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Last year, Mike Moh paid $900 for a plane ticket from Madison to Los Angeles and for a chance to audition for a movie role. He went to the casting director’s office. A door opened. A man inside smiled.
It was the film’s director. He gave Moh a hug. And that’s how Mike Moh met Quentin Tarantino.
“I was like, ‘He knows who I am,’ ” Moh says.
Moh recounted this in December as we sat inside the entrance of Moh’s Martial Arts, the stylish facility Moh opened in Waunakee last September. Moh talked about how a Twin Cities kid wound up teaching Taekwondo in Dane County and, at the same time, racking up TV and film credits as a stuntman, action star and dramatic actor.
Instructor to Stuntman to Action Star
Moh and his wife Richelle met as teenagers at a martial arts studio owned by her family in the St. Paul suburb of Woodbury. They didn’t start dating immediately, however. It was while Moh was attending the University of Minnesota’s business school — with his sights set on a career in investment banking — that the two of them reconnected at a reunion of the studio’s black belts. (Richelle is a black belt, too.) Moh got his degree while helping Richelle’s family run the Woodbury studio.
But banking was tabled after a late 2006 phone call. The call came from an acquaintance Moh had made through martial art tournaments — someone who had a connection to the management team of international film star Jackie Chan. Chan was looking for Asian-American martial artists to work on a movie, and Moh’s acquaintance asked him to make and send a short video of his skills pronto. Two weeks later, Moh was on a plane to Hong Kong to join Chan’s stunt crew for “Rob-B-Hood” — a 2006 Chinese-language action-comedy movie that was successful in Southeast Asia but not released in North American theaters.
That experience was a 10-day baptism into the movies for Moh. It was Richelle, upon Moh’s return, who said, “I think we should explore this.”
They moved to the Los Angeles area in summer 2007. Married by then, Moh got an agent, did commercials and took acting classes. Richelle began her business career.
Moh appeared in TV programs aimed at younger viewers, such as “Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight” on The CW in 2009 and 2010 and “Supah Ninjas” on Nickelodeon in 2013, and got bit parts on episodes of “House,” “2 Broke Girls,” “Castle” and “True Blood.” In 2016, he became know to gamers as Ryu, his character in the web series “Street Fighter: Resurrection” based on the video game of the same name.
Moh’s TV profile significantly increased when he landed the recurring roles of public relations executive Steve Cho on Fox’s “Empire” and as the water-dwelling superhero Triton in the ensemble cast of Marvel’s “Inhumans,” a short-lived show on ABC.
The Move Back to the Midwest
By then, Moh and Richelle had returned to the Midwest where they wanted to raise their three children. They relocated to the Madison area in 2013 after Mattel Inc. found a position in Middleton for Richelle as director of product development for American Girl. She is now president of Go Ninja, an obstacle course gym for kids adjacent to Moh’s Martial Arts.
Moh realized a dream of his by opening his own martial arts studio in Waunakee and developing a devoted following of students and instructors.
“He finds a way to connect with everybody,” says Chad Margenau, an instructor at Moh’s Martial Arts whose kids studied under Moh. “He’s naturally charismatic. I think for many of the kids, he’s a hero.”
Moh says his family and the martial arts studio have made him less anxious about landing acting roles — an attitude that likely helps in auditions.
Clearly, the move to the area and away from Hollywood did not upend his acting career.
Consider the incredible call last spring from Moh’s Los Angeles-based manager. “Mike, we have this really cool opportunity for you,” his agent said. “We just got off the phone with the casting director. Quentin Tarantino is doing a new film and he’s looking for someone to play Bruce Lee.”
The legendary “Pulp Fiction” director spent several years writing “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a script set in 1969 revolving around the infamous murders of actress Sharon Tate and four others by members of the Manson cult. Lee was an actor and martial artist who knew Tate and her husband, the director Roman Polanski.
The film company was not prepared to fly Moh to California to audition, and he needed to be there the next day. But Moh didn’t hesitate. He bought a ticket and nailed the audition, which was with the casting team.
It was at a follow-up audition a few weeks later when he met Tarantino. Moh again paid his own way. Tarantino acted out the scene with him.
“He’s so passionate about everything,” Moh says.
Moh is, too. Leaving that day, he recalled Richelle advising him to tell the director how much he wanted the role.
“Mr. Tarantino,” he said, “if you choose me, people will think Bruce Lee came back to life to be in your film.”
Tarantino laughed. “Yeah, OK.”
Maybe someone who started martial arts at age 12 and earned a black belt in a little over two years carries that level of confidence. Moh’s interest in Taekwondo was derived from his father, who took it up in the Korean military before emigrating to the U.S. Moh says his pursuit of the martial art gave he and his father “something to bond over.”
Starstruck But Unfazed
For the role in the Tarantino film, Moh was called back a third time. This time when Moh walked in the room, he didn’t see just the director. It was a “table read” of the script and the star-studded cast — Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino — was assembled around the table.
“I think [Tarantino] wanted to see how I would handle the situation,” Moh says. He stayed cool. He got the part. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” opens July 26.
“It was the most entertaining, knowledgeable, tight-knit and professional film set I’ve ever been on,” Moh says. “It feels like a dream.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.
Mike Moh on TV and Film
In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a feature film set for release in July 2019, Moh plays Bruce Lee. The biopic was directed by Quentin Tarantino and stars Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie and Al Pacino.
“Killerman,” a feature film yet to receive an official release date, Moh plays the character Baracuta. This action thriller, directed by Malik Bader, stars Liam Hemsworth.
On ABC’s “Inhumans,” set in the Marvel (comics) Cinematic Universe, Moh played the underwater assassin Triton. ABC aired eight episodes between November 2017 and May 2018 before canceling the show.
On nine episodes of Fox’s “Empire,” aired from 2015 to 2017, Moh played public relations executive Steve Cho.
Moh played Ryu, a lead character in “Street Fighter: Resurrection” (2016) and “Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist” (2014), live-action mini web series based on the popular video game “Street Fighter.”
Moh made one-episode appearances on the TV shows “True Blood” (2014), “Castle” (2014), “Perception” (2013), “2 Broke Girls” (2011) and “House” (2011).
Moh played uncredited roles on eight episodes of “Supah Ninjas,” a two-season action-comedy series on Nickelodeon, in 2013.
“Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight,” an American adaptation of a popular Japanese show, aired on The CW for a year ending December 2009. Moh starred in 17 episodes.
Moh joined Jackie Chan’s Stunt Team for 10 days of filming “Rob-B-Hood” in early 2006.