In mixing real and fictional movie stars in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino helped his cause by casting performers who were careful not to do impressions, but bite sized performances as iconic stars who in moments are eerily reminiscent of those subjects. Margot Robbie captured the essence of Sharon Tate, and Billions and Homeland star Damian Lewis perfectly channels Steve McQueen in a scene at the Playboy Mansion. A performance people are also talking about is Mike Moh’s brief but memorable turn as Bruce Lee. It is one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Lee locks up with Brad Pitt’s stuntman character Cliff Booth in a disagreement over how the iconic Bruce Lee, all 5’8″ and 141 pounds of him, would fare in a brawl with the 6’3″ 200+ pound heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali.
Moh’s road to a role that might put him on the map for action films and other acting jobs is a slightly unusual fairy tale, even by Hollywood standards: WME chief Ari Emanuel, watching a bald, green skinned man talking on ESPN Sportscenter one weekend.
Moh did an interview in costume about 18 months ago, to promote Marvel’s short-lived The Inhumans, in which he played a character named Triton. From that short discussion, Emanuel believed he was looking at action star material. Emanuel immediately called three of his agents, Brad Slater, Samantha Leon and Max Maulitz. The message: find out who is this guy, track him down, and sign him.
Not the easiest thing to do on a Sunday, but the manhunt led them to the discovery that Moh ran a Taekwondo studio in Waunakee, Wisconsin. With Emanuel breathing down the necks of the agents, the best they could do was leave a phone message there.
Said Moh: “I got to my school the following day, and my receptionist is giving me my phone messages and says, ‘Ari Emanuel of William Morris Endeavor called.’ I said, ‘what? You’re joking.’ But she wouldn’t know enough about the business to joke about that. I was kind of in awe, and then my manager [Authentic’s Chris Lee] called me before I could return WME’s call. When I called, they said, come out and meet Ari. Two weeks later, I am in there in a room at WME, with the agents and Ari Emanuel, thinking, this is crazy. And Brad Slater said, we see you as an action star, as close to Bruce Lee as we’ve ever seen.”
Moh had done small action-heavy roles in The Inhumans, Street Fighter and a few others, and dreamed of being onscreen since he was practicing his Taekwondo forms, punches and kicks and memorizing Bruce Lee’s moves from films like Enter The Dragon. “I’d gone to Los Angeles 12 years earlier when my wife and I first moved from Minnesota and we drove around Beverly Hills, just setting up a real life dream board,” Moh told Deadline. “We had dinner in a super-expensive restaurant with a gift card from our family and luckily it was ‘restaurant week’ which meant a double discount. We drove past WME and I pointed to the logo and said to her, that is a place I’d love to end up, knowing it was a pipe dream. She said, ‘well you’re going to be there someday.’ But I had no business signing with WME at the time I went to see Ari, and was shocked to be in that room as he was pitching me, giving me the sell. He gets to the end and says, ‘ so are you in? Are we going to do this?’
To hear Moh tell it, the sales pitch was unnecessary. Emanuel had him at hello. “I was the doe in the headlights,” he said. “Then I go back with Brad Slater to talk through some strategy, and 10 minutes later, Ari walks back in and says, ‘Let’s put him in the next Fast and the Furious with The Rock.’ And then he leaves.”
It was up to the agents to temper Moh’s expectations. Not surprisingly, he first tried for the role of Bruce Lee in several films he didn’t get, which left him with a feeling of rejection because there is strong physical resemblance and, like Lee, Moh’s kicks and punches come in a lightning-fast blur. He acknowledged that one of the rejections included the George Nolfi-directed Birth of the Dragon, where the Lee role went to Philip Ng. They kept trying and that led to Tarantino and Moh is glad for all that rejection now; he said he kept learning and getting better. And there probably hasn’t been a bigger showcase for an actor playing the iconic martial arts stuntman-turned actor Lee ever, than in Tarantino’s film.
A fifth degree black belt, Moh had all the physical moves necessary to give Pitt all he could handle in the action scenes. It was Lee’s distinctive line delivery — English flavored with Cantonese from Lee’s native Hong Kong — that presented the biggest challenge.
“I knew Quentin’s dialogue was gold when I read it, but with lines like ‘Wide World of Sports,’ he said it sounded too much like me. I watched Bruce speak and filled a notebook with how every consonant and vowel should sound. I went to a table read to do that monologue and there was Luke Perry, Dakota Fanning to my wife, and Leo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino and Burt Reynolds all around me along with Quentin and the producers. The casting director Vicky Thomas said Quentin’s note was, ‘go further.’ I kept working and he liked it better and better. When we finally wrapped that scene, including a five minute monologue in a shot that doesn’t cut, it was like a party on the set. Brad was jumping up and down. Quentin was giggling like a school girl. And he said, you just kept getting better and better. I was grateful they gave me the space to get better, and I think I will probably be able to recite that entire monologue for the rest of my life, as ingrained in my memory as the first Tae Kwon Do form that you learn as a child.”
Moh spoke to Deadline from Wisconsin. He has built Moh’s Martial Arts for six years, with 300 students coming through — including his own three kids with wife Richelle — and developed a coterie of instructors who will allow him to follow his dream, if the Lee scenes become as much of a calling card in Hollywood as his agents think it will be.
“Bruce Lee ran his schools as he built his acting career and like him, I’ve built a team of instructors so I don’t have to be here all the time,” Moh said. “I’m ready to jump in, full time. I’ve found another thing to be passionate. And while I might be biased, I think Quentin’s movie is the best one ever made.”