Quantum Leap star Raymond Lee—who portrays Dr. Ben Song in NBC’s recent revival of the show—knows just as much as the audience about some of the mysteries to come. This show isn’t necessarily a reboot nor is it a remake of the beloved 1990s series starring Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett. Instead, it’s more of a revival of Project Quantum Leap to understand it better. In honor of its arrival, Lee caught with Nerdist to talk about discovering things organically, making network TV history, and more.
“[The showrunners] were going to tell me [the show’s big secrets]but I said ‘don’t tell me!,’” Lee says via Zoom. “I asked for bits and pieces. I want to know as much as the character knows. Not to say that I can’t play it once I know it, but it’s worked so far. And I want to be surprised with the scripts that come out and what’s revealed to me otherwise. I’m already anticipating what’s already there. So yeah, it’s more fun for me.”
Lee understands how much of a cult following the series has and knows the importance in pop culture; however, he doesn’t feel the pressure of keeping Sam Beckett’s legacy. In fact, he chose to not watch the original series all the way through so he can focus on what’s ahead.
“For creative reasons, I haven’t revisited so many of the episodes because we’re creating a new show,” Lee shares. “Even though spiritually the show exists with us, I am fully aware that we’re creating something brand new, so I don’t want [watching the old episodes] to influence me too much.”
Raymond Lee explains that the original Quantum Leap series was perfect the first time around. And they didn’t want to have to try to recreate that exact format. Instead of a bromance between Sam and Al, Ben’s hologram partner is his fiancé and fellow scientist, Addison (Caitlin Bassett), who he can’t seem to remember from the jump.
“This is a romance,” says Lee. “I love that we’re trying to piece together a love that was once there. That theme is very exciting and it’s a dynamic thing to play throughout these leaps.”
The revived series will also focus on the people working on the project alongside Ben and Addison, including project director Herbert “Magic” Williams (Ernie Hudson), scientist Ian Wright (Mason Alexander Park), and security officer Jenn Chou (Nanrisa Lee). Technology has come a long way, so the Project Quantum Leap headquarters—supercomputer Ziggy’s home—will have a prominent role.
And, after more than 30 years since the first series, things were bound to change onscreen. Instead of the previous heavily white male main cast and writers room, the storylines and people in front of and behind the camera are markedly more diverse.
“We’re already off to that just with the casting in general,” Lee shares. “The writers room is a very diverse room. All the directors that have come through so far have been all from varying backgrounds, cultures, and genders. It’s 2022. So much has changed. It’s really foolish for us to not address that and to make our quantum world look like the world we live in. It starts from the top down. Our creators placed great importance in making sure all backgrounds are seen and heard.”
Lee’s casting itself is historical as the first Asian American lead in a sci-fi series, let alone one with a cult following, on network television. He’s aware of the importance of him taking the Quantum Leap mantle for the Asian diaspora, especially since the series isn’t centered around his identity as an Asian man. Lee emphasizes that he’s playing a scientist who travels in the quantum realm and just happens to be Asian.
“That’s what gravitated me to this role—it wasn’t just about identity,” says Lee. “It wasn’t an identity role. I never want to harp about my background. It’s just a part of me and if you want to know about it, I can inform you about it. But I’m an American. I just happen to grow up eating rice more than other people.”
Still with Lee’s casting, it provides the show the opportunity to explore different perspectives by touching on Ben’s identity as a Korean American raised by a single mother. While Beckett’s character comes from a white privileged perspective, Ben’s upbringing as a person of color informs his choices when he leaps into a person.
“I can’t divorce my background and the way I look from how I react to the world,” Lee explains. “It was important for us to not continually jump into straight white men over and over. You’ll see as the series progresses, it definitely informs. As the series goes on, we will find out more about Ben’s background and his mother who immigrated [from Korea] and being an only child. All [these things informed him on] reasons why he chooses to make the decisions that he makes. It’s intrinsically a part of him.”
Though there are several changes to the series, the heart of what made Quantum Leap into a fan favorite remains. It’s about how one person can change history for the better. Lee connected with that aspect of the show and tells us to expect that with their series.
“[The original series] is such a great show,” Lee reveals. It was full of heart and I was able to connect with Sam Beckett’s character. I remember watching him have a strange relationship with his father and that is something that kept coming up [and] that resonated with me. There’s some themes here I [understood]. [For our show[, there’s levels [of] empathy that I am surprised with each episode.”
Quantum Leap is currently airing on NBC.