Fighter or Athlete? Gary Daniels on Screen Violence
When Gary Daniels was visiting Vietnam some years ago, I sat down with him for an interview for our magazine Oi Vietnam. What particularly struck me about Gary was his calm, balanced nature that seemed at odds with the brutal characters he's often played in films. A passionate practitioner of martial arts and Eastern philosophy, Gary shared much of his views on violence as a human weakness that is still necessary as a counterbalance to its opposite, without which neither could exist.
While the limitations of space meant I couldn't do full justice to everything Gary shared with me on that pleasant morning over coffee in Binh Thanh, I now release here the full transcript of our interview so that readers can take a deeper diver into the mind of Gary Daniels as it was in 2017, a time before the pandemic and all that has shaken the world since.
So I thought I'd ask you some different topics that I hadn't seen on the interviews on YouTube…
Don’t ask me “when did you start martial arts, why did you, what martial arts did you study?!”
And I saw extensive interviews about you and your career and the films that you've been in and the actors that you acted with. So, can we try a couple of maybe difficult questions, I’ve got a philosophy topic…
As long as it’s not math, I'm terrible at math.
No math! But the overwhelming impression I get from looking at the interviews you've done, is that you’re quite personable, you’re quite well-spoken, you seem well-educated, eloquent. So you don't seem like the kind of man who would be the one to fight your way out of an argument. So this is in contrast with your career where you’re always portraying fighting, you're a fighter by nature. It’s almost as if there are two Gary Daniels. Do you think there are two sides to you in that way?
I think there is to everybody. I think all human beings have everything inside of us. We all have love, hate, jealousy, rage, and passion. We all have all of it inside of us. It's just what do you choose to bring forth at any given moment. So that's about learning to live consciously, and that's a battle I’ve faced all my life... because as a youngster, I was really into Marvel comic book heroes, and then when I saw Bruce Lee, I was like wow, here’s a real superhero and I want to be like this guy! So it was automatic and I went straight to the martial arts, and my goal immediately as an eight year old was to get involved in films—action films, obviously. So that was a natural path for me. But as a youngster, I had a very bad temper. And I did like to fight, and I did use fighting to solve problems. That was as a youngster, that was about not living consciously, not living in the moment, not being able to control your thoughts. You know, we focus so much time in the gym developing our muscles and our techniques, and our stretching and flexibility, but we forget to think about how to focus our thoughts; how to train our mind and how to train our thoughts. I think this is something that’s missing in martial arts in general nowadays, especially if you look at M.M.A. fighting, the way martial arts has gone, the traditions from kickboxing to M.M.A. It's all about the physical, not enough about the mental. I don't think teachers—well, I was never taught—I don’t think teachers teach students enough how to control your minds, how to control your thoughts, how to live consciously in the moment.
So that's something I developed as I got older. I was very conscious of my weaknesses mentally. Having a bad temper, how it can affect your sporting life, how it can affect your personal life, your family life—having a bad temper is a very negative thing. So I consciously had to learn to think about my thoughts, learn to control my temper, and not be that physical, JUST that physical person. So that’s something I've been working on for many years, and I think I’ve made some progress!
I know you're quite enamoured of Asia. Does that extend to the spiritual or philosophical side of things here?
Very much so, very much so. You know, I read a saying when I was a young boy. It goes, “Western science is just about catching up with Eastern common sense.” And because being involved in the martial arts as a young boy and being enamoured of Bruce Lee, it was never just about the physical, because Bruce Lee was so much more than just the physical. He was a student of philosophy.
And so, that was very interesting to me, as well as the physical, reading a lot of Bruce Lee’s philosophy, then I bought these books on Asian and Eastern philosophy. Then when I met my Chinese Kung Fu teacher when I was about twenty one or twenty two—he’s been my teacher, he’s Malaysian Chinese. All through our training there was always this Buddhist teaching, and he was a very, he was also a very violent man but a very mellow man. He was like a cross between Genghis Khan and Buddha! So I learnt a lot from this guy, and he really taught me a lot about humility and respecting different religions and respecting different thought processes, and different cultures. Respecting the world, basically, he taught me a lot about respect. So that really tempered me also, training with my shifu.
