“Enough from the clown!”
That’s Michael Jai White’s famous line from The Dark Knight, said in reference to a speech from Heath Ledger’s Joker. That’s how I was concerned he would respond to my questions. He didn’t, but his resting face gives so little away that I could never quite shake the feeling he was going to break into Gambol and insist I stop. He’s a big guy, too, and is well versed in several martial arts, so ideally I wanted to stay on his good side.
In London to promote his new action movie Falcon Rising, he was kind enough to spare us some time. Here’s what happened.
One of the things that makes Falcon Rising stand apart from other DTV action films is its Brazilian location. It’s a particularly colorful film. How important was the setting to you?
Well, it’s integral to the story, and there’s something about Brazil, the incident level is already raised when you go to Brazil. Life hangs on a very delicate string in Brazil, as you know. So I think it ramps up the danger in quite an organic way.
One of the other things I really liked – your face, in the fight scenes, is really expressive. In fight scenes I’m only used to seeing gritted teeth and grimaces. How difficult is it to be so expressive while remembering complex choreographed fight routines?
Well, it’s really about what’s going on in the mind of the character. A lot of people forget to act during the fighting and they go into a fighting mode. But I think with each film, the character has to act throughout and really kind of portray his character while fighting.
When you take on a darker role like this, do you take into account how it can affect you psychologically? Does take any toll on you to play a character like that?
Never. I happen to be one of those actors that, I go in and out of any character that I play instantly. I think I can understand the character, visit it and then come out, and not have a problem with that. I mean, it was close to me, because I had a brother-in-law who suffered from severe PTSD and so it’s something that I was aware of. But it’s not like I come home with any effects.
The market for VOD films like Falcon Rising seems to have really changed over the last few years. I think they’re being treated with as bit more respect. Is that something you’ve noticed, that people are perhaps a bit more open to these films now?
I think they were always open to this type of film. I think, ever since the old days, whether it had been Kirk Douglas, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, the movies were ‘a man’s man is fighting in a very realistic type of situation’. I don’t think that ever has died. I think that’s been convoluted by other movies that kind of short changed the audiences by camera tricks and what have you.
But, I mean, just like the resurgence of Liam Neeson, where you have a guy who can physically perform to such a degree, and he has, Liam Neeson has that throwback to Charles Bronson. And I think that really hasn’t gone.
But for a while, Hollywood had been making action heroes out of debutants and it was a force-fed thing that didn’t work. I think, just going back to the formula that works. It worked then and it works now.
There’s a particular scene in Falcon Rising that troubled me. The toilet head dunking scene. It looked dirty!
For my piece of mind, that was just good set dressing, right?
Yes, that was a brand new toilet, and it was just colored water.
OK, so someone’s job at work that day was to take a new toilet and make it look an old toilet?
Absolutely. And even though I knew it, and I was introduced to the toilet when it was brand new, and it was nowhere near the bathroom. There’s a camera on the other end of it. So, even though I’m dunking his head and you can see from underneath, and you feel like it’s a toilet, it’s on a raised platform.
So, even while I was doing it, there’s a part of me that’s grossed out, even though I know better.
So you don’t shake the guy’s hand after the scene.
It’s still like, the worst thing is, my heart goes out to the guy. Because I’m grossed out by my hand getting wet and his face is in the toilet.
Yeah, for him, especially after a few takes…
No, he was going for it. He was a great actor.
When I interviewed your Undisputed 2 costar Scott Adkins last year, he mentioned that one of the difficulties in making a martial arts film is that you can pick up injuries that can affect the shoot. Did anything like that occur on Falcon Rising, and how do you try to prevent that from happening?
No, I never had any injuries. Of course you want to be mindful of those. You’re going to take a risk no matter what. But, you know, it’s one of those things where if you worry about it too much you can will it upon yourself. I really don’t worry about it too much, I just take precautions.
I wanted to ask you about another film you have coming out this year, Skin Trade. Skin Trade also stars Ron Perlman, Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa, who I think might actually be magic. How was it to work with those guys?
Well Tony Jaa is a good friend of mine. In fact, I just left him a couple of days ago. Myself, my wife and he and his wife, we vacation together. He’s quite a good friend of mine. We had a great time and I’m happy to say we choreographed a large part of our fights ten minutes before shooting. But that stuff is a lot of fun.
