Among the many colorful celebrity cameos that pop up in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is cinema martial-arts icon Bruce Lee, portrayed by Mike Moh in the film. Tarantino drops Lee into the movie’s milieu of the major Hollywood players of the late 1960s, and though Moh’s appearance is brief, he manages to be quite memorable.
According to a new interview with Moh in Birth. Movies. Death., the actor has actually auditioned to play Bruce Lee before, and so he was ready to embody the Hong Kong-American actor’s accent — and, of course, his inimitable onscreen gravitas.
“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,” Moh said. “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.”
Moh spoke specifically about a scene in which he faces off with Brad Pitt’s Hollywood stuntman Cliff Booth, a moment of comedy in the film but also one of challenging physical violence, according to the actor, who next appears in the upcoming “Killerman.”
“I knew from the jump, Tarantino loves Bruce Lee; he reveres him,” Moh said. “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?”
Moh detailed the motivations behind the scene. “At that moment when I get slammed, that’s when Bruce realizes, oh shit, this guy is not just a stunt guy,” he said. “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.”
“Once Upon a Time” just completed its second week of release, scoring $20 million at the weekend box office to add to a hitherto total sum of nearly $80 million.