What's your opinion on violence? As somebody who channels violence in your performance?
Well, violence is a part of life. To have nonviolence you must have violence. If you understand the principles of Yin and Yang as they appear in life, you know no one can constantly live in a vacuum. There has to be—for everything, there is an opposite. For up, there’s down; for left, there’s right; for failure there’s success; for violence, there’s nonviolence. You cannot have one without the other. If you did, you can’t live life understanding those principles. It’s like the most famous koan the Buddhist teachers would give their students, the one that everybody knows, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” What is it, what is the sound of one hand clapping, that’s something that when I was a kid I could never make it out, and at this point in my life I believe that it's like somebody who doesn't understand the doctrine of Yin and Yang, that everything in life has an opposite and has to have an opposite, because no one thing can live in a vacuum. So when you ask about violence—of course I don't like it and I don’t think it’s a way to solve problems, but you have to have it in life, because it's part of the principle, the doctrine of Yin and Yang. You have to have violence to have nonviolence. To understand nonviolence we have to see violence. If we never see violence, we would never understand nonviolence. And vice versa, if you can understand where I’m going with that.
So it's a necessary part of life, just like darkness is a part of life, just like evil is a part of life. Just like having hard times is a part of life, like failure is a part of life. Violence can be a personal failure, it can be a cultural failure, and it can be a national failure when you go to war. But you have to have it; it’s the opposite of nonviolence, so it has to be there.
So you're quite comfortable with the way that you've portrayed violence on screen, or not really?
When we're talking about movies, it really saddens me that people believe so much of what they see. You know, I hear a lot about martial arts actors, “Oh, this guy’s such a badass, such a great fighter, I saw him in this movie do this and do that.” And it's kind of a pet peeve for me because it has nothing to do with it. You’re not a badass, you’re not a good fighter just because you can fight in a movie. It’s just because you’re a good athlete, but you’re not a good fighter. What you see in films is choreographed, practiced, rehearsed. Done over and over again until you get it right, camera angles make it look right.
But to your question, action films are pretty much the most popular films in the world. Culturally, romance, drama, comedy—they're limited. All the different countries in the world have a different sense of these, drama, humour. So to sell a drama or comedy or romance around the world, if it's made in Vietnam, let’s say, because we’re here, it’s difficult because there’s a different sensibility around the world. But when it comes to action films, a punch in the face, an explosion, a bullet in the head, it doesn't really need any translation, it sells anywhere in the world!
So, fortunately for me, because I’m in that industry, or unfortunately for the sake of the world, action films are the top-selling films around the world. But what’s a shame is that people believe what they see in movies and they think it’s real, and I think it’s getting so distorted nowadays with all the C.G.I. and green screen work and wire work, it's just getting so distorted now that people can come through violent situations and... it’s just so unreal, but also nowadays not even the movies, but all the video games, our kids grow up with such violence in video games, and the funny thing is that most people in the T.V. and the film industry will say, violence, you know, it’s just movies, kids won’t get affected by it. And yet these are the same people that will spend five million dollars on a thirty-second commercial during the Super Bowl because they know how it’s going to influence people when they see it! So it is a shame that violence is such a big part of the entertainment culture. It’s a shame, you know—why can’t we just make films about love? I mean, look at Disney, I mean these are great, and these are the films that the kids should be watching. But there’s always that argument, you know it's like they say, guns don't kill, it’s people that kill, right? So it’s not the movies, it's inherent in human nature. You're always going to have two sides to the argument. Always.
If my answers don’t satisfy you, ask me more questions! I go on tangents sometimes!
Let’s put it this way. You've done some roles where there's been no fighting, and you seem quite proud of them. Do you ever think that you could have gone on a more of a dramatic actor path than an action actor path, would you have ever wanted to do that?
