Acclaimed South Korean Actor Recounts His Racist Experience in Hollywood

South Korean actor Lee Byung-hun has established himself as an accomplished international superstar, having starred in several local and Hollywood films. At home, he has received critical acclaim for his work in top-grossing movies including “Masquerade”, “Inside Men”, “Joint Security Area”, and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”. In the U.S., he is known for portraying Storm Shadow in the G.I. Joe films, starring alongside Bruce Willis in “Red 2” and portraying a T-1000 in “Terminator Genisys”, among others.

But while Lee’s Hollywood career seems to be doing well, his experience in the industry is not without challenge. In an interview with Korean site Dalian, the versatile actor revealed some racist encounters that he experienced in Hollywood.


In the interview, partly translated by Redditor Hangryforpeace, Lee recounted several instances when his colleagues would simply ignore him for being Asian.

“I do not want to name any individual names, but I felt like when I was working in Hollywood, there were some fellow colleagues of mine who didn’t even look me in the eyes because I was Asian. I tried to [introduce myself] and shake their hands, but they would all ignore me and walk past me. I couldn’t shake their hands until we had finished filming the movie.”

“I am not disappointed, there were many times when I was really angry–angry at how I was treated.”

Actor Lee Byung-hun APSA(Asia Pacific Screen Awards) June 3, 2014 Australian Embassy, Seoul Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service ( Official Photographer: Jeon Han --------------------------------------------------------------- 이병헌 2013 아시아 태평양 스크린 어워즈 남우주연상 수상 2014-06-03 호주대사관 호주센터, 광화문 문화체육관광부 해외문화홍보원 코리아넷 전한

He also expressed frustration over Hollywood’s casting problems that have persisted for decades.

“[Despite having widespread protest over the lack of diversity in Hollywood], Hollywood really has not changed that much. I went to a local coffee shop [in America] for a cup of coffee and a barista who was working there approached me and asked, ‘Are you a movie star?’ At the time, I was beaming with pride that I was finally getting acknowledged for my movie roles. But unexpectedly, he then told me that he enjoyed the movie ‘Hangover’. It was that moment when I realized that we Asians all looked alike to [white people].”

Yes, for some reason, someone thought Lee Byung-hun was Ken Jeong, Mr.Chow in the Hangover series.

“To them (co-actors who discriminated him), I was that typical foreign actor who did not speak a lick of English properly. There were many times when I wanted to confront these [racist people] head-on, but I wasn’t able to fight back due to cultural and language barriers that I had to overcome at the time. But now things have changed and I want to push these people’s buttons and see just [how far these people can go with their racism for my own curiosity].”

Having experienced such treatment for many years, he has grown accustomed to racism and developed his means of reacting to it and those who perpetuate it.

“By now, I am very used to dealing with racism and racist people. I have always felt a sense of distance from them [white people] and I think it has become very evident that it is my job to [bridge this gap between Asians and white people]. I haven’t given up on Hollywood yet, I still want to [make movies there] and fight for [more Hollywood representation].”

Feature Image via Flickr / Eva Rinaldi

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