Overall, do you prefer your fight scenes to be more slapstick and played for laughs, in the Jackie Chan style, or more rough and realistic?
I’d say I prefer a more gutsy approach because that’s what real fights are like and that is more my style of fighting. Having said that movies are often made for a whole different reason, for a huge variety of audiences and sometimes need to become like fantasy where you can suspend belief and just simply be entertained. To be honest I enjoy both because I do love the comedy element like the enjoyment of watching the old physical comedians such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The physical skill they had is astounding and still so much fun to watch, even today. On the other side of the coin I personally enjoy a more realistic looking fight and something that would give me the opportunity to incorporate my Martial Arts into a gritty, realistic setting. If possible I like the opportunity to add a sprinkling of spirituality in there too. The thing to remember is that regardless of what I as an individual think, the job of a movie is to appeal to the greater audience, give the masses what they want and to ‘simply’ entertain. If there is no audience then there is no commercial viability for the movie and you probably won’t get to make another movie anytime soon.
Would you like to inject more of the spiritual aspects of the Martial Arts into your work?
It’s something I’ve longed to do in movies but to be honest you can only really do it if you produce your own work. You’d have to be the moneyman and have more creative influence because for actors like me, we’re just workers hired in to do a role and basically do as we’re told. It would be nice to be someone like Chuck Norris where you could explain what you wanted to do and have a studio or investor support you because they see you’ve got the economic draw. I should say I do sometimes get the chance to give a bit of input in my movies but it doesn’t tend to be massive, or that often.
Would you ever consider writing your own stories and screenplays?
Yes, but I am also realistic enough to know I am not a scriptwriter. It takes an incredible amount of talent and passion to write a good screenplay. I think I have good ideas, but I would need to leave it to a good writer to put that idea on the page.
Earlier you mentioned working with Cynthia Rothrock. You worked together in Hong Kong (in both Millionaire’s Express and The Magic Crystal) and later made several American movies together. How did the two of you meet?
I first came to hear of Cynthia in Hong Kong as she was working out there starting a career around the same time I was. I remember being told about this petite American girl who was doing really well in Hong Kong action films and by coincidence, Sammo Hung later teamed us up as Bandits in Millionaire’s Express. We also worked together on The Magic Crystal as I mentioned earlier and we just became really good friends. Based on that, back in America I had the chance to work with Fred Weintraub again and the idea came up to put Cynthia and I together again and that’s how we ended up doing up the China O’ Brien and Rage and Honor movies. I think we just had really good chemistry and got along so well. Essentially, we were able to have a lot of fun with what we were doing and that came across onscreen. I liked the comparison from one English magazine that described us as the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of Martial Arts movies! [Laughs] That’s it really; we were able to do what was asked of us and had chemistry along the way. There’s an old saying in our business that says, “the camera either likes you or it doesn’t”. You can’t really manufacture that chemistry and because we’re such good friends it just seemed to come naturally. Also I think audiences like the familiarity because they feel they get to know you over time, so seeing Cynthia and me appearing together in different roles really captured an audience.
Recently a short film appeared on YouTube called Downward Facing Dog, starring yourself and Cynthia. Could you tell me about that?
This is a promo or ‘teaser’ we made to try and get investors interested in making a feature and it’s a story I’m very keen to get made. It’s a great script about a hit man and is supposed to take place in Lithuania. I worked there for four years and the writer and director have also been there in the past, working on projects that I’d been involved in. We’re still in the very early stages and trying to get investors interested. Sometimes it helps to put something visual down so people can see what we’re talking about and right now we’re just trying to build the interest through sites like YouTube and Facebook and show that there’s still a lot of interest in Cynthia and I doing something together. Lance Henriksen, who’s a good of friend of mine, is also very interested in playing one of the leads so we’ve got many strong elements in place to hopefully make it a really successful little movie. My character is quite dark and interesting with lots of shades to his personality. From an acting point of view I’m really interested in playing these more complex character roles rather than the cliché characters I’ve played so much of in past movies. I’d love to have that character arc which is really interesting to play and Downward Facing Dog is one of those roles. Again, I’ve played a lot of generic bad guy roles which were fun for those older movies, but now I’m keen to try something different if given the chance.
Would you say the evolving action genre has brought new challenges?
