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 hit man 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 already 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 a wide range of movies, both foreign and domestic. His businessman father was a huge fan of Hollywood Westerns and their larger-than-life stars, such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper and the aforementioned Eastwood. Never dreaming that he would one day play similar parts, Lee enrolled at Seoul’s Hanyang University where he studied French literature. During his student days he caught the acting bug and went on to pursue a second degree (in theatre and cinematography) at the city’s 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 any sort 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 became the 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 Korean 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 – playing 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 doppelganger court jester in the epic period drama Gwanghae (Masquerade). The 2012 film snatched 15 Grand Bell Awards (the Korean equivalent of the Oscars) including a Best Actor nod for Lee. Rounding out an already fabulous 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.
Earlier this year, Lee was back as Storm Shadow in the GI Joe sequel, GI Joe: Retaliation. His biggest English-language role yet comes this September, when he shares 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 and now used for music recording and photo sessions. Lee comes across as modest, easygoing and eager to learn, especially when it comes to improving his English. And despite the dead-serious demeanour that he displays in so 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 – intense situations like killing somebody or being killed by somebody. We don’t have those experiences in real life but we’re always trying to amplify those emotions in the 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 with that character, I have to ask the producers and directors for at least three months to prepare. There’s always a start date, of course, and I always try to fall into character before that, but sometimes not. Sometimes it’s hard. But as time goes by, I feel like I’m getting better at falling into character.
Was the transition from Korean cinema to Hollywood accidental or something that you’d 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 GI Joe 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 of the GI Joe characters. 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 Eye…
Everyone thought he was dead at the end of the first movie.
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 the revenge only. And I tried to make my body bigger and fiercer than the first movie. That’s the difference I guess.
That goes back to my original question. You seem to be very good at playing dark characters and also ones that are out for revenge.
[Laughs] Not like real life.
The first GI Joe was your first English-language movie. How difficult was it overcoming the language obstacle?
At the time…it was so hard to communicate with the crew, with the director. I’m the kind of person who wants to talk a lot with the director so that we think the same and I can express what the director wants. So I’m always asking [director] Stephen Sommers what he wants. But it was very hard for me because whenever I tried to communicate with him, he talked so fast.
Someone told me that you learned English very fast.
Yeah, but I couldn’t do both acting and learning English while we were making the film. I didn’t have time to learn English at the time. Mentally I was so busy because I had a lot of pressure. That’s why I thought, “I don’t have enough time to do something else.” I had to train, I had to work out, I had to study the lines, so I didn’t give time to learn English. Yeah, that was one of the hardest things, communicating with the director and the crew. It was still the same I guess on the second GI Joe, but much better than the first one.
On the GI Joe sequel you got a chance to work with Bruce Willis, who said in one of the press interviews for the movie that you’re now one of his heroes.
Yes, I saw that interview. But I don’t know why he said that [laughs]. I was so shocked by that. Maybe he misunderstood…maybe he thought I’m Bruce Lee [laughs again].
Then you end up working with him on a second film – RED 2.
We were always in the same place and same scene because most of them were chasing scenes. I always follow him and fight him. I’m chasing him and I beat him so much!
So you’re the bad guy in RED 2.
He’s not really a bad guy…
But you’re always chasing Bruce Willis, who’s the good guy.
It’s a simple story. Someone is threatening with a stolen nuclear bomb and we’re trying to stop it. That’s the story. My character is Han. He used to be a top secret agent, but one day Frank [Bruce Willis’ character] framed him and Han couldn’t do his job any more. He was kicked out of the agency and could never come back, so he became a killer. One day somebody asked Han to kill Frank, and Han thinks it’s karma. And later on something happens…but I don’t want to spoil it.
I also wanted to talk to you about Gwanghae, your first historical drama, something completely different to what you’ve done before.
You know, the historical thing, the period thing, is not a big deal for me. I just liked the story. That’s why I decided to do it.
You had to play two characters.
Yes, that was enjoyable. I think actors usually enjoy playing multi-personalities. I was worried about the comedy. You know, comedy is hard – there’s a fine line and I don’t want to go over it or under it. I want to keep on that line. But the movie was an amazing success. One fourth of the Korean population saw the film. Amazing.
Tell me about growing up in Korea, what your childhood was like?
I used to go to the movies a lot with my cousin. The first one I remember seeing was Papillon – the prison movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. I was maybe four years old at the time, or something like that. Nowadays we have a ticket and there’s a seat number, but at the time there wasn’t. If a movie was popular like Papillon there were a lot of people in the theatre and many had to watch the movie standing up. It was like a full bus or train. I couldn’t watch Papillon because I was too short, so my cousin raised me on his shoulders.
That’s how I started to go to the theatre and I kept going every time the movie changed. It was mostly Hong Kong kind of action movies. You can smell popcorn at the movies nowadays. But at the time they sold dried squid and peanuts in Korean theatres. So it smelled like dried squid and the kids were peeing in the theatre, so the smell mixed with the cement and the dried squid and pee, but I liked it. Whenever I entered the theatre and I could smell 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 – Western movies. Every weekend they showed Hollywood films on Korean TV, so I could watch with him and he always explained about the movie and of course about the characters and the 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. But it’s not Beijing, not Shanghai. 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 and sometimes I had to change planes three times to get to Hong Kong. That was crazy. I signed for both movies because I thought China and Hong Kong are so close…only like one hour. Then I realised it took like 12 hours to get from one to the other.
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? I’d never thought about being an actor! Of course I liked movies, I liked theatre. I refused her suggestion. But she said when you’re young you need a lot of experiences, so why don’t you try it?
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.
You spend a lot of time in LA now. Do you feel at home here?
It’s getting better. I came here a lot of times before, but whenever I came it was only for about a week or less. Also, I’ve never lived overseas. But it’s getting much better. It’s getting familiar now.
So you have a home in Seoul?
I have a house. I try to be in my house as much as I can. I’m living with my mom. I have a small home theatre. I use it a lot. Not only to watch movies. I drink wine and sometimes I just think. Because in the theatre I can imagine a lot of things. It’s dark and it’s like being in a different place. It’s not in my house, it’s not in Korea, it’s not in LA. It’s a different place, a different space. So I really like to be in my theatre. I try to go to the public theatres but I usually watch movies in my home theatre.
Do you mind talking about your personal life?
Like what?
Your girlfriend Lee Min Jung.
[Huge laugh] That’s unexpected! That’s so funny.
Last autumn the Korean media said you were getting married. Both of you said no at the time. But is that still the case?
[Laughs again] No, no, no…I’d rather not comment.