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‘Eternals’ & ‘The Roundup’ Star Don Lee On Making Korean Stories For A Global Audience, With His Special Brand Of Action – Q&A

EXCLUSIVE: Korean-American actor Don Lee (aka Ma Dong-seok) is playing the long game — and it’s paying off. Acting since 2005, the 51-year-old star broke out with 2016 zombie smash Train to Busan and has seen his career speed along ever since with leading roles in such local hits at The Outlaws, The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos and this year’s The Roundup, which is the No. 1 homegrown film of the pandemic as it nears $100M.

Lee B&C Content/Big Punch Ent

Lee also co-wrote and produced The Roundup, which he hopes to turn into a sort of Korean Fast & Furious franchise. His big Hollywood break came with Disney/Marvel’s Eternals, in which he played Gilgamesh.

Sometimes referred to as “the Korean Dwayne Johnson,” Lee also is developing a remake of crime thriller The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, which premiered in Cannes in 2019. It’s set up at Paramount with his U.S. banner Gorilla 8 producing alongside Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa — which is fitting since Rocky was one of the inspirations for Lee’s career.

Paramount To Remake Korean Thriller 'The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil'; Don Lee Reprising Original Role & Producing Alongside Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa

A multi-hyphenate, Lee is passionate about giving first-timers a chance to shine. With Korean content making a splash, he’s also eager to continue pushing boundaries and tell stories for a global market.

K-Movie Ent

DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the success of The Roundup and how it has helped kick-start local films again at the Korean box office.

DON LEE: While developing the first film of the franchise, I had already created eight stories for potential sequels. After the success of the first film, and now with the second film produced and released, even I did not expect it to perform as well as it did.

Although I knew this film was an entertaining action-comedy that hit all the right beats, due to the ongoing pandemic, I didn’t anticipate it would pass 12 million admissions at the Korean box office. But thankfully, since so many people watched and enjoyed this film, it broke various records in Korean film history and helped return the local box office to pre-pandemic times, so the production crew and actors are all very grateful for this result.

DEADLINE: What do you think has been the appeal?

LEE: I believe the key appeal is firstly the action. I always research and try to find new action moves that can help maximize the exhilaration and satisfaction of the action onscreen, along with the realistic and powerful boxing action I always use. Secondly, I think the audience enjoyed the intense crime story with the complex and sinister villains, balanced with the naturally placed humor and comedy throughout the story. Thirdly, the audience were kept on the edge of their seats and responded strongly to the simple plot, which was driven forward powerfully by the many twists and turns, as well as the constantly changing, new incidents in the story.

DEADLINE: What is the future of the franchise?

LEE: All eight films have been greenlit now, and if we proceed with two additional spinoffs, it could be a total of 10 films. In a way, this would be akin to Universal’s Fast & Furious franchise, in that it’s something we can continue to build and expand upon for years to come. I have already completed the outlines for all eight films, and most importantly, I plan to show fresh storytelling, villains and action styles that are different from the previous films in each iteration.

DEADLINE: You have such an interesting background growing up in Korea and the U.S., then building a career in Korea and now also featuring in some big Hollywood movies — how did the time spent as a young man in the States inform your career to date?

LEE: Ever since I watched Rocky when I was 15, I started boxing and training to become a pro boxer in Korea. But due to my family’s poor circumstances, I had to live with my relatives in Montana and work various difficult jobs to make money until I became an adult. Even so, I never let go of boxing, and to this day, my previous training experiences serve as the core foundation for my action films. The many people I met and the diversity of experiences I went through during when I worked almost nonstop in the U.S. to survive continues to help me immensely when I’m developing authentic and unique characters and stories.

DEADLINE: What were some of the jobs you held in the States?

LEE: It’s a long résumé. … I was cleaning buildings as a janitor, busing tables at Chinese restaurants, washing dishes, grocery store clerk. I was also a bartender, did manual labor, sold clothes at swap meets out of my trunk, even had a milk-powder business, and many more like this. Apart from those, the longest jobs I’ve held were as a club bouncer and a physical trainer.

