Byung-hun Lee may not be a household name in America, but that is sure to change. The South Korean actor, model, and singer is a megastar in Asia. He started out on Korean television in the early nineties before making the leap to the big screen. His break out role was Joint Security Area in 2000. It catapulted him to stardom and became the top grossing film in Korean history.
Lee had a string of Asian hits before Hollywood came calling. He starred alongside Josh Hartnett in the 2009 Vietnamese thriller, I Come with the Rain. That role led to his American debut as the ass-kicking ninja, Storm Shadow, in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The overall film didn’t remotely meet expectations, but Byung-hun Lee was a standout. He was phenomenal as Storm Shadow. That performance put western audiences on notice that Korea’s box office king was crossing over.
Lee reprised Storm Shadow in 2013’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation. He focused purely on Hollywood films, making Red 2 and Terminator Genisys consecutively. It was during the interviews for Red 2 that I first met him. I had already been a fan of his American work, but was stunned to learn how huge he was overseas. He spoke with an interpreter but was very gracious and humorous. It’s great to see the real personality of an actor, especially when they’re known for playing such lethal characters.
Byung-hun Lee’s biggest Hollywood role yet came this past September in Antoine Fuqua‘s star-studded remake of The Magnificent Seven. He co-starred as Billy Rocks, the knife-throwing partner of Ethan Hawke. Lee once again owned the screen with his raw physical performance. The Magnificent Seven premieres on DVD this week. Please see below our interview with Byung-hun Lee. He discusses the rigors of filming The Magnificent Seven, working with the all-star cast, and what a superstar does to relax in his spare time.
Had you seen the original sixties western before starring in the remake?
Byung-hun Lee: When I was a young kid my father was a big fan of Hollywood movies. He would make me watch movies with him and he would explain the story and characters to me. So Yes, I did watch the 60’s version of Magnificent 7.
Are you a fan of the western genre? Or was this entirely new territory for you?
Byung-hun Lee: I was a fan of westerns growing up. Every boy wanted to ride a horse and be a cowboy. The only thing that was new was to make a Hollywood version of a western.
What was it like working with Director Antoine Fuqua? How was his directing style different from your previous experience?
Byung-hun Lee: Working with Antoine was great! He is very talented and definitely knows what he wants. I think he has a similar style to Korean directors. He talks a lot with the actors about their roles or certain scenes. He definitely has a great vision and is not afraid to go after what he wants.
You had an all-star ensemble in this film. What was it like acting with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke?
Byung-hun Lee: It was great to be a part of such a great cast. Denzel and Ethan are legendary actors that I have always wanted to work with. Chris is one of the hottest actors on the planet. It was a pleasure to work with and get to know them.
What was your most difficult scene?
Byung-hun Lee: The most difficult scene is probably the trench scene. I had to blow up dynamite and run out and use my gun and knives in hand to hand combat. It was difficult physically and mentally.
Describe your favorite day on set?
Byung-hun Lee: My favorite day on set was probably in Santa Fe. It was while shooting the scene where we go and raid Bogue’s dynamite. The weather was perfect and Antoine was playing some classic western music. The surroundings and everything was perfect.
Your character is very physical and skilled with knives. Describe your preparation to play Billy Rocks.
Byung-hun Lee: In order to play Billy Rocks I had to know his motivation. What his goal in life was and where he came from. Of course there was a lot of physical training involved such as horse riding and gun work. I also did a lot of work throwing and using the knives. It was not foreign to me but for every role the style is very different. I think we wanted to be as realistic as possible in all scenes.
You are a superstar in Asian cinema. Are you often recognized in America? What is your favorite American City?
Byung-hun Lee: I think for the most part that people recognize me in America. Sometimes people know I am an actor but are not really sure what I have been in. I do think that is starting to change.
What would be your dream role in Hollywood?
Byung-hun Lee: My dream role would be to play a Korean hero in a Hollywood superhero movie.
What’s the biggest difference between making Asian and Hollywood films?
Byung-hun Lee: The biggest difference is obviously language and culture. Production wise it is very similar except pre-production in Hollywood is longer than in Asia. In Asia, especially Korea the actual production period is longer than pre-production.
What projects are you currently working on?
Byung-hun Lee: I just finished two Korean projects, “Master” and “A Single Rider”. They both come out at the end of this year. I am filming a new film, “Namhansansung” which will come out next year.
It’s award season. Please tell us a film or two you saw in 2016 that you really liked?
Byung-hun Lee: There are so many great films out. Unfortunately I have been so busy that I have not been able to watch everything yet. I plan on getting to that once my shooting and promotion schedule slows down.
Tell us something about your interests outside of acting. What are some of your favorite activities?
Byung-hun Lee: When I am not working I like to catch up on the movies that I haven’t been able to watch. Other than that I like to exercise, play golf, and hang out with friends.
How do you keep in shape for your roles? What’s your exercise routine?
Byung-hun Lee: I don’t really have a routine to work out unless it is necessary for the part I am playing. I normally try to eat right and exercise when I have time.
Do you have a charity or cause you would like to tell our audience about?
Byung-hun Lee: I am currently involved with an organization called Green Umbrella. It is a children’s charity.
From Sony Pictures, The Magnificent Seven is now available on Blu-ray and DVD today. With the town of Rose Creek under the deadly control of industrialist Bartholomew Bogue, the desperate townspeople employ protection from seven outlaws, bounty hunters, gamblers and hired guns – Sam Chisolm, Josh Farraday, Goodnight Robicheaux, Jack Horne, Billy Rocks, Vasquez, and Red Harvest. As they prepare the town for the violent showdown that they know is coming, these seven mercenaries find themselves fighting for more than money.