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UNSTOPPABLE: Byron Mann Talks Career, ‘Hell On Wheels’ And ‘The Big Short’


Through the years, Byron Mann has become a very familiar face around Hollywood and around the globe. This incredibly dynamic actor got an explosive start to his career starring alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme and the late Raul Julia in Universal’s “Street Fighter.” One of the first video-game adaptations ever brought to screen, he quickly became a fan favorite with his portrayal of the heroic Ryu. Mann followed up the successful debut with the cult action flick “Crying Freeman,” directed by Christophe Gans (“Silent Hill”). He furthered his career in the action genre by starring in Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s (“House of Flying Daggers”) “Invincible.” He would soon find himself re-teaming with the director for Sony’s “Belly of the Beast,” starring action legend Steven Seagal.

There was little doubt he could hold his own in the world of action cinema. However, Mann was never one to rest on his laurels and continued to push himself to the limit as a young actor. Intertwined with the action genre are dramatic turns in MGM’s “Red Corner,” starring opposite Richard Gere, and directed by Jon Avnet; New Line’s “The Corruptor,” opposite Chow Yun-Fat and Mark Wahlberg, directed by James Foley; Sony’s “Sniper 3,” opposite Tom Berenger; and James Cameron’s cult television series “Dark Angel,” with Jessica Alba. In 2005, Mann headlined the award-winning CBC/Star Movies drama “Dragon Boys” alongside Hong Kong’s Eric Tsang (“Infernal Affairs”) and was nominated for Best Male Actor in the 2007 Gemini Awards for his role in the series. His work also includes comedic turns such as “Shanghai Kiss” with Kelly Hu (“The Scorpion King”) and Universal’s “The Man with the Iron Fists,” where he starred as the main villain opposite Russell Crowe, RZA and Lucy Liu.

In 2015, he has been landing even more high-profile projects and continues to turn the heads of film fans and critics alike. Mann returned to television in a big way with his role on the fifth and final season of AMC’s critically acclaimed “Hell on Wheels” opposite Anson Mount. He is also appearing in Paramount Pictures’ much buzzed about film about the sub-prime crisis in 2008 —“The Big Short.” In the film, Mann plays the role of CDO fund manager ‘Mr. Chau,’ based on the real-life Wing Chau. Directed by Adam McKay the ensemble cast includes heavy-weights Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling. Clearly, Byron Mann continues to challenge himself with each new role and shows no signs of slowing down!

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Byron Mann while he was shooting in China to discuss his career, the process of bringing characters from script to screen, his contributions to his character on AMC’s “Hell On Wheels,” improvising with Steve Carell on the set of ‘The Big Short’ and what the future may hold for him as an actor!

Byron Mann
Byron Mann

You have become a familiar face over the years through your work in television and in film. How did you get started as an actor and what led you to pursue it professionally?

I did acting in high school, theater and school plays. Really, I ran out of things to do in real life! I went to college and graduate school, where I was studying law at the time. I was intending to practice law but I realized that the reality of practicing law was very different from what I had seen on television. I didn’t want to do that, so I took some time off and I experimented with acting. I did some commercials and I found I really liked it. I decided to go back to school and finish up law school. I was in Los Angeles at the time. I started to study acting and started auditioning for roles. I found it came pretty naturally and pretty easily to me. That was it! I have just never stopped working!

It seems to be working out fine for you so far but at least there is a fall back plan!

Yeah, so to speak! Technically speaking but really it is not. I think the best scenario is to have no fall back plan so you really work your ass off as an actor and try to be better. You should go into acting when you are young and stupid, when you know nothing else! When you are young, you don’t know the risks and that is when you should do it! You should always start early in my opinion. Listen, I love acting. I still do and that hasn’t changed. To answer your question, I kind of backed into it because I ran out of things to do. I found this was something I really enjoyed doing and it was a real passion of mine. I am fortunate enough to make a living out of it.

You are driven when it comes to your career. What inspires you as an actor these days?

Watching a really good movie inspires me. Watching really good acting inspires me. Having experienced so many really great moments in life inspires me. Those are my top three.

Who were some of the influences in your life who helped shape the artist we see today?

