Sixth time for Hugh Jackman in his latest The Wolverine, first time for Will Yun Lee who’s an addition to the franchise in its Japanese culture take on the long-running story. He graciously gave up his time to talk with us about The Wolverine which had him running across a lot of rooftops. Seriously, a lot. When you see the film you’ll understand that it’s by no means an exaggeration. In fact, those scenes are the best in the film.
Yun Lee plays a character somewhat removed from the character portrayed in the comics – sorry purists – but one that is mysterious, never clear, never definitive until the end. After the jump we talk about The Wolverine, whether or not Hugh Jackman really is as nice as everyone says and plenty more…
What can you tell us about your character in the film? There’s a bit of mystery to him throughout.
Obviously a lot of people still haven’t seen it so, without giving too many spoilers away, he’s this mystery character who kind of has complex relationships with Mariko and it all ties in with The Wolverine and Hugh, his character. You have to watch the whole course of the movie to see where his allegiances lie and you never know whether he’s after him or what side of the line he was going to play on. For all the people who are going to watch the movie, without giving too much away, he’s that kind of character. He struggles with his own morality and what the right thing to do is.
You play Harada who seems like Hawkeye in this movie as he pings arrows with scary accuracy. Did you do much of that yourself, the whole running around on buildings, jumping, shooting bows?
Yeah, that part of the sequence in the beginning of the movie, in this big scope piece where you’re in the funeral and it has the traditional architecture of Japan and then, all of a sudden, I’m running on rooftops in the middle of Tokyo – that was shot in actual Tokyo. I saw an interview that James [Mangold] did a week ago and it was interesting because a lot of those scenes were shot guerrilla style. We would actually be on rooftops saying ‘Hurry up! Hurry up! Shoot!’ and I’m literally peeing in my pants because we’re so high up there, attached with one little wire and trying to look cool and trying to get the shot whilst they’re tying it all in with Hugh Jackman on the ground of chaotic Tokyo with Mariko. They’re doing this wonderful over the shoulder shot looking down at them so they’re literally there – they’re waiting in the car and they’re yelling action and Hugh Jackman’s running around the middle of Tokyo, arrows flying and people falling over and [laughing] the people’s reactions on the streets were real because they had no idea what was happening. We’d get that shot and we’d move on. [laughs]
Did that take many takes or did you only get the chance to do one?
Yeah there were so many where we had to literally move to the next building. There’s a sequence in the movie where I shoot a character, he falls to the ground and all of a sudden you hear ambulances coming in and a policeman on a bicycle rushing in who sees this Yakuza on the ground in the middle of Tokyo with an arrow sticking out of his back and we knew that was the end of that sequence because we had to move to the next building. [laughs]
How much did you train for the film?
I did about 3 to 4 weeks of training with the action team 87-Eleven. I’ve done a few projects with them before so it was like coming back to family, just shorthand. What we obviously worked on in this movie was the archery and we were just making sure – you never know how a fight goes until you get to the actual set. There’s a lot of traditional Japanese stances and just the movement we wanted to keep very real in terms of the Japanese culture.
Did you do much research into the character beforehand by reading the comics or seeing other incarnations of the character? Or did you work solely from the script and try to bring that characterisation across?
That was interesting because when I first got the audition I knew it was one of those ‘top secret projects’ because you get this phonecall where it’s like ‘You’re going to have to go to Fox and sit there, sign your waivers, and you can’t leave with the script!’ [laughs] You’re sitting there in a chair, reading this thing for two hours, then they give you the audition sides and usually you know what you’re auditioning for but all these sides and audition material at the top of page just said Mario. [laughs] There can’t be a Mario in a Japanese-esque Wolverine. I didn’t know what the character really was and then they started giving more information when I got on the aeroplane. When I touched down in Australia I really went over the character with James. It was really interesting how he wanted to weave – not just my character’s arc but – all of the other characters. You know, he just kept you guessing which side that each character was playing on and who was who. I thought he did that very well.
It sounds like quite a stressful audition process! The fact you’re given two hours to prepare yourself and just got to work from that.
Yeah. Auditions are a whole different beast. You’ve got nerves. You know you’re walking for the guy who directed Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma. You have all this anxiety walking into an audition like that but what’s amazing is the way he… Well I mean, usually you walk in, read your lines, they say thank you very much for coming in. He actually shot the audition as if he was shooting a scene. That definitely gets you feeling more comfortable and that was nice.
You have pretty muddled allegiances throughout because it’s somewhat confusing who you’re doing it for until the end. Was it a complicated arc to portray?
I think the most difficult part I had was learning the Japanese. Making sure it was right. Fortunately I had Hiroyuki Sanada as a Japanese teacher and he would just give me countless hours and days of work and work. When we’d shoot the scenes we would shoot a take in English, a take in Japanese and then shoot a take with mixed. That was making sure you knew what your intentions were by flipping to different sides of the brain. That was the most challenging part for me.
Did you ever feel the pressure or strain of the name, the franchise, the budget and so on when working or was it a lot of fun?
It was a lot of fun because the set pieces were so massive, whether we were in Tokyo or Australia. The most memorable set piece for me was when we were shooting in Australia and there was a huge fight scene between like a thousand ninjas versus The Wolverine. It was just so real in what they created. We would shoot that at night and we’d finish when the sun came up but because they had an incredible amount of fake snow, you actually felt colder than you were. It wasn’t actually that cold but everyone was freezing by the end of the night. It was just a lot of fun, a lot of fun!
I heard James Mangold was always open to trying new things. Did you get to do much of that with your character?