Yes, absolutely, but it’s been dictated by the movie audiences. Back in the older action movies, you could include around six pretty good fight scenes and you’d know you could sell the movie. It didn’t really matter if you had an actual story. Today it’s completely different and now, you should and in fact need to be able to take the fight scenes out of any action movie and still have a really strong film based on the story and characters. The fights should really be incidental to the film being good. Audiences have seen just about every fight scene you could think of so it can’t just be about that anymore. You also have to scrutinise why these people are fighting: Why do we care? Who do we really want to win? This is obviously driven by the story and script so these aspects can’t be neglected now.
You’ve worked with many talented filmmakers and action stars throughout your career. Who, in particular, has made a big impression on you?
In Hong Kong it would have to be Sammo and Jackie. I’ve often said that Sammo is one of the most creative Action Directors I’ve ever worked with, because that guy can put together a fight scene with just about anything! He’s a filmmaker who really intrigues me and has so much going on within his films. As an actor he’s fantastic as well and when you see him in films like SPL (aka Killzone) you get to see his acting skills and realise how brilliant he can be. It seems like the days of Hong Kong overacting are gone, with the big expressions and reactions. It seems much more naturalistic now and Sammo does that so very well. I remember when we were in Melbourne, Australia, filming Mr Nice Guy and Sammo gave me some advice when we were in a restaurant one day. We were sitting having a drink and he told me he’d seen a lot of my movies, which of course almost made me fall off my chair! Then he comments on my acting by saying that I tend to play my characters as “too normal” [Laughs]. I said, “what do you mean, too normal”? He responded by explaining that in his opinion I tended to underplay characters and follow the idea of “less is more”. He went on to talk about examples like Mel Gibson doing crazy things with his character in Lethal Weapon doing the three stooges skit or Gary Oldman when he gets shot in the movie, ‘The Professional’, and he explained that people tend to remember performances like that. He was basically saying that actors like Mel and Gary made bold and interesting character choices, because people don’t usually remember “normal”. I went away and thought about that. It completely changed my view of Sammo as not just an Action Director and filmmaker, but someone who was genuinely skilled in what made characters work from a dramatic point of view. I think it was also because I was so happy that he liked me enough to bother to spend some one-on-one quality time with me. I think Jackie’s an obvious one that’s had an impression on me because everyone knows Jackie to be a great Martial Artist, director and actor. Both those guys completely changed my career path in movies. In America, Chuck Norris was of course a huge influence. He got me started in film and apart from being a Martial Arts champion and the absolute best in his field, you couldn’t hope to meet a nicer person. Chuck is someone who, for me, has never changed from being the nicest guy you could meet. He has always had time for people, his friends and his fans. I’ll always appreciate the way he introduced me to people I would’ve never met any other way. Plus, he’s great at what he does! Even Walker, Texas Ranger was a bit of a test because some people didn’t think it would last more than a year but it lasted eight years and only stopped because he wanted to stop! That’s the kind of success most people would dream to have in their lifetimes.
You’ve had some memorable onscreen battles throughout your career. Looking back, do you have any favourites?
Wow, there’s been so many. I really liked the fight scenes in The Magic Crystal with Cynthia. I like them from a complexity and choreography point of view, aside from the memories of fighting Cynthia and being cracked in the head with a wooden sword and having eight stitches on my eye without anaesthetic so the eye wouldn’t swell up! [laughs] Another film where I’m really proud of the fights is in Under the Gun, which I also produced. We made the film in Melbourne and it featured a number of close Martial Arts friends of mine like Sam Greco, a K-1 World Kickboxing Champion and Ron Vreeken, who is a fight choreographer and stuntman and also an old friend of mine, so we got him in there too. Tino Ceberano, my first Karate instructor also featured in the film and to have him in there and have us do a fight scene together was an absolute thrill for me! Another fight scene I really like was my sword fight against Toshirô Obata in The Sword of Bushido. It’s memorable for me because I had such respect for Obata Sensei because of his Aikido and sword work. He is a true master. We did most of that fight with live sword blades because we quickly ran out of bamboo stunt swords through the rigorous rehearsals! So we ended up using real Katana, which were actually his own swords and very, very sharp. That was pretty exhilarating! He even said he wouldn’t have done that with any other actor but he respected me as a Martial Artist and was confident we could do it. I also like the opening scene where I perform Tameshigiri (test cutting for the sword) on the beach. That was thrilling and scared the shit out of me! I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to do it due to being really tired because I’d been in a boat shooting scenes in the glaring sun for hours before shooting and that exhausted me. When I came to doing it I wasn’t as confident as I should’ve been. Suddenly I was aware of Sensei Obata shouting, “You must cut! you must cut!” [Laughs] because to a Martial Artist and especially him as my sword teacher, there’s no other way: failure is unthinkable, you just do it. So that was an important scene for me for many reasons. I’ve done so many fight scenes throughout my career but these stand out as some of the most memorable.
