Cover Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) and Thena (Angelina Jolie) in 'Eternals' (Photo: Marvel Studios)

South Korea’s Jack of all trades talks firsts and more in an exclusive interview with Tatler

Action, historical, comedy, time travel, romance, biopic, melodrama, sports, horror, thriller, crime, fantasy–you name it, he’s done it all. Korean-American actor Ma Dong-seok (also known as Don Lee) is by no measure a stranger to the entertainment circuit on his homeground.

In 2016’s zombie hit Train to Busan, Ma played the supporting role of Yoon Sang-hwa, a man who valiantly sacrifices himself for the greater good. The breakout performance propelled him to international popularity and cemented his status as one of the most successful actors in South Korea. Perhaps it was this display of heroism, coupled with his ‘tough guy’ persona, that landed him on Hollywood’s radar.

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Fast forward to 2019, Ma was handpicked to join the cast of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) Eternals alongside a star-studded and culturally diverse lineup of actors including Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Harish Patel, and Kit Harington

Based on the Marvel Comics of the same name, Eternals is centred on an immortal alien race that emerges from hiding after thousands of years to protect Earth from the Deviants. Ma plays Gilgamesh, the strongest Eternal who boasts powers such as virtual indestructibility, near-limitless stamina, superhuman strength, and more. He chats exclusively with Tatler about the Marvel epic, director Chloe Zhao, and Angelina Jolie.

Together with Claudia Kim (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Park Seo-joon (The Marvels), South Korean talents have become highly sought-after commodities. How do you feel about being a part of this influx of hallyu (Korean wave) that’s storming into Hollywood?

Korean films and TV series and K-Pop are expanding very rapidly into the world and it's something I’m very proud of. Through this hallyu, a lot of Korean talents are working outside of Korea but I wish that there were more chances for not just Korean but also Asian talents to shine brightly on the world stage

As for myself, with Eternals coming out, I hope to be working more in Hollywood from now on. I hope that I can make a good example and pave the way for more Korean talents to work in Hollywood.

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Eternals is a milestone for you in more ways than just one–it's your Hollywood debut, your first all-English-language movie, the first Korean male actor to star in an MCU movie, and the first Korean superhero. What were your initial reactions when you first heard that you got the role?

I knew Sarah Finn, the Marvel Studios' casting director from back in the day. When she contacted me to tell me that I was cast as Gilgamesh, I was elated. I have been a big fan of Marvel movies as well as director Zhao so you can imagine how happy I was to hear the news.

I had always wanted to be a part of a superhero movie but never had I ever imagined that it would be an MCU film. The whole journey was exciting and I learnt so much from the process. It was pure joy to work with Zhao and the rest of the cast and crew.

Can you describe the first time on set when you stood together with the rest of the cast in your suit?

The suit was very heavy (laughs) but also very cool. When I first stood in that formation with all 10 of us in our amazing costumes, I really felt like I was Gilgamesh–fully and completely. While most superhero movies are shot in front of blue or green screens because of the special effects, Zhao shot on actual locations as much as possible.

I think that’s the reason why I felt like Gilgamesh because I was in that environment, in the real world, and that helped me identify as the character

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What has it been like working with Oscar winner Zhao?

Zhao is an amazing filmmaker who is very intelligent, good-hearted, and easy to work with. To fully bring a character to life, the actor and director must communicate with each other well, and she was always open-minded and eager to listen, creating an inviting environment where I can always express myself and give my input.

She also put a lot of thought into ensuring that Gilgamesh reflected me and did a very good job in doing so. She studied me as an actor by watching my previous work so that the script will reflect some version of myself, so all my lines felt very natural to act and do. Zhao enabled everybody to bring about their talents and everything they can give to the production.

They even allowed me to help choreograph the action sequences so I was happy to help them out. In fact, most of the action scenes were designed by me!

What would you say has surprised you the most about working in a Marvel film and the all-star cast?

Before I started working with Marvel, I kind of had a preconception that it’s a Hollywood film, it’s a Marvel film, so there would be strict rules to follow but it wasn’t like that at all. It was a very open and uplifting and great environment to work in.

Jolie (who plays elite warrior Thena in Eternals) is such a star and she’s the one I worked with the most on this project because of our characters’ connection. I’m a big fan of her but once we started working together, we immediately felt that there was a special chemistry between us. I felt very much at ease and comfortable working with her. It almost felt like I was working with an old friend.

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Without giving away too much, for the super-duper excited Marvel fans out there, what can you tell us about Eternals?

There's a limit to how much I can reveal. I can't say anything in detail because someone from Marvel is listening very closely to me (laughs).

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