Shannon Lee: I couldn’t act like my father Bruce Lee

Interview: Andrew Williams [Metro, Monday 9th Jan 2012]

Former actress Shannon Lee talks to Metro about her relationships with her father, of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, and brother Brandon Lee, who died in an accident while filming The Crow in 1993.

I was four when my father died. My memories of him are like glimpses. I remember visiting the sets of his films and running around. They shot without sound so we were allowed to make noise.

When my father died [in 1973] he was very famous in Asia but Enter The Dragon, which catapulted him to international fame, hadn’t come out. When it did, his fame grew gradually. My mother raised us out of the limelight and told us not to say we were Bruce Lee’s children, so I had a normal childhood. I didn’t run in Hollywood circles or go to premieres. My brother, Brandon, would occasionally be challenged to fights growing up because he was Bruce Lee’s son.

There was more expectation for my brother to enter the  entertainment industry. He wanted to be an actor from when he was a little kid. When he started, everyone wanted him to do action films, which wasn’t what he wanted. He was a gifted athlete and when he started martial arts at 17 it came naturally. He established his own career.

When I started acting in my twenties,  a director on the set of an action film shouted: ‘Just do it like your dad would.’ I couldn’t – I can only do things as I’d do them. My father’s philosophy was about being the best person you can be – so the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.

I have a degree in vocal performance, I’m a classically trained singer and I studied musical theatre. I always liked performing and I wanted the opportunity to try acting. I’d worked with my brother on a film and he told me to move to LA to help me – but soon after, he died. It was a difficult time. I was grieving for a number of years and, while I enjoyed acting, I didn’t feel I was fully immersed in it.

No one’s given an education in how to deal with death – especially when it’s thrust on you so unexpectedly as it was with my brother’s death. I struggled through it and still have sharp moments of grief  18 years later. It took seven years to feel I could attain joy again.

I was depressed during the entire time I was acting. I didn’t have therapy or medication but I did some soul-searching about what journey I was on in the world. Friends were very helpful and I was finally able to shake free of that grip of depression and grief. I lost my father when I was four, so maybe that was always in the background. Losing my brother kicked it into overdrive. When you get to such an intense place of suffering you either have the choice to continue suffering or figure a way not to.

I now run the Bruce Lee Foundation, a charity to preserve the legacy of my father. We do that through a scholarship programme, doing talks and events, and we’re raising money to build the Bruce Lee Action Museum in Seattle. It won’t be just for memorabilia but a place about ‘action’ – whether that’s action films, philosophical action or taking social action. It’ll engage people and hopefully be a fitting tribute to my father.

It’s a big undertaking but one that I enjoy. I believe my father’s legacy is worthwhile because of all the people he has inspired. I’m busy with that but my most important role is as a mother to my daughter, Wren.

Shannon Lee is the executive producer of The Legend Of Bruce Lee, which is out on DVD and Blu-ray today.

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