What could he show us next? It seems a long time since he was one of the Korean big four, and especially after starring in the critically acclaimed “A Bittersweet Life”, actor Lee Byung-hun’s success is phenomenal. In 2009 he made his Hollywood debut in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” and since then has been paving his way as an international star, going on to appear in “RED 2” and “Terminator Genisys.” As this wave of success carries him forward, riding between Korea and Hollywood, on July 5th at the 15th New York Asian Film Festival, Mr. Lee received the Star Asia Award, given to actors who have contributed to the growth of Asian Cinema, before the New York Premiere of his latest starring role in “Inside Men”.
This year Mr. Lee took part as the first Korean actor presenter at the 88th Academy Awards, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science recently invited Mr. Lee as well as 682 other artists and filmmakers as new members. Like Jackie Chan and Ken Watanabe, Mr. Lee has been steadily moving up the ladder as an Asian actor with a high degree of international recognition. This September will see the release of his collaboration with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke in a new “The Magnificent Seven,” a remake of the 1960s’ Hollywood version of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”. In the demand for more diversity in Hollywood today, Mr. Lee, with his highly trained acting and action skills, is perhaps able to overcome the barrier standing in front of Asian actors in Hollywood and show us the world beyond it.
Mr. Lee spoke about his acting career and experiences at a press conference in New York City before the Star Asia Award ceremony.
“…these moments have made me understand
what it’s like to be an actor that is not always in the limelight”
In the past several years you’ve been working in both Korea and Hollywood. What are the challenges of working within the Hollywood system?
First of all, there’s the language barrier. And then also there’s cultural differences. Because I wasn’t born and raised in the US, sometimes it is very hard to express the subtle differences that I feel as an actor. If I were able to communicate without any of these barriers, that would be most ideal. But I trust that I am in the midst of a process of getting to that place where I am no longer inhibited by these limitations. And so I just need to keep my head up and keep on trying to do my best. At times, I do feel that I’m sometimes a handicap position and I’m not on equal footing as my other fellow actors, but with the energy of positive thinking, I do believe that someday I’ll be able to overcome these limitations.
Then, if there are positive differences working here compared to Korea, what are those elements?
Both systems are pretty similar, but one thing that I would say that is different is the use of time. And I think the use of time here in the US is very practical. Because the working hours are set permanently, it makes it easier for me to make use of the time that I have remaining. If I’m on set from like seven in the morning to seven in the evening, then the rest of the hours are free up for me to use as I choose. In the Korean system, because it’s becoming more and more Americanized, it’s becoming similar, but still, when you’re on set in Korea, you really never know when the shoot is going to end, and so that makes it a little more difficult to plan out my time ahead of time.
What have you experienced working in Hollywood that you never experienced in Korea?
In Korea when I started my career about twenty years ago, I started out playing lead roles. And so because of that, I never played supporting roles in Korea. So now that I’m in the position of playing supporting roles, there are certain situations where I don’t get my close-up and I need to be in a full shot. It’s been a very humbling experience where these moments have made me understand what it’s like to be an actor that is not always in the limelight. That’s been a great experience for me.
Away from Korea, have you understood what fascinates people about Korean films?
You know, I’m living in Korea and I’m in the middle of the film industry, so actually I don’t have an objective point of view about Korean film. But a few of my overseas friends told me the storytelling of Korean films is very different from their country’s film. Because they are all working in the film industry, even though they are from different countries, but anyway whenever they watch a movie, they can imagine what’s going to happen in the next scene or the next sequence, but not Korean movies. They never can imagine what’s going to happen because most of them are unexpected scenes going on. They said that’s the power or differences of Korean films.
You worked with many prominent Hollywood actors in the upcoming “The Magnificent Seven.”
Chris Pratt in real life is funnier than in a movie. He’s a really funny guy, and is very cool, very humble. Denzel, he’s a very serious guy, I think. He would always be talking about the movie and when he comes in front of the camera, he always shows you his charisma, his energy. He’s a great actor. And Ethan Hawke, he talks so much, but he’s like a poet. He sometimes writes poetry on set and he reads it. He gave me the first print of his third book “Rules for a Knight.” He had two of them, and then he gave to Chris Pratt and me for the last day of shooting. It’s one of my treasures. He and I are the same age, so he became a really good friend.
“The Magnificent Seven” is a western. How was the experience of shooting that?