Byron Mann
Byron Mann

Oh yeah! I was watching people like Denzel Washington and an asian actor named John Lone, who did “Year of The Dragon” and “The Last Emperor.” Watching these actors really inspired me when I was first starting out. Along the way, I have had acting teachers you wouldn’t know by name but who I have worked with before. As a young actor, you definitely need some mentorship, guidance and encouragement. I had acting teachers along the way, mostly in LA, that really introduced me to the world of acting, what to think about and care about. Certainly, working with really good actors along the way is something that has influenced me as they have really set the bar for me. Every show along the way, you will met actors that are really good and really dedicated. I will give you some examples. Recently, I worked with Steve Carell on “The Big Short.” He is a very hard working guy and very amiable. He is just a non-nonsense, really nice guy and he works really hard. He is hard on himself and he tries on every take to get it better, even at this stage in his career. I see that and I say, “OK, if he is still doing that than why not all the rest of us?” I worked on a show called “Hell On Wheels” for AMC and there are so many good actors on the show. That is unusual. I work with Anson Mount, who plays the main character on the series. Anson has been on the show for five years and he really cares. From the script stage to the development of casting and beyond, he thinks through everything. After five years on a series, that is not easy. Most actors on a television series, after four years, their brains are gone! They are not even there and are just sleepwalking. Working with an actor like Tim Guinee, who is also on this movie called “99 Homes” recently. He is a consummate actor, someone who cares about the lines, would talk to the director about how to make the scene better. You see people like that work and you know they care. That is the bar and what it should look like. And you know what? It makes the final product better.

That is what I love about “Hell On Wheels,” how everyone involved pours their hearts and souls into it. That is something you can’t fake. How did you get involved with the series?

To be honest with you, I just got a call from the showrunner, John Wirth, who is a lovely man. He invited me to be on the show. I had not known about the show. I take that back. I did know something about the show. I had worked with the original creators of the show, their names are Tony and Joe Gayton. The Gayton brothers created the show but, after the first or second season, there were some creative differences with AMC and they were no longer involved with the show. A couple years ago, I did a USA pilot for the Gayton brothers and they told me about the show, even though they were no longer involved with it. I had never seen it and I knew nothing about westerns. I grew up in Hong Kong. I remember I was in the HSBC headquarters of the world, doing some banking in Hong Kong, when I got this call from John Wirth. He was trying to tell me about life in the 1860s building a railroad in The West as I was standing in the middle of this building in Hong Kong! Can you imagine that?! It was like, “Wow!” Having done six months of it, I can tell you it has been one of the highlights of my career to be involved with this show.

I talk to a lot of actors and it seems everyone wants to do a period piece at some point in their career. What challenges has it presented for you as an actor?

Byron Mann
Byron Mann

I had no expectations because, like I said, I didn’t grow up with westerns. I had never seen the show and didn’t know it was a popular, critically acclaimed show for four years. I just had no expectations. I didn’t know any of the actors involved and it was really just another show for me. Of course, I read up on it. Having said all of that, the character they created and I played, Chang, was a really fantastic, multidimensional character. That is really unusual, especially in the setting of the western, that you find a Chinese character that fleshed out and multidimensional. Chang is essentially the antagonist to Anson Mount’s character, Cullen Bohannon. He is a labor contractor for the railroad for the Chinese workers on this specific line called The Central Pacific Railroad from San Fransisco going east. I did the best I could to read up on the history of it all and the history of this guy. I did whatever I could to get ready for the character. For example, there is a very specific way he spoke and dressed. It all came together over the course of a couple of weeks.

You mentioned the character of Chang being very fleshed out and well-written from the start. What did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the written page?

