Korean actor Lee Byung Hun is one of Asia’s most accomplished film stars. On July 5, he was honored at the New York Asian Film Festival for his portrayal of a gritty gangster for Inside Men. We sat down with Lee Byung Hun to discuss his selection criteria for new roles, including his highly anticipated Hollywood flick, The Magnificent Seven.
What are your thoughts on receiving the Star Asia Award at NYAFF?
First of all, I’m very happy to accept the award in New York and to be here. I actually heard about the history of how NYAFF came about, from its humble beginnings to what it is right now. As an Asian actor, I feel that is such an enormous achievement. Being able to introduce a Korean film to New York audiences, not just Asian audiences, and viewers in the U.S., is such an amazing opportunity. Not only that, I’m receiving an award. It really can’t get any better than this.
You are the most prominent Korean action film star in Hollywood. What are some of the differences between working on a Hollywood production like Terminator Genisys or a Korean movie like Inside Men?
In Hollywood, I feel that there are still preconceived notions about the roles that are [offered] to Asian actors. I feel that still, a lot of them favor casting Asian actors in martial arts roles. They are often not considered for dramatic or more serious roles. Right now, I feel that my place in Hollywood and the characters I play is sort of a process of being able to get the roles that I would like to do, eventually. Because in Korea, I am at liberty to choose the types of projects I would like to work on. However, in Hollywood, I am in the position of being chosen for projects.
Still, I feel this is positive because I am on the path to playing roles I would like to play, in the future. Not to say that I’m not a fan of action roles or movies. I am a fan of the action genre and the movies that I’ve accepted in Hollywood, I’ve had a tremendous experience being in these films. I just feel that, right now, I haven’t been able to choose from diverse genres.
What is your selection process for new roles?
I would say the most important factor for choosing my roles is the story line. Of course, because film-making is a director’s medium, the director is also a very important factor for which projects I will choose. But when I read screenplays, there are those that really speak to me. And I feel very instinctively that I am going to play this role. My barometer is having that sort of instinctual feeling.
Along the same lines, do you read and analyze modern-day action movie scripts differently than a film that is set within a historical period?
The way I approach these two types of films is absolutely the same. But I feel like I may have caused myself a bit of a problem with Memories of the Sword. Right before that film, I had worked on Masquerade and that film was physically demanding because I had to put on my costume. Right after, Memories of the Sword came to me and I read the script.
It was such a beautiful story that I really, really felt like I wanted to do this. But because I was only focusing on the story, I had completely forgotten that this was another martial arts drama. There was a lot of wire action and I had to fly around. And so, I remember that may have been a little slip for me.
One of your last Korean dramas was Iris. Would you consider appearing in another television role, whether it was for Hollywood or Korea?
Basically, I’m very open to all kinds of projects, but it just so happens that I’ve been working in the film industry, a lot more, lately. However, if a good story comes along and it’s a good subject, I would love to work on that, as well.
At what age did you consider a career in acting?
So, I actually started acting at the age of 21. And the reason why I started out was because someone nudged me into it. It wasn’t gradual transition. Even during the first few years while I was acting, I never really thought it would be a lifetime vocation for me. However, after those few years, I really developed a passion and curiosity for the craft.
For Inside Men this was the first time you worked with director Woo Min Ho. How did you prepare for your character An Sang Gu?
First of all, it was the first time ever for me, to act with a Jeolla dialect, which is spoken in a certain region of Korea. There was a crew member who was actually from the Jeolla region. We did a reading and I was able to familiarize myself with the dialect and unbeknownst to me, one of the audio technicians was from Gwangju, which is the Jeolla region. Before rehearsals, I would go up to him and see a few lines. And he would correct me, he would give me some tips, and would give suggestions about some of the words that used in contemporary speech. So, I was able to get a very detailed look at the dialect.
For the character of An Sang Gu, he was originally portrayed in the script as a very stereotypical, uneducated, rough-and-tumble gangster. However, because the story unfolds non-stop and is a very tightly plotted story, I really felt that there should be some loose moments in the film. And moments where the audience is relieved of that tension. When I talked to the director about the character, I was able to inject a bit more of humor into An Sang Gu. I was able to draw a more layered and more nuanced performance.
Your next Hollywood film is the highly anticipated remake of The Magnificent Seven. How did you get involved with this movie?
So my involvement happened when I was in the process of filming Misconduct. My agent told me I had a meeting with Antoine Fuqua in Baton Rouge. In the beginning, I heard that he just wanted to meet me and talk about something. He was talking about the role, but I remembered that I had read an article, some time back, where Antoine Fuqua said that he was a fan of one of my movies, A Bittersweet Life and that he was actually trying to remake that into a Hollywood film with Denzel Washington.
So, I just kind of gave him a look and said, “Don’t you know who I am?” And he looked at me very still and that’s where he made the connection that I was the actor in A Bittersweet Life. And he said, “I have to work with you.” It was a very surreal moment, where I was cast on the spot for The Magnificent Seven. It was a very interesting thing.
I guess another funny episode is that we were in the process of filming The Magnificent Seven, when I asked him if he had seen my movie, I Saw the Devil. At first, he said, “I don’t think so.” Then, he said, “Oh, is it about the agent whose girlfriend gets killed and he goes to the stalker to get revenge?” That’s when he made the connect and I was just like, “You work with me, now. You have basically watched most of my films.”
As an actor who is at the helm of your own agency, what advice do you have for aspiring actors or newly accepted trainees?
First off, I’m not usually involved in the casting process. But I am often asked, “What should I do to get into acting?” And I almost never have a set answer. I don’t think acting is something you can teach or learn. All I can say is, just don’t grow up. You should imagine whatever you want to do, that’s one thing I can say.
This may make less sense to westerners. But in Korea, because of the strong influence of Confucianism, children are always encouraged to grow up and to become a man or woman. But that is the fast track to clipping an artist’s wings.
Inside Men was one of the featured films at the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.
Photos 1 & 4 by Jean Libert. Photos 2 & 3 was supplied.