Nearly three decades ago, Jason Scott Lee created a lasting impression as Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Mowgli in 1994’s The Jungle Book, but the jury was out as to whether he could break bad as Bori Khan, the main villain in Niki Caro’s live-action adaptation of Mulan. In fact, Lee was first told no after a disastrous Skype audition, but almost a year later, Disney returned to restart the process all over again. A few days after sending in his self-tape, Lee received word that Disney had finally given him their blessing, however, he still had to meet Caro in New Zealand for her final say on the matter.
“I think there were big questions as to whether I could play the baddie, but I think there were also people in my favor who felt like I had shown that depth as an actor over the course of my career with other projects,” Lee tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t have any airs or anything, but I think Niki [Caro] had a hard time seeing me in the role of Bori Khan. I had to tell her about my process and how I understood why she felt that I did not have that kind of thing she was looking for in Bori Khan. So, with the Disney folks that did remember my work, I think they felt like I was the right guy, and that I could pull it off if given the rope.”
One of Lee’s most memorable roles is that of the aforementioned Bruce Lee in 1993’s Dragon, which is based on the book by Bruce’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell. Since he did rigorous martial arts training with Bruce’s former student Jerry Poteet, Lee developed even more respect for the revered martial artist he was playing. So, needless to say, Lee, like Bruce’s daughter, Shannon, wasn’t too pleased with Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce in 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
“While I was training [to play Bruce Lee], I started learning his system of fighting and actually feeling the motions that he taught his students. I realized so much about the precision and the discipline of a person like that, and that’s why it was very hard for me to watch that scene with Mike Moh portraying Bruce,” Lee admits. “Granted, Mike’s a great actor, but I think being put in that position to portray Bruce Lee that way was really hard to take. I kind of winced. Yeah, he was boastful, but he was one of those guys that could back it up. He wasn’t challenging that way, you know? So [Tarantino] took a lot of creative leeway in presenting Bruce Lee in that manner, and he got a lot of flack for it. And it’s not justified the way he did it.”
Lee also mentions that Poteet, who became his longtime sifu after Dragon, would have objected to Tarantino’s depiction since he had a close master-apprentice relationship with Bruce.
“My sifu, Jerry Poteet, who was a student of Bruce, has since passed away, but I know he would be rolling over in his grave,” Lee explains. “He had direct association through a long term teacher-student relationship with Bruce… So, through the years of knowing Jerry and hearing all the stories and details, I’m sure it would’ve pissed him off.”
In a wide-ranging conversation with THR, Lee also reflects on his Back to the Future Part II hoverboarding memories, working with real animals in India for 1994’s The Jungle Book and his initial reluctance to play Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
So how did Mulan villain, Bori Khan, come across your desk?
The auditioning process was really long. It came first as a Skype audition, and I think Skype auditions are completely botched. It was terrible. I came off very bad, and it’s funny because they ended up passing on me. And, of course, Disney’s very tight with material. They don’t let you read anything. They’re not going to give you a script to look at, so you’re kind of flying blind. So I had done the Skype audition, and I didn’t hear back for almost a year. Radio silence. Nothing. And then, they said, “Oh, we’ve changed some things around.” I believe they were going down another road with another actor and then, they kind of came back around and said, “We want you to do another taping. And this time, it’s going to be different.” So I did that. I sent it in and within a few days, they said, “The studio has signed off on you, but you still have to go down to New Zealand as Niki Caro, the director, wants to meet you in person and basically do another audition.” And I said, “Okay.” Then, they said, “But the stipulation is, if you get the part, you’re going to stay down there and start pre-production.” I was like, “That’s impossible.” (Laughs.) They give you a few days notice, and then they want you to just pack up and go spend six months in New Zealand, which some people would jump at, but I’ve got a family and stuff. Anyway, that’s how it all kind of turned about, and fortunately for me, I got accepted by Niki. I ended up having to take care of some things before I went back down, eventually, but to play the main villain in Mulan live-action, I was like, “Damn, of course, I’m going to jump at that.” I have two daughters who are eager to be Mulan and have Chinese heritage, so I was really hoping that this would work out for me. Fortunately, it did.
Did you read fake sides the entire time?
Correct. Well, not fake sides, but the first sides were very different from the second. Everything with these big productions are always in motion, so they’re never really locked in. The auditioning sides weren’t the script we shot on the day, so it was always in flux.
Since they’re markedly different characters, did you even bother to reference Shan Yu, the animated film’s version of your character? Would that have only complicated your process of developing Bori Kahn?
