My life: Byron Mann
The local boy who came good in Hollywood took a while to realise acting was his calling. He tells Kenny Hodgart about his roles on and off the screen
ADVANTAGE, BYRON I grew up in Kowloon and went to Diocesan Boys' School. My father worked as a dentist, my mother was a homemaker. She is American-Chinese, so I grew up speaking English to her and Cantonese to my father and everyone else. I learned Mandarin in college after I studied in Shanghai for a summer. My whole family plays tennis and my brother used to play in Hong Kong's Davis Cup team; my own high point was when I was ranked No2 in Hong Kong in the under-16 division. It's actually my tennis background that allows me to do martial arts in movies because it made me pretty agile.
WHATEVER NEXT? I did stage plays in high school but it wasn't until I was in the middle of graduate school, in the United States, that I realised I wanted to act. Everyone I grew up with in Hong Kong seemed to know what they wanted to do with their lives - some of them were actually doing it, buying and selling stocks in high school! I was never interested in that. I was goofing around, studying philosophy at [the University of California, Los Angeles], and in the States, when you don't know what to do, you go to law school. So that's what I did, and I discovered the work was really boring. I took a sabbatical and hung out in Hong Kong and explored acting possibilities.
A FACE IN AN ARCADE I did commercials and music videos to begin with and then I was cast in an NBC movie. My first major role was in the film of Street Fighter, in 1994. I played a martial arts expert, Ryu, but I only started training and learning martial arts when we were filming. You pick things up and learn how to do it; you just have to be flexible. When I was back in Hong Kong, a friend said to me, "Hey, your face is on a video game in an arcade in Tsim Sha Tsui". I went down and, sure enough, there I was on the Street Fighter arcade game, so I started playing and while I was playing someone pickpocketed my wallet. I don't know if the thief recognised me - he couldn't have seen my face, only my ass; but it was the last time I played that game. A lot of my productions have been action-oriented, but I've done a lot of drama; one or two comedies; productions that weren't meant to be funny but came off as kind of comedic. One of the proudest things for me has been working with people I grew up watching, like Chow Yun-fat in [1999 action thriller] The Corruptor, and Eric Tsang [Chi-wai] on a Canadian television mini-series called Dragon Boys, about Asian gangs in Vancouver. I was flipping out just seeing him.
PLAYING IT STRAIGHT I play a martial arts guru/master called Yao Fei in [action-drama series] Arrow, which is based on a DC comic series. I didn't know anything about Arrow because I didn't grow up with comic books. The writing is good and the episodes have actually spawned their own comic book editions - it's a comic book that became an action series that became a comic book. The story is about a playboy who goes missing after his boat capsizes. He re-emerges five years later as an arrow-shooting vigilante who decides to wage war on crime and corruption. That's one strand, but then there are flashbacks to what he's been doing all that time, out on an island somewhere. My character is the first person he met there - I'm an expert archer and a survivalist and we begin this very complex relationship. They kept me guessing about the character's agenda throughout filming. Every time I read the script, I was like, "Oh, so this is what's happening".
REALLY SAYING SOMETHING The character is supposedly from China; English is not his first language. I told the producers I'm not interested in playing a Mr Miyagi [from The Karate Kid] figure; I said I wanted to keep the guy authentic. The problem with a lot of TV series is they don't know how to write dialogue for non-English speakers. I know how a Chinese guy who doesn't really speak English would say things. In the first few episodes, I had discussions where I was like, "I'd like to tick out this word, this word and this word". They said, "Do whatever you need to do to make it real".
WHERE THE ACTION IS I live in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Hong Kong and Beijing. Vancouver is a big place for American television productions right now and my parents have moved there. When I come to Hong Kong it's half-business, half-pleasure … really just to hang out. It's still the place where I have most friends. A lot of business takes me up to Beijing, because that's really the Hollywood of China and most financiers are thinking about the China market; but the Hong Kong film industry is going through an interesting time, too, and I'd like to contribute to that. Are we going to be a China thing or a Hong Kong thing? I think Hong Kong people like to see stories about themselves, about their own culture and their lives. They don't necessarily want to see the 200th epic war thing.
Arrow premieres in Hong Kong on March 11, on WarnerTV, at 9pm.