An Honest Actor with a Deceptive Name

Reggie Lee as Sgt. Wu on NBC's "Grimm" (Photo by Michael Muller/NBC)

The most recognizable Filipino on screen appears regularly on NBC’s “GRIMM” at 9pm/8pm Central, Friday nights. Few would guess that he’s the same Reggie Lee listed in the opening credits; that is, the actor who plays Sergeant Wu, a character whose last name sounds as Chinese as Reggie’s.

Reggie changed his last name from Valdez to Lee shortly after he moved in the late '90s from Cleveland, Ohio to Hollywood. The Chinese surname saved him and casting directors the inconvenience of auditions for the Hispanic parts his real last name attracted. Asian roles proved the best fit for this Filipino actor born in Quezon City.

Versatility a Virtue

Pack the fridge and clear the calendar is sound advice to someone desperate to see every show on Reggie’s résumé, and that’s not including performances in the proscenium in Carousel on Broadway, the national tour of Miss Saigon and the critically acclaimed F.O.B. with the East West Players in Los Angeles. The blockbuster movies include “The Fast and the Furious”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End", “Tropic Thunder” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” The rising actor is especially partial to his role in “Safe.”

“The character of Quan Chang opposite Jason Statham is one of my favorites because of the duality of his life. He shows the strength of having to take care of business even if it meant killing, yet there is the fatherly love he developed for a little girl he was supposed to use to commit crimes.” Reggie related, “I’m finding out that so much of life is about deciding, nothing is cut and dry. Life is so ambiguous, so I like when characters are put into situations that are really grey areas.”

Of course, working with marquee stars has also been enlightening and often fun. “I’d have to say that my experience on ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ working with Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp for an entire year of filming was instrumental to how I work now. To see their preparation before ‘action’ is yelled is something I take with me to this day. Not to mention that they were both down to earth and had the utmost respect for their fellow actors.”

Reggie insists the comedy “Tropic Thunder” wasn’t all fun and games. “I had a great time working with Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black. It was amazing that amidst all the laughter that happened on the set, that each actor was amazingly focused and produced great work.”

They centered the Aswang tale around my character, and boy, did I relate! All those memories of sleeping in my bed with the kulambo (Tagalog for mosquito net) over me, afraid of monsters, came flooding back.

Nearly two decades have passed since the extremely focused high school graduate left behind Ohio and an acceptance letter from Harvard University to become a working actor. In this time he has watched the entertainment industry open up and with it, his past flexibility and patience with stereotyping studio executives well rewarded.

“I think progress has been made. Albeit, much more needs to be made,” he observed in retrospect. “The biggest change I’ve experienced is that most characters seem to be much more three-dimensional. Hollywood is more privy to the human-ness of other cultures. We’re not just the bad guy in a gang, a waiter or a computer nerd. We all get sad, we all get happy, etc."

Case in point: “I’ve been casted as characters with names like Stu Rubin (“Tropic Thunder”) and Alan Burke (“Life as We Know It”) that were not intended to be Asian, but the directors left the names of the characters as they were.”

His breakthrough Filipino role reached the screen in 2012 when he played Mr. De La Cruz, the father of Charice, in the UFC comedy “Here Comes the Boom.” “I thought wow, for the first time in my career I get to play a Filipino. It’s only taken 15 years.”

The Monster of His Dreams

“GRIMM” follows a team of police officers around dark and mossy Portland, Oregon as they track down people who can transform into any of a variety of monsters called “Wesen” (pronounced with a German “W”) that the lead character, Detective Nick Burkhardt (played by David Giuntoli), can detect with his Grimm senses, then identify from an illustrated encyclopedia hidden in the Airstream trailer of his late aunt.

The show is not as complicated as that last sentence. Sergeant Wu can be the uninitiated viewer’s avatar who’s astute but willing to go with the flow even when the flow ends with a puddle of blood beside a severed head. Meticulous blogs on all the bizarre creatures from three seasons are at the service of novices who just have to know. The rest can bask in an hour of escapist pleasure.

In a joint statement, the series’ executive producers, David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf, revealed that Reggie was originally considered for the part of Detective Hank Griffin, the partner of Detective Burkhardt: “Something that a lot of people don't know is that Reggie actually auditioned for the role of Hank. Although the part went to Russell Hornsby, we were all so impressed with Reggie that we decided to write a part specifically for him.”

