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The Shadow of the Dragon : It wasn't easy finding an actor to play martial arts god Bruce Lee, but Jason Scott Lee found the key to the man behind the flying fists

May 02, 1993|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer

"I waited all weekend long, like I'd given the script to Mel Gibson. I waited all day Saturday, all day Sunday. Finally I couldn't take it anymore and called him. 'Well?' 'I don't know if I can do the man justice,' Jason said. That convinced me. If he'd said, 'Hey, no problem,' I might've had a different feeling. I promised him, 'I'll never let you down. I know you'll never let me down. We're gonna pull this off.' 'OK,' he said."

So here we have, in the spring of 1993, an intriguing arrival: for the action movie crowd, a fearsome new Avenger. For serious filmgoers gripped in boredom and displeasure over the test-market trash Hollywood has been spewing out with greater and greater redundancy, not just a new face--there are always plenty of those--but the stirring possibility of a new talent, a genuine actor who might take them places.

Who, then, is this figure emerging from the subcontinental Hollywood genus termed Virtual Unknown?

"I was born here in L.A., but my parents moved us to Oahu when I was 2," Lee said. "I have an older brother and sister, and two younger brothers who're twins. My dad is retired from the telephone company and recently went to work driving an airport bus for Avis. He's one-quarter Hawaiian and three-quarters Chinese. My mother is all Chinese. She was studying fashion design at Los Angeles City College and he was in the Air Force when they met.

"Oahu is a real melting pot. You have not only Hawaiians, but Samoans, Filipinos, Portuguese, Japanese. A lot of my upbringing was around nature. We'd go crabbing on the beach and do lots of outdoor things. The major outlet for my life was physical. You grow up acquiring an identity based on grace and movement. As I grew older I began to think about how form dictated what you did, like if you were running, the motion your body took to generate speed. I was trying to develop a philosophy, but I didn't have a lot of book learning. I was raw, not heady. I realized I needed an academic education, so I came back and enrolled at Fullerton College."

At 26, Lee is in the prime-time zone of an athlete's life, when the body almost hums with muscular tension yet retains a peculiar reflexive delicacy (he was a top volleyball player and gymnast at Pearl City High School and practices jeet kune do daily). He stands an inch or so under six feet and wears his hair shoulder-length, like a figure out of Gaugin. You can see in a flash what captivated Cohen and Ward: angles that would successfully appeal to the camera's ruthless inquiry. And something in the eyes, humor certainly, and curiosity. And perhaps owing to the tranquillity of his upbringing, a fearlessness.

Though it was early in the afternoon, Lee was shaking off the sleepy aftereffect of a long flight up from Easter Island, where he's filming "Rapa Nui" for director Kevin Reynolds (Lee plays the grandson of a tribal chieftain during a period of cultural upheaval). He stood in a hotel suite gazing indecisively over a large platter of fruit, wearing a white tank top and a lava-lava--that is, a cotton Hawaiian garment cinched at the waist like a bath towel and blended with tropical tones, lavenders and pinks and blues. He settled on a soft drink and sat down.

"I was taking a full academic load at Fullerton, but I wasn't that happy about it," he continued. "It was more like something I had to do. But then I signed up for an acting class as an elective. I felt myself opening up. I didn't even know how to walk on a stage until my second semester, but I felt the challenge to do things terribly unknown to me. I had a teacher, Sal Romeo, who emphasized the spiritual side of acting and the exploration of the subconscious, the quieting of mind-chatter."

It's a bit startling to hear Lee speak in the seeming uninflected accent of an Orange County school-kid; it's then, recalling his Chinese-American accent as Bruce Lee and the laconic, tundra-flat tone he brings to Avik, that you realize what a superb vocal technician he is.

"It felt strange being in Orange County. It's such a homogenized culture. The idea of success is having a BMW or a Mercedes. The vibrations felt so strange to me, the way people dressed, the way they walked and talked, their rhythms. And Los Angeles seemed like such a huge metropolis compared to Oahu."

It was the sensation of being an outsider that fed Lee's growing bank of observations, which in turn fed into his preoccupation with acting; he left school in 1987 to join Romeo's new theater group on North Vermont Avenue, the Friends and Artists Theater Ensemble.

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