Mike Moh grew up in Minnesota idolizing Bruce Lee. On June 26, the 35-year-old father of three will appear on the big screen as Lee, the legendary martial artist and actor, in Quentin Tarantino's new film "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." How did the proprietor of a martial arts school in Waunakee, Wis., wind up in the same cast with Kurt Russell, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio? With a fighting spirit, as AB senior editor Paul Steinbach learned during a conversation with Moh on Lee's birthday, Nov. 27.
What's your day job like?
I started by teaching in a little community center that we have here and then we've just been outgrowing everything. We've had four different locations, so hopefully this new studio that we've just opened up will last us a few more years. I went from 3,400 square feet to about 9,000, and this was the first space that I actually had full control over the layout. About 40 percent of it is dedicated to an "American Ninja Warrior"-type gym for kids, with a lot of the same obstacles you'll see on that TV show, but then the main part of it — about 60 percent — is our martial arts training facility.
How would you characterize your clientele?
We're a family martial arts school, so I would say 70 percent is kids, but we have a lot of parents training with their kids, and we do also have an adult program. We definitely have students of all ages — from as young as four to students in their 60s. We have over 400 members now, and that's just on the martial arts side. With our ninja gym, it's not really a membership base. We do a lot of birthday parties. We do classes in sessions as opposed to an ongoing membership.
To what extent has the entertainment industry helped popularize martial arts in America?
In America, martial arts really took off when a guy named Bruce Lee became mainstream. He was a big catalyst for the big popularity jump in martial arts in America. Then in the '80s, when "The Karate Kid" came out, that was huge — a huge boost to the martial arts industry, as well. Martial arts, for as long as I've been alive, has always had a big place in mainstream media, whether it's cartoons or video games or movies, and Taekwondo, with all the kicks that we do, is very visually appealing, to kids especially.
What draws clients to Moh's Martial Arts?
I would say the number one thing that gets the parents to sign the kids up is they want their kids to build their confidence and self esteem. Some schools focus strictly on self-defense. Some are very heavy into competition. Our school's main focus is life skills. It's kind of like a school of life, but the vehicle to teach that is the discipline of martial arts. And I think that goes hand in hand — the discipline that they need, the respect they need to show themselves and others and their teachers. I think that's the reason we've grown so fast, especially in this community. It's a very family-centric community and people value high morals and values and work ethic. We like to think of ourselves as partners in parenting.
Can you summarize your school's curriculum?
We teach about 80 percent traditional martial arts, the traditional forms or the katas. We do sparring with rules sets of Taekwondo. We do board breaking. We do weapons practice. And then the modern martial arts is some of the more modern takes on self-defense, as far as mixed martial arts, and we integrate a little bit of kick boxing. We just kind of take from different styles that I feel are applicable and exciting for the students to learn, that are outside of the traditional realm of Taekowndo curriculum.
Do you see martial arts as an effective fitness regimen?
Absolutely. The movements that we're doing are pretty high-intensity. Our classes in particular are fast-paced and energetic. We have some really high-level athletes and competitors in our school, and they're very fit just from the nature of our difficult training.
When did you personally get started?
I started at 12. I grew up playing video games that had martial arts in them. I watched the Ninja Turtles. I watched all the Jackie Chan and the Bruce Lee movies with my dad, and I remember my dad telling me that he — as a part of his military service — had done Taekwondo as a young man. I just kind of gravitated toward martial arts. When I first started taking classes after convincing my parents, I just kind of fell in love with it and that became my thing.
What about Lee, in particular, appealed to you?
What was cool about Bruce is he had a very unique perspective and philosophy on life — not just martial arts, but life. When I talk about our school mixing in different elements of different martial arts, not necessarily that we're teaching UFC-style fighting, but when I say mixed martial arts, we're not just stuck to one style of Taekwondo. I'm open to bringing in different useful and exciting things of other martial arts and mixing it in with our curriculum. Bruce Lee was famous for doing that. Back in the day, you were either a Kung Fu guy or a Karate guy or a Jiu Jitsu guy. There was no mixing the arts. It was frowned upon. He was the first person to step outside and say, "To hell with that." He would do what he thought was useful and effective.
Can you describe how his philosophy has impacted you?
I think one thing that's kind of stuck with me through the past two years is that all the challenges that we have are still blessings, but we don't really know what's next. That's been exciting, but also kind of a challenge having three kids and trying to balance that and not knowing exactly what my next job will be or where I'm going to be for the next few months. My wife recently left her job to take on the lead role of the ninja gym. It's been a lot of change, so the thing that I really like to live my life by that Bruce shared was to be like water. When the water needs to be strong, it can crash. When the water needs to creep and flow, it can find its way around a problem. So adapting to different life circumstances that are presented and using different methods to problem-solve — going with the flow sometimes, and sometimes barging straight through if you need to.
Are there parallels to be drawn between martial arts and acting?
Absolutely. I think the kind of mental toughness that I built from martial arts has prepared me well for the acting career. I took the same approach to becoming a good actor that I did with being a martial artist. It's just a process. You start at the bottom. You start as a white belt, and then with every little challenge that you accept, or little role that you get, you get more experience and you build your confidence. Now I feel like I'm reaching the point where the momentum is starting to roll downhill after such a really tough upward battle. But even in martial arts, I'm a white belt in Jiu Jitsu. I just started taking another style. And even with Taekwondo, there are many kicks that still are challenging for me and forms that I'm not very good at, so I'm still a student myself. I think that's another mindset I try to pass on to my students of all ages. Even if you accomplish something, you're always going to be a student. You should always approach every challenge with a white-belt mentality, that there's always more to learn.
