Byron Mann on How to Ground Characters in Your Body

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Photo Source: Roger Lee

Byron Mann is no stranger to high stakes and high-octane action. He got his big break in the States nearly 25 years ago as Ryu in “Street Fighter” and just earlier this year co-starred as the impressively fearsome O.G. Kovacs on Netflix’s “Altered Carbon.” He can now again be seen on the big screen as Hong Kong’s Inspector Wu alongside Dwayne Johnson in “Skyscraper.” He spoke with us about training for such action-first fare and what advice he has for international actors wanting to leave their mark in Hollywood.

You star in “Skyscraper” as Inspector Wu. Tell us about him.
So Dwayne Johnson’s character comes to Hong Kong. He’s an insurance evaluator, and he’s evaluating the tallest building in the world, called the Pearl. And so his family—his wife and two kids—are in the building, and then what happens is that the building goes on fire and then there’s some murders of police people in the vicinity. Dwayne Johnson’s character is the prime suspect. My character is the chief inspector of the Hong Kong police, and he’s trying to figure out who he is. He’s trying to figure out if he’s the guy who really committed these murders and set the building on fire, or is he somebody who has a different agenda.

How did this project first come about for you and what made you want to get involved?
It was just through the normal casting process. I think they figured out they really needed someone who is ideally from Hong Kong who could actually be this character, because this character has to live and breathe like someone who is actually from Hong Kong. [And he needs to] speak Chinese, Cantonese to be specific. What attracted me is just that it’s a no-brainer. It’s a project with Dwayne Johnson, the biggest movie star in the world. And also, it takes place in Hong Kong, where I’m from.

“Skyscraper” is not the first large-scale, action-packed project that you’ve taken on. What’s appealing about tackling those sorts of projects as an actor?
Well, I’m not necessarily attracted to large-scale, I just think these projects came along and they happen to be large-scale, that’s all. I’ve done small-scale movies, as well. Mainly, it’s just the material. It’s the script. And if it’s a movie, it’s the director, and if it’s a TV series, it’s the producers.

What was the training for “Altered Carbon” like?
The training for “Altered Carbon” was actually very intense. I was training two times a day with a personal trainer and fight training. It required a very strict diet because I wasn’t wearing a lot onscreen, so I had to go into battle-mode very quickly. But it was hard. It was intense training, but it was good at the end, in the final analysis, because you’re making something that’s decent. But I wouldn’t do that every day. I’d only do it if it’s a really special project. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of work. I’d rather sit in a coffee shop and read the L.A. Times instead.

In what ways does that physical preparation inform your emotional read of the character, and vice versa?
I think it’s everything. It’s very connected. An old acting teacher actually taught me that when you approach a character, the two things you need to figure out is how does this character walk and how does this character talk? The physicality totally informs the character. I’ll give you an example: I did this series called “Hell on Wheels,” and I play this character who was in the year 1886, and he is a businessman mercenary. He’s running these camps, basically, these enclaves for the railroad workers. So when I took up the project, I had no idea what this guy would wear, what he’d look like, how he would speak English—I had no idea. Zero concept. So I had to do some research and I talked to the producers. Finally, I figured out this guy dresses in a certain way. He’s very well dressed and he learned to speak English by reading and mimicking people speaking English in England. That’s how he learned his English. And so it took me awhile to get how this guy looked like, but once I got all that down, it made playing the character a lot easier. It actually informed everything.

Those are the kind of development opportunities that present themselves once you’re on set, but how do you find a character in the audition room?
Well normally, you don’t have a lot of time. So two things: You need to find out as much as you can about this character. That’s by reading the script, going online, doing some research. And then you also need to figure out what’s happening in the scene. Those are the two things. What’s going on? Where are you in the story? Most actors don’t have the script available to them, so they would have to start guessing, but you can ask the casting director, too. And then just try to do the scene different ways.

What advice would you have for actors like you who get their start abroad and then want to make inroads into Los Angeles?
Just be the best actor you can be and that’s it. Get in front of the camera as much as you can. That’s the only way to get better. Pay attention to what’s happening, too. They call it show business for a reason, right? It’s also a business, so you have to figure out what makes business sense. And these things you can’t teach. You have be street smart about it.

Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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