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Ma Dong-seok, looking handsome in his track suit, observes a scuffle in traffic in The Roundup: No Way Out. Image: BA Entertainment

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Action legend Don Lee wants you to feel every punch

Ma Dong-seok talks his brush with John Wick, his hopes for the Train to Busan remake, and more

Pete Volk (he/they) is Polygon’s curation editor for movies and TV, with a particular love for action and martial arts movies.

There’s nobody like Don Lee.

Also known as Ma Dong-seok, the hulking Korean action star has made a name for himself with his massive frame, punishing blows, and easy charm. After a lengthy and successful career at home, he found international attention with his scene-stealing role in Train to Busan before Marvel cast him as Gilgamesh in Eternals.

Lee’s latest, The Roundup: No Way Out, is the third (and best) entry in the very popular Roundup crime thriller franchise, which has made waves not only at the Korean box office, but around the world.

Polygon exchanged questions with the star via email, discussing his action philosophy and influences, the time he was almost in a John Wick movie, and his thoughts on the upcoming Train to Busan remake.

Polygon: Your boxing background really comes through in these movies. I’ve read you wanted to be a boxer when you were younger. Can you tell me what that boxing experience brings to a role?

Don Lee: I have been boxing my entire life, and through boxing, I have learned about endurance and humility in life. Furthermore, the action in this [Roundup] series is also mostly designed based on boxing. Watching the movie Rocky inspired me to dream of becoming a boxer. And I also started to dream of becoming an actor while learning boxing.

Ma Dong-seok, wearing a track suit, punches a young person in the stomach in The Roundup: No Way Out. The person being punched reacts as if they’ve been hit by a truck. Image: BA Entertainment

What’s most crucial to you in making compelling action in the modern era?

There are various types of action in films. Action involving weapons, car chases, fantasy elements, and more. Among them, I am most focused on action that involves bare-handed combat without any weapons. I have been boxing for a long time and even trained to become a professional boxer once. So the core of the action sequences for The Roundup: No Way Out is boxing. Applying real boxing techniques to action movies is not an easy task.

As it is challenging, the coordination and synergy with the stunt team are crucial. Heo Myeong-haeng, the martial-arts director, and the stunt teams in this film have been working with me for 20 years, and they understand my intentions very well. That enables us to create more realistic action scenes. Even now, I train in boxing daily and engage in sparring sessions with professional boxers.

Which action filmmakers and stars are doing it best, in your opinion? Do you have favorite recent action movies?

I started boxing after watching Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series during my childhood. So Rocky is an action movie that is irreplaceable to me. Recently, I have noticed that director Chad Stahelski, known for directing the John Wick series, delivers stylish action sequences. I have maintained a long-standing friendship with him, and was also offered a role in [a] John Wick, which unfortunately didn’t come through. [Ed. note: The role was in John Wick 3, which conflicted with his filming schedule for 2019’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil.] J.J. Perry, who was in charge of the stunts for John Wick, also created incredible action scenes. Chris Hemsworth’s Extraction had some truly impressive action as well.

Ma Dong-seok holds up a handheld mirror while shaving his face at his desk in The Roundup: No Way Out. Image: BA Entertainment

The Roundup movies have a lot of high-impact punching, with the action, camerawork, and sound design all working in coordination to suggest you’re really slugging fools. How much contact is actually in these movies? What’s your philosophy on full-contact action?

Looking realistic is important, but safety comes first. While we never actually hit a co-star’s face, there are shots where we need to hit each other’s bodies. Actors do wear safety gear in such cases. However, even if we are careful, the hit is strong enough to nearly impact the organs. These are challenging types of action, but I did my best to make it look real and enjoyable for the audience.

How does a disparity in physicality inform how you approach a fight scene? Most of the people you fight are smaller than you, but then also you fight the larger bouncer in No Way Out. How do you change your approach?

In this film, actors of various weight classes, from middleweight to super heavyweight, appear as my opponents. Since I prioritize realism in boxing action, in certain scenes, I move swiftly as a boxer does, while in others, I focus on the power as a slugger does. In boxing matches, there are cases where the opponent gets knocked out with just one or two punches. In real life, if you get punched by bare hands without gloves, you will be knocked out instantly. I wanted to convey that in that scene. I am always trying to create realistic action sequences that the audience can enjoy.

Does the fact that global audiences can now easily access and watch your films change anything for your approach?

Through the universal language of film, it is possible to communicate cinematically across the globe, transcending language barriers. When it comes to producing or planning a film, I try to not limit my imagination based on scale or budget. By exploring and imagining without being limited by production constraints and practical conditions, I believe that more captivating content can be born. And content like that may move audiences worldwide.

Gilgamesh (Don Lee) prepares a super punch in Eternals Image: Marvel Studios

After Eternals, are you interested in any future Hollywood projects? Are there any particular franchises that appeal to you?

The Korean film industry and Hollywood are the same in that all of the actors and staff work hard together to make a good movie. Basically, the most outstanding difference is Language. Hollywood films use English, but Korean films use Korean language. But under the common language named “movie,” people can communicate with each other beyond the language barrier. And experiences from Marvel Pictures hugely inspired me to design and expand the fictional universe when I make the film.

Did you have any reaction when you heard there would be a Hollywood Train to Busan remake, directed by Timo Tjahjanto?

Train to Busan holds a special place in my heart. I hope it will be remade excellently.

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