'Dragon' star Jason Scott Lee shares how playing Bruce Lee broke him — and then healed him
Lee reveals the pressures he felt playing the martial arts icon
Jason Scott Lee remembers the exact moment that carrying the weight of Bruce Lee's legacy became too much for him. "I had an emotional breakdown while I was training," reveals the star of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the hit 1993 movie based on the short, but eventful life of the martial arts icon. "Everything was too heavy, you know? It was so much pressure and I just fell apart."
"I couldn't do anything for a week," the 56-year-old actor tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "I was just flattened. Looking back now, I can laugh about it, but when I was in the middle of it, it felt like my whole world was collapsing. All I thought, was, 'I'm going to be the one that everyone mocks.'"
But nobody mocked Lee when Dragon hit theaters 30 years ago on May 7, 1993. On the contrary, the Hawaiian actor received sterling reviews for his portrayal of Bruce Lee, who died suddenly from a cerebral edema two decades earlier at age 32. (Born in 1966, Lee is of Hawaiian and Chinese descent, but isn't related to the man he's playing in Dragon.)
Watch our full interview with Dragon star Jason Scott Lee on YouTube:
More importantly, Lee had the love and support of the Fist of Fury star's surviving friends — like former Bruce Lee student turned martial arts instructor, Jerry Poteet — and family members, including wife Linda Lee Cadwell and their children Shannon and Brandon Lee. And he credits all of them with helping him through the breakdown that could have derailed his big break as an Asian American leading man in Hollywood.
"Jerry used to tell me that what a lot of people didn't know about Bruce is that he spent a lot of time in bed, because he'd push himself too hard and injure himself — he was constantly laid up. That's what he said I'd want to get across, that he's not going to give up. And it was in the training that I felt that... there was a definite transformation."
Three decades later, Lee still feels transformed by the act of embodying Bruce Lee on the big screen. "That experience has changed my life," reflects the actor during an expansive chat about the film and his career ahead of the film's 30th anniversary and the start of AAPI Heritage Month. (Lee's latest film, the Hawaiian historical drama, The Wind & the Reckoning, opens in theaters later this month.) "I'm not training anymore necessarily, but I still recall all of those things like it was yesterday. And I pass onto my children now the essence of what I learned. It's like a culture, right? Culture isn't secret — but it is sacred."
From Mohicans to Dragon
Like so many only-in-Hollywood stories — did you hear the one about Ernie Hudson and Ghostbusters? — Lee's path to Dragon started with a failed audition. Raised in Hawaii, the aspiring actor had relocated to Los Angeles in the late '80s and initially scored small roles in sequels like Back to the Future Part II and Ghoulies 3. An opportunity to level up his career presented itself when he scored an audition for The Last of the Mohicans, Michael Mann's thrilling 1992 frontier action movie starring Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis. But that opportunity evaporated during the casting session.
"The Mohican advisor on the film said, 'He doesn't look quite Mohican enough,'" Lee recalls now. "My heart sunk. I wanted to be part of this movie, and it just went away."
But Lee didn't vanish from Mohicans casting director Bonnie Timmerman's mind. She knew that producer/director Rob Cohen was developing Dragon at Universal Studios and sent the actor's name and number his way. "All of a sudden, I get this call from Rob out of the blue," Lee recalls of his first contact with Cohen, who resisted telling the then-26 year old actor what the project was in advance of their meeting. "I met with them... and they said, 'This film is about Bruce Lee.' My jaw dropped and I said, 'I'm freaking out a little.'"
At the time, Lee wasn't a martial artist himself, but he obviously knew all about Bruce Lee, whose meteoric rise from the Green Hornet's sidekick on the '60s superhero series to major international movie star was cut short by his death in 1973. "He was such an idol of mine, and such a dynamic individual," Lee says of the star of action favorites like The Big Boss and Enter the Dragon. "I didn't know how I could be this person. I'm always really honest with myself — maybe too much so — and I told them, 'I think you've got the wrong guy.'"
But Cohen had the perfect counter argument for his reluctant star. "Rob said, 'You know what? Just because you answered that way, we think we have the right guy,'" Lee recalls. The actor left that meeting with the Dragon script in hand, but still couldn't bring himself to open the cover page. "A week goes by and ... Rob Cohen calls me again. I told him, 'Sorry, I haven't read it. I'm still contemplating whether this is a good idea.' He goes, 'Well, what are you afraid of?' And I said, 'What am I afraid of? I'm afraid of making the biggest ass of myself before my career even started!'"