I definitely want to do it, and that's definitely where I see myself heading. As an actor, you want to spread your wings. No actor wants to be typecast, right? You don’t want to just be known for action, but when I got in the film industry, yeah of course I was known for fighting and action, and actually I love doing it, that was my passion, and I loved watching Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Stallone, and Jackie Chan, and I loved and I wanted to emulate these guys, and Bruce Lee obviously. But the more time you spend in acting, the older you get in life, the more experiences you have in life, the more you feel you have to bring to characters. Life is the best acting class—it’s the best acting class in the world. So the more experiences you go through in life, you want to bring this to your characters. Unfortunately, often action movie characters are written very one-dimensionally—you know, revenge, drugs, go out and kill everybody blah blah blah. There’s very little dimension to the characters. There are a few, but those parts usually go to the A-Listers, the Brad Pitts, the big name actors. When you’re working in independent films, very rarely when writers write for action films do they really get into the characters and the character development. So yeah, as an actor, I do want to spread my wings. I love to do dramas, I want to do family dramas. I mean, I've raised four kids and I’ve been through some family dramas! And that’s something you want to bring to your characters, because otherwise it gets boring.
But again, because I’m known for action, the buyers that buy the films, they want to see Gary Daniels kicking ass. That’s what they want to see. I’ve done a couple of straight dramas and they just don’t sell that well, because I’m not kicking ass in those films. It’s kind of frustrating, but you become a victim of your own success.
You’re talking about family, and what you've learned about family. Do you feel, we’re in Asia at the moment, has Asia taught you anything about family?
Asian culture. Very different than the Western, or in England where I grew up, growing up in England is basically when you turn sixteen and you’re out of school, you want to go out and live on your own independently, you don't want any part of family. But then living, spending so much time in Asia, in the Asian culture, family is everything. It’s beautiful to see actually, like you often see in Asia whether you’re in the Philippines, Thailand, or here in Vietnam, three generations living in the same house. You know that yourself! And I think it's wonderful, that support structure that everyone in the family has. There's always the immediate family, your cousins, your second cousins, your uncles, your aunts, it's such an amazing support system that these people have, whereas in England for myself, growing up independent—you know my brother went off to live somewhere, I lived somewhere, my parents were divorced, Dad was there, Mum was there, there was no support structure. You were on your own. When you had a problem, you faced it and you dealt with it on your own. And as a youngster, that's not so easy. As you get older, you learn to cope better, but as a youngster that’s not always that easy. So yeah, I'm very respectful of the Asian culture of family.
Do you think that influenced the way you fathered your own children?
I think my own upbringing was the biggest influence on the way I raised my kids. My parents divorced when I was a very young age, my brother and I saw a lot of violence in our family. To this day, it still scars you mentally, and I always promised that I would never let my boys go through that. So we kept a very strong family presence. We’ve never had arguments or anything in front of the kids. I think I'm very happy with the way I raised my boys—that may sound vain, but I’m really happy with the way I raised them, we had such wonderful times and I know my sons, when they look back on their childhood, nothing but positive memories. So I know I gave them a little bit more than I had, and that makes me very happy actually.
You say that in your own family there was a violent childhood.
That had an effect on your own anger?
Definitely. My brother and I saw my parents fight, I saw my mum attack my dad with knives, Dad knocked my mum out, pots and pans were constantly being thrown, and salt and pepper. My brother and I, I can remember, five six years of age, just crying and so scared, running out the house. Then when my mother remarried, my parents divorced and I was ten, my mother remarried. This is a very private thing, very personal, but my mother went to a guy that hated me. He beat me growing up, and tried to stop me from doing martial arts. Just, I just never wanted my kids to go through that. Never wanted it. So that was the biggest influence on how I raise my kids, is that I don’t want to see my boys go through what my brother and I went through.
Do you feel that your martial arts helped you deal with that?
