There is no one like Don Lee.
Also known as Ma Dong-seok, the huge Korean action star has made a name for himself with his massive body, punishing beatings and easy charm. After a long and successful career at home, he came to international attention with his role as a scene stealer in Train to Busan before Marvel cast him as Gilgamesh in Eternals.
Lee’s last, The roundup: no way outis the third (and best) entry in the wildly popular crime thriller franchise Roundup, which has been making waves not just at the Korean box office, but around the world.
Polygon traded questions with the star via email, discussing his acting ethos and influences, when he was almost in a John Wick movie, and his thoughts on the next one. Train to Busan redo.
Polygon: Your boxing background really shines through in these films. I read that you wanted to be a boxer when you were younger. Can you tell me what this boxing experience brings to a role?
Don Lee: I have boxed all my life and through boxing I have learned endurance and humility in life. Moreover, the action in this [Roundup] The series is also primarily designed based on boxing. Watching a movie Rocky made me want to dream of becoming a boxer. And I also started dreaming of becoming an actor while learning boxing.
What is most crucial for you in achieving compelling actions in the modern age?
There are different types of action in movies. Action involving weapons, car chases, fantasy elements and more. Among them, I am most focused on the action which involves bare hands combat without any weapons. I practice boxing for a long time and I even trained to become a professional boxer. Thus, the heart of the action sequences for The roundup: no way out it’s boxing. Applying real boxing techniques to action movies is no easy task.
As it is difficult, coordination and synergy with the stunt team are crucial. Heo Myeong-haeng, the martial arts director, and the stunt teams of this film have worked with me for 20 years and they understand my intentions very well. This allows us to create more realistic action scenes. Even now, I train daily in boxing and participate in training sessions with professional boxers.
Which filmmakers and action stars do you think are doing the best? Do you have any favorite recent action movies?
I started boxing after watching Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series when I was a kid. SO Rocky is an irreplaceable action movie for me. Recently, I’ve noticed director Chad Stahelski, known for directing the John Wick series, delivering some stylish action sequences. I have a long-standing friendship with him, and I was also offered a role in [a] John Wick, which unfortunately did not come to fruition. [Ed. note: The role was in John Wick 3, which conflicted with his filming schedule for 2019’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil.] JJ Perry, who was in charge of the stunts for John Wick, also created some amazing action scenes. by Chris Hemsworth Extraction also had a really impressive action.
The Roundup movies pack a lot of high-impact punches, with the action, camerawork, and sound design all working in coordination to suggest you really are jerks. How many contacts are there really in these films? What is your philosophy on full-contact action?
It’s important to look realistic, but safety comes first. Although we’ve never touched a co-star’s face, there are shots where we have to hit each other. Actors wear safety gear in such cases. However, even if we are careful, the blow is strong enough to almost hit the organs. These are tough types of action, but I did my best to make it feel real and enjoyable for the audience.
How does a disparity in physicality influence your approach to a fight scene? Most of the people you fight are smaller than you, but you also fight the biggest bouncer in No Exit. How are you changing your approach?
In this film, actors of different weight classes, from middleweight to super heavyweight, appear as my opponents. Since I prioritize realism in boxing action, in some scenes I move fast like a boxer does, while in others I focus on power like a puncher does. In boxing matches, there are instances where the opponent is knocked out with only one or two punches. In real life, if you get hit with your bare hands without gloves, you’ll be instantly knocked out. I wanted to convey that in this scene. I always try to create realistic action sequences that the audience can enjoy.
Does the fact that global audiences can now easily access and watch your films change anything for your approach?
Thanks to the universal language of film, it is possible to communicate cinematographically across the world, transcending language barriers. When it comes to producing or planning a film, I try not to limit my imagination based on scale or budget. By exploring and imagining without being limited by production constraints and practical conditions, I believe more captivating content can emerge. And such content can move audiences around the world.
After Eternals, are you interested in future Hollywood projects? Are there any franchises in particular that appeal to you?
The Korean film industry and Hollywood are the same in that all the cast and staff work hard together to make a good movie. Basically, the most noticeable difference is the language. Hollywood movies use English, but Korean movies use Korean language. But under the common language named “movie”, people can communicate with each other beyond the language barrier. And the experiences of Marvel Pictures inspired me tremendously to design and develop the fictional universe when I make the film.
Did you have a reaction when you heard there would be a Hollywood Train to Busan remake, directed by Timo Tjahjanto?
Train to Busan holds a special place in my heart. I hope it will be perfectly redone.