Actor Byron Mann (Street Fighter, Red Corner, The Corruptor) has had one hell of a year. Finally getting an overseas release, The Man with the Iron Fists, is out to make it’s mark in the international market. As the lead villian, he impressed audiences and shows no signs of slowing down. Aside from film, he has joined the cast of CW’s highly anticipated new series, Arrow, as Yao Fei. He also plays a police officer fighting the criminal underworld of the Hong Kong triads alongside Emma Stone, Tom Wilkinson and Lucy Liu in the XBox360 video game Sleeping Dogs. Read below for the full interview…
I read you passed the California Bar Exam when you studied law some year ago. Quite impressive! How did you first become interested in acting, switching gears in your career?
Byron: Actually, I was fully intending to become a lawyer. Except that I didn’t realize that what lawyers really do in real life is 100% different from what they do on TV. On TV, lawyers give great, dramatic speeches in court, and there’s always a Victoria Secret model waiting for them at home at the end of the day. I found out that none of that exists in real life. A lawyer that I interned for during law school advised me to do something I like instead. The only thing I remember doing that I enjoyed was acting in high school plays. I was in Los Angeles going to school at that time, so I just went for it after I graduated from law school, and never looked back.
How did The Man in the Iron Fists project come about for you?
Byron: My manager sent a script to me, and mentioned that it would film in China. I read it and thought it was an interesting script with unusual characters. I put something on tape for several characters and sent it to the filmmakers. A month later, while I was judging a beauty contest in Vancouver (no joke), I got an email on my phone that they were interested. RZA apparently really liked my interpretation of one of the characters (“Poison Daggers”). But due to a strange twist of events, an actor that was originally cast as “Silver Lion” dropped out at the 11th hour. So RZA made a decisive move to cast me as “Silver Lion,” the main villain in the movie.
Well, Byron Mann did a screen test that was so cool. He didn’t originally try out for Silver Lion. He tried out for Poison Dagger. But his screen test was so fucking cool that I wanted him to be Silver Lion. He blew me away. The odd thing was to have him evolve into this weird type of guy. With his hair, I can see the Prince in him, I can see the Rod Stewart, and I can see the motherfucking Tina Turner in him. Quentin [Tarantino] told me that he thinks I found his star. When I saw him, we had already cast somebody else as Silver Lion. It was a guy who played a lot of roles in kung-fu movies. He already had the part, but would you believe that at the last minute, this guy came back and tried to double his money. He tried to fucking extort me. We already had a deal. I had already seen Byron’s screen test, so I was like, “If this guy wants to break the deal, let him break it. Byron is incredible, and I’d love to have this guy.” I remember pulling Eli aside and saying, “Fuck it. I already got my Christoph [Waltz]. I got a guy that’s gonna break out like Christoph.” Even my wife, who saw the movie for the first time at the premiere, was like, “Yo. Fucking Silver Lion. I love that guy!”
- Director, RZA, recounting the whole experience of casting Byron as ‘Silver Lion’.
How did you prepare for the role of Silver Lion?
Byron: Honestly, it was no different from any other roles. The main thing that struck me about this role of “Silver Lion” was that he should have a lot of fun. I shared that with RZA on the first day of filming that I’d like to try as many fun, wild, even sick ways of playing this character as I can. RZA liked the idea and we just kept building on it while we were filming. Much of what you see in the film is stuff we made up on the day.
Was playing a villain a lot of fun for you?
Byron: Playing “Silver Lion” was a lot of fun. And it’s even more fun when you’re doing that with a director like RZA who is open to ideas you bring while we’re filming. Villains, in general, are fun to play. There are no boundaries as to what you can do, unlike “hero” roles, where you kind of have to behave yourself.
For the last couple of year you have done lots of voice over and television work. Why did you feel RZA’s project was a great time to go back to acting on the big screen?
Byron: Actually, I’ve been doing television and films all along. It’s just that sometimes, you just don’t know which ones make it to the big screen, and which ones don’t. I did “The Man With The Iron Fists” more than a year ago, then I did a Chinese film, “Cold War” following that, and currently, I’m filming a U.S. television series, “Arrow.” “Iron Fists” hits the big screens everywhere in the US and Canada, and will roll out the rest of the world in the next few months. “Cold War” is the number 1 movie in China as it’s opening there this week, and “Arrow” is a bonafide, breakout hit on primetime TV. Did I know all this when I signed on? Definitely not. As an actor, you just take the most interesting projects that are offered to you, and try to do it the best you can.
It’s been almost 20 years since your breakout performance in Street Fighter. In present day, do you feel that you’ve been successful at this business?
Byron: I think anytime you can continue to work as an actor and make a living out of it, it’s a success. That’s true whether you’re in Hollywood, China, or India. It’s not an easy business to break into, and not an easy business to stay in either.
As a martial artist actor how do you find the balance to learning the style of the characters technique and playing the role that’s important and crucial to become convincing?
Byron: Actually, I would not characterize myself as a “martial arts” actor. I’m just an actor who has done a fair amount of action and martial arts movies. But it’s not the only thing I do. I’ve played doctors, detectives, politicians, and businessmen, characters that have nothing to do with martial arts. Whatever the role calls for, I try to do it the best I can.
What are some of your own personal favorite Asian films?
Byron: Honestly, there are too many to name. But here’s a sample: “A Better Tomorrow,” by John Woo. “An Autumn’s Tale,” by Mabel Cheung. “Comrades: A Love Story,” by Peter Chan. “Summer Palace,” by Lou Ye.
You’ve done quite a few projects in Hong Kong as well as the United States. Is there truth to the myth that you would have more control over your roles working in China and Hong Kong than in Hollywood?
Byron: Just being in China or Hong Kong doesn’t mean automatic control over film projects. If you’re the star of the project, then chances are you would have more room to exert control. That’s true for Hollywood as well.
Not to give any spoilers away, but Silver Lion’s storyline comes to a conclusion, but it could be interpreted in a number of different ways. If “The Man with the Iron Fists 2” ever moves forward would you be interested in reprises your role?
Byron: I would be happy to reprise the role of “Silver Lion” — but only if I can have my beautiful mane of hair again!
What lies ahead for you as an actor? What kind of roles appeal to you now this late in your career?
Byron: Frankly, I feel like I’m just getting started. I’m interested in stories, more than roles. If the story is well-told, and interesting, I’m all for it. Having said that though, I’m a sucker for romantic comedies, and romantic dramas.
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Header image photography by: Kevin Thomas