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The MCU’s Gilgamesh started as a boxer and fight trainer—and he keeps that intensity as he preps for hard-hitting movie roles.
The only thing that matters to Don Lee right now is the next punch. It’s a mid-September morning in the Yeoksam neighborhood of Seoul, and Lee is working out in the dimly lit Challenge Boxing Club, throwing punch after punch at a bright-red heavy bag.
Each punch hits with a thwack that reverberates through the room. And never mind that the media blitz for Marvel’s Eternals is right around the corner. At this moment, he’s just focused on that thwack. “One of the reasons I work out is to try to clear my mind,” he says in his native Korean. “I try to separate work from my workouts.”
That’s never been more important than it is now, because after two decades toiling mostly in Korean cinema, Lee, 50, has seen his big-screen star rise. In the recently released Eternals, he plays his most prominent role yet, starring as the indestructible hero Gilgamesh. In the coming months, he’ll begin shooting The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, a South Korean action crime thriller that’s now getting the Hollywood-remake treatment from Sly Stallone’s Balboa Productions. And on this day, he’s just wrapped up filming Holy Night: Demon Hunters, a South Korean action horror project. He’s also producing and starring on The Club, an action series from Gorilla 8 Productions, which he co-owns.
Each role involves some combat, which befits an actor who came up in fitness and fighting, not flexing Hollywood muscle. Long before Lee (whose given name is Ma Dong-Seok) was bashing Marvel villains, he was chasing dreams of becoming a boxer. He remembers being 17 and moving from Seoul to Montana with his family. Inspired by Stallone’s Rocky films, he hoped to make it as a pro.
Instead, he found himself washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant and cleaning office buildings, which led to plenty of frustration.
Fitness helped him manage that. Nearly every workday ended with Lee standing in front of a random office window and staring at his reflection while he shadowboxed. “At times, I’d ask myself why our family was so poor,” he says. “That is when my workouts helped me release my stress and anger. It was the only thing that I looked forward to and really enjoyed.” He would go on to train MMA champ Mark Coleman. Then, in his mid-30s, Lee returned to Korea and began landing acting roles, partly because of his granite physique. “I never had any plans to go into acting,” he says. “Then I started auditioning for parts and gradually getting opportunities.”
He fires another flurry at the bag, then heads over to meet his sparring partner, decked out in a padded bodysuit. Lee weight-trains as well, and although injuries (including a back fracture and shoulder damage that required two surgeries) have slowed him, his sessions still last almost two hours. Five years ago, he built a home gym. “On days that I can’t work out,” he says, “it feels like I didn’t brush my teeth in the morning. It just doesn’t feel right all day.”
That’s why today, a rare off day in his loaded schedule, is so satisfying. The sparring leaves him fatigued, and Lee wouldn’t have it any other way. He delivers a body blow to his partner. “I just feel really good after a workout,” he says. “Yes, it’s hard at times, but it feels great.”
Lee has plenty of ways to get a quick hotel sweat on, like this 9-minute cardio blast. Do each move for 40 seconds on, 20 off; do 3 rounds.
Start in pushup position, hands slightly narrower than shoulder width. Lower into a pushup; press backup. That’s 1 rep.
Start standing, feet shoulder-width apart. Lower into a squat, bending at the knees and hips; stand up. That’s 1 rep.
Assume a boxer’s stance, knees bent, hands in front of your face, weight on the balls of your feet. Throw punches for 40 seconds.
A version of this story originally appears in the December 2021 issue of Men’s Health, with the title “6 A.M. WITH… THE ACTION HERO”.