Ethan Josh Lee, ’23, (center) stars as Ricky Cho in Wes Anderson’s 2023 film Asteroid City. (Image credit: Focus Features)

On the movie poster for Asteroid City, a young man wearing a helmet, goggles, and a jetpack hovers above a deadpan all-star cast in pastel-toned 50’s garb, serene against a turquoise sky. It’s a tableau that required Ethan Josh Lee, ’23, to hang suspended 30 feet in the air for nearly an hour in 100-degree heat.

Image credit: Focus Features

“The scene was exhilarating and demanding to shoot,” Lee said. “The jetpack looks sleek and futuristic, but it was very heavy, and the costume department needed to make constant adjustments between takes while I was resting and hydrating.”

Lee auditioned for the science fiction comedy-drama during fall quarter 2020 and rehearsed alongside Anderson and the star-studded cast throughout the following winter and spring quarters. He then worked on the film with the cast in Spain from August to October 2021, starting the fall quarter remotely with faculty support.

In the complex film about a grieving father and alien cover-up amid a 1955 junior stargazer convention, Lee plays Ricky Cho, a science prodigy and student journalist.

Lee grew up in Calabasas, California, and began acting at 9 years old. He graduated from Stanford with a degree in political science and honors in international security studies. His thesis examined the impact of international law on U.S. public opinion toward international threats, and Lee is continuing this research post-graduation with his former advisor Scott Sagan. At Stanford, Lee received the John Holland Slusser World Peace Prize, which is awarded for the thesis that best demonstrates excellence in the analysis of steps toward world peace. Lee was the president of the Society for International Affairs, and a research assistant for Amy Zegart and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

He is currently working as an assistant editor and the David M. Rubenstein Fellow at Foreign Affairs as he continues acting.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The experiences of being a student at Stanford and pursuing a career in acting can both be pretty intense. What was it like doing both at the same time?

Yes, it was hard, but I think in some ways they’re complementary. Being at Stanford and with the coursework’s flexibility, I was able to explore and think about questions of why and how in a lot of different fields. That gave me a lot of experience and lenses for looking at things, complementing my work as an artist. My time at Stanford gave me a new perspective on acting. I mean, it is hard balancing it, especially when you’re filming or there’s auditions. The logistics can be really challenging, but luckily I’ve had pretty positive experiences working with faculty on campus who have been very accommodating. I’m very appreciative of that. That’s awesome.


What was the vibe like on set?

It’s a really communal and intimate environment. We filmed in Spain from August to October, and the cast lives in the same private hotel. They have these big cast dinners with everyone, and we’re living together and working together in close proximity. I learned a lot from really incredible actors who I look up to. Wes’ directing style is very specific, very unique, and he made sure everyone felt comfortable and prepared. Then when we were there, we were experimenting with the scenes a bit.


Any top memories from filming?

There’s a picnic scene in the film where my character Ricky is eating chili. Basically, I had to keep on eating chili on all these different takes, and we did that scene for a while, probably like 40 takes or so. I didn’t eat for like the next 24 hours. It was good chili but just hard since I was so incredibly full.


Now that the film has been released, what has it been like for you?

I have to pinch myself. It’s been super cool to hear from friends and family members – this is really rewarding because it’s been this kind of mysterious project that I haven’t been able to talk about that much until now. It’s showing what I was working on throughout 2021 that took a significant kind of chunk of time. And it was really rewarding to see all of the cast all together again at the premiere. Right now, there are writers’ and actors’ strikes to reach fair resolutions, and I hope we can go back to work as soon as possible.

Follow Lee’s work on Instagram @ethanjoshlee and LinkedIn.

McMaster is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Sagan is the Caroline S.G. Munro Memorial Professor of Political Science and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Zegart is the Morris Arnold and Nona Jean Cox Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and professor, by courtesy, of political science.