Yeah, when you look at the animated feature, it’s such a caricature. Shan Yu is such a caricature of a bad guy that I think it locks the actor into a certain sort of programming to do a less-than-in-depth portrayal of a so-called real-life character. They had another name for what the villain was supposed to be called in earlier drafts. And the names of these characters, such as Bori Khan, were all taken from historical figures. So, with that understanding, I wanted to get a really good, fleshed-out, three-dimensional take on it. And starting from scratch was the best way to do it with the help of Niki and her vision. She wanted the Bori Khan character to establish himself and play off of Mulan and the witch (Gong Li). So we sort of had to build up from scratch.
Since Bori Khan is a historical figure, did your performance channel anything else from the actual person?
I think it’s just a name because unless you are part of that culture, you’re not going to hear oral storytellings of his characteristics or anything. So, just the fact that he was a documented historical figure, I think, gave us a good platform to start with. And then, with that, we kind of elaborated and took some creative license to shape it to the film and how the film was going to reenact it.
You mentioned that you had to go into pre-production immediately after receiving Niki’s blessing. How was your accelerated preparation process?
Yeah, one of the key things that Niki wanted to extrapolate from the character was a very primal warrior fierceness. And because she’s from New Zealand and the Māori culture, I think she said that was the closest to what she feels Bori Khan should be. So she sent me down to Rotorua, this part of North Island, New Zealand, where I met with a kapa haka master. And what he brought to me was some chanting. He took me to the forest, and he made me understand what was the grounding for the warrior spirit of the Māori. He also gave me a lot of insight into some of the keywords that were used during their hakas — their presentational battle right before they fight to the death. That triggered a lot of really interesting emotional passion for preparing Bori Khan, and I think that’s probably the core of it, the spiritual nature of it. From there, we got into the horseriding and the stunt and fight choreography. Niki put me through this training program with a trainer, and she wanted this character stripped down and ripped. So I did a strict diet with a training regiment that was really intense, and I went down to about 4 percent body fat just to get this kind of thing. So I think having that underneath all the leather and stuff really helps you emanate that core, the solidity of what a character like that would feel like in that time period. As they say in Polynesian, it really gave you a mana. Or in Chinese, you say the qi [aka chi], which gives you that foundational qi to really come off strong. So it was such an awesome, idealized setup for preparing for something like that, and I think they gave us the time. I had about two-and-a-half months to get that into gear, so that worked out in my favor.
You’ve been in peak physical condition for many of your past roles, especially in your 20s. Was your physical regimen ten times harder this go-round?
I don’t know about ten times harder, but definitely two-to-three times harder than a lot of other projects. Also, because of age, when you do it in your 20s and 30s, you have a lot of that youthful kind of exuberance and stuff. I’m not a gym rat or anything, but I tend to keep myself in shape. I eat well, I eat healthy. But at that point when I came into the project, I was feeling very comfortable with family life, and I definitely had some fat to burn and some muscles to develop for the role. So, when you start doing it in your 50s, it was a wake up call, especially since you start getting these little aches and pains and stuff. I realized that it’s because I hadn’t been diligent with keeping “in shape” shape, and it helped make a transformation happen for me, both as a person and as an actor.
Since you’ve worked with Disney throughout your career, do you think your positive reputation from 1994’s The Jungle Book played a part in you returning to the studio every decade — first with 2002’s Lilo and Stitch and now Mulan?
I think so. I also think it’s because my characters varied so much. Jungle Book is such a far cry from Bori Khan, and Bori Khan is such a far cry from David Kawena in Lilo & Stitch. So I think there were big questions as to whether I could play the baddie, but I think there were also people in my favor who felt like I had shown that depth as an actor over the course of my career with other projects. So I feel very lucky to be thought of in that vein, and that they trust that I can pull it out of the hat, even though I’m very affable. I don’t have any airs or anything, but I think Niki had a hard time seeing me in the role of Bori Khan. I had to tell her about my process and how I understood why she felt that I did not have that kind of thing she was looking for in Bori Khan. A lot of times, when they’re casting, they’re expecting the character to walk in the door, and I’ve never been that person or actor, per se. I’ve always known that to build a proper house, you have to lay a proper foundation, and then you have to build up from there. So the design has to be correct in order for all the pieces to fit together, and I’ve always worked very pragmatically in that sense. I’ve never tried to pretend to be more than what I am. So, with the Disney folks that did remember my work, I think they felt like I was the right guy, and that I could pull it off if given the rope.
