Stuntwoman Michelle Lee: John Wick wouldn’t fight the way he did without the stunt team

The ‘Bullet Train’ actor talks about her background in martial arts, why we need to recognise stunt actors more, and on being an Asian working in Hollywood

May 30, 2023 04:23 pm | Updated 06:54 pm IST

Michelle Lee

Michelle Lee | Photo Credit: Rob Echanique

“I think Hollywood could take notice of the stunt community more,” says actor and professional stuntwoman, Michelle Lee, who plays the role of an assassin in the Brad Pitt and Joey King-starring Bullet Train, which is all set to be aired on &flix this weekend.

Talking about the role, the 44-year-old actor, on a video call from California where she is based, says that it is a “super fun role, small but cool. I play a nurse who takes on an assassin.” In many ways, it is similar to the sort of characters she has always essayed, whether as Ada Wong in Resident Evil 6, Mileena in the second season of Mortal Kombat or as Corinne Wan in Marvel’s Venom, roles that employ her stunt and martial art background to the fullest.

In this interview, she talks about the genesis of her stunt career, how Hollywood is more accepting of actors of colour and why stunt actors should be given a slot in the Academy Awards.

You were born and grew up in California. Can you talk a little about how the culture of the place you grew up in played into your own interest in martial arts and acting?

I was born in Long Beach and grew up in South Bay, Torrance area. Growing up in LA, meant you had a lot of friends who were actors. As a kid, I got headshots because all my other friends had them and they all auditioned. That was a thing you do in LA; it was very common. I was extremely shy so my mum put me in acting classes. I really fell in love with the freedom - to have fun, express yourself, not have any kind of rules, just kind of play. That is where I discovered acting and fell in love with it as a kid. It was at the back of my head for years.

My next love was martial arts; I discovered it while watching a Wushu performance. The Beijing Wushu team came to Oakland or St Francisco, I don’t remember now. I watched a performance and I was like ‘Oh my god, what is this? I must learn it.’ When I went to LA to pursue acting, martial arts fell into the work since you bring something to the table. But of course, there were so many other things I had to learn.

How much did your Taiwanese heritage impede acting roles when you started out? Hollywood after all had far fewer roles for people of colour. Has this changed, both personally and at an industry level?

Oh, definitely. I have seen a huge change both in the number of people of colour and the type of roles for people of colour. It used to be very surface; one line, and you have nothing to do with the story! There is (today) more background and story behind them.

There is always room to grow. If you think about it, how many shows have an all-Asian cast? Very few in the last 20 years. Things like that can definitely improve;with everyone else’s support in writing good content, finding talented performers and taking a chance on performers of colour.

Is Hollywood more cognizant of the impact of stunt people today? Has SWAMP (Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures) changed the narrative in any way?

Stunts are such an integral part of a film. Things could not be shot the way they are without it; you couldn’t have the action in Marvel without them, and John Wick wouldn’t fight the way he did without the stunt team. There is definitely room to be recognised more. The biggest thing we are fighting for is a slot in the Academy Awards. There are so many categories in the Academy Awards. I don’t understand why stunts wouldn’t have a small part in that. It is such a big contributor to film in general. I definitely think there is room to acknowledge that a lot more.

SWAMP has a special place in my heart. They are the first women stunt group to come together and say, ‘Hey we are women, there are not a lot of us. Let us support each other.’ I feel so lucky to be a part of this group. They are all professionals with years of experience behind them and they are extremely talented with a great knowledge of the industry. I think things like this and having other people (who are not from the stunt industry) pushing for us and recognising us will help.

What has the journey been from stuntwoman to actor? Can you tell me a little about this?

I started with acting and had headshots when I was six. So, I feel like an actor more. Stunts really gave me the opportunity to work a lot in the industry at a time when Asians weren’t very cast-able; I am very fortunate and appreciate stunts for that. The journey back to acting feels natural. It is what I started out doing. Now I have the combination of the two. When you get other skills on the job, it only makes your job better.

What is next up for you?

I’m part of the Star Wars series that is coming out soon. I don’t know how much I can talk about it. But I can say, it was magical to shoot, a joy to witness first-hand.

Bullet Train will be telecast on Sunday, 4th June at 12 pm and 9 pm on &flix.

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