Mike Moh has been emulating Bruce Lee for about as long as he can remember.
“When I was 8, I saw Enter the Dragon; I just started watching the rest of his movies…” said Moh. “Nunchucks, flying kicks, shirtless, scrapes across the body: that’s how it started for me.”
Growing up watching Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Moh has long been inspired by martial arts. Though his casting process to play Lee in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” officially began in 2018, the owner of Moh’s Martial Arts in Waunakee started working as a kid towards portraying the most iconic martial arts master of the 20th century.
Moh signed up for Taekwondo at the age of 12 in Minnesota, earned his first black belt at 14 and never looked back. While still progressing in Taekwondo, he got the itch for acting in college at the University of Minnesota.
After cutting his teeth working in small commercials and student films, he eventually landed national commercials for Geico and Audi, among others. Parts in commercials ultimately gave way to TV roles that kept getting bigger and bigger, and Moh landed the breakthrough role of Ryu in the 2013 movie “Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist.”
Having made a mark in the film industry, Moh kept moved onwards and upwards, more recently appearing in “American Ninja Warrior,” “Empire” and “Marvel’s Inhumans.” Moh even auditioned once before to play Lee in the 2016 film “Birth of the Dragon,” though he ultimately failed to land the part.
“It was kind of a heartbreaking point in my career because Bruce is one of my heroes,” said Moh. “But now, looking back, it all worked out for a reason.”
The reason became clear soon enough. Only a couple years later – in April of 2018 – Moh got another chance to portray his hero. With a star-studded cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie already signed on for his film set in 1969 Hollywood, Tarantino was in search of the perfect actor to portray Bruce Lee.
“It started with a phone call from my agent,” said Moh. “They said, ‘Quentin Tarantino’s doing a new film; there’s a Bruce Lee character in it. It’s a really great role, but the thing is we need you in LA tomorrow…’ I was on a flight that night from Madison to Chicago to LA.”
Between running his martial arts studio in Waunakee and auditioning in California, Moh was forced to live a sort of double-life as casting progressed. He maintains that the ability to lean on strong teams in both Los Angeles and at home in Waunakee made it possible.
“This all would not be able to happen without me having such a great team around me,” said Moh. “Whether it’s at home with my wife and my kids cheering me on, in acting: a lot of mentors that I have in the acting game that are in Los Angeles, and then in my business: my instruction team and staff. I wouldn’t be able to do it without any of those people.”
After multiple auditions – and multiple last-minute flights back and forth from Madison to Los Angeles – Moh made one final casting trip to California, where he was met by a surprise table read. Only expecting a chemistry read with a small group of actors in the film, Moh quickly became acquainted with the complete A-list cast.
“Quentin greets me, introduces me to Burt Reynolds who, at the time, was a part of the movie,” said Moh. “I see all the stars: Margot Robbie, Leo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Dakota Fanning… I meet Al Pacino for the first time ever.”
With seemingly all of Hollywood present, Moh cleared the final hurdle between him and earning the role and headed back to Waunakee, awaiting the final word from Tarantino.
“It was a long process. Between the first call and me getting cast in the role was at least six weeks…” said Moh. “I got that call in about mid-June… I was at the Southbridge neighborhood pool with my kids and I took a call; it was my agent who said I won the role. I celebrated and jumped in the pool with a cannonball. I’m sure some of my neighbors at the pool were like, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ But it’s nothing new.”
Even with more than two decades of Taekwondo training under his now fifth-degree black belt, the challenge of transforming into Lee on film meant Moh had much to learn. Prior to the start of filming, Moh began studying Jeet Kune Do: a style of martial arts invented by Lee.
“I’ve never formally trained in Jeet Kune Do,” said Moh. “I’ve been doing Taekwondo since I was 12… I don’t want to say it’s apples to apples, because it’s definitely not. But my experience in Taekwondo for over two decades helped me bridge the gap between what Taekwondo is and what Jeet Kune Do is a lot faster.”
Moh’s role was more than just that of a stuntman in a fight scene, though. Every aspect of his demeanor was going to be under the microscope. Lee’s mannerisms, his accent, footwork and more were all characteristics Moh needed to nail in his depiction; he was, in fact, playing perhaps the most well-known martial artist of the 20th century in a movie generating Oscar buzz.
“You can’t just fake it,” said Moh. “Everybody knows what he sounded like. Everybody knows what his attitude was, what kind of aura he brought.”
In order to capture him as accurately as possible, Moh dived right into examining Lee’s every aspect. Moh pored over Lee’s movies and interviews to perfect the details that made him unique. He even read many of Lee’s personal writings to gain more insight into his mindset.