The thing so special about James Mangold is he’ll make you try things 20-30 different ways, he doesn’t let you off the hook and he’s very passionate but he also always comes from this place of ‘What does that mean for the next scene?’ We would shoot a certain scene and it wasn’t a big scene but he would tell me something like ‘This happens at the end of the movie, you need to bring it down here a little.’ He was always very meticulous – especially on how the relationships played out.
Everyone must always ask you about working with Hugh Jackman but I think everyone’s curious there might be a slip in his personality because he’s billed as the ‘Nicest Guy in Hollywood.’ How was he to work with?
[Laughs] It really is Six Degrees of Separation of anybody in Hollywood with him. When you tell people that you’re about to go and work with Hugh Jackman, everyone has somehow connected and worked with him in some way or another and they all say he’s literally the nicest guy to work with. You get on set and there are people who are really nice and people who are genuinely nice and he is that guy. I don’t remember an English actor who will eat 95%/98% of the time with the regular cast and crew during every meal. He’d wait in line. It’s special. He really makes you feel like a peer rather than this is his movie.
There’s always a possibility with stars that there could be an ego because it can build up accidentally or on purpose. I’m not saying all stars do have egos but there’s always a chance that they could go that way with fame.
I haven’t done it that long, I’ve been acting for about 14 years, and him and Pierce Brosnan are those kind of guys that really have that graciousness about them. It’s truly genuine. He makes you feel like you belong there no matter who you are.
I must say it was really refreshing to see Japan in a blockbuster and have it leave the States for a different culture. Was it great fun shooting out there?
Yes. I remember one of the big scenes that we see early on in the movie which was just massive and the scope of it was just beautiful but the funny thing is when someone wanted something, like props needed an arrow or a sword, it would have to go through four different people in translation to get what you needed. [laughs] That was always funny to watch how the one thing you needed had to go through these people.
I unfortunately don’t know this myself since I haven’t visited there – yet, hopefully – but was a lot of it authentically Japanese?
I know that James really worked closely with Hiroyuki Sanada, Rila and Tao, really making sure things were right. The way I look at the film is that I was watching Unforgiven with The Wolverine. It was that very Clint Eastwood-esque thing. He put so much care into making sure that the nuances were right. I think he really trusted Hiroyuki Sanada who is a legend in Japan and they really crafted this samurai warrior code and the movie stuck to it.
This was Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto’s first feature film. How was it working with them?
I didn’t work a lot with Rila but I would see her takes. When I actually saw the end result I was like ‘Wow!’ She’s so magical and gets so much excitement out of you watching this movie, you would never have known she was a first-time actress. Tao just has this kind of openness and general life and it just comes across. When I saw it for the first time in London it really was a treat because I didn’t see a lot of these scenes as my character is such a loner – he’s always on rooftops. I’ve never been on so many rooftops in my life! [laughs] My character is by himself so much that it was a treat to watch this movie for the first time because I really was watching it for the first time. They’re amazing.
I actually didn’t know they were first-timers until after I saw the film and had a look to see if they’d been in any films that I should have seen but apparently not!
I think the magic was watching them work with James. It was really special. The process I enjoyed watching was that they’d do a lot of takes in Japanese and then when they understood what those scenes were in Japanese, James would flip it on them and say ‘OK, now we’re doing it in English.’ It breathed a whole new life into the scene when they did it in Japanese first.
If they asked you to return to the franchise, would you like to?
I would be there in a heartbeat! [laughs]
You’ve played a lot of different roles in various formats. What’s it like going from say the video game Sleeping Dogs to then this huge blockbuster?
Sleeping Dogs was one of my favourite experiences because the cast they brought together was so top notch; acting opposite Tom Wilkinson or Emma Stone. I never actually met them but I’d act opposite their voices in the booth. The way I think video games are made now is a meeting of all the mediums in the middle. I had a special time with it and it took two years to make on my end. You just go for it. There were so many sequences where they were shooting it and it’d feel like Avatar with hundreds of cameras surrounding you and you go in like you’re shooting a movie.
There’s also an interesting credit for you that I saw which is that you did some additional voices on The Amazing Spider-Man video game and I know this is kind of a shot in the dark but with three films announced do you think there’s any possibility of you being added to the franchise?
I was lucky enough to get into one of the franchises. [laughs] I won’t push my luck but I’m always interested in the genre because it’s a lot of fun.
I know a lot of people feel that Hollywood is too white-washed as they call it. Would you agree with this? Do you find that you’re pigeon-holed slightly as an actor?
I think being any ethnicity is a bit more difficult because there are few roles written and there’s such a big talent base of Asian actors here in Los Angeles. There are thousands of incredible actors! You’re fighting for the same role, it is pretty tough. I do think it’s getting better and I think television has pushed the momentum with the Daniel Dae Kims, Masi Okas, Grace Parks, Sandra Ohs of the world, John Chos; they’ve pushed the envelope forward so hopefully it’ll keep moving in that direction.
Have you ever thought about moving into writing, directing or producing?
Yeah. [Laughing] I think every actor has a script under his or her arm, the cliché actor running their own script. We always dream about it but it’s such an art in itself that I don’t pretend to be that but I do aspire to have a good script that I want to do and produce one day!
Do you have any future projects that you can talk about?
The next project I have coming up is Intelligence. It’s a TV show for CBS with Josh Holloway from Lost. It’s a cool sci-fi show. It’s almost like a reboot of The Six Million Dollar Man. That’s what it felt like when I was doing it. I play the guy who is trying to create the nemesis to The Six Million Dollar Man. [laughs]
Is there any director that you’d absolutely love to work with that you haven’t yet?
There’s obviously the greats like the Martin Scorseses of the world. One of my dreams is to work with Wong Kar Wai. His films are really special and did I see a lot of those kind of influences in The Wolverine…