Shannon Lee: ‘The Rust killing was down to negligence and hubris’

Bruce Lee holding his daughter Shannon
Bruce Lee holding his daughter Shannon - Linda Palmer photo

Shannon Lee, actress-turned-writer and daughter of Bruce, is calmly apologetic, warning me that her electricity might be about to go out. She’s in the middle of a house move, but you’d ever know it through the Zoom screen: the room behind her is sparse, white-walled spick and span, with not a moving box in sight. But then, she’s the daughter of the ultimate martial arts legend - how could she make an LA move look anything but zen?

Today we’re talking about her lush new coffee table book In My Own Process, a visually engaging collection of her father’s letters, poetry and rare family photos, annotated by reflections from Shannon herself, former students such as Jesse Glover (who was depicted in 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the most famous biopic of her father), as well as film-makers like Ang Lee.

The idea, she says, is to highlight her father’s work ethic, honesty and what it means to be a martial artist, and over 50 years on from his death at the age of 32. There’s everything from his at-home workout regime, to, more intriguingly, his attempts to keep his temper in check.

It’s a trove of treasures, but of course, Lee’s legend has been pored over by everyone from Tarantino movies to anime to video games – indeed Shannon herself has already published several books on her father’s writings. What is there left to share?

“There’s been a cry from people to publish his appointment diaries,’ admits Shannon. “He carried these booklets in which he would write down who he was training when. There are people who are like, ‘I’m going to prove that he gave more lessons to this person than that person’. And I’m just like, you know what? You need to get over that.”

Family portrait: Bruce Lee and his wife Linda Lee Cadwell with children Brandon and Shannon
Family portrait: Bruce Lee and his wife Linda Lee Cadwell with children Brandon and Shannon - Linda Palmer photo

Shannon chuckles wryly. “One of the things that I hold most dear is a life-sized sculpture of Guan Yin, who is the goddess of compassion. My father loved her. I also love that he had such a profound connection to her as a representation of compassion, and gentleness.”

Yet as In My Own Process reveals, Bruce walked a tightrope in that regard: he faced a constant battle to get his TV projects green-lit, as Hollywood execs wondered if American audiences were ready for an ‘Oriental’ hero; he also lost the leading role in the TV series Kung Fu to David Carradine for having too thick an accent, and got paid far less that his white co-stars in the series The Green Hornet. Eventually, he would end up returning to the Hong Kong movie industry, to give him more leverage. ‘’You could see how his passion could transform into temper, occasionally, when things didn’t go his way.’”

Bruce Lee “the a___hole” is the image of him depicted by Quentin Tarantino in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, in which he depicts Lee as a cocky and aggressive antagonist towards Brad Pitt’s stuntman, who then humiliates Lee in a fight. It was a strange decision given the fact that Tarantino’s Kill Bill was flooded with Lee’s influence and the hypocrisy landed Tarantino in hot water with fans (and Shannon). What possessed him?

Bruce Lee on the beach with Green Hornet co-star Van Williams
Bruce Lee on the beach with Green Hornet co-star Van Williams - Courtesy of Shannon Lee

“It’s interesting. I actually don’t know,” says Shannon. “I’ve never met him. I don’t know what his issues are with my father. Clearly, he thinks my father is cool, because he has borrowed from him quite a bit. But at the same time, I think he has been told a lot of stories by people who have encountered my father and had a negative reaction. They found him to be overly confident or arrogant. I have to say, in my experience, the stories are mostly from white men. I think Quentin may have been told a lot of those stories and believes them. I think a lot of people looked at my father as uppity, you know?”

Shannon has spent 50 years living with her father’s legacy as public property. She was only four when he died from a cerebral edema in Hong Kong. At times, she says, it’s been overwhelming. “When I was acting in my 20s, I had a director on a project say to me ‘just do it, like your dad would do it.’ I would be like, ‘Nobody can do it like my dad would do it, let alone me.’ Thank God I was acting pre-internet. Back then, there were people who were very negative about me, oh, you’re just riding on your father’s coattails. But I would say that the biggest pressure of all is the pressure that I have put on myself. When you have a parent who has excelled extremely and whom so many people revere, you as their child feel like ‘oh my god, how do I fill these shoes’”

Her mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, was always a supportive cheerleader, she says. But to get past it, she followed her father’s rules of self-actualisation. “He was like, don’t go out and copy another personality, start from the very root of your being and ask yourself, How can I be me.”