You’ve mentioned wanting to devote more to your acting roles. Could you talk more about your thoughts on this?
I really want a role that’s going to scare me, something that makes me question whether or not I can really do it. To give an example, Under a Red Moon is a film I did in 2008 and it has no action in it! I play a Judge who is married and has a child who dies of a heroin overdose. So this is really about parents dealing with a child who has an addiction. It was purely drama with no comedy because it’s a very serious topic and of course no action so this scared the hell out of me! Hey, I had to act with no fight scenes to bail me out. Like I said earlier, that’s what it takes and what I like now. It takes that fear to dig deep and get more out of yourself than you ever thought possible. The film’s got a limited release and hopefully will be more widely available soon. That was a great experience for me because it was so different. If I do another cliché action role as I have done so many times before, I almost don’t have to prepare because I can sleep walk my way right through it. But that’s not fun for me, not good for me, not good for the film and it’s not good for the audience. I have a saying about having ‘daring to participate’. It takes guts to step into the arena and allow yourself to be ‘uncomfortable’. So that’s the kind of challenge I want to have. It’s kind of like an adrenalin rush when confronted with a daunting task that expects more of you than mediocrity. I don’t know how many more years I’ll have the opportunity and good fortune to keep doing this, so when possible I want and need that challenge!
You’ve also worked extensively in stunts and fight choreography. Is this something you found you easily adapted to?
Yes, because early on in my career I realised the skills necessary for screen combat and choreography and worked hard at the craft of making action work for camera. Some Martial Artists get their chance to be in a movie fight scene and find it difficult because they think they can take their usual moves that they practice in the Dojo and make them work on camera, but it isn’t as easy as that. I knew from as early as working on The Octagon with Chuck Norris that it was a whole different way of working and needed particular skills and understanding. It was all about the movement and the camera, never mind how it looks to the naked eye. It has to work on camera or it doesn’t work. Everything’s done a little bigger and more telegraphed, plus it tends to cover a larger area of the screen. Then of course there is the aspect of understanding the movements as it pertains to the story and character. A friend in the business calls what we do as ‘Non Verbal Dialogue’. A fight can no longer just be a fight for the sake of it. It has to make sense to the story and be part of the Drama. Why and how does the character know how to move like he does. Is the way he fights justified by story. I mean imagine Robert De Niro in ‘Raging Bull’ suddenly doing a spinning heel kick. I do a lot of seminars now on how to help Martial Arts make their techniques work for the screen and it’s often a bit of an eye-opener for the budding Martial Artist looking for a career as a movie stunt person. I did one recently in Dallas, Texas, and their jaws dropped when they realised how much there is to learn and the many things you have to be aware of on-set, in terms of remembering choreography, distance, timing, safety. It really is a whole different world for a lot of Martial Artists so I try to help them understand it better. I also try to make budding actors know that they must take every opportunity to learn different arts and vary their skills so as to be ready for whatever a director may want in the way of an action style for the movie. I worked on The Condemned a few years back and the director, Scott Wiper, said to me he didn’t want to see any flashy Jackie Chan or Jet Li fight moves or anything that didn’t have a practical purpose. That was interesting for me because it allowed me to incorporate a mix of street-style MMA and some Karate but give it a real street feel with a rough realistic style to the fights. Working with Steve Austin and Vinnie Jones was a hoot and we were able to create some good action with them on board. It suited me because I’ve never been one for doing pretty kicks and holding my leg in the air for 10 seconds or performing these extreme flips! I didn’t do it back then and I don’t think my body could handle it now so I leave that for the younger guys! [Laughs]
You’re still very active in your film work and teach seminars regularly. Could you talk a bit about how you train today and keep yourself in shape?
