Lee Byung-hun, King of the Screen

Korea Real Time  By Jaeyeon Woo

October 17, 2012, 11:37 AM KST

There is something about Lee Byung-hun beyond his deep, intense eyes and commanding demeanor. Undoubtedly one of South Korea’s top actors, Mr. Lee oozes charm on the big screen, as well as considerable talent.

Since his debut, the 42-year old Mr. Lee has starred in 20 movies and 21 TV dramas. His breakthrough was “JSA: Joint Security Area,” directed by Park Chan-wook in 2000, a fictional account of how South and North Korean soldiers at the border become friends but face a tragic end after failing to overcome their distrust of each other and a deep ideological divide.

In his latest historical movie, “Masquerade,” Mr. Lee pulls off a fine dual performance as Gwanghae, a Chosun dynasty king, and a commoner who impersonates the king. The movie has become a huge box office hit in South Korea, hogging top spot for five consecutive weeks. Since it opened on Sept. 13, the movie has attracted more than 9.3 million moviegoers and raked in 1.8 billion won in ticket sales.

Mr. Lee is also one of a few South Korean actors to have made a successful career in Hollywood. His overseas acting credits include G.I. Joe : The Rise of Cobra (2009) as Storm Shadow. He was cast again for G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation, which will be released in March next year. He’s also in the process of shooting Red 2 with Bruce Willis, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich.

In June, he became one of the first two Asian actors to leave his hand and foot imprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, a mark of global recognition. Following is an edited email interview with Mr. Lee.

WSJ: How did it feel to be asked to leave your imprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater?

It was an unbelievably great honor to be placed amongst some of Hollywood’s greatest actors. I still recall a few years back when I went to the place as a tourist to take pictures. The event felt like a contract for me, a contract that will bind me going forward to push and challenge myself to become a better actor than I am now.

WSJ: You are currently shooting Red 2. How did you feel about being cast in the film?

was very, very excited. This is a dream casting that doesn’t come along very often. It is an honor to work with these great actors. I am sure the film is going to come out great.

WSJ: What do you think is the main difference between Hollywood and Korean productions?

Hollywood has a longer pre-production period and they juggle shooting schedules more carefully for each cast. In Korea, we shoot day and night without much break.

WSJ: G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation was shot in New Orleans with a different cast, writers and director than the first movie. How do you think the second film will differ from the first?

The first movie was like an introduction to the characters and story. The sequel has new characters in it and the story goes deeper for each existing character so that moviegoers will get to know more about what drives some of the characters to act certain ways. This will be my first 3D film so I am very excited and looking forward to seeing it.

WSJ: In G.I. Joe 2 you met and acted with Bruce Willis for the first time. What was your impression of him?

My first meeting with Bruce Willis was near our trailers on the movie set. I said hello to him and he bowed back at me like we Koreans do. I was very impressed. I think he deliberately did so because it was at early stage of movie making and cast members and crew were nervous. He tried to make everyone relaxed.

WSJ: You’ve been an actor for more than 20 years. How do you think you’ve made it this far?

The more I act, the harder it gets since I feel like I still have so much to learn. Whenever I embark on a new project, it always feels like the first time. If it were easy to me and I felt like I knew everything, my acting might have been different. I think the feeling of ‘newness’ keeps me on my toes and concentrated.

WSJ: Did you have any challenges during your acting career that made you want to quit?

The biggest challenge came at the early stage of my career. In fact, it was my first project. I hadn’t had any formal acting training at that time. I had no idea what it took to be an actor. Then all of a sudden I found myself cast in a TV drama. The director was very harsh with me. One time, he told me this would be my first and last acting job. I seriously thought that acting was not the right career for me.

WSJ: What do you see yourself doing 20 years from now?

As an actor, I feel I am in a good position now. I am able to choose from many scripts and decide what I like the best. In 20 years I hope to be able to choose my roles as I do now. I wish I can be an actor whom people would like to work with and who is still in demand.

WSJ: What is your dream outside your acting career?

Just like other ordinary people, I want to have a happy family.

Follow Jaeyeon Woo on Twitter @JaeyeonWoo


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