[Exclusive] Asian-American Actor Brian Tee Talks About “Mortal Kombat Legacy,” “The Wolverine”
Brian Tee is an American actor of Japanese and Korean descent who is best known for his role as the Drift King in “Fast and the Furious, Tokyo Drift.” Since then he has been in a variety of roles in film and television. One of his most recent roles was the lead character, Jason, in the Korean/American film “Wedding Palace,” co-starring Kang Hye Jung. He will star as Liu Kang in the YouTube series “Mortal Kombat: Legacy Season 2,” and play the antagonist Noburo Mori in the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster “The Wolverine,” starring Hugh Jackman. Brian was generous enough to set some time for an interview with Soompi about his roles, his identity as an Asian-American actor, and his upcoming projects.
CallMeN00NA: You’ve been acting since 2000 but your first big role was in “Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift” as the Drift King. It’s been almost seven years since the movie came out in 2006. Do people still recognize you from the movie?
Brian Tee: Absolutely. It’s funny how often I get recognized as D.K. I think for that particular movie, even though it was part of the franchise, it was kind of a one-off because it was about drift racing. The series catapulted with that movie and Justin Lin, and all the subsequent movies after it. It was really phenomenal. To this day, I will still get called out as being the drift king, and be recognized. I enjoy it. In the drift world he is the main villain, the iconic bad guy. I’m quite proud of it.
C: Since then, you’ve been busy with a variety of roles in both television and film. How do you feel like you have grown as an actor?
B: I think as an actor you want to push yourself to evolve. For me, I pride myself as a character leading man, meaning that the characters I play are vast in the range of differences. I can play the hard bad guy or a funny jokester here, or an ex-Vietnam vet there. As you evolve as an actor, I think the roles that challenge you are the ones that are the most inviting. The roles I come across that give you a different character are the ones I drool over and the ones I really want to do. I’m just seeing where my career takes me. I’ve been enjoying the ride so far.
C: Do you have any favorite past roles?
B: One of my favorite roles was probably in my first movie ever. I was completely new to the scene and starting as an actor so being a part of this movie was just awe inspiring. It was a Mel Gibson movie, “We Were Soldiers,” and it’s the one that sticks near and dear to my heart. Also, I played a true life hero. The movie was about the Vietnam War and I played Jimmy Nakayama, who was a real life war hero that fought for us. To be able to portray a real person like that, was an honor and a privilege.
C: “Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift” was a big deal for Asian-Americans because it was part of a mainstream Hollywood movie franchise, but most of the actors were Asian and you didn’t really see much of that back then. Do you feel like the situation for Asian-American actors have changed since then?
B: For Asian-American actors, I think it’s getting better. There were a lot of great and amazing actors before my generation that really paved the way for us. Slowly and surely, every year, every decade, every generation there are more and more Asian-American faces. I think the quality and pool of talent for Asian-Americans is growing and expanding to a point where it’s undeniable. I’m just glad to be a part of it.
C: You’ve worked with a lot of other Asian-American actors throughout your career, Masi Oka in “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” Sung Kang and Leonardo Nam in “Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift,” Bobby Lee and Margaret Cho in “Wedding Palace.” Is there an Asian-American actor group? Do you all know each other?
B: Totally! Everyone knows everyone. It’s a smaller community but one that supports one another and in the things that we do. I particularly have this tight knit brotherhood that I grow with as an actor and an artist. They’re all doing extremely well in their own film and shows. I’m very proud of my bro’s!
C: The past few years several big Korean celebrities have entered the Hollywood market. Rain in “Ninja Assassin,” Jeon Ji Hyun (Gianna Jun) in “Blood: The Last Vampire,” Jang Dong Gun in “The Warrior’s Way,” Lee Byung Hun in the “G.I. Joe” series, and even singer BoA will be making her debut soon in “Make Your Move 3D.” As an Asian-American actor, how do you feel about native Korean actors trying to break into the Hollywood movie industry?
B: I think it’s wonderful, I really do. I think the more Asian faces you see on television and film the better. I think the talent that these guys bring internationally and in the States is definitely a force to reckon with. Having Lee Byung Hun with his huge caliber and being part of giant movies helps Asian-Americans all around. The more that the industry lends itself to opening up to Asian faces, the more roles and opportunities there are for everybody. People will get more comfortable and approachable about having native Asian or Asian-Americans as a part of the television and film industry.
C: In the movie “Wedding Palace” you played the ultimate Korean-American bachelor who falls in love with Kang Hye Jung’s (“Old Boy,” “Welcome to Dongmakgol“) character. What was it like working with the Korean actress?
B: She was so sweet, so giving, and so available as an actor. When you come into a movie like that you hope there’s a chemistry and style to connect to, and I think we had that. I think you can see it in the film. She is incredibly talented and beautiful. She really shines in the movie. I had a blast with her.
C: Are there any other Korean actors you would like to work with?
B: Lee Jung Jin (“Wonderful Radio,” “Hundred Year Inheritance“). He’s actually a dear friend of mine, he’s like my brother. He has grown leaps and bounds; I’m so proud of him and really rooting for him. His talent and charisma is so amazing and really astonishing to watch.
C: Have you ever considered working in the Korean entertainment industry?
B: I thought about it after doing “Wedding Palace,” but in the States is home for me. They really know me here, and I’m able to pursue my craft with everything I built here. I feel like if I went to Korea, I might be starting over in a sense. However, I would love to if the opportunity arose. I think what the Korean cinema is doing is amazing and far beyond what anyone ever imagined.
C: Are there any Korean directors you would want to work with then?
B: Park Chan Wook, definitely. There are other amazing directors, but if there was only one I can choose, I would love to work with that guy.
