When Raymond Lee first received an offer to star in “Quantum Leap,” a sequel to the beloved sci-fi series that aired from 1989 to 1993, he thought the show’s producers had made a mistake. Instead of a supporting character, he was being asked to play the lead.
“I got to play the lead in theater, [but] I didn’t know if the landscape was there for me to do it in television, let alone network television,” Lee told NBC Asian America. “But lo and behold, it presented itself, and I was like, ‘I have to take this swing.’ This is the role I’ve been waiting for.”
Set nearly three decades after Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into a time-traveling machine and vanished, the new “Quantum Leap” on NBC stars Lee as Dr. Ben Song, a quantum physicist who discovers a way to travel through time and space and fix mistakes of the past by temporarily leaping into the bodies of other people.
It’s a dream role for Lee, who remembers watching the original with his best friend in sixth grade. He credits showrunner Martin Gero, with whom he had briefly worked on a short film in 2019, for entrusting him to continue the show’s legacy.
Gero, a writer and producer best known for creating the NBC crime drama “Blindspot,” said the creative team, which includes original producers Donald P. Bellisario and Deborah Pratt, was looking to cast a nonwhite actor to headline the revival.
“We knew we wanted a diverse actor for Ben, because they had done the two white guys version of it before, and part of modernizing this is telling a broader story,” Gero said. “The show is about jumping into other people and having an experience that is maybe different than yours.”
In Lee, the producers found someone who exudes all the qualities of a leading man, bucking a trend in Hollywood that has historically reduced Asian characters, especially in the sci-fi genre, to sidekicks of heroic protagonists.
“The greatest thing about the show is that it’s almost like a different TV show every week, but it needs that consistency,” Gero said. “Raymond really has this quality of a leading man that can drop into these situations. He’s extraordinarily handsome, he’s really sincere, but he could still be really funny. [He brings] the consistency that is so tricky while still very freely entering these other people’s lives and walking a mile in their shoes.”
That younger generations of Asian Americans will be able to see parts of themselves in his character is particularly meaningful to Lee, who grew up in an area of California with a significant Asian population but seldom felt represented in mainstream media.
“I’ve always considered the way I look and my background to be a superpower,” said Lee, who is Korean American. “I grew up with a lot of strong Asian figures in my life. I grew up in Glendale, where it was about 20% Asians. … I had a lot of cool Asian brothers and sisters to look up to, and there was a community there, and one could only hope that with a role like this, we can create that sort of energy.”
While he tries to avoid thinking about the significance of this project when cameras are rolling, Lee reiterated that the responsibility of playing one of the few Asian American leads on television right now is not lost on him. Representation “does so much for not only this industry, but every industry — for anybody to see themselves being represented in a position of leadership and [as] a person who is actively going out and doing good and saving lives,” he said.
When Lee’s character, Ben, makes an unauthorized leap in the pilot episode, he loses almost all of his memories, forcing him to cobble together parts of his own life as he jumps from person to person. As he starts to remember what prompted him to time travel on his own, Ben will also begin to reconnect with his cultural heritage. “It’s a way for us to tell an incredibly specific story about what it’s like to be a Korean immigrant in a way that he’s also kind of learning about it [again as he goes],” Gero explained.
When the first draft of the pilot was written, “there was an immigrant story that was tied to [Ben] that was very present,” Lee revealed. But now, his backstory will be slowly revealed over the course of the first season, a creative decision that Lee thinks will ultimately make the character — and his story — more accessible to a wider audience in the long run.
“You start with the universal relatability of this person, who is lost and a fish out of water,” Lee said. “He just feels really out of place — everyone can relate to that. Not everybody can relate with an immigrant story right off the bat. So it’s a soft opening into this person who has a very sordid past, and I think it was very smart of them to hold that. Before the end of this first season, a lot of Ben’s background will come into play.”