When it comes to the superstars from South Korea, Byung-Hun Lee is the equivalent of that country’s Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks in that he has starred in many of the country’s biggest hits and worked with their top directors.
In recent years, Lee has been making forays into the American movie market with appearances in the two G.I. Joe movies, playing Snake Eye’s nemesis Storm Shadow. His latest American role is in Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, playing one of the seven, Billy Rocks, a quiet Asian outlaw who has teamed with Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight Robicheaux when Denzel Washington’s Chisolm comes a-calling, looking for men to help protect the town of Rose Creek.
LRM sat down with Lee at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which happened to be only Lee’s second time at the festival, the first time being for another Western, director Jee-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird.
LRM: Having had experience doing a Western with Director Kim, did that make it easier to go into this one, or were they completely different experiences?
Byung-Hun Lee: It was totally different. Of course, I could use my language and act based on my culture of things, but this is totally different. I have to speak in English and it’s based on the American culture, so it’s much harder for me, actually.
LRM: When you were a kid, did you watch Westerns? Did you have the instinct towards Westerns that many American boys do?
Lee: Since I was four or five, 80% of the movies on TV were Westerns. I think I watched almost everything with my father, always. It’s like a dream come true to be a member of the seven in a Western movie, it’s an amazing thing.
LRM: Were you already familiar with the original “Magnificent Seven” movie?
Lee: Of course! I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai long time ago, but I watched it again, and I watched The Magnificent Seven, the original one, a few times, but I needed to watch it again, because it’s been a while, when I was a kid. So I watched it several times.
LRM: I like the fact that Antoine didn’t use the same characters from the 1960 movie, so was there one particular character that you felt your character was in a similar vein or taking that role from the original?
Lee: I didn’t want to repeat or follow something -- I just wanted to create -- but I wanted to make my character very loyal and he has pride and very cool. I didn’t want to lose these three things, whatever I did with my character.
LRM: Did they tell you a lot about Billy beforehand and how he came to meet up with Ethan’s character? We get a few hints, I guess.
Lee: Actually, Billy was an indentured servant, and I couldn’t be patient, so I killed two of my masters and ran away, and Goodnight, Ethan’s character, was a bounty hunter, so he was following me. At the bar, he found me and watched me fighting five guys with my fists, and he thought, “That’s not the guy I catch, that’s the guy I have to befriend,” so they stick together. Ethan always bets with people, because you think your gun is faster than his knife, so Ethan’s like a promoter, and he makes people bet money and then he bets on me, but the rest of the people bet on the gunfighter. That’s how we make money and we share half and half always. That’s how we got along and we’re best friends. Wherever he goes, I go, wherever I go, he follows me. That’s the relationship. It’s a new relationship in this movie. There wasn’t this kind of relationship before.
LRM: In some ways, this feels like the characters come from six different movies and they just happen to cross paths. I assume you already had experience riding horses and gun training, did you have to do a lot of that for Director Kim’s movie?
Lee: It’s been a while. Eight years ago, so I needed to adjust again, try to handle the guns well and horse riding, but it was kind of a different way of riding a horse in Korea and New Orleans, so I had to learn those kinds of detailed things.
LRM: Director Kim’s movie was very stylish and this was more of a traditional Western where it moves at a slower pace. That was very fast and crazy in some ways. This has been a great year for genre movies in Korea. I don’t know if you’ve seen “Train to Busan” or “The Wailing.” Why do you think it’s taken so long for America to discover what great filmmakers Korea is producing and for their movies to connect with American audiences?
Lee: I think there are a few reasons, but not only for the technical reason, because their stories are very unexpected. A lot of my friends in America, they say to me, “I saw some Korean film, but in a Korean film, I can not predict anything because they’re very twisted and nobody can imagine what will happen next.” Maybe that’s the power of Korean cinema, I think.
LRM: By doing things different than American filmmakers and putting a twist on the genre?
Lee: Not just because of the twisting. The structure is different, I think.
LRM: One of your big breakout roles here was playing Storm Shadow in the “G.I. Joe” movies. Do you have any idea when you might do that again or if you will do more of that?
Lee: I heard from the studio that there’s a possibility to do a third one, but I think they’re waiting for the actors’ schedules. They’re arranging the schedules for the actors, especially Dwayne Johnson.
LRM: Yeah, he has so many movies lined up.
Lee: Yeah, his schedule is crazy.
LRM: Did you and Ray Park leave things off at a place where you have more you want to do as Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes? Did you talk at all about what you might want to do in another movie?
Lee: Him and I always talk about those kinds of ideas and some other projects. “What if we do something?” But we always talk… but it’s not happening, just talk.
The Magnificent Seven opens nationwide on Friday, September 23 with previews on Thursday.