Will Yun Lee’s first studio movie. The Korean-American, then 30, was in the middle of an acting class when he received a call to read for renegade North Korean Colonel Moon. (The character later undergoes a DNA replacement therapy and becomes Gustav Graves — a white dude — played by Toby Stephens.)
“This was at the very beginning of my career when I had $50 or $60 in my pocket,” Lee tells 8days.sg over the phone from LA. “When my dad [a Taekwondo grandmaster] moved to the United States, he basically knew James Bond, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard — those were the public figures he knew. It was nice that in my first studio movie, I got to speak Korean and fight, both things my father taught me. It’s a nice tip of the hat to him.”
Little did Lee know that the 20th Bond instalment would also be Pierce Brosnan’s last. “I’ll never forget the couple of days I worked with him when we were doing these exterior pick-up shots. We fought, fought, and fought against a blue screen. When we were done, he jumped off and played chess with the producers. I thought that was so cool.”
And what did Lee’s parents think of Die Another Day? “When they saw it, they said, ‘You were barely in the movie!’”
Elektra (2005), The Wolverine (2013)
“I remember one more than the other,” Lee says of his involvement with Marvel movies. In The Wolverine, he plays super-ninja Kenuichio Harada who went toe to toe with Hugh Jackman’s adamantium-laded mutant. “We trained really hard in Australia for four months for the very elaborate ninja fights. Not everything made the made final cut.”
In Elektra, Lee played another ninja assassin, Kirigi, nemesis to Jennifer Garner’s sai-wielding professional killer. “All the pieces just didn’t fall in line,” he says. “It was such a cool piece of property. I feel like they would revisit it one day and try it again [as a movie].”
Red Dawn (2012)
When Lee came onboard this remake of the 1984 actioner he was playing a Chinese captain leading an invasion of the US. “I learned Mandarin for the part and the something happened, we had to redo everything.”
The producers decided to replace the Chinese antagonists for North Korean ones for fear of alienating the Chinese market — by removing every China reference in the movie in post-production to the tune of a reported US$1 million. “I spent a lot of hours in the dubbing booth [redoing my lines in Korean,” says Will.
“I definitely had some reservations [playing the bad guy] because I had done a few roles that walked the line,” he adds. “At the end of the day, I put my actor’s hat on. Sometimes the villains are actually the most fun to play but I just became a lot more conscious in terms of what I wanted for the rest of my career.”
By the way, don’t ask him to say anything in Mandarin: he’d all but forgotten the language.
Here’s a rarity in Lee’s filmography: comedy. As CIA agent Timothy Cress, he did this cameo in this Melissa McCarthy/Jason Statham action-comedy as a favour for director Paul Feig (“I always know him as the best-dressed director — I can’t imagine what his suit collection is like”).
He says, “Paul called me: ‘Do you mind just come play a bit [part] in Budapest?’ ‘I’m in!’ I don’t care what he does — he’s amazing. I loved to be a fly on the wall and watched Melissa McCarthy do her thing. It was a quick cameo. I love it when friends call and let’s go hang at the set together.”
He appreciated the experience because “I have not been a part of many comedies and just from watching Paul, I noticed that he doesn’t like to yell action — it was, like, no rehearsals. You literally go in and he turns the camera on.
“And sometimes for Melissa, he just leaves the cameras on. You just have to be open as an actor because he’ll just keeping throwing funny lines at you. The lines he threw at Jason Statham, lots of them didn’t make it into the movie. Paul would think of these lines on the spot. ‘Jason, say this; Jason, say that.’ Jason, by being so open, was allowed to explore his comedy chops.
“There was so many times that Melissa would make us laugh. Or it was just Paul making us laugh in that scene. Because he would give every character a line to say that was just so off-the-wall that Jason probably broke character at least 10 times that day.”
Dr Ken (2015)
In the same year he did Spy, Lee guested on the Ken Jeong sitcom, as the smoking hot ex-boyfriend of the titular character’s wife’s. The guest stint almost didn’t happen. “He called me up when I was in New York,” says Lee. “I said, ‘It’s your first show and I have ever done comedy and I don’t want to mess up your show.’ He called me again, ‘Just come, you’ll be fine.’ I didn’t know if I could do live comedy. But he talked me into it.
“What I learned from Ken Jeong is, this is a guy who paid his dues and he decided a long time before he became huge and if he ever get his own TV show, he’s going to treat people right and he’s going to do it right.
“When I worked onto that set, it was the happiest set I’ve ever been on. The amount of care he put into the show, making sure that every department is taken care of — he’s a good role model.
“One day if I get my own show, I’ll remember what Ken Jeong did. He’s the hardest working guy in the room and when we got to work, you laughed all day and you went home laughing.”