C: Do you listen to Korean music at all?
B: A little bit, yeah!
C: Favorite artists?
B: My favorite Korean artist is another friend. He was at the top of his game in 2008, and then he went into military service, being a Korean citizen. He’s come back and released his comeback album. Eru is definitely one of my favorites. I met him through Lee Jung Jin when I was in Korea taking a tour. We bonded. He’s from New York; he’s a true Korean-American who has found profound success over there.
C: You’re all about the Korean-Americans?
B: That’s my K-Pop in. Living here in the States, you have to search for it but sometimes it comes to you and then you get into it. This girl got soul. She is really amazing. When I heard her, I was like, “Wow.” I actually didn’t know she was full Korean-American. I met another girl, because she did a performance here for an event. It was G.na and she was amazing. She performs with a humility and sweetness to her. It’s so cute and adorable, you just have to like her. These are the two female artists I try to follow.
C: The big song last year was PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” Did its popularity affect you in any way?
B: I think it spawned this energy that transcended anything before it. What it did for Asian music was put the world demographic together in a way people actually noticed. I think in that essence, no one has done it bigger. What affected me the most was the way he went about it as himself, just grounded and humble in his interviews and his tour. It made me want to root for this phenomenon to last as long as it can.
C: You are playing Liu Kang in the second season of “Mortal Kombat: Legacy.” It’s not out yet, but the trailer looks awesome. Can you tell us more about your character?
B: I think what audiences will see with Liu Kang is not what they may expect. To be honest, when I used to play the video games back in the 90s, I never wanted to play Liu Kang. I had this affectionate desire to play Scorpion or Sub-Zero, the bad boys of the game. I always thought Liu Kang was a bit of a caricature, but then I read the script and they completely flipped it on its head. He has so much depth to him, and the character arc is amazing. You get to really feel why he is doing the things he does. Not to give too much, but I think the fans will be pleasantly surprised when they see the dark side of Liu Kang.
C: The trailer hints at some sick martial arts moves. How much did you have to train for your role?
B: Quite a bit, actually. I want to say at least a solid month. I was offered the part when I was in Australia filming “The Wolverine,” and I started training immediately when I got home. It was really hardcore but we had the most amazing stunt directors, coordinators, and guys to help with the moves and techniques. We had best of the best teaching.
C: “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” is a popular YouTube series, which is still sort of a new thing. What sort of role do you think the Internet will play in the future for home entertainment?
B: I think it is the future, the future of home entertainment. The world is evolving and getting smaller through the Internet where people can access any kind of media right on their laptop or phone. I think even the larger studios are starting to take that trend. “Mortal Kombat” was produced by Warner Bros. and Machinima, which is the largest YouTube channel right now. I think with the Internet and the technology we have today, it’s just going to continue beyond the scope of everything.
C: Were there any notable differences working on a web series compared to television?
B: Not this one. What they did with this season was amazing. It was like shooting a feature, it really was. You had the best of crew, talent, and technology.
C: The big movie that is coming soon is “The Wolverine.” What can you tell us about the character you will be playing?
B: I play Noburo Mori who is the politician arranged to marry Wolverine’s love interest. That’s all I can say about that.
C: That’s it?
B: That’s it. My hands are tied to what I can reveal. Noburo Mori is a fun and dynamic character I loved playing. Like all politicians he rides the line between both sides in a sense. You just have to watch the movie.
C: Such a tease!
C: What can we expect from this movie, that is different than the first Wolverine movie (X-Men Origins: Wolverine)?
B: I think that James Mangold, our director, was brilliant. He basically took and made the franchise of Wolverine to a whole nother level. You will see Wolverine like you have never seen him before. He’s vulnerable both physically and emotionally. He is on this endless war against his own nature. He finally has to embrace himself.
C: Are there any scenes you are excited about?
B: The movie itself is a giant blockbuster of a movie. So scene after scene, it is fun and exciting with these huge developed character arcs. I think the fans will not only love and appreciate it, but relate to it. One in particular for me, from what I can say, is the final scene between me and Wolverine. We do have a final encounter that I’m really excited for the audience to see.
C: What was it like to work with Hugh Jackman?
B: Hugh is great. He is literally one of the most down-to-earth people I have met, especially at that level. He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met as well. He is also one of the hardest working, dedicated, and talented guys out there. Off-camera, he has the highest amount of respect and appreciation for himself and everyone. That’s a true testament of who he is.
C: If you could play any superhero role, whether it has already been cast or not, who would you choose?
B: Wow. I have to admit, as a kid I was into comic books, and the X-Men and Wolverine were my favorite team and character. When I was eight years old, I dressed up as Wolverine for Halloween. Serious, no joke. I would make my own cardboard and aluminum foil claws and dress up. I don’t want to sound so biased because I’m part of the movie, but if there was one superhero I would play, it would be Wolverine.
C: Where did you hear of Soompi?
B: I saw it online. A couple of friends told me to check out the site. You guys have been around for a while! For the K-Pop generation, you were there ahead of its time. I think that’s awesome. As K-Pop grew, so did you guys. I have much respect and appreciation for what you guys are doing.
C: Thank you! Do you have any final words for Soompiers?
B: Please check out “The Wolverine” and “Mortal Kombat: Legacy 2” when it comes out. I believe it will come out sometime in the fall. We’ll be at Comic-Con promoting both of them. Stay up to date with me. I would love to talk to all the Soompi fans out there and answer questions about myself, but also about your interests in K-Pop. I want to get more involved with you. My door is open, please check me out.
C: Thank you so much for this interview, Brian Tee!
You can connect to Brian Tee through the links below. “The Wolverine” will come out in theaters on July 26 in America.