There’s no shortage of star power in Quentin Tarantino’s new film. However, only one lives in the Madison area.
For Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which screens at theaters here starting July 25, the visionary director takes on Tinseltown circa 1969, at the time of the Manson murders. It’s got an impressive cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, plus Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. But for the role of her friend — legendary actor and martial artist Bruce Lee — Tarantino went with Mike Moh, a relative unknown.
The 35-year-old runs Moh’s Martial Arts in Waunakee. A Minnesota native, he moved to the city in 2013 after spending time in L.A. working as an actor and stuntman. Before Tarantino, Moh was probably best known for playing another beloved (fictional) martial artist, Ryu, in the web series Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist. But that’s not the only reason his casting as Lee seemed fated.
Enter ‘Enter the Dragon’
Like many young martial artists, Moh was initially push toward martial arts by Lee’s films.
“When I was 8, I saw Enter the Dragon; I just started watching the rest of his movies…” Moh told the Waunakee Tribune last week. “Nunchucks, flying kicks, shirtless, scrapes across the body: that’s how it started for me.”
As an adolescent, Moh began taking taekwondo classes and eventually rose to fifth-degree black belt. He even met his wife Richelle at the studio, which was owned by her parents. Moh himself began teaching there while attending the University of Minnesota (we can’t all be perfect) and intended to go into banking after school. But after a friend helped him land a role on the stunt team of a Jackie Chan movie, plans changed.
Moh and his wife moved to Los Angeles, and he would go on to snag a recurring role in Empire, plus appearances on shows like Castle and True Blood. Even after moving back to the Madison area in 2013, Moh kept acting. He was cast as the superhero Triton in Marvel’s Inhumans, but it was canceled after one season.
Paying to play
In Waunakee, Moh opened Moh’s Martial Arts, where he soon became known as a charismatic and popular instructor. He was actually in the middle of a class when his agent called him about auditioning for a new Quentin Tarantino movie. He bought a plane ticket to L.A. and had 24 hours to learn the part. A week later, he found out he had done well enough that Tarantino wanted to meet him. And then… nothing.
“Another week goes by, and I wonder if I’m still in (the mix),” Moh recently told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Then my agent calls and says, ‘Can you be there tomorrow?’ I bought another ticket — and of course this is all on my own dime, because most actors live in Los Angeles and they just drive.”
Moh read the part of Bruce Lee with the director, who also walked him through one of his fight scenes. Imagine being in Waunakee, minding your own business, and 24 hours later being in a room with the guy who did Pulp Fiction. I would soil myself. But when Tarantino asked Moh about the audition, he adopted Lee’s cocksure attitude.
“I said, ‘I don’t have any questions. But I do want to say that if you cast me, people are going to think Bruce Lee has come back to life to be in your film.’”
He got the part.
‘A great character’
Viewers first encountered Moh through Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s trailer, in which Lee meets fictional stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt). In addition to his skills as a martial artist, it’s clear Moh is a gifted actor as well. His mimicry of everything from Lee’s mannerisms to his speaking cadence is spot on.
Moh dove deep into research for the role, which included listening to interviews with Lee (who died in 1973) for hours on end. It’s unclear how large Moh’s role in the film is, since it hasn’t premiered yet. But what can be gathered is the impact it’s had on his burgeoning career.
“It provided kind of a road map for the future,” Moh told the State Journal. “Whether it’s a real or fictional character, now I know what kind of work and dedication it takes to portray a great character.”
And if you were worried a Hollywood lifer might be a dick in real life, let Moh quell your fears. Brad Pitt is apparently “an amazing, down-to-earth” guy. Thank god. It’s already hard enough to rewatch Se7en.