I still train pretty much every day and do a lot of Kickboxing training with my long-time coaches, Peter“Sugar Foot” Cunningham and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. They’ve been coaches of for mine for the past 30 years. I love the “hands on” and real aspects of Kickboxing. The other style I train a lot in is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which I’ve been doing now for 22 years. I’m a 4th degree Black Belt under Jean Jacques Machado and I’m his highest-graded student. I love BJJ because it’s like a physical chess game and it’s very practical… if you tap out it’s because either something’s going to pop or you’re going to sleep! I still train regularly with weights as a supplement to the Martial Arts training as I believe strong muscles deliver strong techniques. Also, I still find time to train with various weapons like the Bo and Sai and other traditional weapons, just to stay sharp with those techniques. When it comes to seminars I teach a variety of skills, depending on the school and their particular wants. I have drills for traditional schools needing speed and power, MMA drills and techniques and Reality Based skill sets for the street gleaned from my 20 years as a doorman and personal Bodyguard. I’ve also just about finished a new MMA curriculum for clubs wanting to incorporate UFC style techniques into their training. I’m doing that with a wonderful Martial Artist friend, Jeremy Ta’kody. Again it’s for stand-up schools that want to introduce MMA into their programmes. Hey, let’s face it, MMA is here to stay and is an absolute part of the modern Martial Arts environment. Of course I also teach Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu seminars whenever I get the chance.
Are your screen-fighting seminars very popular too?
Yes, and here’s why. When I was starting out in Martial Arts, people wanted to train to be the best Martial Artists they could be. Nowadays you find that so many that get involved in the arts want to train purely to become actors! It seems that lately, far more students are interested in the choreography side and movies than the Martial Arts! [Laughs] I guess that’s just a sign of the times!
I’m sure it’s also down to you and who you are…
Oh I guess that is a part of it. I think a lot of the time seminars are about the experience of spending a few hours with someone you know or respect. I know that’s the reason I attend seminars. I mean to be in the presence of a legend like Benny “The Jet” Urquidez is definitely worth the price of admittance. If they know you and are familiar with your work it’s about having the chance to chat with you and get to you know you a bit, so the actual teaching is almost incidental. Benny “The Jet” Urquidez is one of my biggest role models in the Martial Arts because he really walks the talk! When he did a seminar in Australia once I was telling a friend of mine he should go, but not to see how much training you can really get from three hours but just for being in the presence of someone like that. There’s something extremely positive to be gained. It’s like going to see The Rolling Stones in concert, you don’t really know if there’s going to be another one. It’s worth going just to be part of the event. I realise that a certain amount of the interest I get through seminars is down to my movies, which I find quite strange, then again if that allows me to spread the word of what I do and what I’m about then it’s a good thing! Hey, maybe they will even discover that I am good at what I do! [Laughs]. I’m always happy to teach seminars all over the world on anything from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to Mixed Martial Arts and screen fighting. When you’re charging people money for seminars, people naturally have an expectation of excellence which can be a little scary but then I like that because it keeps me in the gym and keeps me updating my knowledge. Everything good that’s happened in my life has been through Martial Arts so I have such a high level of respect for it and try to show it in the best possible way. Martial Arts has always been my number one passion and acting was just a means to an end and a way to make it economically possible to spend more time in training.
Last year you appeared at The Martial Arts Movie Con in Berlin with a number of other stars like Cynthia Rothrock, Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Keith Vitali. Are you still overwhelmed by the great fan response you receive?
Yes, it’s a real thrill for me. Some of these films were made 15-20 years ago but there are people who grew up in that era and still love those movies today. When you hear about how you influenced or inspired people, even in the smallest possible way, that’s really exciting and I’m so grateful to know people appreciate that work. The Martial Arts Movie Con was a lot fun and I love events like that. It’s also a nice opportunity to catch up with old friends that I have worked with over the past thirty years.
Tell me about the book you’re writing…
The book is called “In The Moment with Hindsight” and it’s roughly three quarters finished! I had a lot of people say I should write a book about my years on the road working as a bodyguard because I spent a lot of time with some really fascinating people! I worked with David Bowie for six years, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor for 14 years, Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac and John Belushi for a number of years too. But when people asked me to write a book, I knew they’d really want me to dish out the dirt. Morally and ethically I could never be one of those people who work closely with the stars and then write a big ‘kiss and tell’ book because I was in such a trusted and confidential position. I mean I had adjoining rooms with most of them and knew everything that went on. I decided that the book I write should be something that shares a positive view and some of the great experiences I had and shared with these incredible artists. I wanted the title to be “In The Moment with Hindsight” because there were many things these people said to me which really inspired me back then and I was immediately aware of the wisdom but, equally, there are things they said which I might suddenly remember just today and still have a profound effect on me. I’m talking about people who were, and in many cases still are, totally at the top of their game, names like Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Watching them and seeing how they worked, behaved and furthered their art was very educational for me, then and now. So I am trying to remind people that we need to really listen and be aware of the many lessons presented by those the Universe has put in front us right now, instead of realising the lesson many years later in our lives, often when it’s too late. It’s sometimes just a matter of needing to just empty our cup to taste somebody else’s tea.
