xXx, Donnie Yen, Vin Diesel, and the skill of the action star

On the set of xXx: Return Of Xander Cage, we ponder why action acting doesn't get the credit it deserves...

One of the more interesting soundbites to come from Den of Geek’s recent visit to the set of xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage came from an interview with Chinese martial arts legend (and Death Star plan thief) Donnie Yen, who, while discussing the difference between fighting on screen, and fighting in the real world, remarked “when I’m jumping off a bridge or punching someone’s face that is acting, that’s part of the artistic performance.”

It got me thinking. For the most part, when audiences discuss an actor’s performance – whether that’s members of the public coming out of a screening, critics writing reviews, or even industry professionals analysing movies they’ve worked on – they tend to focus on the actor’s delivery of lines, and maybe their ability to carry off an accent. Very rarely does anyone remark on the physicality involved in a performance, and when they do the discussion is almost invariably on roles at the extreme end, where an actor might be playing a torture victim, or a drug addict, and where a large part of that physicality has come either from crash dieting or heavy makeup and VFX work.

And yet, physicality is key to an actor’s job. Contrast xXx leading man Vin Diesel’s measured stillness playing veteran soldier Sgt Carpazo in Saving Private Ryan with his cocksure swagger as ex-con turned street racer Dominic Toretto in the Fast & Furious franchise. The differences are subtle, but they’re also what defines those characters.

In action movies, that challenge becomes even greater. It’s not uncommon for actors in dramatic or comedic roles to have to put themselves into mindsets, and carry out tasks with which they’re unfamiliar, but on action films many of those tasks range from physically arduous to almost superhuman. For franchise newcomer Ruby Rose, most famous for her role as Stella in Orange Is The New Black, this meant connecting with her inner soldier:

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“I can strip and rebuild the big one in 36 seconds!” the actress boasts. “I had to learn the whole mentality of the sniper, the attitude of it. And even details like covering up or hiding my jewellery when I’m in a tree because snipers have to cover that bling.”

Another cast member who faced the task of demonstrating new skills for Return Of Xander Cage was MMA fighter Michael Bisping:

“Yeah. I guess the first time was kind of nerve wracking, but I guess I’ve always been a natural performer and I’m very at home doing this kind of thing.” Bisping explains, “And yes at first of course anything you do is challenging. But the more time you do it, the more time you dedicate to that craft, the easier it gets!”

While acting isn’t new to Bisping, who has appeared in four films to date, Return Of Xander Cage is a movie on a whole new scale. And part of the challenge was convincing the rest of the team that he could fight safely on screen:

“Every time that I’ve done something on screen, they are always very hesitant. All the directors and other actors and the stunt men are like ‘Michael, be careful!’ Because they think that I’m going to go too hard, you know. And they’re like ‘Michael, take it easy’ and I’m like ‘Don’t worry’, because I’ve been doing martial arts since I was 8 years old and the first lesson you learn in martial arts is ‘Power is nothing without control’ and I’m very controlled and I know exactly what I’m doing.”

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Although we didn’t have the chance to ask around and check that every person was satisfied with Bisping’s reassurances (although he was keen to let us know us that “No one’s died”), we did discover that he’d earned the respect of at least one of his co-stars.

“Everybody has a different way of presenting their performance, right?” Donnie Yen confides “So, I may have a lot of experience, I do have a lot of experience in film-making, as a director, as a choreographer, maybe that gives me an advantage, but I think of other actors – like Michael Bisping, he already has that in him, he’s already a fighter, he doesn’t have to act like a fighter, he is a fighter.  It’s all about team work, everybody brings something good to the table.”

That Yen is so approving of Bisping’s performance should be seen as a great compliment to the fighter-turned-actor. Yen, who has been acting for over thirty years, comes across as a deeply analytical man, with a great deal of insight into his craft.

“For me, capturing a character isn’t about only playing the character the best that character is, it’s also about being charming and captivating so the audience look at you and say “wow, I want to see more of him”, he explains. “Whatever you play, you want to be as convincing as possible so the audience can be drawn into the world, then you succeed.”

Because of that experience, both in front of and behind the camera, Yen’s understanding of the technical process of making action films is second to none: “you’re fighting ten guys with all those angles, and you’ve got to be in that zone, you’ve got to be in that emotion, you’re playing a character in emotional crisis, there might be tears, and you’ve got to take these guys down. You’re not playing a machine.”

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“You might take one guy down but have some compassion for this other guy,” he continues, delving into the impact of the performance on an audience, “so everything has to be very detailed and specific, and that takes a lot of acting. Sometimes the audience might not understand, why do they like this guy better than this guy, they’re both martial artists, they’re both doing the same things, so why do they like this guy? It’s a better performance, so you like the guy.”

In the case of Bisping, much of the technical side is second nature: “I’ve done martial arts for a long, long time so I’m pretty adept at picking up that kind of thing in fact I could, just like that, I could pick it up and memorise it.” He was even able to influence some of that choreography, “They were kind enough to let me put a little bit of input about how things should go”.

Where this differs from Bisping’s previous experience is that he’s memorising these moves as part of a sequence that involves several performers. When asked about how the presence of so many skilled fighters on set affected the atmosphere, he revealed: “There’s a lot of testosterone but it’s good natured testosterone.” He went on to remark on the professionalism of his colleagues: “It’s not testosterone where you’ve got two alpha males butting heads, it’s testosterone to the point of, you know, ‘Let’s make this look good, lets really sell this‘, so it’s high energy and I think that really helps to sell the shot.”

Indeed, ‘professional’ seems to be the best way to describe the entire cast’s approach to selling their performances. While audience members rarely understand the level of work that goes in to playing a character in an action movie, and the industry is reluctant to honour performances by action movie stars at awards ceremonies, Yen is very clear on what it takes: “for the longest time I’ve been trying to spread my philosophy that as an ‘action’ man, that doesn’t mean you’re not acting.”

“It’s the same principle as dramatic acting but you’re adding a lot more technique. Personally, I think it’s harder to act and move with your body.”

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xXx: Return Of Xander Cage arrives in cinemas on Thursday.