Meet the Wisconsin man behind Bruce Lee in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"
Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" comes with a fairy tale name, but the real fairy tale story may come behind the scenes: a small-town and relatively unknown actor getting to step into the shoes of the icon who inspired his life's work, performing among the stars in one of the year's most anticipated films.
"I think every kid, at least from my perspective, joins karate or Taekwondo with the idea of 'I want to be Bruce Lee,'" laughed actor Mike Moh, who lives and runs his studio, Moh's Martial Arts, in Waunakee. "So one of my friends texted me when he saw the trailer and said, 'Congratulations, my friend, you've done what we've all set out to do when we were kids: You've become Bruce Lee.'"
His friend wasn't overselling it. In the new ambling Hollywood adventure, Moh literally steps into the shoes of the martial arts icon, playing Lee as he jousts with Brad Pitt's aging stuntman Cliff Booth and teaches Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate some moves for her role in the Dean Martin spy comedy "The Wrecking Crew." It's a small but impactful part – especially for one unassuming character's car – one that earned Moh a centerpiece role in some of the movie's marketing as well as his own character poster, his name next to Bruce Lee's, his face in his idol's place.
Plus, there's no such thing as a small role in a Tarantino picture, where bit parts are deeply analyzed and can become cinema legend and career-defining moments.
Combine all of that together, and to call it a dream role seems like an understatement. It's more the role of all of one's dreams – and certainly a massive moment for Moh, whose previous credits include brief recurring parts on TV's "Empire" and Marvel's "Inhumans."
With the movie now playing in theaters nationwide, OnMilwaukee chatted with Moh about how he got his start both as an actor and a martial artist, how he prepped for playing one of his inspirations, and how the owner of a Midwest martial arts studio made his way into one of Hollywood's biggest and most discussed movies of the summer.
OnMilwaukee: Did the acting bug bite first? The martial arts bug? Or both at the same time?
Mike Moh: I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I would watch Jackie Chan movies, Bruce Lee movies, the Ninja Turtles. I played video games like "Street Fighter." I was big into pop culture, and I learned a lot about who I was going to become through pop culture.
I was always one to search for the spotlight. I liked being the center of attention as a kid; I was always the class clown. So I was always kind of a performer, just not formally trained as an actor.
I got the martial arts bug when I was 12 – actually probably earlier than that, but I finally convinced my parents to sign me up when I was 12.
Sounds like that was tough?
I definitely had to be persistent, because they weren't just going to do it. I thank my parents for letting me do it, and then they saw how passionate I was about it. I just kept going. I didn't really have an idea of what I wanted to do beyond my next class – of course I wanted to get my black belt – but then as I got older, I started forming this dream: I wanted to be like the next Bruce Lee. I want to have my own martial arts studio like him. I want to be known throughout the world for being great – whether it's martial arts or acting or movies or whatever it was.
I think somewhere along the line, as things do when you grow up, reality got in the way, and I started thinking, "No, that's not realistic. I want to follow in what my parents want me to do. I want to become a successful businessman." I got my degree in business school at the University of Minnesota, and for the longest time, I thought I was going to work at some bank or marketing firm – and if anybody knows me, that's totally not my style. I have a hard time sitting still for two minutes, let alone an 8-to-5. It just wasn't for me, so luckily I came to my senses and decided I was going to follow what I really love to do.
I wasn't sure if I could make a living out of doing martial arts professionally; acting was an even bigger question. But I followed my dream; my wife and I went out to Los Angeles pretty shortly after we got married, and that's when I started taking acting classes. I started auditioning for commercials, doing student films that were terrible – and I was terrible in them.
It's just a process. I started off when I was a kid as a white belt and I eventually, little by little, got higher in the ranks until I got my black belt. It's like acting; you can't just jump in, "OK, I'm going to L.A., and I'm going to star in a big film right away." People have that idea of Hollywood where you instantly become a star and you instantly can make a career. It's definitely not like that; you have to take these small steps, and of course along the way, in acting, you're going to get a lot of rejection and doubts.
Fighting that – I speak for probably a lot of actors or anybody who lives a creative life – the battle is dealing with the downs. Because anybody can deal with the ups. It's great to put on a smile when everything's going good. But to fight through the challenges is something I really admire from other artists and other people pursuing their dreams.
So how did you end up in Waunakee?
I think we spent almost a decade in Los Angeles, and then after we had our second daughter – we now have three kids – we wanted to go back closer to home, closer to family to help us raise the kids, because it takes a village. We decided on Waunakee because it was a great place for me to open my school; that was a dream of mine to do.