On the Portland set, Reggie is engaged in his most Filipino project to date. The March 7, 2014 episode revolves around Sergeant Wu and an Aswang, a shape-shifting cannibal straight out of the Philippines’ canon of nightmares.

Reggie Lee (center) stars alongside David Giuntoli (left) and Russell Hornsby in NBC's fantasy/detective series "Grimm" (Photo by Scott Green/NBC)

Asked whether the Aswang is a psycho-cultural invention of a people who know death intimately from past invasions and natural disasters, Reggie replied, “I believe, specifically with the island regions, that these tales exist to protect the people on the island from being taken over by much larger countries. I certainly remember periods of time as a kid in the Philippines being afraid of monsters and death. So when the creators of ‘GRIMM’ asked if there were any Filipinos tales, I said, ‘Are there!’ They centered the Aswang tale around my character, and boy, did I relate! All those memories of sleeping in my bed with the kulambo (Tagalog for mosquito net) over me, afraid of monsters, came flooding back.”

Mr. Greenwalt and Mr. Kouf added, “It was important for us to do a story that touched on his Filipino culture and Reggie was a major part of choosing the right story. Having him as a collaborator helped us tell a story that we hope the Filipino community feels is authentic and exciting.”

The Aswang story is both a tribute to Filipino folklore and a professional breakthrough for Reggie. The episode adds backstory to the Sergeant Wu character for the kind of sophistication that challenges Reggie’s acting chops.

“You will see a lot of development in the Aswang episode and beyond,” he said. “It’s a gift really to have the pleasure of experiencing it for a third year now. The character is feeling incredibly real because of time.”

Each week, millennials can anticipate a night to suspend disbelief without suspending critical thinking. Going out every Friday can be hard on the wallet and waist. “GRIMM” is an unregretful way to transition from a crazy work week into a wicked weekend.

Doing Good

New fans of “GRIMM” can take solace that Reggie and his colleagues on both sides of the camera are good people in real life. Reggie recently spearheaded the GRIMM Gives to Typhoon Haiyan Relief event through Crowdrise and the Red Cross. Fans joined the cast and crew on Twitter to support typhoon victims.

Reggie wants this article to call attention to another favorite cause. “I’m also helping to fundraise for Kusewera, a nonprofit organization that empowers and educates kids in orphanages in Malawi, Africa and the Philippines through active and creative play.”

Success Becomes Him

Looking back, Reggie knows how different his life might be today had he stayed in Ohio. His physician father, Jesus, Valdez, and mother Zeny, thought their oldest son would be a good influence on his two brothers by pursuing a medical career and eventually assuming his father’s medical practice.

“I think my parents were reacting in the best way they knew how. I do believe a lot of the Asian cultures base their life choices on stability and security. And why wouldn’t they?” Reggie recalled, “Even when they said acting was a ‘hobby not a profession’, I pursued it, diligently.”

Reggie says he inherited his father’s tunnel vision once a dream beckons. “I have blinders on when I get interested in something. There’s nothing that can stop me from putting my whole heart and soul into it.”

At the start, Reggie’s parents could not have guessed that they were as much enablers of his impractical passion as obstacles. “I sought out whatever was available to me, whether they were acting classes at The Cleveland Playhouse, auditioning for community theatres, commercials, you name it. My parents always took me to these activities, though they thought I’d grow out of it. But eventually, I wanted more.”

The ultimate validation of Reggie’s life choice might be the burgeoning careers of his brothers. Rhoel “RV” Valdez made art his calling to the gratitude of fans of the book and video game “The Equation,” which is coming to the screen. Nathan Valdez is making his mark as a talented guitarist.

The three Valdez boys may have started a forceful wave of Filipino youth taking risks to be true to themselves. In the nearer future, Filipinos everywhere might organize Friday night parties with friends to view and celebrate the March 7th airing of the Aswang episode on NBC.

A sneak-peek of the aswang episode on the March 7 episode of GRIMM (Source:

A sneak-peek of the aswang episode on the March 7 episode of GRIMM (Source:

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela and his son Gregory are new converts to “GRIMM.” Besides copywriting in healthcare, Anthony also serves as a grant writer for the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. The Seattle native often joins his wife Susan and daughter Charlotte on birding hikes with the Santa Monica Bay Chapter of the Audubon Society.