written by Sheila Hamilton photographed by Dax McMillan
Reggie Lee arrives at our studios, “The LA way.” He drives himself when he’s too rushed to go by bike or Uber. He just finished shooting six hours ago at 1:30 a.m. in a “huge-ass compound” in Scappoose, where he imagines something sketchy had probably taken place. Lee laughs a lot when he talks, and energy buzzes off his slight, 5’8” frame. “Ha! A 2.5 million dollar Scappoose drug house. Imagine!”
Imagination is the backbone of NBC’s highly-rated drama series, Grimm, inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Portland homicide detective, Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), has discovered he’s descended from an elite line of criminal profilers known as “Grimms.” Now, his role as a detective is at odds with his new responsibilities as a Grimm.
Lee plays the loveable, quirky, and increasingly-complex Sgt. Wu on the popular hit series, which is based and shot here in Portland. It’s the first major network series set in Portland and Grimm has weathered five seasons at a time when many series fail to win renewal after seasons one or two. Grimm is averaging more than four million viewers each episode.
When my co-workers recognize Lee in the hallways, one shouts, “Hey, it’s the guy from Prison Break! I LOVED YOU in Prison Break!” Lee smiles, patiently. Another friend remarks, “Weren’t you in Pirates of the Caribbean?” “Yep,” Reggie says. This kind of quizzing could go on for hours since Reggie has appeared in as many as fifty television shows or feature films, including Crazy Stupid Love, the Dark Knight Rises; and for the past five years, the lovable, relatable Sgt. Wu in Grimm.
To bring you up to speed: Nick has lost his Grimm abilities. Meanwhile, Sergeant WU’s biggest fears are becoming reality thanks to recent events, not the least of which is being invited into the Grimm solving circle after a stint in a mental hospital.
True fans have known for a long time that Wu is a much better detective than Nick and Hank, but what the writers did to allow Wu to ascend to a bigger role was out of this world! First, Wu’s pregnant ex-girlfriend Dana was attacked by a Filipino boogeyman from Wu’s childhood, the “Aswang.” (Don’t say it, “Ass-Wang,” like hang. It’s Aswang, like wrong. )
Then, Nick and Hank refuse to listen to Wu when he insists he’s familiar with a certain Filipino mythic legend. Wu unfortunately stumbles on a crazy making sight, the Aswang in “Wesen” form, destroying Dana’s unborn baby! Wu checks himself into an insane asylum, and Hank and Nick still don’t let him in on their Grimm secrets. Crappy friends, right?
Lee laughs, “Low and behold, there was an immediate and wide reaction on Twitter: Memes saying, ‘Nick and Hank are ASSHOLES!’ That was my first inkling that reporters and critics and fans were touched and it was my clue that writers were going to make a bigger deal of Sgt. Wu. “
I ask Reggie about the bigger role, the increased attention, and the lack of privacy that comes from “star status.” He grins, “I have a feeling of responsibility. I literally work the same amount for one line as I do for the entire script. I developed this work ethic from the beginning. Wu is driven by an Asian tiger mom to be the best. I relate. The BEST, y’ know? So I’ve sought to be the best cop I could be—even when I was comedic.”
Reggie Valdez, professionally known as “Reggie Lee,” was born in Quezon City in the Philippines to Zenalda Telmo and Jesus Espiritu. He speaks so fluently in English that it’s a spectacular and somewhat surprising gift when Reggie launches into full-on, rapid fire Tagalog. He says he changed his name because he kept getting called into audition for Hispanic roles, which suggests some casting directors may be lazy and were not raised by a “Tiger Mom,” like Reggie’s.
In a long-ranging interview, where Reggie’s free association and rapid fire style was on full display, we talked Tiger Cubs, travel and food carts, what’s next for one of Hollywood’s best character actors; oh, and Dirty Wu donuts and BJORK.
Okay, Tell me about Tiger Cub life. An A is never okay. It must be an A plus, plus, plus. What else?
