Hubert Burda Media

Run, Ninja, Run!

Korean heart-throb Lee Byung-Hun talks to Joe Yogerst about running with Hollywood top dogs and confesses how he had no idea what or who GI Joe was right in the beginning.

It’s a devilish day in LA, the city surrounded by wildfires and the air rife with smoke as I drive into the hills above Hollywood to meet Korean actor Lee Byung-hun. The urban inferno fits the image of a man who has played more than his fair share of rogues on the silver screen.
Some pundits have called him the Brad Pitt of Korea because of his good looks, charm and chameleon-like acting ability. But many of the roles that have defined his career are straight out of the Clint Eastwood playbook — dark, deeply disturbed characters who either started on the wrong side of the law or cross into evil terrain during the telling of their story.
In A Bittersweet Life (2005), he plays a conflicted hitman who falls in love with the boss’s mistress only to have his life descend into bloody chaos. In The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), he’s the “Bad” — a 1930s gang leader and bandit on a quest for hidden treasure in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. In I Saw the Devil (2011), Lee morphs from mild-mannered secret agent into vengeful assassin when his fiancée is raped, murdered and dismembered by a serial killer.
Lee isn’t the first Korean actor to make waves overseas. But with two blockbuster Hollywood films under his belt and a third scheduled for release this autumn, he’s well on his way to becoming a global superstar.
Born and raised in Seoul, the 42-year-old Lee grew up watching foreign and domestic movies. His businessman father was a huge fan of Hollywood Westerns and their larger-than-life stars such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper and of course, Eastwood. Never dreaming that he would one day play similar parts, Lee enrolled at Seoul’s Hanyang University where he studied French Literature. It was then he caught the acting bug and pursued a degree in theatre and cinematography at Chung-Ang University.
Even before school ended, Lee was snatching acting gigs as the hot, young hunk in Korean television series such as Asphalt My Hometown, Days of Sunshine and Tomorrow Love. Despite his overnight success on the small screen, it took him years to get traction in feature films. He finally hit pay dirt in 2000 with Joint Security Area, a tension-packed murder mystery in which Lee plays a South Korean soldier who secretly sneaks across the border at night to visit friends on the communist side. It was highest grossing film in Korean history at the time.
Over the next few years, Lee continued to earn high ratings, critical acclaim and major awards for his television roles while making feature films on the side. He first drew international notice when A Bittersweet Life was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Critics loved both his performance and the “beautifully brutal” movie, with one American entertainment magazine ranking it among the 20 greatest gangster movies you’ve probably never seen.
He was back at Cannes a year later with The Good, the Bad, the Weird. That generated enough buzz to land Lee his first Hollywood gig as super ninja Storm Shadow in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009). He followed that up with his best performance to date — a double role as the wicked Korean emperor and his doppelgänger court jester in the epic drama Gwanghae (Masquerade). The 2012 film snatched 15 Grand Bell Awards (the Korean equivalent of the Oscars) including Best Actor for Lee. Rounding out an already superb year, Lee and Ahn Sung-ki were invited to cast their hand and footprints in wet cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now TCL Chinese Theatre) in Hollywood — the first Korean actors to earn this honour.
This year, Lee is back as Storm Shadow in the GI Joe sequel GI Joe: Retaliation. But his biggest English-speaking role yet comes this September, sharing top billing with Bruce Willis, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich in the action-packed spy spoof RED 2.
I catch up with Lee at The Paramour Mansion, a sprawling hilltop manse built by silent film star Antonio Moreno in the early 1920s, now used for music-recording and photo sessions. Lee comes across as modest, easy-going and eager to learn, especially when it comes to improving his English. And despite the dead-serious demeanour that he displays in many of his films, he is actually quick to laugh and fast with a joke.
You play a lot of dark, disturbed characters. As an actor, how do you prepare yourself to play these kinds of roles?
Actors learn from experiences in movies and books, and try to memorise those emotions in intense situations like killing somebody or being killed by somebody. We don’t have such experiences in real life but we’re always trying to amplify those emotions in movies by putting our imagination to work.
Does it take you a long time to get into those characters?
If I want to act perfectly in that character, I have to ask the producers and directors for at least three months to prepare. There is always a start date, of course, and I always try to fall into character before that, but sometimes it’s hard. As time goes by, I feel like I’m getting better at falling into character.