It pushed me into my martial arts. I studied martial arts when I was eight years old, and because I couldn’t stand to be around family, my bedroom became like my dojo, like my temple, my sanctuary. I had bricks and metal bars, all these things that I would train with in my room, which was full of Bruce Lee posters. This is what I think drove me into that world, it was my fantasy world, Bruce Lee, martial arts, oriental culture... I remember as a kid when I was ten, eleven years old. I used to go to Chinatown in London. There was a store there called A to Z where I could buy all my Bruce Lee stuff, I’d save up my money from my paper round. And then I’d go to see two Chinese movies every Sunday afternoon, all in Chinese, couldn’t understand a word, but I was just enamoured watching them. And then I would go to a Chinese restaurant and I would sit consciously near a big Chinese family at a big table and just listen to them, watch them eat, chewing their food spitting the bones out, and it was just, the whole culture was just so different. I don't know why I was so enamoured, it attracted me so much, it was so fun to watch, and then you would have to go home and deal with that. I think it did push me really deeply into martial arts, it was my escape.
Do you ever feel you were born in the wrong place?
No, because I believe our soul chooses where it comes down, it chooses its parents, and it needs to go through this for a reason. Whatever we go through we go through for a reason. I believe in reincarnation, I don't necessarily believe in the Buddhist version of reincarnation where there are four stages and you come back either as an insect or a small animal or a woman and then a man! Ha ha ha! I choose to believe that the soul always wants to come back as a higher version of itself. So that each time we come back, the soul is progressing on its journey until you reach a point where you become a more highly evolved being, or you choose to come back as a teacher, something like a Jesus Christ or Buddha did, the soul wants to come back as a teacher. But I really believe in reincarnation, and I do believe that our soul chooses to come back, and actually I believe the soul talks to other souls and it says “when I come back, this is what I need to experience, so whatever I’ve experienced in this lifetime, my soul chose it before it came down here. As far-fetched as that might sound to you…
It does make some sense! One thing you mentioned when we met last week was that your family were more important to you than your film career. In some ways you said that had shielded you from some of the trappings of the industry.
Yes. I may have expressed that in the wrong way, to say that my family was more important than my career. My career was everything. I love my career, and my career is what gave my family such, I could give my family everything because of the career. But I love the craft of acting. I love being on set, I love set life, I love working. I don't necessarily enjoy all the trappings that go on around the film industry, so I always, I get invited a lot to the parties and all this and that, but I would always tell people no, I'd rather be with my boys than with anyone else. So I never did all the partying and the networking, and the socialising, I never did any of that, because I would rather be my boys. Take them to school, pick them up from school. Take them to football practice, gymnastics, all the things that go with raising kids—I love that, I love being a father to my boys. So yes, I’m not going to say it’s more important than my career because that was my thing, and we all have to have that. You cannot give up your own personality, your own life, you still have to retain what you love, right? Otherwise you’ll go insane. And I love that—that was my passion, my love was training and martial arts, and actually being on set, creating, creating characters, creating fight scenes. I love being around fellow actors. But on the set. Once it was over, I go home. Two months on the set, whatever, go home after that, and then just 100% to the family. And that’s what it gave me, because when you’re shooting, often you’re away out of the country, so you’re not with your children, your boys. But then once you're home, it’s 24/7, you could be home for three, four, five months, but you’re with your kids 24/7, and it gave me that, which is fantastic. But yeah, a lot of the other stuff that goes around the business, the networking, the partying and socialising, didn’t appeal to me. I never drank, never smoked, didn’t want to be around that. Never did drugs, didn’t want to do that.
Did that affect your career?
It could have. A lot of people in the industry told me that you have to network. You have to get out and socialise. They would tell me, if you go for an audition and this, the job is between you and one other guy, and the director’s been out at a nightclub and partied with you, he’s probably going to pick you. But I don't believe in that, I want to be hired because of my work. If you think I’m right for the job, hire me. Not because I had a drink with you at the bar one day. It may have hurt me, I don’t know. I’m not working as much now as I used to, so maybe it’s come back to bite me in the ass!
