Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to follow...
It’s funny how much ownership we claim over our heroes and their stories, especially when they’re fictionalized. Bruce Lee is of course a mythic figure not just within Hollywood lore, but the Asian community, and the world stage, and so much of his life remains a mystery. But in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, he squares off against Quentin Tarantino’s mostly fake, perhaps equally larger-than-life stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) - and contrary to perhaps every expectation, Lee does not conspicuously prevail. But according to Mike Moh, the actor who plays Lee in the film, the martial arts hero hardly gets his ass kicked. “It was a tie,” Moh insisted. “Five more seconds, and Bruce would have won.”
Moh spoke with Birth.Movies.Death. about his small but important role in the film - which was partially and perhaps ironically to bolster the legend of Pitt’s stunt man. Talking about playing the influential and iconic martial artist and entertainer, Moh talked about his own trepidations portraying a big-mouthed Bruce Lee who gets served a heaping dose of humility, and offered some thoughts about how Lee’s presence in the film reinforces many of its themes - including but not limited to the private battles fought to become who we are meant to be, the skillful, sometimes indistinguishable blend of myth and reality that conquers our memories of a specific time or place, and finally, the determination and sometimes desperate pursuit of greatness in a world that’s ready to, well, throw you at a car and reduce you to a punchline.
How did you first get the role of Bruce Lee, and what was your experience like discovering what the character would do in the film?
I don't know how far into the process they were but I got a call from my agent. I live in Wisconsin, so I wasn't able to just go and pick up the material because the script is so secret, so my agent's like, we need you to fly [to Los Angeles] tonight so you can pick them up and audition 12 hours after that. Of course I paid my own way out there, and my first audition was with the casting director, Vicki Thomas. I had auditioned for Bruce a few times for different projects in the past, so I wasn't completely unprepared when it came to the accent - I was okay at it - and I had an idea what I wanted to do. But this was like 12 to 24 hours of prep for this pretty intense monologue; it was a good chunk of dialogue. So I did it, and a week later, my agent said, hey, Quentin responded to your tape.
Here I'm thinking, wow, I made a new fan in Quentin - so if this doesn't work out, maybe something else will. It's always good to just make connections and let people know who you are. But I flew out again and this time it was with Quentin, and that was a surreal moment. I didn't realize how tall he was! But he was really loose and gave me a hug and it was all good. And the first part of our meeting was just talking with him about the ‘60s, about Bruce, and I don’t know if it was for him to make me more nervous or more comfortable, but either way I was ready and I went in the room and did my thing a bunch of different ways. He seemed to like it, and then we actually got into some of the ideas for what he wanted for the fight scene. We were up on our feet doing that as well as the dialogue, so that was fun. Before I left, he said, do you have any questions? And usually at the end of an audition I would just say, thank you so much for your time and be on my way, but at the request and encouragement of my wife, she told me to tell him you're the guy - you need to show him how supremely confident you are. So I took a page out of “what would Bruce do?” and Bruce was extremely confident, so I looked him in the eyes and said, “Mr. Tarantino, I just want to tell you that if you choose me to be in your movie, people are going to think Bruce came back to be in your film.” He kind of laughed it off, because at that time, I wasn't sure that I was going to get the role. I was sure that I would do a great job and that I was the right guy, but my hair was short and my accent wasn't fully there. So I wanted to reassure that I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that this is the rendition of Bruce that you want in your film.
Another week or two goes by and they want me to fly in next day again, this time for a chemistry read. I'm prepping in my mind, thinking I'm probably going to read with Brad, so this is exciting. And then I get a call from the second AD and he's like, here are the directions to the table read! So I showed up and there is everybody, and he introduced me to Burt Reynolds. He said, “this is Mike Moh. He's playing Bruce Lee.” And at that time I still didn't have the role - or if I did, nobody told me - but I went in and everybody starts walking in, all the stars. And at that point I only knew of Brad, Leo and Margot being in the film, because this was pretty early on. And then I see Burt Reynolds and all sorts of other people. Al Pacino was the biggest surprise. But I just remember knowing in my mind I was treating this as an audition, so while everybody's mingling and getting to see each other, I'm in business mode, scrambling through the script. And I finally land on page 53 - I'll never forget 53, 53, 53 - so every page that they read through, I was getting more and more primed and amped and nervous and anxious about my final test. And then at page 53, I put on a great performance; Brad and I had great chemistry from the get-go. People were really responding, so that made me feel good. And then he even threw a couple of curve balls. I read for Business Bob Gilbert, who is played by Scoot McNairy, so it was a good chance for me to kind of say, I can do this. I'm not just Bruce. I'm an actor. I can be great in whatever role you put me in, but know you're making the right choice for me as Bruce, obviously.
