The one who did it first – Glass talks to Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun
TO the Western part of the world, Lee Byung-hun is most notably known for his role as Storm Shadow in the action sci-fi G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and its sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013). However, his career spans well beyond Hollywood blockbusters. On the other side of the world, in his native South Korea, he is the acting royalty.
The Seoul-born actor has starred in four of the highest-grossing films in South Korean history. Masquerade (2012), a historical biopic set in the 17th century about king Gwanghae and his acrobat look-alike filling in his place while he is recovering from a poison attempt on his life, where Lee Byung-hun portrayed both of the leading characters, ranked at number eight.
Elsewhere, Inside Men (2015), in which he played a former political henchman seeking revenge, is the most successful R-rated (restricted below the age of 17) Korean film to date. The range of his characters is immense and ever-expanding.
But even as a Korean in Hollywood, he has achieved things others of his nationality haven’t, such as presenting an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film during the Academy Awards this February or having his hands and feet imprinted on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Byung-hun is passionately flying the flag for Asian actors in Hollywood and talks to us about the current hugely popular and respected South Korean cinema and his role in the film industry on both sides of the Pacific.
Lee Byung-Hun. Photograph: Ssam Kim. Suit and shirt, Dior homme
What are your earliest memories of encountering cinema and what initially drew you to it?
I have encountered cinema earlier than most. I think the first time was when I was four years old. My cousin took me to a cinema to watch a movie called Papillon (1973).
I was too young to remember what it was exactly about, but I remember two scenes that were very shocking – when the actors were eating bugs and when they were escaping from prison. There were no reserved seats back then and the box office would keep selling tickets even when the theatre was at full capacity.
People would have to sit on the stairs or even stand. Papillon was a very popular movie at the time so we had no seating and my cousin carried me on his shoulders for two hours straight. After that I started watching films more often. Opposite my childhood home was a board for movie posters and every time a new poster went up I would beg my father to take me to watch the film.
The first movie I watched was with my cousin, but after that it was always with my father. I have a special nostalgia for cinema.
Who are your screen heroes and what have you learnt from them?
It is very hard to pick one person because there are so many admirable screen heroes. But if I had to pick someone I have personally met or worked with, it would have to be Helen Mirren and Al Pacino. They are two of the most spectacular actors of all time.
And there is no doubt that their acting is legendary but the reason that brought me to believe they were admirable was the humanity and personality they portrayed. I wanted to see myself become like them when I grew older.
The common thing that strikes me about all those great artists is a childlike innocence. Even when they are 80 years old, they still seem to retain a childlike personality and very humble. I think that is just amazing.
How would you describe ‘star’ quality in the present day?
I think it is a person’s allure. No matter what they look like or how talented an artist they are, the ability to make the audience want to see you over and over again is the basic quality a star should exhibit. To make you think, ‘Why do I keep wanting to see this person even when he or she is not particularly handsome or beautiful?’ At least to the person watching. I do not believe that it is someone’s outer appearance that attracts viewers. I think it is rather the personal allure that would keep an audience wanting to see more, which in my opinion is the quality of a star.
Your presence on the screen has been defined by a certain charisma. Do you derive this allure from anywhere or anything in particular?
I am quite an optimistic person, so whatever comes my way, I can call it fate and accept it easily. On the other hand, I am never satisfied in anything I do. Whether it is a TV drama, film, or just a day in my life, there is always an inkling of disapproval, thoughts such as ‘I could have done better’.
Those are the thoughts that keep me going to try to be the best. This allure, if you could call it that, is derived from my desire for perfection.
Fitness and health are of huge importance to the star image you project through social media and you make great effort to maintain an idealised physique. Could you talk us through your health and fitness regime?
It depends on the different roles I play. It was such a challenge to maintain my physique when I played the role of Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe, but I endured it through the whole process.
But except for the times I take on those kinds of role, I just eat anything and everything I want. And I love drinking wine.
Hollywood is frequently criticised for its typecasting of Asian actors. Do you feel that Asian actors are allowed to show their scope and depth in Hollywood or are they automatically associated with action roles?
In Korea I have a certain position so I can choose the kind of scripts I want, and I feel very lucky to be in that position. But most actors are chosen for the roles rather than them choosing. No matter what the role is, they have to take it when it comes because they have to earn a living. My dream is to be an actor that can always pick and choose my roles.
When I first got cast in Hollywood, I was not in a position of choosing my role. I had to seize whatever came my way and be thankful for it. But these days I see a small window of opportunity for me to start choosing roles.
I am not sure if I will be as lucky as I have been in Korea to choose between many roles, but I can definitely see my position improving little by little, especially when I get cast for a role that did not have to be an Asian actor.
For example, my role as a hitman hired by Al Pacino in the film Misconduct (2016) which was not an action role and did not need to be played by an Asian actor, but they cast me for the role anyway. I was able to see the progress that I have made through my achievements. I think that is very encouraging, both for me and other Asian actors.
Do you think they cast you for a role that did not have to be an Asian actor because there is a disparity that emerges when you are cast in films that are targeting international audiences?