You said you noticed how some of the actors that you’ve worked with have been affected by this, by the celebrity, by the industry itself.
I mean I don’t want to get into names and all that, but you do, you do see it a lot in the industry, you see people that, they forget where they come from, they forget that we’re all human beings and basically we’re on this journey together, and it’s almost like they believe their own publicity, they believe their own hype, they believe they’re better than other people because they’re in the film industry, and it absolutely disgusts me, some of the stuff I’ve seen along the way... actors, celebrities, stars, treat the everyday guy, sometimes it disgusts me. And not even that, even within the industry, the so-called A-Listers, directors, actors, how they treat the “lower” actors... it’s pretty bad. I don't like to see that, because I don’t care what job you do, how much money you’ve got, we’re all human beings, man, we all need to eat, drink, shower... everyone needs to love and be loved.
You’ve done a couple of projects in Vietnam...
One film, actually.
Oh, one film. What have you noticed about the industry here, have you seen anything about the film industry in particular?
One thing about doing action films is that I’ve been very fortunate to shoot all over the world. Around Asia, Eastern Europe, Israel, Middle East, South Africa. The film industry is different in every country. Hollywood is really the top. We have unions in Hollywood, to protect actors, to protect crew, camera, directors, and you get treated very well. And a lot of people say we're spoilt, but most of the rules, everything is garnished so that you can make the best movie, and you know, a lot of actors are spoilt, they have great trailers, drivers, everything. You know? But it all comes down to what happens in front of the camera, that’s the most important thing. To make a good film is about what happens in front of the camera. So an actor has to be in the right place to act, to be, in front of the camera—so he can perform his job the best. A lot of foreign countries don't adhere to that. There are no unions, for one. So I’ve worked in Hong Kong, working in Thailand, working here, and know this. You will have actors on set twenty hours a day sometimes, eighteen nineteen twenty hours a day. You get tired. When you're that tired, it’s hard to act, to be, to emote, to find what you need to find inside. When you’re doing fight scenes, fatigue comes in. When fatigue comes in, accidents happen. So, like in America, I think eight to ten hours is the schedule, and you have to get a twelve hour turnaround from when you get back to your hotel to when you’re picked up so that you get sleep.
But in Asia, it’s not just the actors, it’s the crew. They're working ridiculous hours over here. And that’s detrimental to the film, which is what we’re all here for, is to make a good film, and that can be very detrimental to the film, those kinds of hours. That’s the biggest thing that I notice as an actor. I mean, when you’ve been on the set twelve to fourteen hours and your eyes are drooping and they’re like OK go in, you’ve got this emotional scene… you just don't feel like doing it! And I know, I would never ever say anything expecting people to sympathise, oh you poor actor, you don’t get enough sleep… awwww.... You make enough money, blah blah blah, you have a great life. I don't want sympathy, but you know if you ask me that question, this is what I notice. That's how it works. Take a movie like The Crow when Brandon Lee got killed. They were working in a non-union state in North Carolina. So many accidents happened on that set, and they culminated in the death of Brandon. Fatigue. They were working ridiculous hours. There was actually an article, The Curse of the Crow. It chronicled all the accidents that happened on the set, that movie, the crew members, it comes from fatigue. You’ve got to take care of people, man, you’ve got to give them sleep and you’ve got to feed them properly, if you want the best out of them. So that’s one of the first things that I notice.
But the one thing that you do notice in Asia is that everybody works so hard. The crews here, everybody works so hard. I have so much respect for them. The way they can adapt and work so hard, I have a lot of respect for the crews here.
How about the finished product, have you had a chance to see any of the Vietnamese films here?
