Korean and Japanese-American actor Brian Tee has made a name forhimself in films like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and The Wolverine. Yet recently, he had the opportunity to transition into Korean cinema, playing the character Chaoz in the South Korean action film No Tears for the Dead. We recently spoke with Brian about the differences between American and Korean film, and what it was like to sink his teeth into a different role.
"I've always been a fan of Korean cinema but never really pursued it, as I wanted to pave my way here in the States," he reflected. "I figured, once I established myself here, Korea might take notice. And it did. But my influences in Korean cinema came at an early age, from my mom and grandmother as they watched these Korean dramas religiously.
"It's funny, as my career grew, I've been blessed to work with huge stars and on giant blockbuster movies," he continued. "I'd tell my family about certain opportunities like, 'Mom, I'm working with Mel Gibson,' or 'I'm a part of the Fast and Furious franchise,' and 'I'm working alongside Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine,' and her reaction would be a subtle 'You happy?... Good.' Like nothing fazed her. I often wondered what would happen if I was ever was in a Korean movie. Sure enough, now that I've done No Tears for the Dead, in my mother's eyes, I've made it!'
How did the experience of working in the Korean industry compare to that of the major motion pictures he'd completed in America? "Working in Korea with the talent and staff there was very eye-opening," Brian told us. "I was in awe of everyone's talent, passion and love for the process. Everyone was so kind as well as professional, but the [camaraderie] amongst everyone was inspiring.
"The biggest difference I saw was the family bond created in a Korean movie production. There would be parties or dinners set up once, maybe twice a month to celebrate each other and the work," he continued. "This is never seen in the States, except for the afterparty when we wrap. But in Korea, they have many parties during the shoot, which creates such a great bond and family orientation to make you want to work harder, longer for each other and the film. It was inspiring."
Brian also explained what made this particular film the right one to take this career step with. "After reading the script, I was drawn to the character relationship between Chaoz and the lead [character] Gon," he said. "I really worked on building the connection between them - from brothers, to rivals, to enemies and back again.
"Rarely do you see bad guys with a sense of moral compass, but I feel that's what brings this character to life, and is what I try to bring to many of the villains I play. Whether it makes the cutting room floor or not, it's something I take great pride in doing. And I'm hoping you can catch it as a highlight in this film as well."
Asian cinema is known for producing some tremendous action films, but his American resume already boasts plenty of those types of movies, including the Fast & Furious franchise and the upcoming Jurassic World. So was it easier for Brian to take on the challenge of No Tears for the Dead's heavy action?
"I think the transition was easier," he said. "Not to say I'm some kind of action star, because I'm not. I consider myself an actor first, and if the role or situation calls for action, I'm up for the challenge. I think the action work and training put in is all part of the character's development. It builds the mentality, physicality and groundedness that you need, especially in the projects you mentioned, and definitely in my character Chaoz in No Tears for the Dead. That's why I do it - but truth be told, I'm a bit of a jock, so it's fun for me."
"The ability to stretch my range into all genres and characters is something I take great pleasure in doing," Brian added. "I thoroughly enjoy it. I consider myself a character actor, though some think of me as a leading man. As an actor, I love shifting gears from character to character and the more range I can expand, the better. It's the transformation that drives me. I want to do it all, and never want to be boxed into something as a particular type or style. I never want people to think they know me. I hope to build a repertoire that one can look at and say, from to role to role, 'Was that Brian Tee?'"
"I feel the ones I most connect with are the ones where I'm really given the freedom to experiment, to add layers, and character arc. Those are the ones I most love to play and are the most fulfilling," he continued. "For those that may not know, I did a show called Crash for the Starz network. It only lasted a season, but to some people’s surprise, this may be some of my best work. I got to really stretch myself and personalize a lot of my character, to real life.
"There is a scene with my grandmother in the show that warms my heart, because it hits so close to home. And that was only written because of the amazing writing staff and showrunner Glen Mazzara, who were so open to [the actors'] input. It's that collaboration that I really enjoy, and feel is what made this show special. I loved the character and the people and the art we were making, so Crash is definitely up there as one of my favorites."
With the release of No Tears for the Dead and Jurassic World coming in 2015, Brian is having a pretty successful year. Asked how he feels about where he is right now, he told us, "I feel like I've paid my dues to be in this moment, and am very fortunate to pursue my craft and build a career. Though this business has its ups and downs, I am blessed to be able to make my way and truly do what I love to do. So it feels very good and am very grateful.
"But I'm also looking to do more, and feel I have just scratched the surface. I want to try and change the mold of what we see on television and [in] films, and have those mediums be more representative of our society today. So personally, it's very gratifying, but as a whole, there's more work to be done."
No Tears for the Dead is in theaters now.