My wife got a job at American Girl, which is nearby. That's kind of where this branch when off to the side. But I always kept my foot in the door of acting. I always kept that dream alive.
Even from Wisconsin, I was able to drive to Chicago, do some auditions, send in a tape for an audition. I was able to land a few roles from Wisconsin – and then this came along. I don't know what the future holds, but it's exciting to be on this ride right now.
What's it like to fit into the shoes of an icon and take over that mantle for a movie?
I talked about how Bruce is one of the inspirations for me to get started on this path, and to be able to come full circle playing him in a movie – with Quentin Tarantino, no less – is pretty big shoes to fill, to be honest. I understood the magnitude of how important this film is for Quentin. And I'm not naïve, I understand how big of a moment it is in my career as well. So I wanted to just make sure I did the proper preparation. My goal is to provide the definitive portrayal of Bruce – whether it's for one second or for a whole movie, I want to be the standard.
What did all the preparation entail?
People – especially those that are familiar with Bruce – they know what he sounds like, they know what he looks like and they know what kind of energy he exuded. So there's no fooling anybody.
Luckily, there's a lot of resources out there – a lot of movies, a lot of interviews from what he did before he hit that global stardom level. I carried those with me in my pocket – literally, I had those interviews downloaded on my phone, and anytime I had a free moment, I was listening to his voice. There were a lot of times where I was actively studying and writing down certain tones for certain words he'd say. And then there's moments where you're just living and breathing and listening, trying to capture it, because the voice is one thing but also he had a certain way of pacing his words, the cadence.
Then you look at him, and he's so animated. His hands speak. His chin speaks. His eyes speak. So it was really about trying to capture as much of that as possible. There will never be another guy like Bruce, so just to be able to portray him where people can get that, "Yeah, that's what it was like; it's nice to have that energy back," that was my goal.
What was the hardest part of recapturing him on screen: the vocalizations of Bruce Lee or the physicality?
The physicality, that was really exciting for me to be able to do. A lot of hard work went into that, a lot of hours on my own training – plus, of course, two decades of martial arts preparing for something like this. The thing that frightening me a little bit was the acting part, just because that's the main part of it. Of course the fighting is fun, but I wanted to make sure the acting part had ten times the importance for me. Tarantino, especially his dialogues and his scripts, are trademark, and to be able to deliver his lines, I felt very responsible to do it justice.
Do you have a lot of freedom on the page with a Tarantino script, working with Tarantino? I can't imagine he lets you stray too much.
On some shows and some movies, you might want to put your own spin on it because you feel like, "Ah, I can make this my own a little bit." But when you're working on a QT film, I don't think you want to change anything. (laughs) And if you do, it better be a collaborative thing. He's very good about being open to suggestions. He's not just (slams hand on table) dictator, this is the way. He really wants what's going to be the best for the movie. So yeah, I stuck to the script. (laughs)
You get to spar with Brad Pitt's character in the film. What was that like, working with one of the world's biggest movie stars?
I've been a Brad Pitt fan for a long time. Working with Quentin Tarantino is like having Bill Belichick as a head coach –
Be careful, this is Packers country.
No, totally. I'm a Vikings fan; I respect the Packers.
Should I keep that off the record? (laughs)
Before I moved to Wisconsin, they were my bigger rivals, but now, I respect the Packers. When they're on and they're not playing the Vikings, I'll root for them. I can't just jump off a bandwagon.
I like the loyalty.
Gotta be loyal. Am I expecting any Super Bowl parties where we're gonna win? Probably not. But a man can dream.
But Brad is not only a really great actor and a huge mega-star, but he's really down to earth. He made me feel very welcome. He never treats anybody below him, where a lot of people might. He's very accommodating and he's a team player. You can really see why he's having so much success also now as a producer; he's got a very smart and sharp mind when it comes to films and story. He helped me out a lot, as well.
What's the next step for you after this?
I have a few things that are up in the air that I'm waiting to finalize. But the future's bright, and I'm really excited to find out what's next. I know there's going to be more ups and downs, but right now, I'm riding this wave and enjoying it.
The great thing about me having my family in Wisconsin is I don't really need to worry about what's next. I've got my family. I've got my kids. I've got my martial arts studio. I've got a great life that I've been able to work hard to live. Obviously I would love to do more movies and work with great filmmakers and other great artists. But that's not up to me. I mean, it is up to me, but it's undetermined yet. And there's some anxiety asking what's next, but that's also kind of what makes life interesting.
If you had told me 13 months ago that I'd be doing interviews for a Quentin Tarantino film, I would say you're crazy.
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