The Good, The Bad, The Weird interviews, pt 1: Lee Byung-hun
No more mister nice guy. How Korean star Lee Byung-hun is ditching the romantic leads to play the bad guy…
In a side room of the labyrinthine Soho House – an allegedly exclusive members only club in the West End of London though teeming with activity this Friday afternoon – Lee Byung-hun is more charming and instantly charismatic than even the big screen appearance would give him credit for. The obvious romantic lead, past roles have seen him cast roles from the young soldier in Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area to the somewhat naïvely honourable gangster in Kim Jee-Woon’s A Bittersweet Life. Chan-wook even cast him as the director targeted by an extra for being too nice in his segment for Three… Extremes.
Yet in his latest role in The Good, The Bad, The Weird with Jee-woon, 38 year-old Lee has quite literally donned black to play the villain, though in an admittedly rather sharply tailored suit. Lee stars as The Bad Chang-yi, a deeply psychotic bandit leader, so did he enjoy playing the bad guy for a change?
“Oh yeah, because I’ve never done that before and this was a very new experience for me. I realised I could have those kind of expressions and emotions, changing how I use my eyes, my behaviour. It was surprising to find some aspect that I didn’t know was there! Mr Kim was surprised too, because we worked together on A Bittersweet Life previously, and he didn’t know I could do that, he saw a new side to me.”
So had Jee-woon taken chance casting him in that role? “I don’t think so. Maybe he got some kind of confidence to use me in that role. Actually I had the chance to select which role I wanted – he gave me a choice of the good or the bad, and said ‘what do you want to do?’ I couldn’t make my mind up, so finally I asked him, what would you like me to do? He told me that I should play the bad guy, it would be so cool. I guess really I’d wanted the chance to play a villain all along, so I went with the bad guy.”
So you unleashed your inner ‘badass’? Lee simply laughs in reply.
Unsurprisingly his role has brought a lot of parallels with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, two young, handsome leads utterly believable in their roles as dangerous lunatics. Though Lee is keen to point out that Dark Knight was released a year after he’d finished filming. “Funny thing is a lot of fans have been making that comparison. I don’t know what it is, the dark circles round the eyes maybe?”
Was he apprehensive about how his fans would react? “Some of my Japanese fans were worried about that, because I’ve never done it before. They’ve been watching me play like, good guys, nice, romantic and so on. They were worried just before the screening, but luckily they were really satisfied with what they saw.”
And it’s not just his diehard fans that have appreciated the film, its been well received internationally. “Of course I was nervous when we went to Canada with the film. Neither I nor the other leads had watched it yet so it was our first screening too, and we were wondering how the audience would respond. After the screening the audience kept on clapping for 10 minutes. Part of me thought they could have been just being polite, but we could feel that it wasn’t. They were really clapping from their hearts so it was a surprising experience for me.”
So what is it about the film that appeals to people? “First of all it’s a Western, and everybody likes a Western. Second it’s an oriental Western, and that’s a funny combination – there’s a lot of comedy and slapstick moments, twists. I think your traditional ‘western Western’ is a lot simpler. A couple of guys in the desert, bang bang and that’s it, then there’s the eyes, when they’re staring at each other. So I think it’s a lot more active, there’s so much more action.”
And had he seen much of the Spaghetti Westerns that influence the film, particularly The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? “Not since I was 7 or 8.”
His mastery of the English language (not to mention French and Mandarin – though he wasn’t going to be tested there) seemed only dented by jetlag and a hectic promotional schedule. A translator stayed on hand to help with occasional words. But that was literally it, the occasional word.
His second film with Kim Jee-woon, what attracted him to working with the director again? “One of the main things is he can make the story interesting and fun, but he never loses the details. He always cares about the set, the props, the wardrobe – he always takes an interest in everything. I think he must have a headache because he’s so much in the detail! That’s why actors love to work with him.
“It was also kind of fun because the contract came before the film itself, so I thought it was going to be so hard to do. Basically I believe in Mr Kim, so he’s really great to work with.”
What other Korean directors does he admire? “Park Can-wook is one of my really good friends, and I love his directing. I think there are lots of great directors in Korea. Like Yu Ha [Once Upon A Time In High School, A Dirty Carnival], and Bong Joon-ho [The Host, Memories Of Murder, Barking Dogs Never Bite]
And what about his co-stars, The Good (Jung Woo-sung) and The Weird (Song Kang-ho)? “People, especially Asian journalists, are always wondering if we were in competition with each other. And we also thought like that, but when we got out to the desert in China we didn’t have time to think about it. Not just because of the action but the environment was terrible, it was hard. We thought a human should not be here. Sometimes you couldn’t breathe because of the sandstorms, and everything was so awkward and uncomfortable. So we had to work together, we could not feel that kind of rivalry.
