Jason Scott Lee's 'Mulan' Villain Is More Than A One-Dimensional Baddie [Interview]

It's been 26 years since Jason Scott Lee last starred in a Disney live-action remake, as the hero Mowgli in 1994's The Jungle Book. But in the live-action remake of Mulan, he's playing the villain. And not just any bad guy – one of the best bad guys of Disney's animated films. But Lee relishes finally getting a chance to play a villain in a Disney film, even if it took more than two decades to do so.

"As an actor, you want that diversity, you want that contrast, otherwise it's so boring," Lee told /Film in an interview over Zoom. "You know you want to play the funny guy, you want to be the hero, you want to be the bad guy."

But Lee's Bori Khan in Mulan is a bit of a departure from the hulking menace that is Shan Yu in the 1998 animated film. For one, he's based off a real historical figure. But Lee wanted to lend a realism to Bori Khan, the warrior leader of the nomadic Rourans, that would make him a more grounded, multifaceted villain than we're used to seeing in Disney films.

"Knowing that it was going to be an epic live action movie, a really strong drama, we wanted to do our homework and get this character grounded," Lee said.


You get to take on the role of the villain of Mulan, stepping into the shoes of one of the most iconic Disney baddies Shan Yu, but in this film, you play Bori Khan. So what was it like taking on that role and putting your own twist on it?

I think knowing that it was going to be an epic live action movie, a really strong drama, we wanted to do our homework and get this character grounded. So I took a lot of historical interpretations, Bori Khan is actually a historical figure. But then looking into the region that he's from, we wanted to sort of strategize and give him a lot of really strong intention for what he does. And one was that, as the story plays out we understand that Bori Khan's father, who was also named Bori Khan was killed by the Emperor in battle in the previous generation. And so I think Bori Khan, for me, I came into wanting to develop a backstory — having him, not only [want] revenge for his father but actually be somewhat of a guardian for his clan and his tribe, and a guardian to protect this culture that was being overrun by the Chinese Empire. To take back tribal lands that were belong once belonged to their people and have this strong determination to put together a fierce army to take back those things from the Emperor.

Did you do a lot of research into the Rourans and their history prior to stepping into the role?

It's interesting, I had done a film called Nomad, which had to do with the Central Asian people in Kazakhstan. So after spending two tours in Kazakhstan, and six months was the longest of one of my tours, I got to really get a grasp of those descendants of Genghis Khan. And this particular dialect that we kind of created for Bori Khan was from the Siberian area of the Tuvan people. They're nomadic and part of that legacy that the Mongols left behind, so they're all descendants of those warrior groups. There was a lot of ethnographic precision when it came to those kind of things.

As sympathetic as Bori Khan's campaign can be, I think it's interesting that he has a somewhat complicated relationship with Gong Li's character, the witch, and their similarities as outsiders, despite Bori Khan looking down on and using her. Can you speak on the dynamic between Bori Khan and Xian Lang?

Yeah I think bringing Xian Lang, Gong Li's character, into the picture you get this idea that we're partners. If you do this together, you'll have a safe place to live, you won't be chastised, you won't be ridiculed, you won't be judged: that's the paradise that Bori Khan offers Xian Lang. And as we go, as the strategy starts to take effect to benefit Bori Khan, more and more you see his true colors, you see his true intentions. You start seeing the unraveling of utilizing Xian Lang just as a tool, just as a stepping stone to get to where he wants to be and what he needs. It's not necessarily [that] she's working for him, he promises that they'll share [the rewards] but it turns out that's not the case. So I think there's a certain turn of the tides that happens with her character.

So you get to briefly engage in a fight with Jet Li, though of course you do most of your battles with the Liu Yifei's Mulan. What was it like facing off against Jet Li for that brief moment, and did you have to prep for the fight scenes though you've had onscreen martial arts experience in the past?

You know with Jet, there wasn't a whole lot of interaction, it was mostly my soldiers subduing him. But also I just want to make a point that working with Jet was amazing, just to see him do his little thing in the movie was phenomenal.

And the choreography, all the training we did to develop that final fight scene. Because a lot of what we wanted to do, we end up thinking, well we can't really do that because there's so much effects. There's too much effects to actually apply, a lot of these complicated sorts of interplay. So we had to strip away a lot of it for timing. I think it turned out fantastic. It's always surprising for actors to do see the final thing, because you don't know what's going to be kept in and what's out. It's always a guessing game.

So what was it like going from playing a Disney hero so long ago to playing a Disney villain in this film?

I think it's great. As an actor, you want that diversity, you want that contrast, otherwise it's so boring. You know you want to play the funny guy, you want to be the hero, you want to be the bad guy. You know you want to wear all those hats, and I think it's great to stretch in that way. It's one of the things I think, even as an Asian actor, throughout my career I've always tried to try something different, you know. I want to go do a musical on the West End in London, or I want to go to a distant island in the Pacific called Easter Island and do a film there. I've been very blessed with those opportunities, much more opportunity than a lot of other Asian actors. So my memory and my history has always been very encouraging. And I've been very motivated by my experiences of playing those diverse roles.