That fear kept dogging Lee and kept him from saying yes to Dragon, despite Cohen's repeated entreaties and vow that Bruce Lee's family fully supported the movie. Eventually, the actor relented and then faced the final hurdle: a Universal-mandated screen test to prove he could master the martial arts sequences. Enter Poteet, who gave Lee the first building block of his performance. (Poteet died in 2012.)
"Jerry showed me this empty hand exchange that shocked me," Lee says. "He did this move that shocked my whole system because of the explosiveness. I went, 'What the hell is that?' And he said, 'That's Bruce Lee.' And I believed it: That's exactly what I grew up watching as a kid. I told Jerry, 'You are the person that can take me to the place where I can perform this and honestly feel like I'm doing the man justice. And we set off on that foot."
All in the family
Besides Poteet's training, Lee says that the approval of Bruce Lee's family solidified his belief that Dragon wouldn't be a career-killer. While Cadwell spoke to him over the phone several times before production, he didn't actually meet Bruce Lee's widow until his first day on the Universal lot. "I showed up at the studio and I didn't know where to go," he remembers. "There are all of these different offices, and I walked into one of them and there was this blonde lady hunched over some boxes. I said, 'I'm looking for Rob Cohen,' and she goes, 'You're Jason, right? I'm Linda.'"
Cadwell wrote the book that Dragon is partly based on — the 1975 memoir, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew — and was closely involved in the film's production. In fact, all those boxes were filled with her late husband's mementos, which she had brought to set in case they proved useful to the crew. "She told me she was going through all of his old things in case the costume designer wanted to duplicate them," Lee says, adding that he resisted taking any personal mementos for himself. "In Hawaii, we say that certain things have mana — they have energy. And that stuff had that vibe. It's like a samurai sword... you don't know how many heads that's chopped off! Just to be safe, leave it there."
Besides Cadwell, the Dragon star knew that he wanted to secure the blessing of her son, Brandon, who was also a rising action star in Hollywood himself at the time. In fact, the younger Lee had been offered the chance to play his father in the film, but turned the role down. (Dragon's producer, Raffaella De Laurentiis, was also iffy on casting him, suggesting he didn't look Asian enough for the part.) The two men met for the first time at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, and Brandon Lee made an entrance worthy of his showman father.
"He pulled up in a fancy sports car, and was very gregarious, lively and energetic," Lee recalls. "He did a monologue at the dinner table! It was a full-blown performance, and people at other tables were just like 'Whoa.' That's how excited he was about being an actor. And he was cool with me: There was never anything terse between us."
"He did give me a piece of advice," Lee recalls of the late actor, who died on the set of The Crow in 1993. "He said, 'Don't try to be my dad — just be true to yourself.' And I was like, 'You got it, man.' He was a lovely man."
Since the approval of the extended Lee family was so important to the Dragon star, it's perhaps no surprise that he's critical of the way Quentin Tarantino depicted Bruce Lee in a controversial scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The 2019 Oscar-winner features Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, who battles — and nearly loses to — Brad Pitt's stuntman Cliff Booth in an impromptu fight on the Green Hornet set. Shannon Lee publicly called the portrayal of her father "uncomfortable," saying that Tarantino presented him as an "arrogant a**hole who was full of hot air."
"It was a bit of a bummer," Lee says when asked about the controversy. "Bruce's attitude was not like that. Bless the soul of the actor that played him — he did a great job — but he was following what the director wanted. I know Shannon was not happy, and a lot of other people were not very happy and I think they're justified to say so. You can take artistic license, but if there's family that's alive that still knew him, I think you should get their approval if you're going to change that much.
"The thing that bugs me is that there was no respect for the family," he continues. "Go to the family and say, 'I'm a big fan of your dad, and this is what I want to do. Would you guys be offended?' That's simple, and so graceful. To not do that has no tact. Show some heart, show some respect and it's a done deal. But that's also the hardest thing to convey."
