Actor Will Yun Lee, a three-time KoreAm cover man, talks about some meaty roles he’s playing in film and life, the dream he’s still chasing and the gifts of fatherhood.
story by REBECCA U. CHO
photographs by YANN BEAN
Hunched forward in a Sherman Oaks, Calif., dessert shop under a plain black cap that casts his face in a shadow, actor Will Yun Lee is exhausted, but insanely happy. Just five days before, Lee and his wife, Jennifer Birmingham, also an actor, became first-time parents to their son, Cash. That means bedtime for the new dad was 5 that morning. “I think guys shouldn’t even complain because I watch my wife, and it’s a nonstop 24-hour feeding process,” Lee says, his voice slightly hoarse and subdued on this bright June afternoon a day before his first Father’s Day as a father.
On top of his daddy duties, Lee is busy this summer promoting his latest action role as the main villain opposite Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine. Set in modern-day Japan, the film opens July 26 and features Lee as the Silver Samurai, also known as Kenuichio Harada, a Japanese mutant who, in the Marvel Comics on which the film is based, appears in samurai-like armor and has the ability to charge his sword to cut through almost anything. First introduced to many TV watchers in the TNT supernatural series Witchblade, Lee also was a series regular in the short-lived NBC show Bionic Woman, and appeared in a slew of high-profile films, such as the James Bond movie Die Another Day, Elektra and Total Recall. He has had a recurring role in CBS’s Hawaii Five-0.
At 42, the tanned, toned Korean American actor — previously named one of “The Sexiest Men Alive” and “50 Most Beautiful People” by People magazine — is in top physical form and fully capable of taking on the clawed Wolverine. (He demonstrated just how capable during KoreAm’s cover shoot at a Los Angeles area beach, where he performed some flying kicks.) This is in large part thanks to his lifelong dedication to taekwondo and a rigorous training regimen, which Lee captures in the YouTube documentary series The Training Diary of Will Yun Lee. “There’s something about sweating, bleeding, getting hit that forces you to look in the mirror,” Lee says in a voice-over to the three-part series, the first of which was released last year.
But more than a training diary, the documentary is a tribute to Lee’s father, a taekwondo grandmaster, who coached a highly successful all-African American fighting team called the Simbas in the Washington, D.C., area in the 1960s and ’70s. The latest segment, released in May, takes the actor full circle, as he connects the elder Lee’s legacy to his own pending fatherhood.
As we sit at Cakes by Rumy, a shop owned by one of the training partners featured in the documentary series and where Lee is a regular, the sleep-deprived actor talked about his first days as a dad, how the discipline he learned from his own father helped him persevere in Hollywood, and divulged just a little bit about his mysterious character in The Wolverine.
Congratulations on the birth of your son. What was it like seeing Cash being born?
Thank you! When people tell you that you have no idea what you’ll feel, it’s true. You can’t describe the feeling when you watch your son coming out. It’s pretty incredible. It was kind of numbing and beautiful. You’re crying, you’re tired. It was cool. Beautiful.
How did you and your wife come up with the name Cash Yun Lee?
My wife’s side is from the South. Louisiana. She told my parents, “You already got Yun and Lee, so give me Cash.” They didn’t understand. My parents probably learned “hello, thank you, cash, no check.” So they can’t understand why we named him “money.” (Laughs.)
Talking about your parents, you explore your father’s past as a taekwondo grandmaster in the YouTube documentary The Training Diary of Will Yun Lee. What led you to the project?
That series came about because a couple of friends were launching a web series thing, and they wanted to do an interview. I thought, this is a great opportunity also to explore my dad’s past because I always got pieces of it. He was a Korean immigrant, and he came to D.C. and trained one of the first all-black fighting teams in America. I knew pieces of the story and, over the course of the last 10 years, I’ve been piecing more and more together and meeting his old students.
What interested you about your father’s story and the Simbas, the martial arts team he coached?
What no one realizes is so much of the African American community really started this martial artsboom in America because a lot of the fighters in the ’70s and ’80s—a lot of the great fighters—were African American. And they were the ones going to the Bruce Lee movies, they were the ones going to the Jackie Chan movies, and they really helped propel our image of martial arts and the novelty ofmartial arts in America. I went to the 40-year reunion and I met my dad’s students, and they told me so many different stories. And I always thought this is the most interesting thing because growing up you see so many people, whether it’s the African American community or the Korean community, they have such a fear of each other or had a big fear of each other. I was like, what a beautiful story that this one Korean man and these African American kids literally bonded together and became a family. And they still teach in Korean, they still teach all over the United States.
You went to UC Berkeley on a taekwondo scholarship and post-college, you helped your father run three studios in the Bay Area. What led you to acting?
