byron mann in the modelizer

‘The Modelizer’ Star Byron Mann on Rom-Coms and the “Next Generation” of Hong Kong Film

The ‘Wu Assassins’ and ‘Street Fighter’ actor discusses writing, producing, and starring in a movie about Hong Kong elites

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8:15 PM HKT, Mon July 17, 2023 8 mins read

Maybe you’ve seen him brawling in prison yards, wielding supernatural fire powers, or even selling subprime mortgage bonds.

Byron Mann, known for his roles as Ryu in Street Fighter (1994), the “transfixing” Uncle Six in Netflix’s Wu Assassins, and CDO-purveyor Wing Chau in The Big Short (2015), has been a standard in Hollywood action films and dramas for years — but he’s trying something new with recently-released film The Modelizer, a romantic comedy written by, produced by, and starring himself.

“Rom-coms are actually one of my favorite genres,” Mann told RADII on his way to CBS Studios last Thursday. “I wasn’t setting out to do a romantic comedy per se. It’s just that when I looked into this world, I thought that romantic comedy would be the right format to bring it to life.”

“This world” is one of slick high-rises, lush hills, and expensive restaurants in bustling Hong Kong, a world populated by international models — “from Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Poland, the Czech Republic, Pakistan, just everywhere,” Mann said — and the millionaires and billionaires that court them.

VIPs, according to The Modelizer — short for very interested person.

Mann himself plays one of these VIPs: Shawn Koo, the playboy heir to a real-estate empire who falls for new-in-town Brazilian model Camila (Rayssa Bratillieri), who, as rom-com tradition might dictate, wants nothing to do with him. Through the lens of this eventual romance, The Modelizer takes audiences on a Crazy Rich Asians-esque tour of the upper crust in Hong Kong — the most expensive city in the world from 2018 to 2022, before recently being overtaken by New York City.

“This is the next generation of Hong Kong film,” Mann said. “If the stories are set in Hong Kong, they’re for a global audience.”

The Modelizer, directed by Keoni Waxman, was released on July 14 in theaters across the U.S. and on VOD. In this interview, Mann discusses the inception of the film, the Hong Kong stereotypes he would like to dispel, the “Crazy Rich Asians effect” in Hollywood, and much more.

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

RADII: The Modelizer is inspired by true events — I was wondering if there were any moments or stories in particular that made you want to write it?

Byron Mann: Nothing specific, but it’s loosely inspired by this world of international models living and working in Hong Kong. They’re from everywhere. They’re from Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Poland, the Czech Republic, Pakistan. Just everywhere.

So it’s loosely based on their lives. And it’s also loosely based on the people who try to court them, are trying to have relationships with them. And the stories that come out of that, they’re emotional, they’re funny, and sometimes a little outrageous.

Are you generally a rom-com fan? Are there any rom-coms in particular that you watched or maybe rewatched in preparation for The Modelizer?

BM: Believe it or not, rom-coms are actually one of my favorite genres. Even though I’m known to have done a lot of action, some serious dramas, heavy dramas.

Personally, I really enjoy watching romantic comedies. But it’s very rare to find a good one, and they’re really hard to make.

It’s even harder to make because you need a new world. You need a fresh world, I should say...let’s not have another romantic comedy set in New York. Cause we’ve seen a thousand of them.

And you need chemistry between the two lead actors — genuine chemistry. And obviously a good script, a story well-told.

So I wasn’t setting out to do a romantic comedy per se. It's just that when I looked into this world, I thought that romantic comedy would be the right format to bring it to life.

And I did not have to research romantic comedies, because I have some all-time favorites. They are, from bottom to top: Notting Hill, Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral. And, drum roll…When Harry Met Sally.

A classic.

Yeah. I mean, ironically, all these movies are from the eighties and nineties. Maybe early two thousands. I'm not sure why that is, but that’s just a coincidence perhaps. There have been other romantic comedies that have come out in recent years. But in my book, you know, these are the gold standards.

byron mann and rayssa altierri on the set of the modelizer

Rayssa Bratillieri as Camila and Byron Mann as Shawn in The Modelizer. Image via Berton Chang

So what made you decide to get into the writing and producing side of things?

BM: I'll tell you how this all started. I was talking to my cinematographer, Nathan Wilson. He’s the cinematographer of [The Modelizer] and we’ve worked together on other movies before, so we know each other well. He, myself, and Keoni Waxman, the director, we all know each other, and have done like four or five movies together.

[Wilson] went to Hong Kong, I believe, in 2018 over Christmas, just for a work trip, and he loved it. He came back in January 2019, and I remember meeting up with him.

He said, ‘Hey, Byron, I wanna shoot a movie in Hong Kong, and I want the movie to be with you.’ I said, ‘Great. Why don’t you send me a script?’

He said, ‘I don’t have a script.’ He was asking me for a pitch.

So I thought about it, and I said, look, I don’t want to do another kung fu movie or a gangster movie. I've seen a thousand of them. Then I remembered I have a friend who dates models all the time in Hong Kong. That was an interesting idea, possibly, but I didn't know where to go with it.

So I called my friend, and I met up with him in Hong Kong...he just told me stories upon stories. The more I heard, the more I thought, wow, this is really kind of crazy. So that’s how it started, really. I met with other models and public relations people who handle a lot of events, dinners, and I just took a lot of notes. Then I started building a story.

And why did I write it? Well, it’s the fastest way to see the movie go into production. I’ve hired writers before, and it’s very time consuming. A lot of times if they don’t really know the material, chances are you’re not gonna get what you want.