Did you have any concerns, personally or unfortunately representationally, about portraying a version of Bruce Lee who loses a fight to this other character, which seems impossible at least in our sense memory of who he was?
Of course, when I first read it, I was like, wow. I'm not going to tell you what the original script had exactly, but when I read it, I was so conflicted because he’s my hero - Bruce in my mind was literally a God. He wasn't a person to me, he was a superhero. And I think that's how most people view Bruce. And the thing about it is, Number One, it's a Tarantino film. He's not going to do the thing that everybody expects anybody else to do. You’ve got to expect the unexpected. And Number Two, I knew from the jump, Tarantino loves Bruce Lee; he reveres him. So let me be clear; in the film it was a challenge - “best two out of three.” I got the first point - I knocked him on his ass first. And Bruce at that time was so cocky and maybe got a little excited and he didn't know Cliff Booth has killed dozens of people with his bare hands - and that's what people may not realize up until that moment in the film. It's a hugely important scene - what better way to show how dangerous Cliff is than for him to show up and even match him for a little bit with Bruce? And the only reason why I got thrown into that car is because I was so cocky, like, oh I'm going to do this again. And at that moment when I get slammed, that's when Bruce realizes, oh shit, this guy is not just a stunt guy. Because Bruce didn't always have the most affection for stuntmen; he didn't respect all of them, because he was better than all the stunt guys. So after I got slammed, I get serious. And then we get into this scuffle, which is stopped - so it's a tie. I can see how people might think Bruce got beat because of the impact with the car, but you give me five more seconds and Bruce would have won. So I know people are going to be up in arms about it, but when I went into my deep dive of studying Bruce, he more than anybody wanted people to know he's human. And I think I respect him more knowing that he had these challenges, these obstacles, just like everybody. I don't know any actor out there that doesn't have some sense of wanting to be more - and I think that's the sign of somebody that wants greatness, and will achieve greatness, always wanting more. And if you reference the legend of Wong Jack Man, this was Tarantino, so maybe in this universe, it's not Wong Jack Man, it's Cliff Booth who he runs into and gives him [a fight], like I know I could have taken him at the time if I wasn't so cocky. And now he's going to go back and refine his Jeet Kune Do and become the legend or a stronger version of himself because of this encounter with Cliff. At least, that's how I see it.
That take also reinforces some of the themes of the movie in that these are all people who to one extent or another are trying to establish or prove themselves. Were there discussions about deeper thematic ideas that Tarantino wanted to explore either in the overall script or with the character?
Bruce wasn't the global sensation that everybody knows now at that point. At that time in his career, he was on Green Hornet, an ABC TV show, trying to battle against Asian stereotypes. He had to wear a mask. He was a sidekick. He was dealing with the stuff that I and many other Asian American actors have been dealing with, but because of what he went through and because of how he was able to bust through doors and make new waves, he made it easier for us to make our way. So at the time he was finding his way just like Rick was in the movie. Bruce wasn't a central character, but what better way to help people remember that Bruce also was - I don't want to say struggling, because he was a child actor and he was always very successful with that. But he was always searching for that next level. I know his ultimate goal was to be the Number One actor in the world, not martial arts actor. He wanted to be a bigger name than Steve McQueen, which, depending on who you ask, he definitely did that.
Where did you draw the line between doing an impersonation of Bruce and really inhabiting him as a person or a character?