Enter the Dragon
Despite The Bruce Lee Story subtitle, Dragon was never intended to be a standard biopic. Instead, Cohen and his co-writers, John Raffo and Edward Khmara, approached the film as if it was a traditional Bruce Lee movie, complete with extended martial arts brawls that aren't part of the historical record. In that sense, the movie sought to reclaim the legacy of Enter the Dragon, which heralded the arrival of a new kind of Hollywood action hero — an arrival that ended up being substantially delayed.
Cohen's Dragon premiered in theaters two months ahead of the 20th anniversary of Bruce Lee's death in Hong Kong. During the intervening two decades, that territory's film industry exploded as heroes like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Jet Li became superstars in Asia. But in America, martial arts movies increasingly became the domain of white actors like Michael Dudikoff, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Even when Hong Kong directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark came to Hollywood in the early '90s, they were paired up with the likes of Van Damme or John Travolta. It wasn't until later that decade that the faces of stars like Chan, Li and Chow Yun-fat adorned "Coming Soon" posters at your local mall multiplex.
In the meantime, the screen image of Asians in most Western media shifted from Bruce Lee to Long Duk Dong — the hapless Chinese foreign exchange student in John Hughes's Sixteen Candles. The harmful legacy of those kinds of stereotypical portrayals are directly commented on in one of Dragon's most famous scenes. Out on a date with Linda (played in the film by Lauren Holly), the two go to see Audrey Hepburn's 1961 favorite, Breakfast at Tiffany's, which notoriously features Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Holly Golightly's Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. While the rest of the audience — including Linda at first — laughs uproariously at Rooney, Bruce sits there in silence.
Lee now says he drew on his personal brushes with prejudice for that scene. "In my early years living in Orange County, it was a very homogenized society at the time, and I felt like a minority and marginalized in many ways. There were not very many people who knew about Asian cultures. Oftentimes meekness was taken for weakness, and a lot of Asian cultures carry this kind of meek demeanor. So I really utilized a lot of that for that scene. It was like, 'That's how they're showing us.'"
With Dragon, Lee was keenly aware that he would be the first Asian action hero to headline a Hollywood movie since Bruce Lee's heyday. And the version of Bruce depicted in the film isn't just a fighter — he's also a lover. The romantic scenes between Lee and Holly crackle with palpable chemistry, countering the sexless Asian stereotypes that populated so many Hollywood movies.
"I recognized that the film was a love story between a Caucasian woman and an Asian man," the actor says, noting that he also got to play a romantic lead in Map of the Human Heart — a World War II-era drama that he filmed before Dragon, but was released in America after his turn as Bruce Lee. "I really enjoyed portraying the sexuality of an Asian man, which was often put down or made comedic. A lot of Asian actors have come up to me over the years saying, 'You gave me the courage to be an actor. We never saw a romantic lead of Asian ancestry and you were the one that did exceptionally well.'"
"I was really proud of that," Lee continues. "It felt really good to be able to inspire other people with that performance. It's one of those things where if you commit to it, you hope that you come out smelling like roses. And it was a nice tip of the hat that other people were offering to me."
As for the liberties taken with Bruce Lee's history, the Dragon star says that Cadwell and the rest of the late actor's friends and family were on board for Cohen's heightened version of events. "It's not a documentary, it's a moving picture," he notes. "They took a lot of creative license with some things and shaped the story so that there's an emotional fluidity and connection. People who knew Bruce's story would pick at it, but I wasn't bothered by that. This was a man who wanted to achieve a great deal in a short amount of time and I believe we communicated the essence of that."
Released opposite the Kevin Kline comedy Dave, Dragon topped the box office in its opening weekend and went on to earn over $60 million worldwide. That success propelled Lee into his subsequent star turns in the period action epic, Rapa-Nui, produced by Kevin Costner, and Disney's live action remake of The Jungle Book. Other major opportunities were coming his way as well: The actor confirms that he was offered and turned down the lead role in 1995's Mortal Kombat, based on the hit video game, and reveals the other era-defining hits that also jostled for his attention.
"I remember having the Speed script on my desk," he says. "Keanu ended up doing that. And Independence Day as well, which Will Smith ended up doing. So there were a lot of those big, blockbuster films [offered to me]."
