The Magnificent Seven’s Lee Byung-Hun on Hollywood Racism and That Time He Got Mistaken for Ken Jeong

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2016 Toronto International Film Festival
Lee Byung-Hun. Photo: Walter McBride/FilmMagic/Getty Images

There’s no other Korean-born actor who can boast Lee Byung-Hun’s resume in Hollywood: After a flourishing career in South Korea, he made his Hollywood debut with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in 2009, going on to star in a string of action films including RED 2, Terminator Genisys, and most recently as a shoot-’em-up cowboy in The Magnificent Seven. But as with any first, he’s experiencing how difficult it can be to blaze a trail. Speaking to the Korean website Dailian, Lee discussed some of his experiences with racism on set. Naturally, the original article is in Korean, but it has since been translated and disseminated in English via Redditor hangryforpeace with yours truly making some translation amendments.

“I can’t say who, but there are actors who wouldn’t even look me in the eyes because I was Asian. I tried to [introduce myself] and shake their hands, but they would ignore me and walk past me. I couldn’t shake their hands until we had finished filming the movie,” Lee said. “Rather than feel sad, I felt really enraged.” He continued: “To them, I could just be the ‘actor who couldn’t speak English,’” said Lee. “Still, to confront them, there would be cultural and and linguistic barriers.” Lee added, “Hollywood hasn’t changed all that much.”

Like any other Asian-American, Lee has an anecdote about getting mistaken for another actor of Korean descent, in this case, the comic Ken Jeong. “I went to a coffee shop for a cup of coffee and the baristas asked me, ‘You’re a movie star, right?’ I thought, ‘Finally someone recognizes me,’ but then they said that they really enjoyed the movie The Hangover. To them, all Asians look the same.”

Here’s a little bit of context for those unfamiliar with these two men: Lee is a movie star who starred in J.S.A. and The Good, the Bad, the Weird. He has abs for days. Ken Jeong is the fantastic Korean-American comic who starred in the beloved Community where he insisted that he was, indeed, a Spanish teacher. This would be like mistaking Tom Cruise for David Spade or Brad Pitt for Dana Carvey. We’ll just leave you with a pleasant reminder of what Lee Byung-Hun looks like:

Lee Byung-Hun Talks About Racism In Hollywood