There is a lot actually. I will give you an example. On the written page, this guy is supposed to be a solider from the civil war in China. He is in California trying to reinvent himself as a labor contractor on The Central Pacific Railroad. That is pretty much the description. That led me to reading up on the civil war in China. It is something not many people know about and was called The Taiping Rebellion. Thirty million people were killed in that civil war. Think about it. That is more than the Holocaust. I read about how people were killed. The opposing soldiers would march into a village and, if they were opposed, they would kill men, women and children. They would behead all of them. It was horrific and no one knows about it. I didn’t know about it and I am Chinese! I read up on it and said, “Oh my god! That is crazy. How come I don’t know anything about this?” A guy who comes from that kind of brutality and environment is going to have some remnants of that. There has to be some scars or something. He can’t look like he came out of the spa from the Four Season hotel. He can’t be that clean. In the table read, I went up to the producer, John Wirth, and said, “I think this guy has a little scar on his head. You have to look deep and you will see it.” If you look closely on the show, you will see there is a scar above my eyebrows on my forehead. We started talking and said, “Maybe later on in the show, you will see him take off his shirt and see that he has scars all over his body. You just don’t see it until he takes off his shirt.” A guy like that, who has been through slaughtering of villages or being slaughtered has to have some knife wounds. They all thought that was a good idea.

Byron Mann in a pivotal scene from AMC's "Hell On Wheels."
Byron Mann in a pivotal scene from AMC’s “Hell On Wheels.”

We didn’t end up doing anything about it immediately. What happened was after we filmed the first episode, they found out we were short on time. There was about five minutes worth of time to be filled up. They said, “What about the idea Byron suggested? Maybe there is a shot where we see him shaving or something and we see all the scars on his body.” Basically, we shot it on of a lark, just to fill the time. This was the first episode and we put it in right before I see Huntington. Low and behold it changes the entire dynamic of this character. Everyone says, “Oh my god! We thought you were going to strangle Huntington when you are tying his bow tie!” It really put in this danger for the character for the rest of the season! It just goes to show you that good ideas can come from anywhere and there is no idea that is a bad idea. Just raise your hand and speak your mind and sometimes it may just become gold!

That ties in a bit to my next question. You mentioned working with Steve Carell in “The Big Short.” How much of what we see on screen comes from improvisation?

There was a lot of improvisation. The director, Adam McKay comes from the world of “Saturday Night Live” and did “Anchorman” and its sequel with Steve Carell. There were many takes where Adam would say, “OK, on this take go for it!” We could do anything we wanted and when I saw the final cut, I said, “Wow! A lot of that made it into the film!” It was fun and you have to be on your toes. You really have to be alive when you work with people like Steve Carrell and Adam McKay. Like I said, you never know where the gold is going to come from! Hopefully, “The Big Short” will be a movie that not only entertains audiences but gets them, both Americans and those abroad, to start talking about what happened and, hopefully, it will never happen again. If you remember the year, 2008, you could get a house with no payments for two years! Really? [laughs] There is free lunch out there! Then two years later you get whacked by a bill you don’t even recognize. I really hope it does start a conversation.

“The Big Short” was just released here in The States and is generating a lot of buzz. Jumping back a bit, how did you get involved and were you familiar with the story of the film?

I am going to tell you a very, very interesting story on how it all connected. A year before casting for the film even began, my brother, who is a banker told me about this movie. He had a client who is sort of involved with the film and he told me to look into it. I said, “Well, what do you know about Hollywood? Blah blah.” And I forgot about it. It turns out, his client is the character that is being played by Brad Pitt! That is my brother’s client.

That is incredible! What a small world!

I actually told Adam McKay on the set and he flipped out! How serendipitous is that, right? My brother is a banker in Singapore and he sells products to this hedge fund guy, his name is Ben Hockett in the book and he is played by Brad Pitt in the movie. That was a year before casting began. When they were casting it, it was a very routine thing. My agent set up this meeting with me and Adam McKay. I read for him and we talked about the role. I think it was that same day that he cast me in the movie. Two weeks later I was on the plane to New Orleans to shoot the film.

I want to go back, if we could, to your process for bringing a character to life. Whether it is a film like “The Big Short” or a series like “Hell On Wheels,” what goes into building these characters?