You’ve done a few comic book movies through your career. I’d like to ask you about the one you get asked about the least – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze.
I mean, obviously it was right at the start of your career, and the role was essentially ‘guy in club’.
Do you have any memories of the day?
My closest memory, I started a karate school called “Top 10 Karate” and I had on the t-shirt for the school, right? One fond memory that I have, when we were shooting they asked me “Is that advertising anything?” and said “Well, no.”
Once the movie came out, another guy in the same town rented a movie theatre and got hundreds of kids there. This was to get kids interested in joining his karate studio. And on comes me, his competitor, with my actual shirt on, advertising my karate school. And that’s really funny because when that scene came up he’s like “Michael, you bastard!” and he cursed me out. He spent all that money and it wound up advertising my school, and people were like “I’m going there!”
So, probably the comic book movie you’re more famous for is The Dark Knight. You have two really important scenes in that. When you’re making a film like that do you have a sense of how iconic it’s going to turn out to be?
Not even a little bit. I don’t even think about. I actually shot a little bit more than what wound up in the movie. But I don’t make expectations for almost anything anymore. I just do it and I keep moving forward.
I think there are some people that might turn on me if I don’t ask you about Black Dynamite, which is a really fun film. I know you’ve had an animated version, but is there any chance of a sequel?
Well, when I crafted Black Dynamite, there were three movies I wanted to do in that genre. One was a horror movie in the style of Blacula, and another one was a western. And the western is something that I may be doing next. It’s kind of like Black Dynamite meets Blazing Saddles.
Was the original one as much fun to make as it looked?
Oh, it was absolute fun. It was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had on a set.
Now, I’m a bit of a Steven Seagal fan. And you worked on his only directorial effort, On Deadly Ground, as part of the stunt team.
Yes I did.
How was that experience? Because I’ve read that he doesn’t necessarily always get on with the stunt teams on movies.
Well, personally, I don’t know of him getting on with anyone. I mean, to be honest with you, I actually feel sorry for the guy. I have stories of working on that thing with him; none of them are good. [Laughs]
I just find him kind of fascinating.
I find him fascinating too, in a real comedic sort of way.
Well, I’m assuming you don’t want to get into this.
Hey, it’s up to you. You’re a fan of his, I don’t want to destroy your…
Oh, I’m a realist. I’ve heard things about him before. Well, I think I’m coming to the end of my time anyway, so rather than having you shatter my image of my beloved Steven Seagal, I’ll ask you, in Den of Geek tradition, do you have a favorite Jason Statham movie?
Are they any different?
How dare you!
[Laughs] But isn’t it like, Transporter 12?
Nah, I’m serious. Umm, er..
A popular one would be Crank. Crank’s pretty good. Don’t let me lead you or anything.
Well, Crank was, he really got to show his comedic side. I think that as far as really showing off what he can do, I think that would have to be it. And of course, my favorite was the Guy Richie one. But that was for the whole movie. But Crank, he had fun in that and it showed. I’m not sure if he’s been having fun in some of the other ones. It doesn’t look like he’s having that much fun. But in Crank it looked like he had a lot of fun.
I didn’t have fun with Expendables 3. Did you see Expendables 3?
Yeah, I couldn’t believe that they did that.
They made it that way for teenage boys, and took out all the stuff that the teenage boys wanted to see.
[Laughs] Right. That’s a perfect way to say it. They took away what was special about the movie.
I remember, I won a major argument at a studio that was defending – at the time The Loserswas coming up and The A Teamwas coming up – and they thought that they were gonna do big numbers and I argued with this studio boss. I said “Expendables is gonna destroy them.” And he’s like “Are you crazy, a bunch of B movie actors?”
I said “Watch.”
And it happened exactly like I said, because I understand the action world. No matter what, people want to have a beer and live vicariously through people that they believe. They don’t want to go to a movie, support people whose asses they feel like they can kick, you know? Some little Hollywood, 90 pound person that is not believable. So I was happy when Expendables came out and proved me right. But I wasn’t happy about them becoming, ultimately, what those other movies were.
Thank you, Michael Jai White.
Falcon Rising is out now.