San Andreas (2015), Rampage (2018)
For his audition for seismologist Dr Kim Park in Dwayne Johnson’s earthquake thriller, Lee sent a tape of himself faking an earthquake in his living room. “That was funny,” he says with a laugh. He also received a call from San Andreas producer Beau Flynn, whom he knew from Red Dawn. “Beau, who’s the Rock’s producing partner, called me, ‘I want you to do [San Andreas],” says Lee. “At the same time I knew director Brad Peyton didn’t know who I was, so between the tape and Beau Flynn, that was how San Andreas was able to happen.”
Years later, Lee got a call from Flynn, this time for another Johnson movie, the monster picture Rampage. “[Beau and Dwayne] like to keep a tight-knit family on set,” says Lee who plays Agent Park (any relation to Dr Kim Park?)
“So if you do a Beau Flynn movie, you’re most likely at some point in the future do at least half of his movies because he just wants his friends there. He wants a good atmosphere. If you walk onto the set of any Rock movie, like ones produced by Beau, you’ll see your friends from five movies ago there as well.”
Hawaii Five-0 (2010)
Filming in the Aloha State always brings back memories for Lee. “I went to elementary school there; I always feel like I’m at home when I’m there,” say Lee, who has a recurring role of confidential informant Sang Min on the long-running cop drama, which will call it a day after its current 10th season.
Working with Daniel Dae Kim (who played Chin Ho Kelly) was a bonus too. “Daniel and I have been friends for a long time,” Lee quips. “We were both up-and-coming actors [who were always bumping into each other] at auditions.”
Has Lee ever lost a role to his future Good Doctor colleague/boss? “I lost Divergent: [Allegiant] to him.”
Sang Min wasn’t written with Lee in mind. Recalls Will: “My buddy [Len Wiseman] who directed the pilot, called me, ‘[the character] was written for a 300-pound Hawaiian guy and we can’t find anybody to do this.’” I said yes but I knew it was a one-time guest role, can I go crazy with it? He said, ‘Alright’.
“I went and bought a wig and showed up on set. Between [showrunner] Peter Lenkoff and Len Wiseman, they were both going, ‘Who did we hire?’ It was quiet for a long time. I think they hurdled up in the producers’ tent not knowing what to make of my first scene. It was fun.
“I came up with that character’s look after a late night in a casino in LA. I saw this guy playing poker at our table and he literally wore this black turtleneck with gold necklace. He had a mullet, he’s Asian and he was the craziest character at the table and that’s who I modelled Sang Min on.”
Altered Carbon (2018)
Lee was in the middle of shooting the supernatural drama Falling Water when he was told about Netflix’s body-swapping sci-fi saga. But he wanted to sit this one out. “I was too overweight because it’s a very action-oriented show,” says Will of his role of elite soldier Takeshi Kovacs.
Ultimately, he was talked into doing it. “So I killed myself for six weeks and ate nothing but rabbit food, and trained three times a day.”
In Altered Carbon, Kovacs’ consciousness is transferred into a white man’s body or 'sleeve' (Joel Kinnaman). (In Season 2, Kovacs inhabits Anthony Mackie’s body.) Didn't that happen to Colonel Moon in Die Another Day as well?
“I had a lot of concerns about that,” says Lee. “I told the producers about my concerns and they said, ‘Trust me, the way the show works, it’s not like another Die Another Day situation where I got swapped out eventually. Kovacs is the origin character and he will live in the flashbacks.
“When they gave me Episode 7, which is about Kovacs’ origin story, it was a gigantic affair. It was the longest episode they took to film besides the pilot. They spent 30 days on a one-hour TV show.
He’s proud of that episode for another reason. “Even though there was a lot of fighting, it was also one of the few times you get to see an African-American woman and an Asian-American man in a fully fleshed-out love story on camera.”
The Good Doctor (2018)
When one door closes, another opens. Shortly after Falling Water got cancelled, Will received a call from The Good Doctor EP Daniel Dae Kim. “‘I’m kind of joking but you can audition for the show,’” Lee remembers. “I said, ‘It’s funny you said that because we literally just called cancelled.”
Lee went for the audition and scored the part of ex-cop-turned-medical professional Dr Alex Park. But he admits that the first year was tough on him: being on the hospital set reminded him of the time he spent in hospitals where his six-year-old son Cash was being treated for Moyamoya Disease, a rare condition in which the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain become constricted.
It was so emotionally taxing that Lee had walked out of rehearsals a few times. “My son is doing fine now, so I don’t have those triggers anymore. But in the first year, I didn’t know if I could continue with the show because it was so emotionally heavy for me.”
Elsewhere, Lee enjoys trying to say tons of “exposition and medical jargon while performing a million things”. “It’s been a fun skillset to acquire,” he says. He’s so good at it now that he “can make it look like I know how to perform actual surgery”. “That’s probably the biggest asset I picked up from The Good Doctor.”
Which is good news for Lee’s parents who had always hope he would be a surgeon. They might not be fans of Altered Carbon,but they follow The Good Doctor religiously, even throwing viewing parties for their friends.
Says Lee: “In their heads, they think I’m a doctor.”