Representation was important to you long before it was important to Hollywood. Since Disney has now made a $200-million action epic with an all-Asian cast, do you think things are headed in the right direction — at least as far as entertainment is concerned?
I think a lot of the change that’s going on is due to the economics. If Mulan does really well and does gangbusters, yeah, I think everyone would be like, “Hey, this actually works. We can cast Asian people and go along that line with stories of Oriental origins.” And if it fails, then there’s that, right? It’s like, “Well, did we put our money in the wrong cause?” So I think with the success of Crazy Rich Asians and things that are along the lines of Asian intellectual properties, I hope, knock on wood, that they keep succeeding because I think it’ll create a more diverse artistic world for a lot of these companies.
There’s a cliche that’s often thrown around regarding great villains and how many of them think they’re the hero of their own story. Do you think it applies to Bori Khan since he genuinely feels that an injustice was done to him via his father’s death at the hands of the Emperor (Jet Li)?
Correct. Yeah, that’s something that we wanted to create as backstory because a lot of what was in the script was censored. They didn’t want to show a certain aspect of this Rouran history, and just from a personal take, we were trying to create a backstory and trying to give Bori Khan a real intense, passionate drive for why he’s doing what he’s doing. Niki and I wanted Bori Khan to be fighting for his culture, his people, the land that he may have lost and his father that got ousted by the Emperor. So there were a lot of good, solid foundational intentions, and to give him that propensity for revenge and to have that fight in him, I think it plays really well.
What was the toughest day on set for you?
Niki wanted the scene with Xianniang (Gong Li) and Bori Khan to basically be a ritual washing of his body. And so, this was the big one that we had to gear up for; that was game day when Bori Khan revealed his torso. So that was one of the hardest attempts at it because we really tried to dehydrate the muscles so that I could just stand up there and act and not have to go on the side during our breaks and pump iron. So to get that look without having to make any effort in flexing the muscles or making them look ripped required a big buildup to that day, and I think that was definitely the hardest day, for sure. I know they got a lot of coverage for it, but it’s funny how Bori Khan’s torso is only flashed in certain moments. I was like, “Man, I worked that hard, and they didn’t even present it.” (Laughs.) But it’s one of those things, right? It’s up to the editors and the director. So, that was definitely the hardest part in working towards that reveal.
Shifting gears, I’ve probably seen Back to the Future Part II more than any other movie. I’ve also quoted “unless you’ve got power” for most of my life since it gets stuck in my head like a catchy melody.
So what’s remained with you from that experience on the Universal lot?
Oh man, I think I was 21 or 22, and I got cast out of the Amblin offices, Steven Spielberg’s office. You wouldn’t believe how excited I was at that opportunity. I knew it was a Robert Zemeckis movie, and I knew they were playing with all these new technologies at the time such as green screens and all that kind of stuff. After seeing the first one, you’re thinking to yourself as a young actor, going, “Man, what an opportunity.” Even Zemeckis was very forward in putting an Asian kid into this group and giving him a little bit of “rising sun” kind of appeal in his costuming and almost making a half-Samurai costume effect. But, to be a part of that futuristic thing as a hoverboarder, that kind of took it one step further. Michael J. Fox, at the time, was so amicable, and he was just so cool. It just made the experience fun, and I still am in contact with Ricky Dean Logan and Darlene Vogel, who were also part of this gang. It’s just so memorable, and it’s been very exciting to be a part of that trilogy. I was just over the moon.
I admired the fact that you didn’t blink at any point in your performance.
Yeah, I wanted that character to have this caffeinated effect because I felt like it would fit the hyperrealism that the movie was trying to create. I thought it would add to that effect, so I just tried to do something along those lines. I thought, “Here’s the future, and what is it going to be?” So everyone was formulating their own backstories with what this age was. It was funny to see all of the cars that were on the set, because that’s the Prius and Tesla now. So it’s interesting that it was really spot on so many years ago, and I think that the whole caffeinated kind of appeal through not blinking is our society now, too. (Laughs.)
Did you get to do all of the hoverboard stunts, including the primary one over the lake?
Oh yeah! They had a huge crane and this one big cable coming down that broke off to an arbor that carried Griff (Thomas F. Wilson) and the rest of us. We were basically elevated the whole time, swinging on these things in harnesses. The wires would go down through these little loops in our hips and then down to the boards, so that was our support. We had a lot of fun just pretending we were air-surfing. It was just one of the coolest memories in my history as an actor. I was so young, too, so everything was so impressionable.
It’s so disappointing how our future still doesn’t include usable hoverboards.
(Laughs.) Yeah, or flying cars. They’re still trying to get self-driving cars off the ground.
