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[Herald Interview] Don Lee’s obsession with boxing powers his action franchise

By Kim Da-sol

Published : June 4, 2023 - 10:26

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Don Lee, also known as Ma Dong-seok in South Korea (ABO Entertainment) Don Lee, also known as Ma Dong-seok in South Korea (ABO Entertainment)

The first image that’s normally associated with action star Don Lee, also known as Ma Dong-seok in South Korea, is his powerful punch in action flicks. He smacks down zombies with his bare hands in “Train to Busan” (2016) and delightfully brings a group of gangsters under his control in “The Roundup” series.

Yet, the 51-year-old action star was also an average man who struggled to make ends meet by cleaning stairs and delivering takeout by motorcycle. Doing so many part-time jobs from a young age, Lee still aches from injuries such as a broken shoulder, ankle and backbone, to name a few. Some cartilage in his knees are missing, as is half of his Achilles tendon.

But what draws Don Lee to the most dangerous action scenes and to produce megascale projects globally?

“There’s nothing special, but I just devoted my whole life to this job. For me, action and acting is not something that I need to do as an actor, but just my life,” Lee told The Korea Herald in an interview in Seoul on Wednesday.

Don Lee most recently returned with the third installment in his much anticipated action series, “The Roundup: No Way Out,” this time featuring two new villains.

“The Roundup: No Way Out” (ABO Entertainment) “The Roundup: No Way Out” (ABO Entertainment)

From the first installment, Lee took on multiple roles, ranging from producer to creative director – or everything except directing – in Korea’s most-loved action franchise. He said he put extra effort into making the third installment better than the previous two, which together attracted over 19.5 million cinemagoers. “The Roundup,” released May 2022, was the first film since the pandemic to sell more than 10 million tickets here.

“The most important thing was not to follow the predecessors. But an obsession with change is dangerous, because that may also result in our franchise losing its unique charm. I think I edited the script more than 80 times,” Lee said, adding that his brother-in-law, actor Cha Woo-jin, is a talented writer who was of great help. They are working on several other series as well, Lee said.

What is special about “The Roundup” series is that the films let the audience discover new or lesser-known faces. Jin Seon-kyu and Park Ji-hwan are such examples.

“I want to introduce newer faces to the audience with our films. I oversee many rounds of auditions with some 1,000 actors for one role. Because I started out my acting career as a gangster or passersby, I know more than anyone (aspiring actors’) desperation,” Lee said.

Lee has also been expanding his reach to the global stage. He starred in Marvel Studio’s “Eternals” (2021) as Gilgamesh, the strongest of the Eternals.

“Over the next 10 years, I will do three films with Marvel,” he said, adding that the “Roundup” series could also be remade in the US.

For all these projects, one thing is crystal clear for Lee -- he does them because they're fun.

“I myself cannot stand something boring. That’s why I want to create an evolving series throughout the ‘Roundup’ franchise, as well as do big production projects in the US. I don’t just want to act in leading or supporting roles.”

“Most of all, boxing is my life. That’s where I came from and am still deeply rooted. Our action sequences have been approved by professional boxers with some of them even shedding tears that our film was able to portray the techniques used in boxing into such a realistic action film.”

“The Roundup: No Way Out” opened in local theaters on May 31.