Of course, that is possible. Sadly, every film is judged by the box office scores these days because the profit is very important for the people who work in the film production. So they definitely need to think of ways to make more people want to watch the film. But if they want to sell more tickets and make more profit, why don’t they cast a more famous white actor? I don’t believe that they would have cast me because of the box office score and I am glad to think that way.
You were the first Korean actor to imprint your hand and foot prints on the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. This not only solidified your leap from the mantle of Korean cinema but has ensured your name will live on in the birthplace of the film star. In what ways does Hollywood appeal to you?
I am not a fine artist. I am an artist for the masses and I am sure that anyone who does art for the masses like me would want a bigger audience to see their work. Of course if I am satisfied with my work, I would be glad to show it even to a small audience. But it is still better to show my work to as many people as possible.
Many people around the world have started to take interest in Hallyu, the wave of Korean popular culture. Korean films and TV dramas are getting really popular but the origins of film are in Hollywood. I don’t think there is anywhere else I could show my work and perform to a bigger audience.
That is the reason I want to work in Hollywood. Speaking Korean and acting in a Korean film is what I do best, so when I am acting with an unfamiliar language in an unfamiliar culture, I feel like I have a handicap and I cannot show my best. But I trust that I will get better at it with time.
I want to test my limits of how much better I can do. I never planned to be working in Hollywood and it was never my original goal. It just happened and I do not know what will happen next. I am anxious and curious to know how my career will go forward. Hollywood really makes me want to push myself further and challenge my limits.
What are the different challenges between making a Korean film and a Hollywood film?
When I am making a Korean film, there is a lot of communication between me and the director about the lines and the character’s mentality. Having a deep conversation helps me understand and express the character in the right way. So I ask a lot of questions about the character and have a lot of conversations with the director to understand how he visualizes the character in his mind.
But in Hollywood, of course I can make everyday conversation but, honestly, it is quite hard for me to have a deep conversation with a director. And I have actually become quieter. I am usually good at ad-libs but to do that you really have to understand the culture and trends. Otherwise it sounds like you are faking it. I tried once, but it is not as easy for me as it is in Korean.
You have dominated the South Korean screen since you starred in four films on the list of highest-grossing films in South Korea. How does it feel to have made such an impact on such a national institution?
It is kind of like heads and tails. Because people around me tell me how big a deal it is, I know it is and I can feel it. Whenever I realise how much impact it has on people, it is kind of scary and I feel a burden on my shoulders. But a person who does creative work should not feel such a burden so I try to shake it off. If people keep throwing those heavy words such as ‘national’ or ‘responsibility for audience’, an artist like me, who is supposed to have the freedom of creativity, can no longer have that freedom. So I have those thoughts and pressure on my mind, but in my heart I try to be more free from them. I have to fight them and it is actually quite hard.
The various genres of film you have starred in have also given extensive range to your acting talent. What genres do you find yourself fitting most comfortably in, and which are the most challenging?
If I have never personally experienced the situation that the character is in, I have to imagine what it would be like before being able to perform the scene.
Whatever the genre – a drama, melodrama or sci-fi – I am very confident and comfortable if I have to play the character that I could understand from my personal experience. But my obvious lack of experience with fantasy or sci-fi gives me only imagination to depend on, so these are the two genres that are most challenging for me.
Korean cinema is renowned worldwide. What do you think makes it so highly respected?
When I started shooting for G.I. Joe, I heard that Korean film and TV drama are getting very popular and they are praised by the people around the world but I didn’t really take it seriously because I thought that there are a lot of better films out there. But since I started working more outside my country, I started to see things that I was not able to see when I was in my country. And I’ve realized that Korean film has actually developed enormously.
Whenever I come to Hollywood to have a meeting with directors and producers, I ask them what they think of Korean cinema. They say they love Korean films because there is a wide variety and they cannot predict the next scene or the ending at all. Most of the Hollywood production has a certain set of rules so the audience can predict what would happen in the next scene and how the film would end. But Korean films do not have those rules. So it is really hard for the audience to make a prediction for the next scene and even if they make a prediction with confidence, they get struck with an unexpected twist. I think that kind of creativity of the direction makes Korean film highly respected.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt in your career?
I have played so many different roles, that I am able to place myself in the shoes of the character. Every time I play a new character, I spend so much time understanding the character perfectly. So now whenever I meet someone who has an interesting character, I do not feel resistance or discomfort. Somehow I get curious about the person’s character and start to analyse the motives of the character like I have an occupational disease.
For example, if I see a person who does not look into other people’s eyes and looks at the forehead when they are talking, I would think the person might have been abused when they were young or might have a habit of lying. But I learnt to understand that people have all sorts of different personalities and not to look at them with a dichotomous view.
by Ssam Sung-un Kim
Photographer: Ssam Sung-un Kim
Stylist: Christine Baker
Grooming: Sonia Lee
Photography assistants: Michael Der and Cody Perkins
Special thanks to the Intercontinental Los Angeles Downtown