Don Lee discusses similarities with his character Gilgamesh, working with Oscar winners like Chloe Zhao and Angelina Jolie, and Marvel's recent inroads into Asian characters and storylines.
Don Lee aka Ma Dong-seuk, Koren actor best known for his breakthrough with Train To Busan
(2016), hopes to expand his global footprint, and that of fellow Korean talent, with Marvel's Eternals
. Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloe Zhao, who shares her Asian origins with Lee, Eternals
will see him as Gilgamesh aka The Forgotten One.
Ahead of the release in cinemas worldwide, Lee discusses similarities with his character, working with Oscar winners like Zhao and Angelina Jolie, and Marvel's recent inroads into Asian characters and storylines. Edited excerpts from the interview below:
(the interview was conducted with the help of a translator)
Your character Gilgamesh is close to Thena, played by Angelina Jolie, as they are described as "de-facto partners after their exile." How did you establish your working relationship with the Academy Award-winning actor?
I've been a huge fan for a very long time. When I heard I'd be acting opposite Angie, I was really excited. We didn't get much time to rehearse with each other. But once the camera started rolling, I got very comfortable with her. She made sure everyone around her is comfortable acting with her. The chemistry was very good. We had kind of a personal connection built right away that reflected the connection between our characters. I think that'd definitely translate very well on the screen. She's been in the industry for so long but when I acted with her, I immediately felt at ease, like I was working with a very good friend.
Don Lee, left, and Angelina Jolie participate in the Marvel Studios panel on day three of Comic-Con International on Saturday, July 20, 2019, in San Diego. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Gilgamesh is Marvel's first Korean superhero. In the course of the filming, did you find any similarities between your character and yourself?
I know that when Chloe and Marvel Studios were building the character of Gilgamesh, they tried to borrow the Don Lee element. They looked at my previous work, and considered what kind of a person I am, to make sure that Gilgamesh will have another version of me. I can definitely see that effort has been put into the character building. I knew that Chloe wanted a lot of me in that character. It was hardly acting for me so I was very comfortable.
Was there any challenge in playing Gilgamesh then, given it is so steeped in the 'Don Lee element' as you say?
Gilgamesh is a powerful character who does a lot of action. So first and foremost, physically, I had to look presentable. For me, exercising and building the physical aspect has been part of my daily routine. Before I became an actor, I've been doing boxing and lifting, and that's been my routine. In that sense, I didn't have to do anything additional to transform myself into the physique of Gilgamesh. But then of course, I had to study how to act and perform in English.
Speaking in English and acting in English are two different things.
After we were done with shooting for the day, I'd come back to my hotel room, and think about how I can make my character more multi-dimensional. I kept on communicating with Chloe about that, and the fruit of our discussions is the Gilgamesh we have now.
Eternals is a superhero ensemble film too but happens after the events of Avengers: Endgame. Had the two timelines coincided, which Avenger would you have liked to share the screen with?
I'm such a fan of all the Marvel superheroes, I can't really pick one! I have the whole list in my head: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man, but I also have the conclusion. Whoever Kevin Fiege (President, Marvel Studios) will ask me to act with, I'll just choose that one.
Chloe Zhao and Don Lee at the world premiere of Eternals in Los Angeles
Besides you, Park Seo Joon is all set to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe too, with Captain Marvel 2. What is your take on the expanding Koren footprint on global entertainment?
Korean shows, films, and even K-Pop are spreading all over the world, and being loved by a lot of people. It makes me really happy to witness this phenomenon. I hope more Korean actors and filmmakers get such great chances. Examples would be Park Seo Joon, whom you just mentioned. Or a filmmaker like Bong Joon Ho. It'll be great to see him make a Marvel movie. There are many more, and I hope they're given enough chances to shine.
Marvel recently ventured into bringing the Asian way of life to screen with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Since Chloe is also of Asian origin, how do you think Eternals taps into that Asian experience through your character arc?
I'm really happy to see Asian superheroes appearing in movies like Eternals and Shang-Chi. That's inspiring itself. But personally, I think that wasn't the point, at least with Chloe Zhao. She wanted to focus on diversity itself, on how we, with different backgrounds and abilities, come together as one and harmonise with each other. So the harmony is the key, not being Asian. You know what I mean? I'm completely with Chloe on that, and it was really moving and inspiring to see that.
Still from Eternals
Is that what makes Eternals stand out from the rest of superhero ensembles out there?
There are several things that differentiate Eternals from other superhero groups. First of all, it's an epic drama that covers really long time periods, from prehistory to current. It's a massive timeline that one project has to cover. So the grand scale is what makes it different. Secondly, I think this is going to be the first superhero ensemble that focuses on not just the fight against the enemy, but also on the internal conflicts of characters. It'll focus on the love they have for each other, the conflicts they have with each other, and the emotions of the characters. So the focus is different from other conventional superhero groups. And thirdly, like I just mentioned, it's a film that strikes the balance between all cast members and focuses on the harmony among the ensemble. I'd also like to add that Marvel choosing Chloe Zhao to direct this project is special and different. I feel this movie will define a whole new genre for superhero fans.
Ending on a lighter note, what superhero power would you like to have in real life?
I love my character. He's powerful, and has this one-punch action that's really cool. But if I were to choose another superpower, I can't really talk about it as I'm not supposed to share what superpowers other characters possess. So I know the answer but I've to keep my mouth shut. Sorry about that!
Eternals is slated to release in cinemas on 5 November.