How did you land the role of Bruce Lee?
I spent about eight or nine years in Los Angeles as an actor. I've been on different shows and smaller movies, but that kind of led me to get the right team in place. I have a team of managers — an agency out in Los Angeles — and they're always looking out for different things that might be right for me. They contacted me about this film and were able to get me an audition.
Was it a long process?
It's not very common for an actor to live in Wisconsin, so I have this unique setup where I tape my auditions. I send it to my team, and they forward it on to casting. And if they like me, it's kind of known that I'm willing to fly myself out to meet them to do a second audition or meet the producers or directors. That's kind of how I've gotten jobs in the past couple of years. I did a Marvel TV show on ABC called "Inhumans," which was short-lived but an exciting ride. And then this audition came up, and for this one, the project was so secretive, they would not allow me to tape it. They didn't want any of the material out on the internet, so I had to fly with maybe 12 hours notice. My agents called me and they said, "Hey, we need you to be out here." So I caught a flight a couple hours later, and I auditioned with the casting director and they showed it to Quentin Tarantino. Then a couple weeks later I had to fly out again to meet him, because he responded to my audition so well. It was a process of about two months that I had to fight to win the role. I think I flew out there a total of three separate times. I jumped through a lot of hoops. They also tested my martial arts ability. I had to do some intensive training before we went on camera. I was doing three weeks of training and then a full week and a half of filming. It was a really exciting but stressful time in my life, but now looking back, it's all good.
What was it like meeting Tarantino?
It was really surreal. He's one of the top directors of all time, and you can see why he's so successful, because he's just passionate — super passionate about film — and loves doing what he does. It's infectious. It's something I will always remember and hold dear, just this whole process.
Were you a fan of his going into that face-to-face?
I'd seen a lot of his movies. I definitely knew of his work, but it wasn't something like I studied all his movies or anything. Anytime any actor hears that name, it's synonymous with greatness. My nerves were high, and I knew that this would be a big moment in my entertainment career moving forward. The stakes were definitely high.
How does it feel seeing your name among Russell, Pacino, DiCaprio?
It's a little wild. They recently finished filming, so my wife and I got invited to the wrap party. We flew to Los Angeles, and I got to meet a lot of the cast that I did not get a chance to work with in the film. You know, I feel like a fan with unprecedented access to some of this Hollywood stuff. But in reality, I'm an integral part of the film, and it's going to be a really memorable thing to be a part of. When you say those names, it's like I definitely don't feel I'm worthy to be mentioned among them, but everybody's got to start somewhere, and hopefully somebody will mention my name and be humbled and honored to work with me someday. That's the goal.
How important are your physical skills to your marketability as an actor?
I knew when I first started out in this business that my martial arts ability would be my edge, so I knew going in that I was going to market myself somebody who can do that. When I first started, I did a lot of commercials as a ninja or a martial-arts-type guy. As I progressed, slowly and surely, I played a waiter on the show "House" on Fox years ago. I said one thing. A little tiny role. But, you know, you start somewhere. I prefer action roles that require both action and acting. That's kind of like my wheelhouse. But I'm really proud of the fact that I've been hired just for my acting ability, as well — things where they don't know that I'm a martial artist. I think that's what has allowed me to continue to work, where I'm not just one-dimensional. Obviously, this role that we're talking about now with Tarantino is kind of like a dream come true. I get to do both. Moving forward I'd love to do more of just straight acting roles, as well.
Would you ever give up teaching to act full time?
I don't think I'll ever stop doing martial arts, and I love to teach. It's a passion of mine. Would I step away full-time, doing it every day? I think I would have to. Something would have to give. But I've been working really hard the past few years on building my team up, knowing that if my goal is to act in movies and be on TV series and fulfill that goal part of my life, then I don't want to be the guy who leaves my students high and dry. That's why I've been training my team to make sure that when I'm gone for long periods of time that the experience doesn't drop off and that everybody is in good hands. I would love to be able to stay in Wisconsin and teach when I'm able to and then try to balance it all. Who knows what reality will bring? But I do know that whether my acting career takes off or whether this is just kind of like a fun little thing, I'm very happy doing both. So there's no pressure. It's just kind of riding the wave and seeing what comes next. I think I would still own my school or maybe in the future I'll have more than one and continue to just mentor my team to make sure that they have the tools and the recipe for success.
Is there any evidence of your acting alter ego in the studio space?
I don't throw it in anybody's face and make the studio all about me, but it's not something that I hide. I do share my victories with the students as a point of inspiration once in a while. They know that I've worked on this film, that it was a big dream of mine, and that I accomplished it. I think that's powerful for the kids to know that, hey, I still have goals and dreams that I'm working to achieve. It doesn't always go the way I want, but look, I didn't give up. I got to celebrate the victory with them. And I do cool little things, like every summer we do a movie star camp where I help the students make a film. I get to share a lot of experience that I've had in my life and create opportunities for kids that I'm pretty confident no other martial arts school can provide. It's been fun.
This article originally appeared in the January | February 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Martial arts studio owner goes Hollywood as Bruce Lee." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.