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Live For Films chats to Black Dynamite: Michael Jai White

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FALCON RISING stars Michael Jai White (Tyson, Spawn, Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight), Neal McDonough (Minority Report, Desperate Housewives) and Laila Ali (American Gladiators) and arrives on UK DVD & VOD on 18th May 2015.

John “Falcon” Chapman (Michael Jai White), is an ex-marine anti-hero plagued with a terrible secret consuming him with guilt. On the self-destructive edge, he learns his sister Cindy (Laila Ali) has been brutally beaten in the slums or “favelas” of Brazil and travels there to hunt down her attackers.

In the process he discovers an underground world of drugs, prostitution, and police corruption ruled by the Japanese mafia and protected by the powerful Hirimoto (Masashi Odate; The Last Samurai). Can Chapman overcome his personal demons when tracking down his sister’s attacker, or will he become another casualty?

Michael Jai White is an actor and exceptional world-renowned martial artist (he holds seven different black belts!). He began his martial arts training at the age of eight, was a student of the legendary Shigeru Oyama, and has trained with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and Don “The Dragon” Wilson to name but a few.

White was the first African American to portray a major comic book superhero in a major motion picture, starring as Al Simmons, in the 1997 film Spawn. In 2009, he achieved status in the hit blaxploitation homage Black Dynamite, and in 2008, he played the role of mob boss Gambol in The Dark Knight.

I met Michael in a flash London hotel to chat about fighting and shooting guys in Falcon Rising, as well as working opposite Heath Ledger’s Joker and making cult classic Black Dynamite.

At first a little intimidating, due to the fact that he’s massive and I had just finished watching him throw bad guys through walls in Falcon Rising, he’s actually a super nice guy. Quieter than I expected and very clever and focussed, then getting delightfully slightly more animated when I brought up Black Dynamite.

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Hey, Michael. I’m Alan from Live for Films.

Hi.

 

I really enjoyed Falcon Rising. Was it exciting to do a role like this, where there’s not just incredible action scenes for you, but, in playing a character with PTSD and nothing to lose, a lot of meaty acting stuff to get your teeth into as well?

Well, you see, uh…

[grabs the really heavy table with one hand and gently pulls it over so my mic is closer to him]

…that was really why I wanted to do this. I trained as an actor. I started out in theatre, so I look forwarding to doing action movies where there’s something more… character development and drama.

 

Cool. Yeah. How was it working in Brazil, and was it important for you and the makers to shine a light on its dark side?

Well, we, uh, primarily shot most of the movie in Puerto Rico, but I think Brazil is a wonderful place to shoot because if you know anything about the culture of Brazil, it’s, um, everything’s amped up just by being there. Life hangs by a thread anyway in Brazil, so I think the stakes get higher.

 

There’s a lot of great capoeira in Falcon Rising.

Mmm hmm.

 

It always surprises me that we don’t see it as much in action movies as it always looks so great on film because it’s so big and flamboyant.

Well it doesn’t translate well when someone’s fighting directly. It doesn’t… it’s one of those things that translates when two people are doing it… it’s kind of… it’s very dance-y, and very specific. As for in reality, in fighting directly, if someone’s making a straight line, as opposed to a large arcing movement, the guy making the large arcing movement is not… it forces that guy to adapt, yeah.

 

All your fights in this are amazing. I think Falcon Rising is a really good showcase for your power, speed, precision and technical ability.

Mmm.

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How involved were you in the choreography of the fight scenes, and how long does it take to block them out? The last one where you’re fighting the three main villains at once must have been very complicated.

No. It doesn’t really take as long as you might think, because I’m used to that. I’ve worked in China, where traditionally you learn every sequence that you fight just before they shoot it. Like you’ll be on the side learning it while they’re setting up the camera. So I was used to even that type of situation. Pretty much since it’s something I’ve just done for so long … it… the days of shooting the fights – they go by pretty quick.

 

There’s also a lot of really cool gunplay in the movie as well.

Mmm.

 

I particularly liked your speed reload and tactical handling, is combining firearms with martial arts something that you enjoy?

Yeah! Uh, I’ve learned, and I keep learning… I have one affliction – I’m dysmorphic – I don’t… I can’t of like a reverse anorexic. I’m bigger than I think I am. I think I’m a much smaller person! And when I… I kind of stress out seeing myself on film because I photograph a lot bigger than I think I am. So I’ll be working with a gun that I think is fine for my size, then look in the movie and it looks tiny in my hand!

[both laugh]

I keep having to try and learn this, like, “I gotta get a bigger gun!”

[both laugh]

I trained in certain shooting techniques. There’s the reload… the centre access reload technique…

 

The one that you do in the movie?

Yeah. Also, there are certain techniques that my brother, being a secret service agent, always shares. Certain little tactical things that I always put in there because I don’t wanna hear his mouth!

