By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
You don't talk about Jason Scott Lee the actor without talking about Jason Scott Lee the taro farmer. That's just how it goes these days.
Remember Maslow's hierarchy of human needs? It's food, clothing and shelter first, art later. For Lee, it's tend the taro, then feed the creative bug.
With a new DVD featuring his voice work, "Lilo & Stich 2: Stitch Has a Glitch," out today, and extended showings of the stage production "Burn This" continuing this week at the theater he founded in Volcano, Lee's creative work continues. But he has his own priorities.
"Simplicity of living gives you sensitivity of character," says Lee. "A lot of people told me that leaving L.A. and moving to Volcano would ruin my career, but that's my kuleana, my business."
Start, then, at the physical space Lee calls Pu Mu. For more than six years, Lee has lived in a modest farm house situated on more than 25 acres in the Volcano district of the Big Island. There's no electricity there, no real plumbing to speak of, either. It is, by design, as far removed from the Hollywood life as any major actor might ever dream.
As Lee explains, the Chinese character for "Pu" signifies an uncarved block of wood, i.e., pure potential or simplicity — the foundation for spontaneous creativity. The character for "Mu" represents the nothingness that is the basis of reality, from which all nature evolves to and from.
"Pu Mu," therefore, is an expression of Lee's belief in "a methodless method, acting with a nonwinning, nonopposing state of mind."
It's not for everybody, Lee concedes. "Here, you're constantly bombarded by desires, and the trick of it all is if you can sit in front of a fire and have all of these desires and know that you can just let them go," he says. "Desire for fancy food and fancy clothes. Desire to always appear clean, not dirty and impoverished-looking. These are desires that are based on ridicule from society and they are limitations that we don't need to cling to."
What Lee practices at Pu Mu isn't deprivation, however, but balance and correction. It is on the farm that Lee addresses what he sees as a fundamental imbalance in American society — and he does it in a most direct and personal way.
"What we have now in the U.S. is just a handful of people — if even that — growing food for the masses," Lee says. "That alone puts us in an unbalanced position. You cannot man that much crop and do it with a sense of affinity for the land. Even with what people call organic farming, I've seen farmers rip and roll 'ohi'a forests, lay in crushed coral for calcium and a ton of chicken manure to grow kalo (taro). To me, that's irresponsible."
With guidance and inspiration from Masanobu Fukuoka, a pioneer in sustainable agriculture and author of "The One Straw Revolution," Lee has learned to marshal the natural resources of his rain-forest surroundings to grow taro, sweet potato, pumpkin, bok choi and other vegetables. To supplement his diet, Lee line fishes from a small dinghy or dives in the ocean, spear in hand, to gather a week's worth of fish.
"Time (at Pu Mu) tends to go through a pattern of shifts and changes," Lee says. "The forest is right there and I can see the damage that has been done to it. It's always in the back of my mind that I'll get to it, I'll get to it, but the growing of kalo is a given.
"Everything comes out of the fact that I can grow kalo up at the 4,000-foot elevation and it grows very well," Lee says. "My happiness is in being an uneducated farmer with no degree in agriculture and no coaching of any kind. If I can make it happen, anyone can. It's not hard; you just need to be consistent with your approach."
GROWING A THEATER
Lee says the farm and the surrounding forest are by nature in a constant state of evolution. Over the past couple of years, that evolution has included the birth of a creative space — Ulua Theatre — where Lee's passion for acting is, like the rest of his recent life, stripped to the essence.
Lee envisions the theater as a bridge between agriculture and the arts.
"If I went out and tried to do my own film in Hawai'i, it would cost at least $500,000 — and that's a shoestring-shoestring," he says. "With live theater, it doesn't have to cost you millions of dollars to tell a story and entertain. It's a little electric bill for the most part.
"The attitude and state of mind is to simplify our desire for entertainment," Lee says. "There is a lot of literature out there that has profound meaning and stories that you can convey in a small venue. It's the willingness and the passion of the actors to put it together."
Ulua Theatre was named after a fish that Lee caught and which is now mounted in front of the theater. (Lee's friend and collaborator Justina Mattos notes that ulua spelled with a Hawaiian 'okina — 'ulua — means "to gather together or to assemble.")
For Lee, the performance space is a sort of throwback to Sal Romeo's Friends and Artists Theatre Ensemble in Hollywood, the 50-seat black box theater where Jason honed his acting skills doing classical, experimental and absurdist plays.
