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Making his American debut, Don Lee packs quite a punch in Chloé Zhao’s Eternals. The South Korean American actor, who’s also known as Ma Dong-seok, plays Gilgamesh, the strongest of the Eternals and arguably the most selfless. He’s also quite gifted in hand-to-hand combat, which allowed Lee to put his boxing background to good use.
The actor first rose to worldwide prominence in 2016’s zombie horror-thriller Train to Busan, and Hollywood has been knocking on Lee’s door ever since the Korean film’s Cannes premiere. In 2019, the stars finally aligned with an Eternals role that would require Lee’s character to protect Angelina Jolie’s volatile warrior Eternal, Thena.
“I was a fan of Angelina before this film, and once we both met, it felt like we were old friends that had finally met after being separated in different parts of the world,” Lee tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Throughout the movie, our characters protected and looked out for each other, but we also protected and looked out for each other in real life, too.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Lee and his Korean translator, Jenny Park, discussed his most memorable moment on set, as well as his character’s CG baby costume.
Don, can you tell me a bit about your casting process?
For the past five years, I’ve been getting a lot of casting calls from Hollywood, but at the time, I had to produce and act for many different [South Korean] movies. And due to that, the timing wasn’t right for me. But a couple years ago, Sarah Finn, the casting director for Marvel, reached out to me for the character of Gilgamesh, and listening to her — and also talking to Chloé [Zhao] and [producer] Nate Moore on a video call — I became attracted to the character of Gilgamesh. Personally, I was also a Marvel fan, so that’s how I got to be a part of Eternals.
How did you prepare for the role?
I did not prepare particularly for this movie. I’ve always been preparing on a daily basis as I’ve been boxing since I was 14 years old. And because I’ve been doing a lot of stunts in my past action movies, I’ve always been prepared for anything that might come my way. And for the character that Chloé gave me, Gilgamesh, I was able to easily adapt to that character due to Chloé relating it to my own personality and my past characters. The one thing that I did prepare for during filming was the language because acting in Korean and acting in English are a little different. So I had to study continuously throughout the film to be able to get the hard vocab words for the historical settings. Talking in English and actually acting in English are different, and that was the part that I needed to focus on.
How did you react when you first learned that your character would spend most of his time protecting Angelina Jolie’s Thena?
I was a fan of Angelina before this film, and once we both met, it felt like we were old friends that had finally met after being separated in different parts of the world. We were very comfortable with each other, as if we were reuniting as old friends. Throughout the movie, our characters protected and looked out for each other, but we also protected and looked out for each other in real life, too.
Gilgamesh cooks for the Eternals at a certain point in the film. If you also had to cook for the Eternals, what dish would you make them?
I’ll say Korean barbecue. I cooked a pie in the movie, but I’d cook Korean barbecue for them in real life. I actually took the cast to a Korean restaurant once in London, and they loved it.
Marvel Studios released a hero poster of you as Gilgamesh. What does it mean to you to see yourself in that context?
As an actor, being a superhero in a movie is a dream come true. I am honored to be a part of one of the biggest movie franchises in Marvel, and I am honored to be a strong character in Eternals. So seeing that poster just makes me feel that I fully accomplished becoming a superhero as an actor.
In 30 years, when you tell your family stories about your time making Eternals, what day will you tell them about first?
Overall, every single moment and every single day were very meaningful and memorable, especially because of the very big, diverse cast and an Oscar winning-director like Chloé. But the one thing that just leapt into my memory was the action scene that I shot for six weeks by myself. The process was very hard and very difficult, but when I finally finished the scene, the whole crew on set gave me a round of applause. That warmth and support and love that I felt from the crew was so memorable that I’ll be telling people about it later on in life.
Out of curiosity, did your castmates insist on taking selfies with you in the baby costume?
(Laughs.) That was actually CG!
(Laughs.) Yeah, it was CG. So, sadly, no selfies.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eternals is now playing exclusively in movie theaters.
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