How Was Your Day … Black Stuntman in Japanese Action Films?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s OK to talk to strangers.
By Sanjena Sathian
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
I woke up and changed my son’s diaper. Then I had my diet breakfast: oatmeal and a little bit of honey. I’m not eating anything very tasty these days. I put on a little bit of weight recently, and the heavier you are, the harder you fall.
I turn 37 next month. Back in the day, 30 was pretty old for a stuntman. The usual life cycle was, you’d be a stuntman, then a stunt coordinator. But I already have my own team, and I write and produce, so, yeah, I’m doing things a little differently. For a decade, I was the only foreigner here doing this work. Now we have a team of eight, and we’re all foreigners.
The hours are long, and you’re going to get bumps and bruises, but you’re least likely to die doing fight choreography.
There are stunts like high falls, where you fall from way up high — you might be done with the stunt in five minutes and take home $1,000. But I mostly do fight choreography. The hours are long, and you’re going to get bumps and bruises, but you’re least likely to die doing fight choreography.
I’ve studied 10 types of martial arts, and I’d say I “know” six. I’m a master of one: tae kwon do. I’m a karate black belt, a judo brown belt; I’ve studied capoeira, hapkido, krav maga, tai chi, boxing, kickboxing and kobudo, which is Japanese weaponry. I can do sword stuff. Next week I’m starting to learn nunchakus. You have to constantly be learning. You can’t let yourself get stagnant.
When I moved here, I didn’t speak a word of Japanese. I spoke Korean, because I’d lived there. But to do my job, I had to learn. There are differences between this job in America and in Japan. In the U.S., stuntmen might be elite athletes. Here, they’re maybe people with rougher backgrounds, not the kind of people who speak English.
I’ve lived in Asia for 16 years, and Japan for about 10. I was a celebrity bodyguard at first, for Korean and American celebrities when they came through Japan. I worked for Orlando Bloom, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kiefer Sutherland, Jackie Chan. You get a glimpse into what their world is like. It’s tiring. You’re always scanning the crowd, you can’t eat too much because you’ll get sleepy, you can’t drink too much in case you have to go to the bathroom. You’re constantly paying attention.
Now, 90 percent of the time, I play the bad guy. It’s typecasting. I’m always a soldier, sometimes a bodyguard. Sometimes I do scenes with teenage Japanese girls — they love their high-school-girl action heroes — and they have to beat me. At times you do get sick of playing that stereotypical villain, but everyone starts out that way — Jackie Chan was a bad guy in a Bruce Lee movie. Lots of people transition into being the good guy. I’ve transitioned into being behind the camera, writing, producing. I’m working on a kids’ action movie, and I’m interested in action comedy.
I was a gentle kid growing up in Detroit. I used to be really short, and I got bullied. I would watch kung fu movies and rewind them and copy the moves, rewind and then copy. My mom said, “Why don’t you just learn this stuff?”
My best friend was Korean, and, at age 15, I started learning tae kwon do with him. I became the Michigan Junior Olympic champion six days after I got my black belt. It was the first time I was good at something, so I decided I would go all the way. The Olympics was the plan. But I didn’t really have the personality of a fighter — you have to want to win more than anything. I’m not like that. I liked it because it was like a really fast-paced game of chess. So, I decided to close that dream. And I’ve pursued others.