Ulua Theater's first production is Lanford Wilson's "Burn This," a two-act play set in a Manhattan loft. Lee co-directs the play with Mattos and plays the lead role of Pale.
After auditioning local actors with so-so results, Lee decided to bring in three actors from L.A. — Yasuko Takahara Schlather, Ken Elliot and Mark L. Lewis — to participate in the theater's first residency program. In keeping with Lee's vision of an integrated farm and theatre environment, the actors live in the space above the theater set, share chores and pitch in with the farm.
"The set is their living room," says Mattos, who first worked with Lee at Honolulu's Kumu Kahua Theatre. "When the audience comes, they're sharing the living room."
The sparsely adorned theater seats just 43. Outside Lee's chickens peck the grass and a dog ushers audience members from their cars.
"Rustic" is the word Mattos uses. "It's very intimate and laid back," she says. "You park outside in the mist and the rain. It's definitely off-Broadway."
It's a perfect match for Lee's approach to acting, a commitment to performing in the present moment that he honed first as a teenage surfer ("Everyone looks at the guy on the biggest set to see what he does on his ride") and later as a martial artist ("It's the ability to go from stillness to pow!").
"Film is mostly this," Lee says, creating a box around his face with his thumbs and forefingers, "It's a pretty face, and if you have the looks, you can get by. That's not the case on stage. On stage it's a free flow, it's a marathon, it's the Running of the Bulls. You find your own way out and that really gives you the ability to express yourself fluidly to the landscape of a plot."
'STITCH' NO GLITCH
It has been more than a decade since Lee strode onto the national stage, first with his breakthrough role as Avik in the 1993 film "Map of the Human Heart," and later that same year as Bruce Lee in "Dragon."
Other lead roles followed — Noro in "Rapa Nui" and Mowgli in "The Jungle Book" — but Lee says he felt growing ambivalence about the Hollywood star-making machine. He gravitated to projects outside the United States because he felt foreign audiences were more accepting of nonwhite actors; he sacrificed salary for small projects he believed in.
"When I first started acting, I wanted to be of the highest calibre," Lee says. "But what that means is different for every person. It's the way a sculptor looks at a piece of stone. What does he see?"
Lee has worked consistently, if selectively, since moving to the Big Island. This year alone he will appear in "Dracula III: Legacy," "The Prophesy: Forsaken" and the World War II film "Only The Brave," which is in postproduction.
His voice alone will likely reach a wider audience than all those three films combined as he reprises his role as David Kawena in the straight-to-DVD release "Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch."
It's that role that has brought him to Turtle Bay Resort on the intensely bright morning of Aug. 15 for roundtable interviews with reporters from Hawai'i, the Mainland and Australia.
The studio wants Lee to lend a bit of local flavor to the proceedings. What the reporters want more than anything is to ditch the fluorescent lights and central air conditioning and sweaty water pitchers and hit the beach.
Already a few have had their suspicions about the Islands confirmed by director Tony Leondis who, leading in to a well-intentioned compliment, says "Hawai'i has no high culture" and that locals are informal in everything they do. Dressed appropriately for safari, if not a press junket, the reporters lob softball questions as their eyes drift to the crashing waves beyond the bank of windows.
It doesn't take long for Lee to gain their full attention. There is an audible murmur of puzzlement when Lee starts in about "the naivete indigenous to local people, a sense that ignorance is bliss."
Did he really say that?
He talks about his character in the film and what he represents about Hawai'i. He talks about measuring his pidgin inflection to give viewers a sense of the language without confusing them. And, of course, he talks about his farm.
While the unifying theory behind Lee's riffs on sustainable agriculture, acting, the pitfalls of a commerce-oriented society and the righteousness of dirty fingernails may seem elusive at first, Lee's conviction is seductive. Slowly, his words accumulate, their collective weight — and his soft, low voice — slowly drawing his circle of listeners closer and closer.
He tells them about catching the bus from Pearl City to the North Shore and stealing McDonald's trays to use as bodyboards as a youth. And then, suddenly, he has segued to the deforestation of the 'Ewa Plains and the imposition of Western capitalist values on the Hawaiian culture. It's a subtle and disarming performance.
Lingering in the room, Lee takes a second to reconsider a pair of questions misplaced earlier in the day: Where do you want to go from here? What do you dream of doing?
"I don't have artistic dreams," he says. "My dreams now are much more practical. I'd love to see the 'Ewa Plains reforested. I'd love to see Maui's forests restored. I'd love to see people living cohesively, being themselves and exploring their artistic abilities.
"It's all about evolution."
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.