And that’s a message that you don’t often hear, but it’ makes a lot of sense in the real world. It’s different from “the ends justify the means,” it’s more of a sense of clarity. What are you trying to accomplish, what are you actually trying to go for? I think that the sense of authority in that way is very useful. But it’s mostly useful because it doesn’t really give you the answer you’re expecting. And I was really happy that fans picked up on that. And I think it’s those sorts of moments that will actually make them perk up their ears more when they do hear Splinter. I think it’d be very easy for a character as a wise and sage to end up in this sort of, droning mantra of platitudes and expected nuggets of wisdom and I think they’re being very careful to avoid that trap.
Geek: It’s interesting having a conversation like this about a show called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” You can’t always talk about things like this. It’s a well-written show, and it’s smart. Hopefully the writing is going to be even better as the new episodes roll out.
HL: I think so. From what I’ve seen, I’m excited about it. From the 13 episodes that are going to be launching as part of this next wave. I mean, they’re just knock out and they start laying the ground work for the second season, which I can’t talk about . The first season, for any show is about introducing the rules of the world, introducing the foundation, and when I think when you’ve done it as carefully and I think kind of joyously as they have with this first series, then you’ve set up this amazing springboard to propel people into further evolutions in the second season and that’s really exciting to see.
Geek: When comparing this show to the one from the 80’s, the storytelling on this series – and I think in general – is more sophisticated, which allows you to make better choices as an actor before the material is a little bit more sophisticated…
HL: I think that what Ciro [Nieli] and Peter [Hastings] and all the people involved, all the writers…what I think they’ve done – which is really hard to do – is they’ve refused to condescend to their audience, and I don’t think they’ve made assumptions about who that audience is based on gender, age, whatever. They’ve made assumptions about their audience based on preferences, interests, intelligence level, things like that. And I think that’s pretty clear and the thing I keep thinking about is “Looney Tunes” cartoons. You can enjoy them if you’re a younger viewer with less experience watching and enjoying the slapstick comedy of it. If you’re an older viewer or an adult watching it with your child, you’ll see these references to pop culture; opera to all of these things that tickle you in a different way. And I think that they’ve done something similar to that, which is part of why I enjoy watching it as an adult. Why I’m so excited for my friends to watch it, my son to watch it, because they’re going to pull different things from it, but it’s all in that stew. I think when a show is more focused and they’re really trying to hit a sort of, spreadsheet-driven demographic, it’s when you run the risk of turning off a lot of people that you could’ve otherwise captured. Because they can smell it. I feel like when I saw the first episode, I got so lost in it that I was surprised to hear my own voice. I forgot I was in the show and that was a huge reward for me to be able to see it with those kinds of eyes. And I though that was a real tribute to the work they’ve done and I felt like you could just smell the joy of creation coming off the show [laughs]. That they were so committed to it and invested in it, they had personal stakes in it, and I felt like that was self-evident. I’ve really, if ever, been prouder to be a part of an enterprise.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” returns Friday, Jan 25 at 7pm for a “Total Turtle Takeover” on Nick. Watch a clip from the new episode “I, Monster” right here!