The first time Mike Moh met Quentin Tarantino, they were crammed into a small room inside a Los Angeles casting office. Moh was in the second round of auditions for the role of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (out July 26). After watching Moh deliver his lines, Tarantino pounced. “Let’s get you up on your feet,” he said.
Moh stood up and found himself toe-to-toe with the Academy Award–winning director, not knowing what to expect. “So here’s what I’m thinking for the fight,” said Tarantino, who then spent the next five minutes taking Moh through the Hong Kong–style martial-arts moves he’d picked up from a lifetime of watching kung fu movies. Moh labored to keep up. “At one point, he’s down on the floor,” Moh says. “Then he’s up in the air. By the end of it, we were both sweating. It was wild.”
The 35-year-old won the role in the Tarantino film—which, among other things, aspires to acquaint a new generation with Bruce Lee’s impact on film and martial arts. Before the kung fu movie craze blew up in the ’60s, it was a purely Hong Kong phenomenon. But that all changed in the spring of 1973, when Lee’s The Big Boss landed in U. S. theaters. It relaunched the Hong Kong film superstar—who until then was better known stateside for his work on the one-and-done season of ABC’s The Green Hornet—and sent kung fu movies flooding onto our shores. At one point, says Matthew Polly, author of Bruce Lee: A Life, “there were 30 chop-socky films from Hong Kong playing in New York City.”
Then Enter the Dragon dropped in the summer of ’73—a month after Lee’s untimely death at age 32—and broke the mold. It was the first kung fu film to be produced expressly for an American audience and made it trendy to use real martial-arts practitioners as actors. Many American movie stuntmen complained that Lee’s quick and close fighting style, which he called Jeet Kune Do, moved too fast. “They were all used to the John Wayne punch that misses by three feet,” Polly says. “Bruce wanted to get in close, do a bunch of things, and just barely miss. Guys didn’t know how to react.” Dragon was a box-office smash that established martial-arts movies as a bona fide action subgenre.
In the process, Lee became a household name and a wiry fitness legend whose likeness became as prevalent inside gyms as it was in the martial-arts studios popping up across the country. “If you think about men in terms of iconic physiques, there’s Arnold and then there’s Bruce,” says Moh, who first watched Dragon at age eight. He connected with Lee’s swagger and underdog status. “You have this automatic picture of Bruce just ripped with his shirt off and his big aviators on.” That was all the motivation he needed to begin doing pushups in the basement of his home and perfecting his Lee impression in the mirror. Moh started tae kwon do lessons at 12. “Bruce is the GOAT. I’m not trying to be the next Bruce Lee,” he says. “I’m just trying to do him justice.”
Like Lee, Moh, a fifth-degree tae kwon do black belt, is an actor–slash–martial-arts instructor with his very own school (in Waunakee, Wisconsin, where he lives). Like Lee, he fights with a sort of hyperkinetic grace. Like Lee, he’s married with kids and prides himself on being a family man. And like Lee, he’s had doors slammed in his face in Hollywood. “I didn’t get into acting because I thought the only way I could make my mark is by being a martial artist,” he says. “It just so happened that I was drawn to kung fu flicks.”
That’s a testament to Lee’s influence on kung fu films, which had fallen out of favor at the box office by the time Moh was growing up in the Twin Cities during the ’80s and ’90s—mostly because no other headliner could approach Lee’s blend of skill, charisma, and English fluency. It’s also a testament to the subgenre’s impact on action choreography. “The Matrix in particular did something powerful, which was to incorporate a kung fu movie into a completely different genre,” says Polly. “Now when you watch a Marvel fight scene, they’re throwing knees and elbows and kicks. They’re martial-arts badasses.”
The same goes for after-school shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which Moh binge-watched. It’s almost too fitting that his first acting break came courtesy of a chance encounter with Mike Chat (aka the Blue Lightspeed Rescue Power Ranger), who recruited Moh for a stunt role in a Hong Kong action comedy starring Jackie Chan in 2005. “Jackie would eat with the stunt guys. He also helped direct. He also swept the floor,” Moh recalls. “It was eye-opening.”
Those lessons in humility helped Moh deal with casting directors who saw him as little more than a major martial-arts talent with minor acting chops. Even past attempts to play Lee ended in rejection. “Honestly, it seemed like I was cursed,” Moh says. “Like, Okay, maybe this is not meant to happen.” But then, after that sweaty sparring session with Tarantino, he scored his breakthrough.
Moh’s resemblance to Lee starts with his five-foot-eight frame. (Lee was five-foot-seven.) But he’s heavier, at 145 pounds—Lee was a zero-body-fat 135. Lee was years ahead with his approach to training, too: The fitness polymath lifted weights, did calisthenics, ran intervals, and skipped rope, as well as mixing martial arts long before MMA was a thing. Moh admits he can’t peacock like Lee, who could do single-arm, two-finger, and thumb-only pushups. Moh’s training is focused on tae kwon do, but for this role, he did more weights to tone his muscle and cut carbs to claw out that six-pack. Moh also practiced kicks and punches for hours to imitate Lee’s grace and flow. “Bruce wanted that animalistic spirit to come out in his movements. You hear Bruce’s ‘WoooooAAAAHHHH’ and you know.”
Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood hits theaters the same year as the finale of AMC’s martial-arts drama Into the Badlands and the debut of Cinemax’s kung fu crime series Warrior (based on a concept Lee came up with). While it’s still too early to say whether this is a blip or a trend, Once Upon a Time has rekindled America’s fascination with Lee, an actor who was often imitated but not especially well, though Jason Scott Lee (no relation) set a worthy standard in the 1993 biopic Dragon.
Moh’s take, which became the unexpected highlight of the Once Upon a Time trailer, earned even higher marks. “When I watched him,” says Polly, “I was like, yeah, that’s righteous. He gets the aspect of who Bruce Lee was as a character onscreen.” Most of all, he nails Lee’s accent, a mix of Hong Kong and American English. Moh never anticipated so much buzz about whether he’d play Lee again. “What I really want to do is work on great projects with great people,” he says. “And if that happens to fall in line with something that’s Bruce-related, it would be my honor to do it again.” In the meantime, he’ll settle for defying audiences’ expectations. Just like Lee.