I’m the eldest, so I was their guinea pig. Grandpa’s name is Perfecto. What does that tell you? My dad was Valedictorian and a doctor in Quezon, my hometown, where I lived until I was five. My parents are compassionate, but very much about success. I came to them when I was nine after watching a movie called Shining Season with Timothy Bottoms, and I said, “I know what I want. I want to be an actor.” And they said, “Oh no, sweetheart, that’s a Hobby. We’ll find something else for you. Acting is a hobby.”
So, what next?
I started auditioning for community theater roles—dance, vocal, film, tv—often taking public transportation for hours to get to auditions. The family was living in downtown Cleveland at the time. I got this thing in my head, “I’m going to be a triple threat.” One summer, I visited my grandparents in Los Angeles, and that was it.
So you can sing?! And Dance?
Yes, I can sing. I can dance. I am a triple threat. A lot of the cast is really good. We’re pining for Grimmsical, the musical. (Laughs.)
Hollywood used to look at Asian actors as the bad guys, the criminals—how did that impact the roles you were offered?
Up until Grimm, I’d played every type of Asian person except Filipino, which is what I am. Finally, there are starting to be Asian actors cast in complex and difficult roles. I always tell other Asian actors—see yourself as the human being first, and not an Asian. Work for it.
Are you a hero to young Filipinos back home?
Absolutely. I’m Pinoy, and there are a group of young Pinoy’s back home who watch Grimm and then text and tweet me pictures of their Grimm watching parties, with the delicious Filipino food laid out on the table. It makes me so jealous. (Laughter)
What kind of food do you like here?
I’m such a foodie. So spoiled. People were calling me a food snob. We have amazing craft service on set; it’s like Whole Foods on wheels—hummus, carrots, shredded chicken and orzo. But when I’m not working I love Bunk Sandwiches, a Chinese place called Seras on 11th and Lovejoy, Ava Jeans (yes, you need reservations) and Salt and Straw, my homage to the gods.
Isn’t there also a donut named after you?
After my character, yes. At Pip’s donuts. It’s the Dirty Wu: cinnamon sugar drizzled with raw honey, Nutella, and pink sea salt. Oh, God. So gooooood.
And what do you do when you do have down time?
When I’m off, I’m traveling the world. I’ve found my new place—Iceland. I’m going back this year and make a segway over to Greece. There’s so much in traveling that takes you out of your realm and grounds you. It makes you be present in the moment. There’s nothing else that focuses you like that.
Except acting. By the way, a little Icelandic trivia: Bjork is not as popular in Iceland as she is here. (Laughter)
Lots of other cast members are buying homes here. Have you?
I’ve considered it. Five years ago when you announced us on stage for the first season, I was, like, what is with this place? What is Portland? But my realtor told me there is such an influx south to Portland that the housing market is totally ridiculous, people wanting homes like crazy. If you’re going to buy a house, this is the place to have a house. Totally Americana. I just bought a house in LA, but who knows, this place is so phenomenal, I may just end up buying here as well.
Have you become fond of the drizzle?
Well, when I go to New York I no longer use an umbrella. (laughs) There was one week in the first season, I was living on the 12th floor of my apartment complex in Portland, and it felt like I was living in a bowl of soup. (Laughs) Since then, forget about it, I love the seasons. I love this climate; it’s like Hawaii. It may pour and then it gets sunny. It makes our continuity shots crazy. One minute Hank is looking at me and then it’s pouring behind him and the next it’s sunny as hell. (Laughs)
Grimm gets wilder every season.
Yes, it does. We have nine very different, very diverse, three-dimensional characters. And our fans watch week after week because they are interested in every one of the characters lives. Every character is experiencing different things in their lives that our fans relate to. We’ve had such an incredible response from fans—they are still very active and engaged. And they’ve kept us on the air.
Some Twitter followers including @TeamSgtWu worry you might be leaving the series.
No one is ever safe on a show like this. That said, Wu is going to be a badass Wesen-hunter. Just you watch.