It's a typical weekday at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. Clint Eastwood is signing autographs just outside the hotel's front window for a cluster of near-frantic fans. A parade of the wealthy and connected pass through the lobby on their way to lunch at the hotel, ground zero for industry deal-making. Inside the bar, however, no one gives even a sideways glance at the handsome, tousle-haired actor Byung-hun Lee, who at first appears somewhat unsure of himself as he speaks quietly in halting English.
Then Lee turns toward his translator and as he talks to her in his native Korean, his demeanor changes entirely. His voice grows deep and strong, he sits up straight and his eyes take on a commanding glow.
Suddenly it makes sense that Lee is called South Korea's Brad Pitt. It's a comparison invited by his smoldering good looks, easygoing charm and mega-star status at home. In Seoul, he would be the one surrounded by frantic fans.
His latest film, "Masquerade," is a smash hit in South Korea. It's his most ambitious and far-reaching film to date and one that just might push him to a new level of notoriety in America.
Already this summer, Lee, 42, who has been acting for 22 years but didn't break into U.S. movies until 2009 as super ninja Storm Shadow in "GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra," has had his handprints and footprints immortalized in cement at a ceremony in the court of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. (He and longtime star Ahn Sung-ki are the only Koreans to have done so.)
"I didn't allow myself to even dream about Hollywood until a few years ago," Lee says. "I didn't expect it. It just happened all of a sudden. This is like a dream."
This month, he starts work on his next project, "Red 2," which begins filming this month in Montreal and stars Bruce Willis, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Lee is overwhelmed at the thought of working with these heavy hitters. He is also concerned about his age.
"These are all actors I admire and want to be like, they're expert," says Lee. "I'm really nervous to be the youngest."
When it is pointed out that in America being the youngest is usually considered an advantage, Lee smiles. It's different in South Korea, he says, where age and experience are prized.
A few hours after he leaves the Four Seasons, Lee is walking the red carpet for the North American premiere of "Masquerade" at Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater. An excitable group of wailing Korean and American fans hint at the mania Lee regularly experiences on the streets back home.
It takes Lee more than a half-hour to walk about 20 feet to the theater's doors. Wearing a smart black suit, a crisp white shirt and no tie, Lee looks poised and relaxed as he makes his way through the crowd. With a ready, honest smile, dark and intense eyes, chiseled cheekbones and perfect hair, Lee betrays none of the exhaustion he admits he feels after conducting back-to-back interviews in English for more than five hours earlier in the day (a task that he says left him feeling "stupid").
"Masquerade" is Lee's first period film and marks his first crack at playing two characters in one movie. The sweeping historical drama (which also contains some seriously funny scenes) is set in AD 1600 in the royal palace of Korea's Joseon Dynasty. Lee plays both King Gwanghae and Ha-seon, a low-brow peasant performer who is recruited to pose as the king during a period that the king fears someone is trying to assassinate him.
Gwanghae is a deeply controversial figure in Korean history. He is believed to have been a harsh, even cruel ruler, but it is also thought that he was responsible for enacting humanitarian and visionary policies. The film imagines a scenario where the good policies were the work of a sympathetic body double. Lee plays both characters to great effect. The Times' Robert Abele praised Lee's "commanding central performances."
"The most important thing is that [the double] has to be loved by the audience," says Lee, who imbues Ha-seon with a palpable warmth and brings him to life with skilled physical comedy that borders on slapstick.
"I was worried about the comic scenes," Lee says. "They were risky. Too much physical comedy could be considered a farce and not sophisticated. Getting it just right, controlling it, was really hard."
That's because at heart "Masquerade" is an earnest film about the inherent goodness in humans, with Ha-seon emerging as a hero of the people. It's a tear-jerker that's not afraid of the occasional fart joke.
After the screening, Lee's smooth edges begin to fray just a bit as he sits onstage being peppered with fast-paced, in-depth questions about his roles and career.
Coming off the stage, Lee's exhaustion shows. Earlier, he revealed that while he is excited to be in America, he wishes he were in Seoul to soak up the success of "Masquerade."
"They're breaking records over there," he said. "I feel so bad that I'm here. Whenever I open a movie I go secretly to the theater and stand in the back and enjoy the moment. I laugh when people laugh and when people cry, I laugh."
Still, he acknowledges that bigger dreams are coming true for him.
Lee's father, a businessman who was a huge fan of American westerns, particularly those starring Clint Eastwood, died when the actor was 29. Now Lee lives in a suburb of Seoul with his mother in a house with a wine cellar and a home theater. When he put his hands in cement for Grauman's he took his mother with him.
"She said, 'I'm so proud of you,'" says Lee, his eyes warm and distant. "'And if your dad were here, he'd be so proud, too.'"