Moving to another future, when you were cast in Soldier, was everyone keenly aware that you were telling a story that was loosely connected to the Blade Runner universe?
I think Paul W.S. Anderson had a little mimicry of Blade Runner. I think they were trying to do something similar but more apocalyptic. It was crazy because I can recall back to some of the sets and stuff, and it was just dangerous. I mean, stuff was made out of real steel, and it was just jutting out here and there. I kept telling Kurt Russell, “Man, are you okay with this? This is kind of nuts!” He was going, “Yeah, yeah, just stay in this area.” (Laughs.) So we definitely were aware of it being futuristic and us trying to give it a new twist.
You famously played Bruce Lee in 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and last year, there was a lot of criticism regarding his characterization in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Since Bruce’s daughter, Shannon Lee, and many others felt that the portrayal was a “disservice” to him and Asian actors, I’m curious to hear your take on the matter.
When I took on the role for Universal, I was completely ambivalent about it. I wasn’t sure because I had such honor and respect for him. While I was training, I started learning his system of fighting and actually feeling the motions that he taught his students. I realized so much about the precision and the discipline of a person like that, and that’s why it was very hard for me to watch that scene with Mike Moh portraying Bruce. Granted, Mike’s a great actor, but I think being put in that position to portray Bruce Lee that way was really hard to take. I kind of winced. Yeah, he was boastful, but he was one of those guys that could back it up. He wasn’t challenging that way, you know? He had so much confidence and expertise about himself that he knew he could really hurt somebody. And then, you look at the fight scene and you go, “Ehhhhh…” It’s like, “I know that’s not how Bruce would move.” So [Tarantino] took a lot of creative leeway in presenting Bruce Lee in that manner, and he got a lot of flack for it. And it’s not justified the way he did it.
I also think the movie tried and failed to counter itself when Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate watched Sharon Tate’s actual movie, The Wrecking Crew, at the movie theater. Tate’s character in the film had a fight scene, so while Robbie’s Tate was watching, she started mimicking the moves that Bruce taught her. The film even flashed back to their training session together. Then, once the fight scene concluded, the audience erupted in applause, and flashed back again to Bruce and Sharon celebrating her successful training. So that moment could be interpreted as a tribute to Bruce and his work, but obviously, such subtlety is going to be overshadowed by a full-fledged fight scene between Bruce Lee and Brad Pitt’s character.
Yeah, the thing that is going to hold in everyone’s memory is that one with Brad Pitt. My sifu, Jerry Poteet, who was a student of Bruce, has since passed away, but I know he would be rolling over in his grave. (Laughs.) He had direct association through a long-term teacher-student relationship with Bruce, and I used to hear stories upon stories throughout my time. I spent 15-plus years with Jerry, who ended up being my sifu after the Dragon project. So I’m really pretty clear on who the man was and what his affect was with his students. When I met Jerry to train me for Dragon, he was 55, and I was 25-26. So, through the years of knowing Jerry and hearing all the stories and details, I’m sure it would’ve pissed him off.
Disney’s recent The Jungle Book movie was made on a downtown Los Angeles soundstage with cutting-edge technology, while your Jungle Book from 1994 was made in India with real animals on set. Are you grateful for the fact that you got to have a more tangible experience than what you’d have today?
(Laughs.) I always thank my stars for that time. Not only was it a childhood story favorite of mine, but when I asked [director] Stephen Sommers, I said, “You’re going to have real animals?” And he said, “Yeah.” So I said, “I’m in.” People always told me in the acting business, “Never work with children or animals,” but I thought, “Man, this is going to be great because this is probably one of the most challenging things to do.” And not only was the Mowgli character endearing, but to be able to be a part of that and be around real wolves, real bears, real monkeys, real panthers and real jaguars that they used to look like panthers was everything. To have an understanding of animals, to work with wild animals and to have that experience was to die for. I think Jon Favreau’s one was great. I think it utilized the technology of the day, and it’s fine. But I’ll tell you, man, there’s nothing like having a bear or a tiger standing right in front of you. (Laughs.)
I’ll never forget being in the movie theater as a boy and seeing that trailer for the first time. Mowgli’s waterfall jump was ingrained in my memory.
Yeah, wasn’t it amazing? I didn’t do that; they wouldn’t let me do that. (Laughs.) Yeah, that was a good stuntman.
Well, Jason, in honor of Chester “Whitey” Nogura, I’m pleased to say that you’ve still got power.
(Laughs.) Thanks, man!
Mulan is now available on Disney+.