Lee in ‘Eternals’ Marvel

DEADLINE: I hear you have a sort of spiritual connection to Nomadland, and by extension Chloé Zhao. Why is that?

LEE: Nomadland is a film that resonated with me personally. The scene where Fern [Francis McDormand] meets nomads who have their own stories on this unfamiliar road made me feel as if I also met them and became Fern myself. During the scene when Fern was cleaning bathrooms, I was reminded of the time when I also got by cleaning toilets as a janitor. So it reminded me of my own experiences in the U.S. Prior to filming Eternals, I became a fan of Chloé Zhao after watching The Rider and while filming for Eternals, I became an even bigger fan of Chloé Zhao and her unique voice as a filmmaker. After that, seeing Nomadland deeply touched me in a very different, personal way.

DEADLINE: What was the process behind being cast in Eternals?

LEE: After the global success of Train to Busan, I received many casting offers from Hollywood. I run a production company both in Korea and L.A., so about six years ago I got a chance to meet Marvel’s excellent casting director, Sarah Finn, while I was working back and forth between Korea and L.A. After some time passed, while I was filming in Korea, I heard about my casting offer in Eternals through my manager. After that, I had my first Zoom meeting with director Chloé Zhao and producer Nate Moore, and I decided to join Eternals as Gilgamesh that same day. Since I was always a huge fan of Marvel, I was really happy, and Eternals was a new beginning for me.

DEADLINE: How important is it for you to keep working in both Hollywood and Korea? What is your decision making process when choosing a new project?

LEE: Whether it is in Hollywood or Korea, I am always eager to find fresh, new IP and good characters as an actor, and it is always my dream as a producer to create original and entertaining films. I don’t think language is important. I believe good content will always be welcomed by the global audience. Be it Hollywood projects or Korean projects, I want to create more global and entertaining films that showcase my specialty of telling exhilarating action stories.

DEADLINE: As a producer, what you are doing to foster new talent?

LEE: The most important thing for me while working in this industry is a person’s character. Because the work we all do involves teamwork, we need everyone’s understanding, collaboration and consideration towards each other. If someone makes the set uncomfortable or gives others a difficult time, no matter how talented they are, I simply don’t work with them. After all, a big part of why everyone does this line of work is to have fun and because they love it.

Among the people who have good character, there are many who have great creativity and skills as well, so I try to discover those types of people and work with them to help build up their career, even if they are new or less experienced. I’m passionate about creating more opportunities for filmmakers and talent, who just need someone to be courageous and give them a chance. So you’ll see that most of the projects I produce, including The Outlaws, The Roundup and many others, are all directed by first-time or emerging directors, who have now gone on to have successful careers in the business. This really makes me happy.

‘The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil’ K-Movie Ent

DEADLINE: Is The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil the first big project you are remaking in the U.S.? What else is coming up?

LEE: There are about four projects that I have currently in the works for film and TV remakes being developed and produced under Gorilla 8 Productions. Apart from those, there are several other projects set up with various studios in Hollywood that I am producing, co-producing or acting in based on original IP. I’ll gradually start sharing more about those projects soon.

DEADLINE: What do you think about the growing global appeal of Korean content? Korean audiences are among the most sophisticated and discerning, but it feels like it’s only over the past few years that the rest of the world is learning what Korea has known for a long time…

LEE: Although Korean content has just started to become more widely known due to streaming platforms, there have been many sophisticated and amazing Korean projects from long before. Korean audiences have a unique and wide range of taste, which has allowed our filmmakers to flourish and develop unique styles that blend genres and experiment with action in refreshing ways. I am very grateful that now there is a lot of interest coming from people all over the world, and I want to let them know that many more great projects will continue to come out.

DEADLINE: And what do you think about being referred to as the “Korean Dwayne Johnson”?

LEE: Dwayne Johnson is not only much taller and more handsome than me, but he’s also an amazing wrestler and a great actor. I am a big fan of his and got to say hello to him at Comic-Con a few years back. So to be called the “Korean Dwayne Johnson” is a very generous compliment, but at the end of the day, I’m simply Don Lee.

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