It’s easy to get caught up in our own stuff but I think there are so many things we can learn from others, be it good or bad. Last year James Taylor was in Australia and called my wife and me and asked if we’d like to come out to Sydney to spend time with his wife and family and the legendary Carole King. It was a fantastic few days and we ended up going to restaurants and catching up on old times. I thought about how cool it was that all these years later, since I started working with him in the 1970s, we’re still good friends. I love to think that friendship we had on the road also meant so much to him and I wasn’t just a non-descript bodyguard. H e even remarked to Carole King that I was partly responsible for changing his life and his outlook on the world. Back then he had a lifestyle not too dissimilar to a lot of the other Rock Stars, but I know for a fact that James has had an incredibly healthy lifestyle for the past 25 years or so. Now, to have him say I had such an influence on him due to the teachings of the Martial Arts is something I really appreciate and take great pride from. Even when we’d go on tour, sometimes we’d pull over in the tour bus in the middle of the countryside and I’d take everyone through Martial Arts exercises and these experiences are, to me, far more memorable than any of the violent stories you might come across in that line of work.
When do you plan to complete the book?
Two years ago! [Laughs] It’s such a big project and I really want to make sure it covers everything. There are around 13 chapters and now it’s really a case of me going through it and fine-tuning. A friend of mine is helping me write it because I’m not a writer as such but one comparison that’s been presented to me is Geoff Thompson. Someone once said to me if Geoff had 13 chapters, he’d write 13 books! My problem is I’m very particular and want each chapter to really mean something but also in the context of an entire story. I’m aiming for it to be out within the next six months or so. It’s a very exciting project for me!
In terms of film projects, you’ve just worked on The Amazing Spider-Man. Can you tell me more about this?
Unfortunately, I can’t say much right now because I’m not allowed to. However I can say it was mostly stunt work. I doubt you’ll even recognise me. I play a SWAT guy but it’s a small part. I was on-set for four weeks and the experience was just phenomenal. It’s a $220 million budget movie! Vic Armstrong was the second unit director and it was great working with him. Andy Armstrong, his brother, was the stunt coordinator and an old friend. Andy’s the one who brought me onboard so for all those reasons and more it was a lot of fun!
Your next big project is Mad Max: Fury Road. Could you tell me about this?
We were meant to be filming right now but they postponed it for a January 2012 start. I’m really looking forward to this because I’m playing a number of roles, including the main henchman to the bad guy played by Hugh Keays-Byrne who was in the original Mad Max over 30 years ago. I’m so thrilled for the opportunity to be part of such an iconic Aussie franchise and have such a good role. A few months ago we did rehearsals with cars and trucks in the Australian Outback. Too much fun for one person! [Laughs] Brit Tom Hardy will play the lead as the Max character and he says he can’t wait to train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu everyday on-set so that should be a hoot! This is definitely the most exciting thing I’ve got coming up and as I say we’ll be shooting from January 2012.
Richard will soon feature in the new Mad Max: Fury Road
Are there are other projects coming up that you’d like to talk about?
There are other things in the pipeline but I’ve long learned not to say anything before its certain! One potential project I can mention will star John Wayne Parr, an Australian Muay Thai Kickboxer with eight World Titles. Guy Norris, who was stunt coordinator on all the Mad Max movies, will be producing and I’ll be one of the leads and choreographing the fights. This is a film that could happen within the next couple of months and would be nice because it’s a fight-focused film and would give me a chance to update my choreography and put some really interesting stuff in there! All in all it’s very exciting and there’s some cool stuff coming up! Hey, let the good times roll. It ain’t over till it’s over, my friend!
Thanks to Richard Norton for participating in the interview
For more information on Richard Norton and to contact him regarding training seminars go the contact page of www.richardnortonbjj.com.
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