That was the dangerous part, especially because it's a heightened sense of reality that Tarantino is so good at. You don't want to make it cheesy by going way over the top and making Bruce a character, so that's the fine line you want to straddle. But look - he's a big personality and I love his personality; I credit his ability to straddle confidence and cockiness as something that I strived for as a young kid who was kind of unsure of how I fit in growing up in the Midwest. That helped. But it wasn't about, I’ve got to hit this thing, I got to do this, got to make this move. It sounds cheesy, but I feel like I was channeling him because of the two months I had to prepare. I mean, give me a day to do it and yeah, I'm doing an impersonation, but give me two months and I'm doing my best to be him.
Was there a particular scene or movie that you found especially inspirational or influential in terms of your performance or to help you get inside his head?
No, I didn't use a movie. I mean, obviously I've watched them, just because I'm a fan. But during the scene they weren't rolling cameras, he was just holding court on the set of his show. So when you listen to him candidly in interviews, when he's not filming a TV show or a movie but maybe just being caught on video, he was always on, but in a different way - a very genuine, attractive way. There was something magnetic about him. So I used those as references - like his home videos, his Pierre Berton interview, all those things. That was the kind of attitude I wanted to portray.
How would you characterize Tarantino as a director? How did he help you give the best performance that you could?
Nobody can question how committed he is to it. And because he's in a unique position of having full control of everything, no studio is going to come in and tell him what to do, he wrote it, he lived it, he's dreamed it and he shot it in his head a million different ways already. So when he asks you to be prepared and when he asks you to do something, you don't belong in that set unless you've done a hundred percent preparation. I remember the final fight rehearsal that I had with Brad, on a Sunday. He was coming in just to see where we're at and give his input, and at the end of it, he was very happy with the fight but he pulled me aside. He says, the way I have this, it's going to be one continuous take. This was my first time hearing that it would be a one shot. He said, “it’s going to be very intricate. We're going to have to give it a bunch of times and there's going to be a lot of juggling and timing, and things have to work out. But it all rides on you. If you don't get it, I don't get the shot that I want. So I just want to let you know I believe in you and I wouldn't have hired you if you couldn't do this, but it's all on your shoulders.” I think I might've just paused for a second, and then I just confidently looked him in the eyes. I said, “Quentin, you made the right choice. I'm the guy for this and I'll be ready.” And off he went, and then two days later I was on set and we got that one shot. I think they blocked the whole day for just that sequence that they didn't cut, and we got it on like the third or fourth take, before lunch. And throughout the scene, you can sense the whole set just getting excited, like we're going to get this, we're going to get this right. And Quentin said, look, I'm going to cut if you don't do this perfectly. There's no sense in wasting film, and there's no sense in wasting your energy. So don't worry if I cut, we're just waiting for the right ingredients and the right timing. So on the third or fourth time, it's going great, I'm feeling it, and we're flowing. Even the extras, I feel like they helped me so much; they were also invested in it. And then he says, “cut!” Everybody's frozen. And then Quentin jumps up and down and he’s screaming, and as soon as we saw that reaction, everybody explodes into applause. Me and Brad run over to each other first and we’re checking each other, because I had just kicked him and he took a fall straight to the concrete. He's all good. We're hugging. That was definitely a Hollywood moment. And after that he said, “okay, that's the one that's going to be in the movie, but we're going to do it one more time.” And then he says, “why?” And everybody says, “because we love making movies!” I'm the only one that didn't know that thing, so I'm just like, what is happening? So we did it again and we got another great take. I'm not sure which one he used, but I just remember it so vividly and I think I always will.
You talked about auditioning to play Bruce Lee in the past and now you have finally had an opportunity to do it in such a visible way. Do you feel a sense of catharsis, like you’re done playing him, or do you feel inspired to try to do that again in a larger way?
Well, if people were thinking about doing it, I would hope that after they see me that they would think that I'm the guy to do it. Whether or not I would all depend on the story, and the team. I mean, although my appearance in the film is brief, I feel like I put in a good performance as Bruce, so I don't feel like I need to show more. But at the same time, it’s a good question. I don't know. I guess time will tell.