But something — perhaps the ghost of Bruce Lee — was leading the actor to pass on all the action scripts Hollywood wanted him to star in. "Every time I tried to talk about it to studios, I had the hardest time conveying what actually I wanted to see out of myself and do for the film," Lee explains. "At the time, action heroes were not that complex. They were just like, 'I'm gonna grab a machine or shotgun and then beat 'em up or shoot 'em up.' It was really tricky to communicate that with finesse. I tried on a couple of occasions and then got disenchanted with making the effort."
Reflecting on his post-Dragon period now, Lee suggests that what he really wanted was a Bruce Lee role in a movie that wasn't specifically about Bruce Lee. "I was looking for that Bruce vehicle — that movie that would show the skillset that I had worked so hard to develop," he explains. "Most of the movies I was being offered were big pictures that needed good actors to ground them. And I said, 'I'm not sure that's what I'm really looking for.' So there were opportunities that I passed on that maybe I shouldn't have, but I was looking at if from a different perspective."
Even when Asian action stars like Chan and Li finally crossed over from Hong Kong to Hollywood in the late '90s, Lee says the kinds of movies the American film industry wanted from them didn't fit with his own interests. "The studios didn't want to take risks," he says. "They knew what Jackie Chan was and what Jet Li could offer. But that was the quota: I was kind of like the dark horse — you don't know what you're gonna get out of me. I always wanted to move the needle in some fashion, whether emotionally or psychologically. As we know with Asian Americans, the opportunities were never there. So there was a lot of waiting."
While playing the waiting game, Lee did find roles that moved that needle for him, including voicing Hawaiian surfer boy, David Kawena, in Disney's 2002 animated hit Lilo & Stitch — a role he reprised in the 2005 direct-to-video sequel. The Mouse House is currently moving ahead with a live-action version of the original film for the Disney+ streaming service, and the actor says that he'll appear in the movie in some way, though not as David, who will be played by newcomer Kaipo Dudoit.
"I've got a little cameo, nothing big," teases Lee, who also appeared in Disney's live action update of Mulan in 2020. "And I know Tia Carrere [who voiced Lilo's sister, Nani], is in it as well. She probably has a bigger role than me! But we're all happy to be a part of that franchise and serve as the connecting device to a new generation."
Meanwhile, Lee stars in Disney+'s remake of Doogie Howser, M.D. playing dad Benny to Peyton List's titular Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.
The Way of the Dragon
Today, Lee lives with his wife and children in Hawaii and says that he's largely traded martial arts training for gardening and farming. "That's what I've been doing for twenty years," he says, laughing. "It was always that Bruce voice in the back of my mind communicated to me through Jerry, who would always say: 'The thing you want to grow into and the maturity you want to achieve has to do with sensitivity and awareness. With those two things, you'll become a martial artist of your own distinction.'"
And Lee indicates that he feels the sense memory of his Dragon days when he's out in his garden. "For me, it all goes back to the Taoist thing of nature being the greatest teacher. When I first started gardening, I'd notice that I was using all hand tools and the movements of squatting and duck-walking to make contact with something. And that was always Bruce's take: When you train, make contact. So me hitting the dirt, making cutting motions with these tools, keeping your structure tight — all this martial arts stuff — has made me strong in body and, I believe, strong in spirit."
On the subject of spirits, Lee also knows that he's forever connected to the ghosts of Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee, a father and son linked by the tragedy of early deaths. Dragon opened in theaters two months after the younger Lee's passing — the movie is dedicated to his memory — and the last scene eerily foreshadows their shared fate. Throughout the film, Bruce Lee is pursued in his dreams by a mystical demon that's eager to claim his soul. In the climactic sequence, that demon turns his attention to Brandon, and Bruce charges into battle to save his son.
"That was part of the script before Brandon passed away," Lee says when asked whether that scene was added to the film. "It was not an homage in any way. But it was a weird premonition that was very eerie. As more information filtered in about Brandon's accident and how it all went down, it became clear that there were misguided [actions] on The Crow set. So that made that scene a little less haunting in the sense of something in the cosmos going on."
Lee mentions that he's still close to Cadwell, who runs the Bruce Lee Foundation with her daughter, Shannon. "I just love that lady," he says, smiling. "I always tell her, 'Thank you so much. That opportunity gave me my life.' I walked into something with giant obstacles and tremendous fear, but Dragon has given me such an incredible life in terms of creating a vision of myself and creating a tapestry that I wanted my life to be."
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is currently available for rent or purchase on most VOD services.