“Bruce had this fine line between confidence and cockiness that I really was drawn to,” Moh said. “But also, when you do a Bruce, sometimes people can go too far, and it becomes a caricature or a cartoon. I wanted to make sure that I did him justice and made it as real as possible.”
Though Tarantino’s films are known for bold and sometimes outlandish characters, Moh was impressed with how the Oscar-winning director had written the part of the real-life icon. Reading Tarantino’s lines even helped Moh get into character: a testament to how carefully crafted they were.
“He’s also one of the best writers of all time,” Moh said of Tarantino. “That’s where the teamwork aspect of filmmaking is very important; you have to trust the people to do their jobs. I’m not a writer. I’m not a Bruce Lee historian, although I know a lot about him. I signed onto the project after reading everything and seeing that Quentin definitely has a respect and reverence for Bruce in the way he writes him; it’s very accurate.”
The biggest piece of inspiration Moh took from Lee himself came from his most widely-recognized quote: “Be water, my friend.” Moh maintains the simple line has proved to be invaluable advice not just in portraying Lee, but in dealing with obstacles throughout life.
“Water can flow or it can crash; some moments in your life it’s best to go against the grain and break through it…” said Moh. “As I get older, I’m starting to know what battles are worth fighting for and what battles are better to just let flow. That happens not only in martial arts and in the challenges of operating a martial arts school, but also in an acting career.”
The combination of all Moh’s study and efforts emulating Lee and Tarantino’s clever writing already appears to have paid dividends. Though the film hasn’t yet been released – the premiere is set for July 22 in Hollywood followed by a nationwide opening July 26 – Moh’s performance received rave reviews following its showing at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Owen Gleiberman of Variety claims Moh’s impression of Lee is “played to ferocious perfection,” while Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian says Moh’s fight against Pitt – parts of which are shown in one of the movie’s trailers – is “the most outrageous scene – and the funniest.”
“Brad and I were in serious training for that sequence; we trained for two weeks,” said Moh. “He was really dedicated – he’s not a martial artist by nature – so he put in a ton of work to be able to do all of the fight himself. That’s us; it’s not doubles.”
Despite Pitt’s lack of fighting experience, squaring off against the A-list actor wasn’t exactly without peril. The intensive training before filming their fight scene proved to be crucial for many reasons, though one concern in particular stood out most in Moh’s mind.
“Don’t break his face,” joked Moh. “Don’t break his ribs. Don’t get fired by hurting the star of the movie… I think the training is two-fold. Number one to get the fight down and make sure that it’s really prepared, and number two is getting a familiarity and comfort level with each other. I had to get comfortable working with him, and he needed to be able to trust me.”
As for how Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth – Pitt’s character – came to trading blows? Well, that remains a mystery, only to be learned upon actually seeing the film on the big screen. Moh himself hasn’t yet watched “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” in its entirety, but will be on the red carpet for its premiere.
“[My wife and I] got an invite to the Hollywood premiere,” said Moh. “So they’ll fly us out there, roll out the red carpet for us, put us up in a fancy hotel in Hollywood and on Monday the 22nd, we’ll have the big premiere and party.”
As perhaps the final chapter of his double life associated with this movie, Moh also has plans to do a slightly less formal hometown premiere near Waunakee.
“On the weekend of the national release, we’re going to find a theater and get all of our students’ parents,” Moh said. “Have the parents drop off the kids here [at Moh’s Martial Arts] so they can be well taken care of, the parents will go out and we’ll enjoy the movie together.”
The final audience hoping to see Moh’s performance won’t get to check out the film for quite some time. Moh’s children – ages 4, 6 and 8 – have a bit of growing to do before they’ll get to see their dad’s latest movie, as Tarantino flicks have a reputation for being less-than-suitable for younger audiences.
“Yeah, I’m not going to let them watch the whole film…” laughed Moh. “I think there’s going to be a time when my scene will end up on YouTube: just the parts that I’m in, because they’re pretty memorable. Hopefully that will happen; then I can just show the kids that part.”
As Moh’s career continues to grow – both in acting and martial arts – he welcomes upcoming challenges. Moh’s Martial Arts is currently on their fourth location after outgrowing the previous three and has launched Go Ninja right next door. It may seem a tall task for Moh to find a role that will top playing his childhood hero, but then again, it isn’t the first time he’s found himself in this situation.
“I used to think in 2013 playing one of my childhood heroes in video game form [Ryu in Street Fighter] was the top of the mountain for me,” said Moh. “But kind of like in martial arts, once you reach the top of one mountain, it’s not the end. That’s just a new viewpoint where you’re going to see a lot more mountains that you might not have seen when you’re at the bottom of the hill.”