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Entertainment

Don Lee is the ‘big brother’ of the Eternals family

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
Don Lee is the âbig brotherâ of the Eternals family
South Korean star Don Lee (Train To Busan and The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil) stars as the superhero Gilgamesh in the 26th Marvel Cinematic Universe fi lm Eternals. It will premiere in Philippine cinemas on Dec. 1.
Marvel Studios

South Korean action star Don Lee had no shortage of offers, but it took the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film Eternals for him to finally make his Hollywood debut.

The 50-year-old actor feels honored that “another Asian superhero has been born” through his role as Gilgamesh, in what has been called a landmark film for featuring one of the most inclusive casts in MCU history.

Eternals also stars Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, with Kit Harington, Salma Hayek and Academy Award–winner Angelina Jolie.

To K-drama fans, Lee is best-known as the heroic husband who punched his way through the zombie horde and sacrificed his life to protect his pregnant wife and other survivors in the global hit horror film Train To Busan.

In Eternals, Lee packs a power punch as Gilgamesh, one of 10 superheroes from beyond the stars who protected the Earth since the beginning of humanity. When the monsters Deviants mysteriously return, the Eternals reunite to defend mortals once again.

“I have been getting proposals from Hollywood for about five years now. I got some proposals on action films and other superhero films. But then, there was a schedule conflict because I was either part of another Korean film as an actor, or there were other projects I was producing myself, so I couldn’t really get myself available,” Lee, also known as Ma Dong-seok, began his virtual chat with select Asian journos, as he went into detail on how he secured the part.

It appeared that Lee was handpicked because there was “no audition process per se,” after he got the proposal to play Gilgamesh from the casting director.

A Zoom meeting with Oscar-winning director of Nomadland, Chloe Zhao, sealed the deal.

Playing the 10 Eternals are (from left) Don Lee, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Richard Madden, Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan.
Photos courtesy of Marvel Studios

“I was very excited to be part of MCU because I myself am a big fan of Marvel movies. I already knew Chloe’s previous works. It got me very much excited about this project, the sheer fact that Chloe would be directing this film. So, I started off with a high expectation and great help,” he added.

Describing Eternals as “one of the biggest movies in history,” Lee gave an idea of its scale.

“I thought we were going to use more CGI at first when we started shooting. But, actually, what I found out is we were going to locations in real life and shooting there.”

The Canary Islands served as location for scenes set in Babylon and Mesopotamia. “I didn’t really know what it looked like there, but when we went, we felt like we were in Mesopotamia. It looked so real. Of course, there was a lot of dust there, but it was great.”

Smiling and soft-spoken, Lee appeared in our roundtable interview in sporty attire. Whether intentional or not, it was a subtle reminder of his past as a boxer and mixed martial arts trainer before he became one of Korea’s most recognizable actors. This background couldn’t be any more fitting for the role of Gilgamesh, “the big brother in Eternals family,” as he put it.

Here’s more of what Lee had to say about his work experience, starstruck moments on set and growing number of K-stars going into Hollywood.

On who Gilgamesh is and what his relationship is with the other Eternals:

“Gilgamesh is one of the strongest and most powerful characters in the Eternals. His specialty is his super strength and super punch. But also, he’s a fun-loving, entertaining character, so hopefully people love him. He’s a well-rounded character, so I love playing him.

“We (Eternals) are like one family. So, just like family members, sometimes we take care of each other and sometimes we fight each other. Gilgamesh especially likes Thena (Angelina Jolie). He loves her like a big brother or a father and daughter. He always tries to take care of her and is her protector.”

On preparing for the action scenes:

“I have always been ready for those kinds of action scenes and performing in front of the camera physically like that. Ever since I was really young, I was always athletic. I started boxing when I was 14 and did powerlifting all my life. I do exercise for strength and to support my performance. Not just for aesthetic purposes, it’s really for me to become the character and perform the action scenes more perfectly. And for a very long time, for a year, I shoot at least one or two action films. I’ve been in that kind of routine anyway, making action films. So, I would say, I was ready from the beginning of this project.

“But then, it was a whole new experience because with Gilgamesh, for example, I had to shoot one action scene for four weeks because they had to do all sorts of post-production afterwards... It was kind of different, but physically, I was already ready. I think my preparedness was already there. And in that sense, me as Don Lee, fits the character quite well.”

On being directed by Chloe Zhao:

“She is a very smart and wise filmmaker, and as a person, she has a very big heart. She is always there to communicate with the actors, so that she can build a character together with them on and off the set. I myself was a big fan of Chloe even before she won the Oscar because I knew about her previous work, The Writer, and I was very impressed by it. I was very excited to be part of this project since Chloe was heralding it.

“You know, this film has 10 protagonists. As a filmmaker, it’s not easy to communicate individually with each actor. It takes time and effort. And she does that. It was an amazing experience for me to watch that.”

On getting star-struck over Jolie:

“Angelina Jolie, she’s a world star and I’m a big fan of her. It was an absolute joy to work with her side by side. Of course, when I first met her, who would not be starstruck? But once we started working together, even though we had not been given enough time to rehearse together, we kind of went there and started shooting immediately. Then, something even better happened. We felt very comfortable with each other. We had this immediate connection and chemistry that I almost felt like I was just working with a good friend of mine, whom I just had worked with before. That experience was very special to me, too.

“Not just Angelina but also the whole cast, this whole, you know, bunch of joy. We clicked together very well. Everyone is very kindhearted, very down-to-earth and very easy to work with. So during the six months of shooting…and that was a rigorous schedule for me because I had a lot of action sequences that physically I would be drained every day, but it was just a joy to go out there and work because these guys are just amazing.”

On other Korean stars venturing into Hollywood (like Park Seo-joon who is joining a Marvel film):

“Park Seo-joon is a very good friend of mine, you know. He’s my little brother, we’re very close and we’ve worked together. So, I congratulated him. I’m very happy to see he’s going to be part of MCU also. But there are some very talented actors and filmmakers not just in Korea, but all around the world... the Korean actors and filmmakers out there who need more chances to be seen and really shine on the world stage. So, I hope that there will be more chances given to them.

“But definitely, I see that the wind is blowing in the right way for Korean talent. I’m really happy to see that. I hope that more Asian content will be showcased around the world so that the borderline between West and East disappears little by little.”

(Marvel’s Eternals hits Philippine cinemas on Dec. 1.)

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