I think I've only seen one completed Vietnamese film—oh no, I actually saw another one last year when I was invited to a screening. When the Vietnamese make films, they make them for the Vietnamese audience only. They're not making them for an international market, they’re making them for the Vietnamese audience, they budget it for what they know will be made back from the Vietnamese market. So what we talked about earlier about the different sensibilities all around the world, they’re not making films for the Westerner, they’re making them for the Vietnamese mentality. So it’s kind of difficult for me to look at some of the Vietnamese films. I saw a great action film years ago called Clash with Johnny Nguyen and Ngo Tan Van which was great, I thought it was a tremendous action film. And then there was another one they did also, The Rebel which—I haven’t watched the completed film, but I’ve seen lots of parts of it, which again it looks beautiful, a really nice film. But other than that, I watched a film last year called Tam Cam, which Ngo Tan Van directed. I went to the screening, which was, you know, fantasy, so I wasn’t the target audience for that. But I heard it did extremely well here. But you can see that they’re growing. With Tam Cam I saw the use of all the C.G.I. and the most modern techniques, so you can see they’re developing, they’re pushing forward.
I’ve been talking to a lot of the filmmakers here, and people involved in the industry, they all talk about how they want to improve the industry, move it forward, take it to the next step. But to do that, they’ve got to start doing co-productions with Western countries or with China, start bringing in more foreign actors, crew.
I believe there are a lot of Korean production companies coming here.
There are Chinese coming here, I actually know some American companies that are starting to talk co-productions here which is something I’m looking into, trying to set up some co-productions here. I know the Bollywood film industry is now starting to move to Vietnam. It’s untapped. A lot of Asia’s been used and abused. I mean you’ve seen Hong Kong. You know everything about it, you see China, you see Thailand in so many movies. Vietnam is an untapped territory, it’s fresh. I think there’s so much to be seen here. I know, I know I’ve heard that the administration was opposed, a little bit closed minded, but they’ve started opening up. I hear that’s changing also. The growth potential here is tremendous, and I think we'll see Vietnam in the next ten to fifteen, twenty years booming in the film & entertainment industry.
Does that mean you’re going to stick around here?
If I can get—no, I’m here looking at the potential for co-productions, talking to some Chinese producers that I know, and American producers about possibly doing co-productions, if they’re up for it, there’s a little bit of fear connected with investing money here at the moment, it’s not so secure in their mind about whether they should invest money here or not, but if I can introduce them to people whom I know here, the producers and the companies here, and allay their fears, then hopefully that’s something that I'd like to get going. And I know there are other countries, you know, and other people starting to do it. People whom I know. And that is something that I would like to push too. So if I can get more on the producing side of it here, I would definitely like to hang about here and spend more time here. As an actor, as purely as an actor, you don’t really want to be hired as a local. If I’m hired out of L.A. it means they fly me over, I’m put in a hotel, I’m paid a per diem… you get treated a lot better. It's just the way it is. Even when I did the Jackie Chan film in Hong Kong, because I’m from Hollywood, you get treated so much better than the local Westerners, the local Guai Lo, you know? They don't get treated well, they get paid really bad, the food they get is bad. You know, if I'm going to work here as an actor solely, it's better to be known as an import than to be known as a local. But if I can get involved in producing, where I’m travelling back and forth piecing together the proper approach, to getting the money together, then I don't mind being…
The other thing about the industry, I noticed in some of your interviews you talk quite a lot about the changes, technology, funding, crises, how that’s affected the industry. Firstly, how do you feel about the way that the nature of entertainment has changed? I saw you talk about the elimination of mid-budget films.
That, on a personal level, my career is suffering, and I know a lot of other actors in America that worked a lot in the 90s and 2000s in independent films, a lot of the independent companies we used to work for are out of business now because of the piracy. The elimination of DVD, the elimination of video. I mean, that used to be fifty percent of a producer’s profit. Now that’s gone. People are streaming now. Whereas you would pay $15.99 or $19.99 for a DVD and you can stream something now for cents, if you want to pay at all. A lot of people you know are streaming illegally. It’s funny because no one feels they’re stealing, it’s just a movie I’m downloading. And I understand. But it is, it’s stealing from the industry basically, and so a lot of production companies have gone out of business, so a lot of actors are not finding as much work as they used to. If you’re working for the studios, it’s fine. But it’s really hit the independents. Independent films. So we’ve gotta find a way around that. Now we have Netflix, and Hulu, there are a lot of these platforms for streaming. But they don’t pay, like, the unions they have a hard time covering it. Again, I’m not trying to buy sympathy, “oh, I’m not getting paid” you know. But yeah. They don’t pay like they used to do with feature films.