[both laugh]

 

So you’ve become proficient through a combination of your brother and the movies you’ve made.

Yeah, yeah. It’s kinda both. I know a lot of people who teach firearms and classes, people who are former combat trained. I actually go on manoeuvres all the time. We’ll practice the manoeuvres of taking down facilities and all kinds of precision movement.

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Wow. That’s cool.

Yeah.

 

Um, so you’ve got seven blackbelts, which is amazing. How did that come about?

Well, I love to learn, but I also felt like no one style had everything. I wanted to go from the extremes, I wanted to go from Kyokushin on one side – the most brutal and hardest side of karate – to Wushu kung-fu – which is the softest, but probably the most difficult to master. And certain martial arts that I respected in-between. I thought that would make me a more well-rounded martial artist, and it has.

There are certain things where, someone my size, it’s not… It’s not very easy to do Wushu at my size and weight, but for me to compete against someone half my size, and stay with that person, that just makes me better. It makes me a better performer, and fighter as well.

 

You’re probably the biggest I’ve seen you before in Falcon Rising. What kind of changes did you have to make to your training and diet to reach that size?

I’ve never built up for a role. I’ve always… built down.

 

It’s just you looking bigger on film again?

[both laugh]

I’ve never once bulked up for a role. I’m very much like a fighter that cuts weight to portray a character. If you look at a prize fighter when they’re off season, they’re bigger and smoother; when you cut down weight you look more muscular, even though you’re several pounds less. That’s entirely what I do. People think I bulk up and it’s entirely the opposite! You look muscular, because you can see everything clearer. It’s just like a block of marble. You chisel into it, not build out.

People think I’m lifting weights. It’s the opposite. If I lifted weights I’d get bigger! So… it’s about doing cardio and trimming down.

 

Huh, OK. Do you mind talking about some of your older films a little bit?

No problem!

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Black Dynamite is an enormous cult favourite, and a favourite of mine. How proud are you of that film, and did you have any inkling when you were making it of how special it was?

[face lights up] Well it was fun to me! I thought this was an idea… something I wanted to see. That’s why it’s something I’me really proud of, because it’s about something that was in my mind that I thought was funny. I grew up a fan of Monty Python like you wouldn’t believe! John Cleese was one of my favourite physical comedians and I wanted to layer Black Dynamite the same way that the Monty Python sketches that I saw were layered. Holy Grail, Life of Brian, they had the political content, they had their auditory level of comedy, their abstract comedy, and then just plain old silliness, and they never got boring to watch.

So that’s kind of an influence for me, in layering the jokes and knowing that certain people are not gonna get this and not minding, and also doing it for the people who have a… good degree of intelligence so that they can see some things that are there for them that others may not see.

Heath Ledger (The Joker) kills gang leader Michael Jai White (Gambol).

Heath Ledger (The Joker) kills gang leader Michael Jai White (Gambol).

Totally. In The Dark Knight, you witnessed Heath Ledger’s Joker first hand. Was that as electrifying as I would imagine?

Oh, it was fun! I sometimes get saddened when people think that he was a method actor and stayed in character all the time. He was nothing like that. When the director called for cut he was Heath again, and we would actually do a lot of little stunts, like… little magic tricks and all these little things on the side. He was fun. He was not in a dark place at all.

 

Being an Al Simmons myself…

Oh!

 

… I have to ask you about Spawn. How close did we ever come to getting a sequel? And what was the experience like of making that movie?

Well, uh, that’s the question I’m asked more than anything!

[both laugh]

Spawn 2? Sadly I don’t control that! Making Spawn? I had to get over my claustrophobia [motions at face] because of everything I was under, so that was sort of trial by fire. I mean, it was intense, but it was a great opportunity. I don’t think I would, if I had to do it again, I would um, I don’t know… Something about working in that outfit, with a dog… [laughs] …is a little rough!

 

If they came to you and said, “We want to do another one”, would you do it?

Yes, yeah. I would wanna do it the way that I feel it should be done. Like a hard R rated movie. I would hate to do it at PG-13 again, yeah. I don’t think there’s a need for a Spawn breakfast cereal!

 

Last question. If you could do a fight scene with anyone, who would it be and why?

Dead or alive?

 

Either.

Everybody’s gonna say Bruce Lee, so…

 

…yeah, let’s not be so obvious!

It would be Donnie Yen. I think he’s the best one doing it right now. He’s so innovative and changes up and evolves each time. That guy’s amazing. In Saat po long, SPL (also known as Kill Zone), he has a fight scene, in an alley, that has become my favourite fight scene of all time.

 

Great. Thank you very much. It’s a been a pleasure to talk to you.

Thank you.

 

Falcon Rising is out on DVD and VOD in the UK on the 18th of May.

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