Bruce Lee on the set of Fist of Unicorn, 1973
Bruce Lee on the set of Fist of Unicorn, 1973 - Courtesy of Shannon Lee

Another of her father’s quotes that she’s clung to is one she discovered shortly after the death of her brother Brandon, when he was fatally shot on set of the film The Crow, the mesmerising gothic fantasy that ushered in a new era of comic book movies in 1993. The prop gun contained an improperly made dummy round, still caught inside the barrel; the bullet struck his abdomen, and lodged in his spine. Brandon was 28; Shannon was 24 – just four years older than Shannon’s own daughter, Wren.

“I was in a very dark, depressed place. And I happened to come across a quote of my father’s that I had never read before that really inspired me to try to figure out a way to ease my own pain. The quote was, ‘the medicine for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it. My ailment came from within myself, but I did not observe it until this moment. But now I see that if I am ever to find the light, I must be like the candle and be my own fuel.’”

She’s inadvertently become the guardian of her brother’s legacy too, and she’s been vocally against Lionsgate’s TV remake of The Crow. Her protests went unheard – it airs in 2024, starring Bill Skarsgard – so she has some coping mechanism in place for the day it debuts on TV. “No matter how long it’s been, and it’s been 30 years, right? Grief is the sort of thing that will suddenly, one day just sort of poke up out at you. So I think it’s just a matter of where I’m at the moment. So when it debuts, if I don’t feel called to engage with it, then I just won’t. Or if I’m intrigued and I want to see what they’ve done, then I will. And if it gets too painful, then I’ll stop.’ That laugh again – but this time, it’s heartbreaking.

Brandon Lee in The Crow, 1994
Brandon Lee in The Crow, 1994 - Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo

Does she think it’ll muddle her brother’s legacy? “A little bit. But at the same time, people talk about remaking Enter the Dragon and part of me is like, go ahead, Enter the Dragon is what it is because Bruce Lee is in it. The original Crow movie was spectacular, primarily, because Brandon was in it.”

She may not have stopped The Crow, but after what happened to Brandon, she’s still an active campaigner on gun safety laws on movie sets. Notably, with the incident on the set of the movie Rust, on which cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed by a live bullet fired from a prop gun being used by Alec Baldwin in 2021. The production company was later fined for firearms safety failures and Baldwin and armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed are awaiting trial for involuntary manslaughter. 

‘It’s hard for me to know who was to blame there, but clearly, there was just an amazing amount of negligence. And I think the culture of ‘do it cheap, do it fast’ is really something that needs to be rectified. Clearly there was some lack of experience on that set, there was some hubris I would imagine as well.”

Still, she enjoys the ‘gun fu’ genre, as popularised by the John Wick films. “I really try not to be overly judgemental. I think people being creative and doing their best to entertain us is a lovely task to take on.”

Lately, she’s reserved a special place in her heart for Everything Everywhere All At Once, the Oscar-sweeping absurdist whirlwind that saw Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, leap between parallel universes to stop the earth’s destruction. “The whole thing was just a wild romp. ’

It remains to be seen, however, whether the promised ‘Asian wave’ that EEAAO was thought to inspire would come to fruition – the actors’ and writers’ strikes haven’t helped, she says – but she thinks it has created more access to Asian-led content within the industry. She points to a number of things in the pipeline, including her own anime-style series House Of Lee, her TV series Warrior, and a YA novel she’s writing with fantasy author Fonda Lee, “based on some of my father’s creative ideas for a set of novels”.

Shannon Lee no longer follows martial arts “super closely”
Shannon Lee no longer follows martial arts “super closely”

Shannon no longer follows martial arts “super closely” – though she does practice Qiogong and meditation – but is passionate about its psychological benefits. “For inner strength, resilience, confidence. Combat is very high stakes: the punching and kicking will trigger you immediately, internally. The purpose to your practice is to learn how to remain present, and grounded in the midst of your emotions, to be skillful in the midst of challenge.” In that regard, the transient Shannon Lee has the process nailed.

In My Own Process is now available to order here