No fault of their own, but if they don’t know Hong Kong or the models over there, how can they produce in writing what you want? So I just kind of knew from trial and error, and decided I was just going to do it myself.

Do you think, after this experience, you’re going to continue writing and producing or are you going to stick to acting?

BM: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s stressful. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced more stress in my life than during the production of this film.

Filming is already stressful and then filming during Covid was like that times 10. We kept losing locations because people were scared that we would bring Covid to the premises. For example, for the finale, we had secured the location, and then a week before we were supposed to shoot there the establishment said we couldn’t because they were fearful that we would bring Covid. Even though the place was empty and no one was using it.

Were there any benefits to filming during Covid, though?

BM: Yeah, the city was virtually empty, in terms of establishments. Look, this models’ world, it happens in a lot of very fancy restaurants, very fancy hotels, penthouse suites, the whole nine yards.

Ordinarily we would probably not be able to book these places because they’re so full. Or they're so expensive to rent. But during Covid, they were virtually empty, and so we were able to shoot in pretty much the exact places where these model dinners and parties really happen.

In a way, that was one of the best things that happened. This world, you can't soft-pedal it. People know, right? So you can’t shoot this in a dingey little room, because that’s not how it works. These are high rolling places. Also, I happen to have some friends who actually are owners of fancy restaurants and fancy hotels, and I was able to reach out to them, and because these places were not being used during Covid, we were able to use them. So we were very fortunate.

On the subject of Hong Kong, I read an early review of The Modelizer that said the movie was something of a ‘Hong Kong travelogue.’ You’re a native Hong Konger — what aspects of the city did you most want to highlight when you were creating this?

BM: Oh, many fronts. That’s a very good question. Number one, that there are many types of people other than Chinese people who live in Hong Kong. That’s number one — it’s kinda like Shanghai or Beijing. Several of my investors are not Chinese, and they’ve been living in Hong Kong for 30 years. You know, they’re Hong Kong people. They’re Hong Kong residents.

Number two, not everybody eats just Chinese food. I’ll give you an example. I screened the film early on for some friends and industry folks. One of my friends is an industry veteran producer, and he said, ‘I watched the whole film and nobody used chopsticks. Is that normal?’

I mean, it wasn’t even a racist question. It was a genuine question.


Right, because he’s never been to Hong Kong. And I said, well, you're right. Nobody uses chopsticks in the film because they don't use chopsticks. Sometimes they just eat Western food, and they don’t necessarily speak Chinese.

Another aspect is that a lot of people think Hong Kong is just buildings, high rises. That’s partially true. But actually there's mountains. There’s incredible hiking trails. There's islands, and incredible beaches in Hong Kong. And we wanted to showcase all of that.

byron mann in the modelizer

Mann in The Modelizer. Image via Berton Chang

I read that you used to be a stunt performer, and obviously you’re really known for your action movies. It looks like you’ve been able to incorporate some action into The Modelizer, which was something I wasn’t expecting. What makes the genre so interesting for you in particular?

BM: I actually was not a stunt performer. I’ve always just done a lot of stunts.

When I did The Big Short with Steve Carell, he said, ‘I did comedy for a little bit and suddenly I was offered a lot of comedy stuff for like 10 years. But really, I’m an actor. I do drama, I do heavy drama, and I can do comedy too, but it's not that I only like to do comedy.’

So that's kind of what happened to me.

My first action film was Street Fighter, and then I just kept getting offers to do more action. And more action. More action. So, I like action, but it's not the only thing I like.

You said in a 2015 interview that physicality matters a lot when you’re bringing a character to life. What were some of the qualities or behaviors of this character of Shawn Koo that really helped you inhabit him?

BM: One of my longtime acting teachers once told me a long time ago, when I first started acting, that one of the first things you want to do when you inhabit a character is find out how this character walks and how this character talks.

So, I won’t name names, but one of the people that I know who inspired this film has a particular walk — a very particular walk. And if you see me, if you watch my character closely in this film, you’ll see that walk.

The last time you spoke to RADII, you talked about the “Crazy Rich Asians effect.” Obviously Hollywood has come a long way since you first started out and even since Crazy Rich Asians was released. So, would you say this plays out in your experience?

BM: I've noticed in the last couple years, since Crazy Rich Asians, and then recently with Everything Everywhere All At Once, that being an Asian actor is becoming a little bit more mainstream.

You asked me why I did a lot of action — well, those were the only parts that were available. It was like action, kung fu guy. Martial artist. So now it's already different. In The Modelizer, I play a ‘modelizer’ in Hong Kong. That’s insane. No one would be able to conceive of that, except for someone who knows this world.

So we need that. We need to tell these stories. We need to portray these characters. That Asian guys onscreen are not just martial artists, triad guys, you know? There are those, but they could also be doctors. They could be ‘modelizers’. They could be whatever.

Last question, and you've kind of touched on this already, but what do you hope audiences take away from watching The Modelizer?

BM: I hope they will be surprised by the story. I hope they will believe in romance again. It’s kind of a sweet, romantic story at the heart of it.

The good news is we’ve had test screenings, and no one has come away saying, oh wow, this Asian guy, and this Brazilian actress? No one said that. They just said, wow, what a great, cool love story.

And I don't wanna set up expectations with audiences, but I just hope that, first and foremost, they'll be entertained.

And then also that they can see a different side of Hong Kong, a different side of Hong Kong films. That would be amazing, that would be the icing on the cake.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Cover image via IMDb

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