The industry is changing, and that’s natural, that’s life, change is the only constant and you have to learn to adapt. That’s something a lot of us, I know myself included, are kind of struggling to adapt to the new process.
How do think all of this has affected the quality of the entertainment we see on screen?
For a lot of the independent feature films, action feature films, it’s really affected them because basically, the more money you have, the bigger the budget, the more time you have to shoot. The more time you have to shoot the more coverage you get on the scene, and action scenes need coverage, you know time to move the camera, etc. And so as the budgets have squeezed down, the schedules have squeezed down, so you don’t have time to cover scenes, so everything’s rush rush rush nowadays. But what it’s done, I find, is that if you look at TV these days, TV’s gone better and better. If you look at cable TV and some of these shows like Game of Thrones and The Wire and Breaking Bad... there’s some amazing TV out there now, and so a lot of industry professional actors are really looking to get involved in a TV series now because of the quality of the writing. If you think about it, you know, most feature films are ninety minutes. So trying to tell a story and develop characters in a ninety minute scenario is not really good on a feature film. If you have thirteen episodes or twenty two episodes, you have so much more time to develop a character, to develop storylines, to develop relationships, so they become much more interesting right off the bat because of that alone. And the money they’re putting into TV nowadays for the action, I mean there’s a series called Strike Back that was shooting in four countries not so long ago, and the action was fantastic. So really, you know, as much as the independent films are struggling, the T.V. has really come a long way. And now you’ve got Netflix doing their own TV original series, doing well, so it’s just, it’s really about adapting as an actor, and as a producer, it’s about adapting. Adapting to the new times. Finding out the new ways of funding, through places like Netflix, etc. You’re not going to get, there are not as many banks funding feature films as there used to be back in the 80s. There used to be like six or seven banks in LA, I think it’s down to about two now funding films. So you have to find creative funding nowadays. One way to do that is with co-productions. If you can get some money from Vietnam, some money from America, some money from China, it’s creative funding. It’s about finding connections.
Do you think much of the big budget Hollywood blockbusters? They’re a lot more shallow nowadays, is that true?
I just feel the advent of all this C.G.I. and wirework, it’s making all the heroes so invulnerable, they’re all superheroes and you can come through explosions and a million bullets being shot at you, buildings can fall on you and you can escape, and it’s like to me I want the character to have vulnerability, I want to be able to go on a journey with the characters, and this is what I think is unfortunate, this C.G.I. thing, it’s OK to enhance action, but to completely build action scenes around C.G.I., I know the kids love it, I know they’re targeting teenagers that play all these video games. But for me, as an older guy, it’s just taking away the humanness from filmmaking, from storytelling.
So would that mean, would you be happier acting in a small-budget dramatic production? Or the big money?
Ha ha! Good question, that’s a really good question! Because the grass is always greener on the other side. When I do, I lead in a smaller film, I have creative say, I have the ear of the director, and I can suggest, like making suggestions and ideas. Nine and... half the time they would listen to me. We’ll collaborate on the production so you really feel part of the process of filmmaking. Then you go on a film like Expendables, eighty million dollar budget. Very rarely do you get the ear of the director, you’re like a puppet, you know you hit your mark here and you say your line and that’s it. You rarely get that kind of involvement in the creative process like you get in the small ones. So really the grass... but then when you’re on that big film you’re like yeah, this is actually going to be seen, it's going to be in theatres, I’m going to make residuals, blah blah blah... but then you miss that being involved in the creative... So the grass is always greener. If you can go back and forth, fantastic.
