From director Niki Caro, the epic tale of Mulan tells the story of a fearless young woman (Yifei Liu) whose love for her family and country send her on a journey to becoming one of China’s greatest warriors. As she learns to embrace her inner strength and true potential, she also earns respect on the battlefield, bringing honor to her proud father.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Jason Scott Lee – who plays the film’s villain Böri Khan – talked about how much fun it is to be the bad guy, what it takes to pull off a movie like this, what success looks like to the terrifying warrior, what made the training so intense, the unique dynamic between Böri Khan and Xianniang (Gong Li), and the epic fight sequence he shot between his character and Mulan.
Collider: You played a Disney hero, as Mowgli in The Jungle Book, and now you’re playing a Disney villain, with Böri Khan in Mulan. Is it more fun to be the bad guy?
JASON SCOTT LEE: I’ve gotta say, after this experience, yes. I like the intensity of it and the darker moments. I like the costumes. I like the bad-ass black. The whole image is really intimidating, and that’s fun.
Did it feel different to do a retelling of a Disney story back then compared to now? Does it feel like it’s on an even more extravagant level now?
LEE: Yeah, for sure, just watching the building of the production and the design of the costume. All of the different departments were so spot-on and amazing. Any time I would step into any of the departments or watch anything that was being built, I was just in awe. It’s such a big undertaking, [and] all of these big cranes and the amount of the effects and technology that they have now is amazing.
What do you think would most impress and surprise people about what it takes to make a movie like this?
LEE: It’s moving a city. Unless they see a documentary, I don’t think people really see things that explain all of the detail and the research. It’s about trying to get things right because you’re gonna get criticized for so many things, down to the smallest detail, so you’ve gotta be crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s, and do it with panache.
From Mulan’s perspective, Böri Khan is the villain of the story, but he’s also someone with a very clear focus who’s very determined to carry out his mission. Since no villain sees themselves as the villain, how do you think he views what he’s trying to accomplish? What does success look like to him?
LEE: I think success is his culture flourishing and acquiring back tribal lands that were overrun by the Chinese Imperial magistrate. I think he sees crushing that culture that pushed his people out as a success. That’s something that future generations can live up to.
In what ways do you think he would see Mulan as the villain for him?
LEE: I don’t think he sees her as a threat, and maybe that’s why he gets subdued. He underestimates that power. He’s dealing with hordes of armies, so one singular warrior is no match for him. But the tables turn, at certain points.
You’ve previously talked about how you’ve been a very physical actor in a lot of your roles, but you’ve never trained quite to this degree. What was the training like for this? Why was it so much more intense?
LEE: I think, for one, I’m past 50. That’s plays a heavy toll in the recovery. My family was gracious enough to leave me alone and let me suffer the slings and arrows of getting back into that 4% body fat shape that I was maybe in Dragon, back when I was 26. It was torturous, it was transformational, it was enlightening, it was so many things. I really feel rewarded that I walked away with something special. Whenever you can walk away from a project and feel like you’re uplifted and you made a really great transformation, personally and career wise, it’s always a plus. You always feel great about that.
How did all of that preparation – whether it was putting together the look or doing the physical training – help inform the way you wanted to carry yourself and move with him?
LEE: What we were going for is a very primal and tribal character, really of the earth. Because the training was so hard, you had to really dig deep into your resources, to the point where you were crying out, “Mama!” I told my wife, with this kind of training, I know what it’s like to go through labor as a woman, and that was happening every day. It was a crack-up. It just changes everything.
There’s such an interesting dynamic between your character and Gong Li’s character, Xianniang. How did you see their relationship? Do you see that as a master and slave relationship?
LEE: I think Böri Khan is very cunning. What he tries to do is bring her in as a partner, but what his ulterior motives are, are very selfish. In his mind, she’s expendable, so there’s a certain degree of just using her for her ability, to get what he wants. That was how I was perceiving it. It’s not so much master/slave, but it’s a tool. She’s a tool in the agenda and the strategy to pursue his selfish ideals and, in the end, may not be so selfish because it’s for his culture and his people. He sees her as a anomaly and a freak that doesn’t belong, but is useful, to a degree.
What’s it like to work on that relationship with Gong Li?
LEE: I remember our first readings with (director) Niki [Caro], altogether, the three of us, and what she brought to the table, and it started then. There was a mutual respect. I always respected her space and her mind, and because of that mutual respect, we were able to create something that really worked well with each other.
In a movie like this, the hero and the villain inevitably have to have a big epic fight scene. What was it like to do that big final fight sequence between Mulan and Böri Khan?
LEE: That was huge because it was so many different sets and so many different levels of it. It took a long time. We started working on it, and then we backed away due to weather concerns, ‘cause some of it was outdoors, and then we came back to it. It was just very tedious because of all of the safety measures that we had to go through, and all of the wire work. It was like, “Come in and do this one bit.” It was all of these bits and pieces that somehow worked when it came together. Yifei [Liu] did fantastic. It was on this precarious scaffolding, and there were some safety measures that were taking place. You have to have your balance and your wits about you.
Was that the most challenging fight scene, or was there another fight that we wouldn’t expect would be challenging?
LEE: What’s interesting is that, when you get on a film of this size, you train for so many things and with so many combinations of choreography. And then, sometimes there’s a time crush or things shift around and the timing’s not right for it, so it gets deleted. You get worked up, memorizing many different fights. At the top of the movie, when Böri Khan shows up, there was supposed to be a more complicated fight scene, but the effort that was taking place was done off-screen. We have such a big library of things that maybe didn’t make it into the film, but the big effort was trying to get all of these different things to the fore. I think a lot of it was the opening, and then some of the horse riding stuff, which was complicated, just because of the nature of that.
Mulan is available to stream at Disney+ with Premier Access.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.