“We were so happy when we got to rest. Everyone, the makeup team, stunt guy and actors always had a soccer game. There were no actresses, only guys, so it was like being in the army.”
So a bit of a disappointment after playing the romantic lead so often, then? “Yeah, actually’” he laughs. “But that still has another attractive point. Guys only, so we could talk about anything, particularly girls.”
Did he perform the stunts himself? “Almost all Korean actors know how to kick. Everyone learns Tae Kwan Do at school, they learn in the army to. Fortunately I’m still flexible, even though I learned when I was four or five years old. I can kick, use defensive skills, so actually action is not that big a deal. But sometimes when I have to do something really dangerous I have a conversation about it with the director and we decide I’m not going to do it. But normal action scenes are my favourite to do.”
What was the most dangerous thing he was asked to do? “Actually riding horses was the most dangerous, because there were a lot of explosions as you saw and they’re not a machine. You don’t know how they are going to react after the explosions or gunshots and that made me, and everyone else, nervous. We were riding so fast and then when the explosions went off they’d move away from them. That was the most dangerous for me.”
Amazingly, this was the first time he’d ridden a horse. “And the first day I went to a horse riding school I learnt for just one hour, and ended up breaking my ankle so I couldn’t learn anymore. For one month I had my foot in a cast and had to ride like that. And then we had to go to China so I didn’t have time. I’d had maybe 10 lessons, but still not enough. In China the environment was totally different anyway, no mountains, only desert. Maybe it’s a good environment to learn in, but the horses are so different too, so raw, so it was almost like starting again anyway. The speed we rode was rather too fast to learn it, there being no obstacles there.”
So did he get saddlesore? “Yeah, I did. But you couldn’t think about the soreness or the pain, we just had to get on. Then after we realised we were covered in bruises, we were sooo tired!”
What was the most fun thing he did on set? “Actually I think the scenes may have been deleted, but every time I had to react to a gunshot or explosion we’d do three or four takes for my expression. I’d always ask him what he wanted, but on the last take I’d always do what I wanted to. And it was always the last shot that was the good one. That was the most fun part, as I wasn’t aware of my potential to portray those sorts of expressions, I just went along with how I felt. And what came out of it both I and the director were happy with, but unfortunately some of them were deleted – perhaps they’ll be on the DVD?”
About to make his Hollywood debut, what does Lee think that means for his career? “Actually I’ve had two experiences. The first is with Ann Hung Tran on I Come With The Rain, where I star with Josh Harnett, the second is G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra with Stephen Sommers. That was quite a good experience even though I had an awkward time. Everything was so different, the systems, the special language.”
“Still I it was a good experience. I’ll keep working in Korea, so I don’t lose my base, but if I’ve a chance to work in Hollywood again then why not? If there’s a good project for me than I would like to work there again. Basically, I’m going to work in Korea, keep going back and forth.”
Despite this, Lee sounds more than a little jaded over his experience there. “I could tell they’re much more rational than we are in Korea. They really think the time is important. Because they’re much more commercially minded they don’t waste their time, they don’t want to waste the money. So every day we have to gather at six o’clock in the morning. We don’t do that in Korea, they just decide right after the shoot, ‘okay, we’re gonna meet at four in the afternoon’, just like that.”
“In Hollywood it’s more rational, but much less familiar. It’s not like family. You can’t feel the same friendship that you would on a Korean film set. Sometimes I feel the studio guys are too much, they’re too logical. For example, I needed to take some time to go somewhere, just two days, and they said I should look at my contract again. I don’t think that feels very human.”
So did he get to hang out with the stars? “Actually Dennis Quaid had to shoot another movie, so we had to finish his scenes first, he finished in just a month. So we only met on his last day on the shoot. We’d met for reading and rehearsing, of course, but on the shoot, just once.”
So does that mean he’s going to get his own action figure? “That was my first time using a sword, so I had to train for a month with the stunt guys. And to use a sword was so strange, I hadn’t really fought with one before. But yes, a figure is coming out. It’s so funny, the head is really small but I can tell it’s me! You can tell…”
The Good, The Bad, The Weird is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray by Icon Home Entertainment on 1 June 2009.
Thanks to Chris Lawrence of Icon Film Distribution and Paul Smith of The Associates for setting up the interview, and of course Lee Byung-hun for his time.