At a table read last summer for Quentin Tarantino’s top secret ninth feature — which would eventually be titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — Mike Moh was seated between Dakota Fanning and Luke Perry. Al Pacino made a point of greeting Moh, and Tarantino introduced him to “my friend, Burt [Reynolds],” while Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie chatted nearby.
“Then Leo [DiCaprio] walked in and we started,” recalls Moh. “I just kept thinking, ‘Don’t look like the outsider about ready to pee your pants. Just stay cool.’ ”
At that point, Moh had not been formally offered a part in the movie. He had flown out from his home in Wisconsin for what he was told would be a chemistry read, but was then led into a room with what seemed like half of Hollywood. During a break, he made conversation with his maybe castmates.
“I said to Dakota, ‘I haven’t even gotten the role yet,’” remembers Moh. “And she said, ‘I think it is looking pretty good.’”
Months earlier, Moh, whose credits include roles on Fox’s Empire and ABC’s Marvel series Inhumans, had flown to Los Angeles to audition for the new season of Issa Rae’s HBO comedy Insecure. The session was run by Victoria Thomas, who at the time also happened to be casting for Tarantino’s 1960s-set film, They were search of a Bruce Lee and asked Moh to audition.
“This is literally what I had been waiting for,” says Moh, who first saw Lee’s Enter the Dragon in grade school and started practicing tae kwon do at 12. He moved to L.A. after college to pursue acting, but Moh and his wife, Richelle, chose to raise their children (ages 4, 6 and 8) in the small Madison suburb of Waunakee, where — like Lee — he runs his own martial arts studio: Moh’s Martial Arts.
“As a kid growing up in suburban Minnesota I was one of the only Asian kids, so I was the class clown and a big part of that was me wanting to fit in,” says Moh. “Then I saw Bruce Lee and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy can kick ass, the girls want him, he is super-strong and -confident.’ I hadn’t seen someone like that before.”
After his audition with Thomas, a one-on-one with Tarantino, the table read and a two-hour stunt test, Moh was cast.
Weeks before filming, he came to L.A. for fight rehearsals with stunt coordinator Zoë Bell and fight choreographer Robert Alonzo, perfecting Lee’s patented style of Jeet Kune Do and sparring with his scene partner, Pitt. When not in rehearsal, Moh would listen to Lee’s interviews to master the star’s voice.
Production blocked out an entire day for Moh’s fight sequence. On the third or fourth try, they got their take, but Tarantino wasn’t through. “He says, ‘That is the one that is going in the movie, but we are going to do it again. Why?’ ” Moh recalls. “And everyone in unison says, ‘Because we love making movies!’ ” The cellphone-free shoot often was filled with music; Moh was surprised one day to be handed a piña colada on set. “After every 100 rolls of film,” he explains, “they have a party.”
When the trailer hit the internet, Moh became an instant standout, with comments on YouTube like, “I was very excited when I saw that Brad and Leo… but I lost my fucking mind and almost dropped my phone when I saw Bruce Lee.”
Moh has action-thriller Killerman, with Liam Hemsworth, lined up, and is looking for more high-concept action projects, citing the Matrix trilogy as a personal holy grail. “I am continuing to get better as an actor and I’m very confident in my martial arts skills,” he says. “And, I know that if I can make my mark, I think that I can be the best at putting them together.”
Still, Moh knows that a Tarantino film is a once-in-a-lifetime gig. “Ever since, I have had an epic hangover, creatively,” he says. “I don’t think I will ever have a moment like that again — where I felt, for the very first time, like I belonged on the A-list.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.