Was your the transition from Korean cinema to Hollywood accidental or something that you had planned for a long time?
No, I never dreamed about it. It happened accidentally. I went to Cannes with A Bittersweet Life and there was a screening. The next day, one of the agents from CAA (Creative Artist Agency, a Hollywood-based talent agency) called me and she wanted to meet. Time passed — a couple of years — and I thought: “Yeah, I have an agent. But still it’s not a real thing. They just do it to everyone.” Then one day they sent me the GI Joe script. Before that, they sent a couple of scripts but I didn’t like them so I refused them. GI Joe…I didn’t know what it was at first.
Did you grow up with GI Joes?
No, not at all. Maybe some kids played with the figures, but I had never seen those things. I had no idea about GI Joe. If I were a fan of GI Joe then when I first got the script, I would say: “Yes, of course! I really want to do it!” But I was not, so I asked [my manager] Charles Pak: “What is this? It’s so kiddish and a stupid script.” Charles said: “You don’t know about GI Joe? It’s huge, and it’s a real popular cartoon in the United States and it has a history that started in the 1960s.” There are huge fan groups in the States and all over the world except Korea. I called Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook, the movie directors, to ask about that and whether I should do it or not. They made me so confused because Park said yes and Kim said no. So I had to think about it myself. Eventually I decided to do it because I researched a lot of things from my American friends who said it’s going to be an amazing movie. That’s why I decided to do it.
Were you also attracted to the character of Storm Shadow?
Yes, of course. I liked that character best. As you know, he’s not one of the group, he goes alone. He’s in Cobra but not with same vision of the other Cobra members. He has his own rhythm. He’s maybe using them or taking advantage of them. He has his own goals, his own way, he’s so cold, sometimes so selfish. I like that — a cool character.
How have you changed the character of Storm Shadow between first and second movies?
I wanted him to be darker. Once he almost died by Snake Eyes…but he survived. They didn’t show how but anyway he survived. He disappeared for a few months or a few years and he became so dark. I think he was thinking about revenge only. And I tried to make my body bigger and fiercer than the first movie. That’s the difference I guess.
Tell me about growing up in Korea.
I used to go to the movies a lot with my cousin. The first one I remember seeing was Papillion — the prison movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. I was maybe four years old at the time. That’s when I started to go to the theatre, and I kept going every time the movies changed. You can smell popcorn in the cinemas nowadays. But at the time, they sold dried squid and peanuts in Korean theatres. It was common then to have kids pee in the theatre and the smell would mix with the cement and dried squid, but I liked it. Whenever I entered the theatre and smelt that, my heart started to beat faster. I was so excited. I liked that space so much.
I read somewhere that your father was a big Clint Eastwood fan.
My father used to be a big fan of all Hollywood movies. At the time it was mostly cowboy movies. Every weekend they showed Hollywood films on Korean TV so I could watch with him, and he always explained about the movie, characters and actors. He knew a lot and he would memorise the lines. It was really a pleasant time for me. Great memories.
And 20 years later you’re playing a Clint Eastwood-type character in a kimchi Western. The Good, the Bad, the Weird must have been a lot of fun to make.
Yeah, it was so hard but at the same time, it was so fun. We made it in China, in Dunhuang [in the Gobi Desert]. It’s so far from anything. When I agreed to do the film, I thought it would be close by. But it’s not. We always travelled there by plane. I had to film I Come with the Rain at the same time in Hong Kong. So I had to go back and forth between Dunhuang and Hong Kong, andsometimes I had to change planes three times to get to Hong Kong.
When did you first decide to become an actor?
When I was in the second year of university. I had to take a hiatus from school because I needed to go into the army. At the time I was waiting for the application for the army so I was doing nothing. My mom came to me and said KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) is having an open audition. Why don’t you try?
You must have had some natural talent because you got the job.
I’m not sure. I didn’t have any acting experience. The producer said they hired 60 people and I was maybe number 60.
So if you had been number 61, your life would have been much different now?
(Laughs) Yeah, probably. But even when I became an actor, I didn’t think this would be my full-time, lifetime job. I just thought: “OK, I’m gonna just try it.” I didn’t have any dreams at the time, I didn’t have any goals. But I realised that this was a really attractive, charming job. Maybe I could put all of my passion into this job.