Byron Mann
Byron Mann

There is no one set process but what I do is pretty simple. I try to find out who this guy is and, believe it or not, a lot of it has to do with physicality. Often it is a question of how does this guy look? When I first read the script for “Hell On Wheels” and saw the character was living in 1868 on the railroad, and the script read great, but I had no idea what this guy looked like. I had no idea! I remember emailing the costume designer and saying, “Hey Carol. Can you send me some images of what a guy like Chang looks like? I have no idea. Does he wear suits? Does he wear some Chinese clothing from China? Does he have a queue? What on Earth does he look like?” They sent back some images and said, “This guy is very Western. He wears a vest and all of that kind of stuff.” Once I have that image, then I really get going. I know this guy looks like that and wears this kind of shoes and this type of jacket. For me, physicality always matters. An old acting teacher said to me once, “How does this guy walk and how does this guy talk? If you get that, you are halfway there.”

We have seen you in a plethora of roles in your career and you also did your fair share of action films. What was your first exposure to action cinema?

My first exposure was with the “Street Fighter” movie. Our trainer was Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. He trained us and that was my first exposure to an action movie. It was a full-fledged action movie with Jean Claude Van Damme at his peak. Through the years, I have done a lot of action. I think I am naturally OK with it and I understand how it works because I come from a sports background with tennis. I know how to make it look good and I have some very basic martial arts background as well. My entry point is really acting. People sometimes forget that is how I started and I am an actor who does action fairly well. Whether it is dramatic or something very actiony, it is all part of the storytelling.

You also worked numerous times with Steven Seagal. How has that dynamic changed through the years?

Byron Mann
Byron Mann

I started working with Steven on a movie called “Belly of The Beast” about 12 years ago. If you remember, at the time, Steven Seagal was the world’s biggest action star. He had “Above The Law,” “Under Siege” and many others. He was the guy. In fact, a lot of guys today still, before they go to bed, switch on the TV and look for some Steven Seagal before they go to sleep! [laughs] You know what I mean? It’s funny! It’s a ritual! Steven is a very enigmatic character and a very interesting guy. It takes time to get to know him. We are good friends now and, as you said, I have done a couple projects with him. Sometimes he does too many movies, even today. That doesn’t help him, in my opinion. Still, I don’t know if I will do another movie with him but we are friends. Our last movie was quite successful. It is called “Absolution.” Lionsgate actually released it in theaters, which really surprised us. I really put a lot of heart and soul into that movie working with him. I crafted the action and the dialogue with the director so it really transcended the usual genre. Steven and I really like each other and have a good rapport.

Is there a genre or a role you have not had the opportunity to play but are anxious to tackle as an actor?

Maybe a romantic comedy. I haven’t really done a lot of that. Ironically, I am shooting a Chinese language film right now in China and it is an action comedy. To do something similar to what Hugh Grant does, that type of genre, would be very nice and very cool. You need some comedic timing, chemistry and it all depends on who you are working with.

Looking back on your career, what stands out as some of your creative milestones?

I think the last two projects have been very big creative milestones, “Hell On Wheels” for sure. It was a real milestone working with all of these great actors and writers. It really elevates your game. Doing “The Big Short” was great for the same reason, working with Steve Carrell and Adam McKay. Even working on funky movies like “The Man with the Iron Fist,” which I did with RZA and Russell Crowe, was a milestone. It was a very tongue-in-cheek kind of movie and, unexpectedly, we had to do a lot of comedy in the film. I did at least. That was a true milestone. If you are lucky and it is a good project, each movie can elevate your game and inspire you to be better. Those are some examples.

You can serve as an inspiration to young actors as you continue to evolve and raise the bar with your work. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?

Don’t let anyone tell you no! Don’t take no as an answer from anyone and just keep pushing. Every little thing you do for your career, whether it is taking voice lessons, a class or learning a new skill, will come back and help you. I have seen that. Most importantly, just don’t take no for an answer. If you keep pushing, eventually, the door will break open for you!

That is great advice! Can we help shine a light on any charitable causes you are a fan of?

There is an organization called PATH (People Assisting The Homeless), which is based in California. Their website is located at www.epath.org. I support it and I know the people who organize it. A lot of people who are homeless are not criminals and that is a common misconception. They could actually be a college professor who went through a divorce that cleaned him out and he has nowhere to live. Homelessness can affect anyone and PATH is there to help them. It is an amazing organization.

Be sure to catch Byron Mann in ‘The Big Short’ when it opens nationwide on December 23rd, 2015. Keep up with all his adventures via social media on Twitter and Facebook.