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The gentle guy behind G.I. Joe’s Storm Shadow

Top Korean actor Byung-hun Lee on reprising his iconic role in the comics adventure G.I. Joe and how hard it is to break into Hollywood        

SEOUL — I came to this city for the G.I. Joe: Retaliation junket not knowing much about Byung-hun Lee and I went home feeling as if I’ve known him for a long time.

I suppose fans of Korean TV shows and movies know Byung-hun too well. According to the movie’s production notes, Byung-hun is an international star recognized as among those who ushered in the so-called “Korean Boom” (and with it the Korean K-Pop now sweeping the whole world). Known as one of the “Four Kings” in Japan where he  completed a 70,000 fan arena tour in 2007, Byung-hun is said to be the only Korean actor to sell out the Tokyo Dome with 45,000 screaming fans.

Born on July 12, 1970, in this city, Byung-hun started his career in 1991 with the Korean TV drama Asphalt, My Hometown, followed by more drama roles in such movies as Tomorrow Love, Police, Son of Wind, Happy Together, Beautiful Days, All In and Iris. One of his recent films, I Saw The Devil, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (a brainchild of Robert Redford’s) to rave reviews. Although he appeared with Hollywood actor Josh Hartnett in I Come with The Rain, an indie partly filmed in Compostela Valley in Davao Province in 2008, Byung-hun’s actual foray into Hollywood was in 2009 when he was cast in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (which grossed $300M worldwide) as Storm Shadow, the same role he reprises in G.I. Joe: Retaliation which is based on Hasbro’s comics serial, also starring Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson and Channing Tatum among others. Director Jon Chu (Never Say Never, starring Justin Bieber) is having his debut as action director in amazing 3D.

On screen as Storm Shadow, Byung-hun is so bulked-up (all impressive muscles) that it was a big surprise to see him so “unhunk-like” and so self-effacing during this Conversation at the function room of Conrad Hotel.

You look so big on the screen, so impressive…

(Joking) “…only my body is impressive, not my acting?”

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Yes, of course, also your acting.

“Thank you.”

But how did you get that kind of body?

“I tried to make my muscles bigger. You know…”(he continues, still joking) “in my scenes with Dwayne, I told him, ‘Please don’t take your shirt off.’ Dwayne said, ‘It’s up to Jon.’ And Jon said, ‘Dwayne, don’t take your shirt off.’”

Why did you do that?

“Because if Dwayne took his shirt off, I would appear very small beside him.” (Laughs!) “You know, Jon said that he wanted the movie to be more real, so I really trained hard. Jon said he wanted to show the brutality of the fights and steer away from the uptight ninjas we’ve all seen before. He said, ‘When Storm Shadow gets hit in the face, I want to see the blood seeping through his white mask.’”

Did your costume in the first G.I. Joe movie still fit?

“We had to change it. Too small already. But I was really glad to  to be back in the role; I was so excited to show more of Storm Shadow and his different sides.”

Did you and Dwayne train together?

“No, he has his own trainer and I have mine. He’s got six packs and I’ve got one pack, hahahaha! You know, Dwayne is so macho but his character is really very tender.

Any difference between working in Asia and working in Hollywood as far as discipline and working ethic are concerned?

“Of course, very different. First, the language is different. Second, the culture and environment are different. Acting in English is much harder than speaking in English. I thought I understood everything, especially the culture. Sometimes, I got culture shock.”

Really? How come?

“There are still some racists.”

Did you encounter some?

“Yeah, there’s one guy…I cannot name him. Every time I saw him, I tried to shake hands with him or just say ‘Hello!’ to him but he never seemed to see me or tried to shake hands with me. Eventually, I stopped trying to shake hands or say ‘Hello!’ to him until the end of the shoot.”

Any advice to Asian actors who would like to follow in your footsteps to Hollywood?

“Of course, first, learn to speak English. Then, learn to have an open mind to accept everything. You know, knowing the cultural differences is very important for an Asian actor who wants to make it in Hollywood. If you don’t open your mind, it will be too hard for you to adjust to the environment.”

You have several difficult scenes in the movie. Which was the hardest to do?

“The fight scene with Snake Eyes (played by martial artist Ray Park). It was very dangerous. The second-unit director was perfectionist so he kept on saying, ‘One more time, one more time!’ until I did the whole scene for more than 20 times. My suit was soaked in my sweat; it became so heavy. I was so exhausted that I nearly passed out. Then, he asked me to do it one more time.”

Does the size of the role matter to you?

“Well, you know, for an actor what’s important is not whether or not your role is big or small; what counts is great presence on screen or that you add a great weight to the whole movie. I’m happy when people tell me that I have a strong presence in this movie. Of course, besides having more action scenes, Storm Shadow’s personal story is also being told and that’s very interesting. Instead of just having the mask on and having the action sequences, I think I was able to show Storm Shadow’s inner feelings. In the first G.I. Joe, Storm Shadow had this villain-kind of look while in the second one, there’s a cynical side of Storm Shadow. However, he’s able to show his emotions and the frustrations that he has to contain inside him because he was framed for things that he didn’t do. In the second movie, Storm Shadow’s character has been enriched in every respect and I’m very pleased about that.”

You just got a Star in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. It’s a recognition of your being one of those who led the Korean actors’ invasion of Hollywood. How do you feel about that? Was it hard breaking into Hollywood?

“I still can’t believe it. It just happened. Hmmmm, I still have a picture of myself when I was in Hollywood years ago when I was a teenager. Twenty years later, I have this picture of myself on the Walk of Fame. It feels weird! When I was shooting Red 2 (a sequel to the 2010 action hit) in London, Helen (Mirren) told me, ‘I did hand-and-foot printing in Chinese Theater,’ and I said, ‘I did it, too!’ My Star is right before that of James Cameron and Helen’s is right after him.”

(Released by United Pictures International [UIP] through Solar International Corporation, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is now showing nationwide after opening yesterday, Black Saturday.)

(E-mail reactions at entphilstar@yahoo.com. You may also send your questions to askrickylo@gmail.com.)

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