Lee Byung Hun does not want to go naked anymore

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 1, 2013.

With Red 2, his second English- language movie this year, South Korean actor Lee Byung Hun's star continues to burn brightly in Hollywood.

The new movie has boosted Lee - a major film and television star across Asia, with new fans in the West - to the point where he is now getting recognised on the street in the United States, he says.

His Red 2 co-stars Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren say it is recognition well-earned, both singing his praises at a recent press event in New York.

The feelings are mutual. Lee says he was beside himself when he learnt he would be working with them and other members of the star-studded cast. "I was so excited that I couldn't sleep. Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich - they're my heroes."

"Helen... I grew up with her movies too," he tells Life! and other reporters. "Her image is so cold and tough but in real life, she is amazingly beautiful and amazingly nice. I really love and admire her."

Willis, who worked with Lee in another action film released earlier this year, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, was the one who first suggested roping in the 43-year-old actor for Red 2, the sequel to the 2010 film about special agents coming out of retirement.

Here he plays Han, a contract killer hired to kill Frank Moses, Willis' ex-CIA agent character.

Lee - who has appeared in the Korean series All In (2003) and Iris (2009), as well as internationally acclaimed films such as director Kim Ji Woon's A Bittersweet Life (2005) - was also an assassin-type character in G.I. Joe: Retaliation and 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, his Hollywood debut.

Although the three Hollywood films have required him to flex his muscles and show his martial arts moves, Red 2 calls for more dialogue, including some that required good comic timing.

Lee acquitted himself well, Willis reports. "He's a really terrific actor. Funny and really helpful in scenes that were more complicated physically," says the American star of the Die Hard films.

Mirren, who plays another assassin out to kill Willis, went to a film festival in London to watch one of Lee's Korean movies, Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King.

In the 2012 historical drama, he plays both a king and the lowly acrobat who stands in for the monarch when his life is threatened.

"He was absolutely brilliant in it," enthuses the British actress who won the Best Actress Oscar for The Queen (2006), adding: "It was pure acting. And to see him as this incredible martial arts actor as well, I think he's really special."

Mirren and another cast member, Mary-Louise Parker, make admiring references to Lee's chiselled physique in this film, which features a scene where his character is forced to take off all his clothes.

"Yeah, every Hollywood movie makes me go naked," Lee jokes, adding, "I wish they would stop it" because it means a punishing diet and exercise regimen that lasts for months.

"Every character I have done in Hollywood so far, I have had to be perfect, physically," he says.

"In Red 2, there was one line in the script that said, 'Han is naked. His body is perfect'. Because of that line, I had to go on this diet," he says of his high-protein, sugar- and salt-free regimen.

"I was in New Orleans, which is famous for fried food and has a lot of great bars, and I couldn't enjoy it because I was filming," says the actor, who is set to marry South Korean actress Lee Min Jung, 31, next Saturday.

He hopes that as his career in the United States grows, he will eventually be able to branch out and do different genres, just as he does back home.

"Unlike in Hollywood, I'm just an actor in Korea. We do various genres, we don't distinguish between action stars versus dramatic actors. We do everything."

Things are progressing in the right direction, if the level of recognition he gets from paparazzi is any indication. But as a humbling reminder, he just has to think back to a time when none of them knew who he was.

When he left a cast party for the first G.I. Joe film, for instance, he remembers spotting about 30 photographers waiting outside.

"I said to my manager, 'Do I look okay?' but when I walked out, the photographers were like, 'Move, move!' because they wanted me out of the way," he recalls, laughing.

"Nobody recognised me. I was so embarrassed!"

Red 2 opens in Singapore today.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 1, 2013.To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to