OK, one more topic. You’re feeling your age now? 54 now?
A bit painful!
Am I feeling my age, you mean physically?
Mentally too… it's hard to turn 50.
I think once you’re past 50. Leading up to 50 it’s like oh, shit, I’m going to be 50. But once you fall over the hill…! You accept it. I don’t mind. I still go to the gym, physically I still go to the gym six days a week. I still train 2½ to 3½ hours a day, I’m up in the mornings doing all my martial arts training, I still do all my stretching, I do the splits... so physically... I can still do… you get tired a bit quicker on a film set because, doing a fight scene is very difficult because you’re constantly warming up, cooling down, your muscles are constantly contracting and relaxing all day long in fight scenes, and that can be really draining. The biggest problem at this age physically is that you take longer to heal. So if you have a super hard day on the set, the next day you’re just struggling. Your hamstrings are burnt out, your back is sore... that I never had. You know when I was younger I could fight five days in a row and not even think about it. Now it’s like, can I have a day off between fight scenes?
But no, mentally. Mentally I feel you just improve as you get older. Let’s say you get wiser, I don't know if it’s true about wiser, but you experience so much more in life. As I said earlier about how the best characters are brought to life, so the more you experience the more you can bring to your character so they’re not so one-dimensional.
I definitely feel age hasn’t affected me mentally, only in a positive way. Physically of course, age can be brutal on athletes. But as long as you keep training, as long as you’re eating right, take care of your body, I’m finding there’s no reason why I can’t go on for another 12, 15 years maybe. And I’m still doing the fight scenes that I did before, there’s no problem.
Are you are mentally prepared for your sixties and seventies?
Definitely not! I miss being young! I think that's something that just comes day by day; you’ve got to live your life in the moment. You’ve gotta live day by day. And if you're thinking ten fifteen years ahead, you’re in trouble. Yeah. Because we’re going to change, we’re going to get older, and we can’t change that as much as we’d like to. I think by training every day and still dieting and eating right, I am trying to fight it, I’m trying to find that fountain of youth. But it’s going to come, it's going to happen. You know, but I don't believe in thinking that far ahead. Live in the moment.
What about in terms of your legacy, what you’re leaving behind?
No, I don’t really worry about that whatsoever because I don't worry too much about what other people think about me. I want to be happy and love my life. That’s always been raising my sons and being with my sons, I’m happy when I’m in the gym, I’m happy when I’m training. It’s about living in the moment for me, and I’m happy in that moment. And again, worried about a legacy is worrying about the future, and that’s... no, I’m really not worried about my legacy.
You’ve been in about 50 movies, I think?
Seventy, seventy films. I mean, you’re never going to make everybody happy, you’re never going to make a film that everybody loves. I mean you can look at Avatar or Titanic, two of the biggest grossing films of all time, but there are still people who don’t like them. So you do the best you can. That’s really all you can do. Some people are going to love your films, some people are going to hate your films. When the internet first came about, you read the comments, some people love you, some people hate you, but you have to stop reading those, because that can’t be what drives you, that can’t be what you focus on. You have to focus on being the best you can at any given time. Tomorrow I want to be better than I was today. Today I want to be better than I was yesterday. That’s all I can focus on. I know some people will like me, some people won’t. Some people like my work, some people won’t. You can’t try to please everybody, you’ll go nuts.
Is there one single thing that you would have to teach people or want people to understand about you?
No. No, I mean there are philosophies in life that people who have been around for centuries, just simple sayings like “live and let live.” Just a simple saying like that, that’s what I want people to know, live and let live. Don’t hurt people. Do whatever you want to in life that makes you happy, as long as you’re not hurting somebody else. But that's not about me, that’s a philosophy of life, we all want people to live by. Peace and love and harmony and all this great philosophical stuff, but nothing special about me. I’m just doing the best I can, I’m just always doing the best I can.
Read the original Oi Vietnam article here. Images by Ngoc Tran.