Exclusive Feature: Will Yun Lee

WAY OF THE WARRIOR. Will Yun Lee takes on The Wolverine this summer, playing one of the superhero’s greatest foes, the Silver Samurai. The accomplished actor and martial artist, who was once named “One of the Sexiest Men Alive” talks to DA MAN about getting ready to fight, the challenges and opportunities for Asians in Hollywood, and his next big challenge, fatherhood

Suit, shirt, and tie by Prada, belt by Michael Kors

Growing up as the son of a taekwondo grandmaster, Will Yun Lee has been learning to fight since a very young age. As an accomplished martial arts competitor, he earned an athletic scholarship to the University of California at Berkley and fought on their championship taekwondo team. It was also around that time that he caught the acting bug and decided to move to LA to pursue his career. He soon starting doing guest star roles on shows such as Profiler and VIP before landing regular gigs on Witchblade, Bionic Woman and Hawaii Five-0. He has also been in a number of notable films, including Die Another DayTotal Recall and Red Dawn. This summer, he takes on one of his big role’s ever opposite Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine, a sure-to-be summer blockbuster in which he plays one of the clawed Canadian’s most iconic enemies, the Silver Samurai.

DA MAN: You’ve played a lot of villains in your career, but you’ve said you always try to find some way to humanize them. Without giving away too much, would you say the Silver Samurai has a pretty good reason for wanting to kill Logan?
Will Yun Lee: Without giving too much away, all I can say about the character I play (Harada) is that he is involved in some complex relationships that put a lot of weight on his mission, sense of honor and morality.

DA MAN: Can you give us some idea how much work goes into filming a big fight scene in a movie like The Wolverine, in terms of the hours spent training, working out the choreography, filming it etc?
Will Lee: Having known 87eleven, the fight design team behind The Wolverine for several years, I have come to appreciate and respect all the work that goes into their craft. They do most of the heavy lifting, in terms of designing the fight, telling a story within the choreography, and keeping actors safe. When it’s time for actors to come into the process, they create the optimal environment to learn and execute the fight. With The Wolverine specifically, they designed some spectacular fights…one of my favorites was Hugh Jackman fighting ninjas on motorcycles.

In terms of myself and training…. The Wolverine was definitely challenging because in practice 87eleven made me stick to a very traditional Japanese style of fighting stances and weapons work…I felt like I was back with my father hitting me with his bamboo sword when I would do something wrong (half kidding… but not really). All I know, is that I was sore almost every day prepping the action of this movie.

DA MAN: Your father is a taekwondo grandmaster and you’ve been training in martial arts since you were three years old. When you were young, did you see yourself following in his footsteps, or did you already have some inkling of wanting to be an actor?
Will Lee: Growing up, my father would drill into me that I would become a doctor or lawyer. It was funny because, number one, I was not book smart (horrible at math) and number two, when I would test for my next taekwondo belt under my dad, I was the only student not allowed to break boards or bricks with my hands because my father was 100% convinced I was going to medical school…he couldn’t have been more wrong…sorry, Dad.

Suit and shirt by Prada, tie by Burberry London, belt by Calvin Klein Collection

DA MAN: What did your parents think of your decision to become an actor at the time, and how do they feel about it now?
Will Lee: At the time, my parents could not understand why I was packing up and moving to LA to become an actor. I think they were worried about me and thought I lost my mind… but now they are happy I pursued my passion even though I still haven’t “retired” them with a new house and car like I promised them 14 years ago yelling out my jeep as I drove off to LA…. I promise I am still working my butt off to make good on the promise!

DA MAN: You said that you avoided taking on martial arts roles early in your acting career because you wanted to at least earn your “yellow belt in acting” first. What acting “belt” are you now, and which movie or TV show do you think best shows off those chops?
Will Lee: I still feel like I’m a beginner in so many ways…especially when working with people like Hugh Jackman and Hiro Sanada, but maybe all these years just make me feel like a confident beginner. It’s hard to say which movie or TV show gives the best glimpse into my work…but I think I am most fulfilled after doing indie films with passionate directors because there is nothing like giving everything you got when the movie has no money, no trailer but a damn good script!

DA MAN: You’ve talked about the difficulties of being an Asian actor in Hollywood. Are there certain roles you chose to avoid or had to turn down because you felt it could be harmful to the image of Asians or Asian-Americans?
Will Lee: I think being an actor is hard enough itself…and being Asian American doesn’t make it any easier, that’s for sure. “Turning down” roles is a fine line for an actor, because what doesn’t work for someone might turn into something special for someone else. I remember when NBC’s Heroes was auditioning and I saw the audition scene for the character that eventually went to Masi Oka. I couldn’t see it in my head and really couldn’t see how to execute the character in the audition. Then I saw the show, and thought that Masi Oka did something very special with that character and contributed the progress of Asian actors in Hollywood with that role.

I know amongst the Asian American community, a big topic is “does the character have an accent or not?” When I first came to LA, I remember turning down every audition with characters with accents. Over the years, I realized that people like my parents (who have accents) have the richest stories and who was I as an “actor” to judge whether my accent was better than someone else’s or that someone’s story was better because of the way they “sounded”. Someone once told me that Caucasian actors are rewarded and praised when they can do an American, British, Scottish accent, but if you are Asian, you should “just be able to do them all”…that’s frustrating.

Sweater by Prada

DA MAN: You’ve also got a recurring role on Hawaii 5-0. What’s your favorite part about working on that show?
Will Lee: My favorite part of Hawaii 5-0 are the people there…they truly make you feel at home there. I think the other part I enjoy is that I get to play a character with so few boundaries and he has a lot to play with in terms of humor. I learn my lines, head to set and then have no idea what is going to come out from take to take…that’s fun.

DA MAN: You’ve done quite a bit of voiceover roles in video games, including playing the main character in the hit game Sleeping Dogs. As an actor, do you approach voiceover work in the same way as film, or is it a different process?
Will Lee: Sleeping Dogs was truly one of my favorite experiences as an actor. I love that many games now are made like movies, when it comes to creating the narrative of the game. I treated Sleeping Dogs like every TV show or movie I’ve done in terms of homework and preparation. It doesn’t hurt that you know going into work, that I would be acting opposite Emma Stone or Tom Wilkinson’s video game character. Pretty cool.

DA MAN: You were named one of the “Most Beautiful People in the World” and as one of the “Sexiest Men Alive.” What did it mean to you personally to receive that kind of recognition?
Will Lee: My friends always joke that they must have run out of options that day. And my mom would say that I look like I haven’t been eating enough… comments like that are priceless.

Shirt by Burberry London, pants and belt by Calvin Klein Collection

DA MAN: What is your workout regimen like when you are not training for a specific role? Do you find you have to work out a lot harder now that you are older?
Will Lee: Being far from my “competition” days of taekwondo, I have to work a lot harder, stretch a lot longer and do a lot more core training so that I don’t get hurt. I still put in 5 day weeks, whether it’s lifting, sparring or bag work. My training is one of my few places I get to re-center and re-focus in this crazy town.

DA MAN: You are getting ready to celebrate the birth of your first child. How prepared do you feel to be a dad? What was the best piece of advice your father ever gave you?
Will Lee: Definitely excited on the birth of my first child. I have no idea what awaits me. I can only hope that I am half the father my dad was to me. It isn’t so much the “advice” my dad has given me, but more of watching him over the years of who he “is” and how he “acts” that has given me my life’s best lessons in trying to be a good person. Hopefully I can measure up.


Photography: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
Styling: Juliet Vo