I had a really great time with it. We had a lot of crazy weather while we were shooting because it’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was almost 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and the humidity is about 90%, so sometimes the stuntmen faint, so there was always an ambulance outside. It was a very hard environment. Also the production was delayed a little bit, like three weeks, so we got a sense of camaraderie, we became really good friends. We had a lot of time to talk about each other personally, and we had a lot of time to hang out and drink. Actually, this was very important because this is my first time to have that kind of feeling with American actors. Before that, in “G.I. Joe”, “Red 2” or “Terminator”, we also had a great time but not like that. We even talked about each other’s private lives. Sometimes secrets. That was an amazing experience.
You appeared as a presenter at the 88th Academy Awards, and you’ve recently been selected as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. What are your feelings or motivations as one of the first Korean artists to be invited to the Academy?
Personally, I feel that before this opportunity came to me, I just used to enjoy films from a subjective or personal point of view. But however, now that I have the responsibility to be able to watch these films with a more objective lens and a more incisive lens, I do feel that I’ve been robbed of the enjoyment, one of the best enjoyments of my life. But to be able to have voting rights in the Academy is a very thrilling moment for me, and a huge honor.
“…if you want to be an artist… Stay young and stay hungry”
You never thought to be an actor, but now you are an international star, so anything can happen in life. What does this transformation speak to you?
I think when you’re young, you need to experience a lot of things, so what’s good on me or what’s bad. I didn’t know what acting was, that much attractive job, so I thought it’s going to be not my lifetime job. It was just an experience when I was a kid, but it became my lifetime job, so you never know what’s good.
If you weren’t an actor what do you think you’d be doing?
I saw my first film when I was only three years old. It was a French film called “Papillion” and from that time on, I remember, I just kept on nagging my cousins to take me to the theater. But the thing that I was a bit confused about was that I wasn’t really sure if I was drawn to the movie theater or the movies themselves. Of course, I do believe that I was drawn to both, but at the time, I just really loved being in the space of a movie theater. So I think that if I weren’t an actor, I probably would like to be a theater owner.
In your childhood, you used to watch movies with your father, so how does that experience still influence your acting career today?
Those memories and experience inform me a lot, but I cannot explain how, how that influences me in my life, in an acting career. But anyways, I grew up with these Western movies, Superman or some Hong Kong noir, Chinese martial arts and definitely they influenced me a lot, but I don’t know how to explain how they influenced me.
There must be many turning points for you as an actor, but what do you consider your biggest turning point so far?
I’m not sure about that because I can’t see myself from an objective point. But I think when I decided to participate in “The Harmonium in My Memory”, since that time. Before that movie, I would always concentrate on my character. Whatever the story says, I just think my character’s the most important thing. That’s how I decided the project. But from that movie, I decided to focus on the story more than my character, so maybe that’s the very different thing that changed a lot for me, I think.
Is there a particular role that you’re dying to play?
I don’t think there’s actually a character I’m dying to play because I feel that if I already have an idea of a certain character, I feel like I’d get stuck in preconceived notions about a certain character when I read the screenplay. So I don’t really do that. But, I did have an idea of wanting to play a gay or transgendered character maybe, if the opportunity does come along. Not in a comical way, but a character with depth and nuance.
Now that you’ve had the opportunity to work with great directors in South Korea and America, do you personally have an interest in directing film yourself?
If I think that I can do that, then I’d love to do it. But for now, I’m not sure about my abilities and I’m not sure what I really want to say. If I have something that I really want to say, maybe I will do it, but not for now.
In Korea, you manage your own agency. What do you tell for aspiring actors?
A lot of beginners at the start, they ask me, “What should I do to be a good actor?” But I don’t have any answers for them. And I think acting’s not something you can teach or you can learn. But all I can say is just don’t be grown up—don’t grow up. You should imagine whatever you want. You should do whatever you want to experience. That’s the one thing I always say.
In Korea, because of the strong influence of Confucianism, I think children are always constantly told to grow up, be a grown up, behave like a man, behave like a woman, whatever. But I feel that for artists, that’s a fast track to clipping an artist’s wings, so to speak. So I feel that if you want to be an artist, if you want to make art, it’s really important to not listen to that. Stay young and stay hungry.
text & portrait photo by Taiyo Okamoto
© Showbox; Courtesy of Dreamwest Pictures