I lived in the taekwondo studio my entire life, from when I was 3. I started training really seriously from 13 on. And then I went to Berkeley and fought there. So it consumed most of my life. So I said I wanted to try something new. I wanted to be nervous again. I wanted to be excited for something.
Looking back, how do you feel about that training?
I think, once I finished a few movies and I started feeling a little bit more comfortable and I was able to pay the rent and turn on the lights, I really realized that everything that my dad taught me was the reason I made it to a certain point, and I was able to audition and was able to know what it’s like to have the discipline to try a new art. And if I didn’t have that, if he didn’t give me that, if he didn’t force it on me for the longest time, I probably would’ve quit a long time ago.
How has your career evolved as an Asian American actor?
I think, in terms of my career, I’m still chasing it. I’m still chasing to fulfill some of the things I want to do. Ironically, I think it’s backwards. I think a lot of actors say, “Gosh, I want to shoot guns, and I want to destroy the world in a movie!” For me the biggest accomplishment would be to do something likeFriday Night Lights or things where you actually just speak like you speak growing up. It’s hard.
Is there an ideal role you’re chasing?
What’s out there, as opposed to what we want, is so different. You hear a lot of criticisms. I’ll hear it from my parents first: “You’re always killing people. How come you never smile?” (Laughs.) At the end of the day, you have to turn on your lights.
Actually, as funny as it sounds, Torque (a 2004 biker action film) was one of those things that, while it wasn’t a box office success—what was really cool about that project was Joseph Kahn, [the film’s] Korean American director [said], “I just want you to be you.” And it went against so much of what I usually get, like I’m the head of a syndicate trying to kill everyone because I’m with an Asian government faction, that kind of, “Oh my gosh, how many people do I have to kill?” I think Torque was one of my ideal roles because I got to speak like I speak, there was a sense of humor to it, there was a sense of [Joseph] just letting me be me.
Are things improving for Asian American actors?
I do think so. It’s attributed to a lot of what the actors bring to the table, whether it’s John Cho or Sandra Oh or Daniel Dae Kim and Ken Jeong. I think I read an article where [Jeong] made $5 million off ofHangover III. That is beautiful, that’s an incredible thing to see, and I was so excited seeing somebody actually break the threshold. I’m so far behind all of them. But, at the end of the day, I do think it’s gotten better. But there obviously is a long way to go.
How did you feel when you heard you got the role of Silver Samurai in The Wolverine?
An actor always does feel like, “I don’t know if I’ll ever work again after the project that I’m in is finishing up.” I was relieved, and I was excited. I’m a huge fan of [director] James Mangold and a huge fan of Hugh Jackman and a huge fan of [actor] Hiroyuki Sanada. So I was definitely excited. And I hadn’t been in Australia (where most of the filming took place) before.
How did you prep for this role?
I would say one of the biggest prep things that came about, because I spoke so much Japanese [in the film], was I spent a lot of time with [co-star] Hiro [Sanada.]. I mean, that poor guy, he worked with me day and night on my Japanese. The hardest for me was the Japanese. I have spoken it before, but it was really bad. Hiroyuki was the nicest man. He’s just an awesome guy.
What was the filming experience like?
It was nice. I got to work with 87eleven again. They’re one of the biggest stunt teams in the business. And just watching Hugh Jackman work. He’s literally one of the nicest guys you’ll get to work with. He’s one of the only guys I’ve worked with who’s at that level, and 95 percent of the time, he’ll be in the tent with all the crew and cast members eating just like he’s everybody else. He’s one of the few guys at that level that makes you feel like you’re in an acting class, and you’re just doing a scene together. It’s that rapport of just making sure the scene was good, as opposed to the other things that come along with it. And James Mangold was probably one of the most passionate directors I’ve worked with, and he scared me every day. He’s so meticulous in what he wants.
What can you tell me about the Silver Samurai? The studio seems to be keeping his character under wraps.
I can’t say too much, except that I play a character name Harata and that he’s kind of this mysterious character, and he has complex ties with all the different characters. Different things will be released. And that’s one of the [reasons] I loved working with James Mangold. He didn’t take straightforward villains and straightforward heroes. He wanted to blur the lines. He keeps you guessing until the end of the movie.
Tomorrow is your first Father’s Day as a dad. Has being a parent changed your perspective on your life?
I think it just solidifies things. My perspective has always been the same—to provide for my family and keep doing what I love to do. But I think having Cash and watching him with my wife, it just solidified that I have to keep going and I have to provide. I think it just makes me stronger.
styling JULIET VO
grooming SSONIA LEE for Exclusive Artists/La Mer
This article was published in the July 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the July issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).