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Becoming ‘Storm Shadow’ in Hollywood

Actor Lee Byung-hun talks about making of his second Hollywood film ‘G.I. Joe 2’

Director Park Chan-wook has been there, and so has director Kim Jee-woon. Hollywood may not be an undiscovered place for Korean directors as of this year: They’ve made their debut films there, released them, and experienced the red-carpet glamour.

Hollywood, however, still remains foreign to most local actors. One of the few exceptions is top actor Lee Byung-hun, whose performance in his 2009 Hollywood debut “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” left a mark.

The actor is now ahead of the opening of the sci-fi flick’s sequel, “G.I. Joe 2: The Retaliation,” where he returns as Storm Shadow ― the famous heroic character who works as a ninja bodyguard doing epic stunts. Lee, who enjoyed much success with the Korean period drama “Masquerade” released last year ― the film remains the third-highest grossing Korean film of all time ― says it was his “curiosity” that drew him to Hollywood. 
Actor Lee Byung-hun poses for a photo prior to a group interview with the local press in Seoul on Monday. (1st Look)
Actor Lee Byung-hun poses for a photo prior to a group interview with the local press in Seoul on Monday. (1st Look)

“It was more of curiosity (than ambition),” said the 42-year-old actor during a group interview with the local press in Seoul on Monday.

“Even after my second movie, I am still curious. I still wonder what I can actually offer in Hollywood and how much farther I can go with my career there. I’m up for new challenges and opportunities.”

Shooting his second Hollywood film required a number of things, including mastering every script line in perfect American English and getting used to the Hollywood filmmaking system ― which is vastly different from the one in Korea.

Both directors Park and Kim have shared their difficulties getting used to the system, which they experienced while shooting “Stoker” and “The Last Stand,” respectively. Unlike the Korean film industry, where all the crew members work on the set until the director is satisfied with the shoots, working in Hollywood strictly requires start and finish, each day’s work is done on time. Director Kim said the experience was “lonely” and “extremely challenging.” Lee said it was “efficient but intimidating sometimes.”

“Director Park and Kim were all in the U.S. while I was shooting this film,” said Lee.

“Both of them would often text me (when they were frustrated) and say, ‘I am going nuts’ or ‘I could just pack everything and go home now.’ I’d giggle whenever I received the texts.

“But seriously speaking, I think getting used to the system must have been much harder for them than it was for me. From what I’ve seen, being a film director in Korea is just totally different from being a film director in Hollywood.”

Unlike Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon, Lee got himself out there without an interpreter. Throughout the shooting process, he communicated with all of the U.S. crew members without any help from a third party. Director Jon Chu, who worked with Lee on the film, in fact said the actor surprisingly spoke “perfect English.”

“I remember him coming into the project and everyone was like, ‘Oh, he doesn’t speak that much English,’” Chu said during a group interview with the Korean press during his visit to Seoul on Monday.

“So I thought this would be interesting how we would interact with each other. But then he came in for a meeting and he spoke perfect English. There he talked about how he wanted the character to be more emotional and real. He wanted to create a rawer, rage-filled character rather than just a cartoon character. It was great. We could talk about the things below the surface.”

Lee Byung-hun is undoubtedly one of Korea’s most celebrated film stars, having starred in more than 40 films and TV drama series. He is noted for his strong presence and nuanced acting style. Though he appears as an action hero in the upcoming movie, his previous roles include an intelligence agent, an arrogant business man falling for an orphaned woman, and a Joseon-period jester who ends up standing in for his ill ruler.

“I loved that he could be really strong and powerful but at the same time have a sense of humor about himself,” Chu said about Lee’s performance in Kim Jee-woon’s 2008 film “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” where the actor appears as a villain.

“I loved that you were scared of him but also felt for him. That combination was very rare for me because usually I think in American action movies you are either a villain or a hero. The in-betweens are tough. And what I loved about Lee Byung-hun’s performance in all these movies is that he plays the line very well. He plays it and goes back and forth. And that takes a real artist.”

The G.I. Joe films are based on American board game company Hasbro’s toy and cartoon series. Lee’s character, Storm Shadow, is a Japanese-American who used to serve in the U.S. Army’s special operations group.

“He seems cold and cynical, mostly because of this traumatic experience he had in the past,” Lee said. “And there is this scene in the movie where he simply explodes with all the suppressed emotions. That’s one of the scenes that I considered the most important.”

“His acting style is very strong and he can be very intense,” said American pro-wrestler and actor Dwayne Johnson, who starred in the movie with Lee. The actor said he was unaware of Lee’s stardom in Asia until director Chu “educated him” about it.

“One of the most impressive things about Lee is that he is a very, very disciplined actor who takes his job incredibly seriously. Even in our world of cosmic mythology, he brings a very nice way to perform (his role). I’m very impressed with the guy. A nice guy, too.”

“G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation” opens in theaters on March 28. 

By Claire Lee (
Korea Herald daum