Story by Jianne Lasaten
Photo by Bjoern Kommerell
When one thinks of Will Yun Lee, the talented Korean American martial artist and actor with a long resume full of ass-kicking villain parts, one probably doesn’t think “shy.” But the Arlington, Virginia, native, who grew up all over the U.S., says this constant relocating shaped his personality.
“I went to 23 different schools,” says Lee, 44, whose father opened and ran taekwondo schools all over the States. “I grew up everywhere – in Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, San Francisco. I always felt like a guest everywhere I went, and it made me naturally very quiet.”
It’s no surprise that taekwondo became a major part of Lee’s life growing up. “I used to run my dad’s martial arts schools, and it was a lot of performing,” says Lee. “I got to be someone else when I was performing. Once it was done, then I’d go back to my quiet self. So it was kind of an outlet.”
It was while teaching martial arts that Lee saw Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, starring Hawaiian-Chinese American actor Jason Scott Lee, and he was inspired. “It was the first time when I said, ‘I think I wanna do what he does.’ [Jason Scott Lee] was the first person I related to who was in my generation,” he remembers. After realizing he would always regret it if he didn’t try acting, Lee moved to Los Angeles with $1,000 in his pocket.
It didn’t take long for Lee to start landing roles, first in TV series like Witchblade and movies like the Bond flick Die Another Day. Then the work started coming more steadily, with roles in films like Total Recall, Red Dawn and The Wolverine, and television shows like fan-favorite vampire drama True Blood and Hawaii Five-O. And in between it all, Lee’s star had risen sufficiently to be named one of the Sexiest Men of the Year by People Magazine, most recently in 2013.
This past summer was a busy one for Lee, who appeared in the Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy, as well as the Dwayne Johnson action flick San Andreas. He’s also starring in the fourth and final season of the Cinemax series Strike Back, which he calls “one of the most fun things I’ve done” – and not just because the show is virtually all action (“You feel the danger in every scene; you say a small prayer before some of the stunts”) but because of his co-star. “Michelle Yeoh is amazing,” says Lee. “She’s one of the most gracious, humble, funny people I’ve gotten to work with.” In the series, Lee plays Kwon, a brutal higher-up in the North Korean regime, whose weakness is, strangely enough, love, in the form of Kwon’s partner in crime, Mei, played by Yeoh.
“The story between Mei and Kwon is kind of like Bonnie and Clyde,” Lee says of the partnership that ends up defying the regime. “There’s this real love story that happens between her and me.”
Now that filming for Strike Back is over (the series finale is September 25), Lee looks forward to spending his time off with his family. (“If it wasn’t for FaceTime, it would completely destroy me,” says the married father of one). He’s got a few films in the works, and he just landed a lead role in USA’s upcoming thriller series Falling Water. But for Lee, the fighting for parts continues. “Auditioning is just like an ongoing American Idol that just never stops,” he says. “I’m not at a place in my career where things just fly my way. You’re in there battling. You’re in there fighting. You never get rid of the nerves. You never get rid of studying under pressure.
“I gotta get it in now before I get too old!”
This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here.