In conversation with mar­tial arts film leg­end Gary Daniels

Oi Vietnam - - Contents - Text by Michael Arnold Im­ages by Ngoc Tran

Mar­tial arts film leg­end Gary Daniels


re­ally sad­dens me that peo­ple be­lieve so much of what they see,” says Gary Daniels, one of the world’s most ac­com­plished ac­tion heroes and the star of count­less mar­tial arts films—the kind you’ll surely have seen on late-nite TV. “I hear a lot about mar­tial arts ac­tors— this guy’s such a badass, such a great fighter, I saw him in this movie do­ing this and that. It's kind of a pet peeve for me; you’re not a good fighter be­cause you can fight in a movie, it just means you’re a good ath­lete. What you see in films is chore­ographed, prac­ticed, re­hearsed. Done over and over again un­til you get it right, so the cam­era an­gles can make it look right.”

That ob­ser­va­tion goes a long way to ex­plain­ing the seem­ing dis­con­nect be­tween the ag­gres­sive, for­mi­da­ble fig­ure Gary presents on cam­era and the re­laxed, mild-man­nered gen­tle­man he ap­pears to be in broad day­light. De­spite the im­pos­ingly heavy mus­cu­lar build, it’s hard to imag­ine that this now 54-year-old ac­tion star and kick­box­ing cham­pion would will­ingly squash a bug. An ac­tor who is as deeply af­fected by Asian spir­i­tual wis­dom as he is by its tra­di­tional fight­ing dis­ci­plines, Gary is the first to ad­mit that his calm de­meanor is some­thing that he has con­sciously cul­ti­vated.

“I think there are two sides to ev­ery­body,” he muses, “I think all hu­man be­ings have every­thing in­side of us. We all have love, hate, jeal­ousy, rage, and pas­sion. It's just, what do you choose to bring forth at any given mo­ment? So it's about learn­ing to live con­sciously, and that's a bat­tle I’ve faced all my life. 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 ac­tion films. That was a nat­u­ral path for me. But I had a very bad tem­per, and I did use fight­ing to solve prob­lems. You know, we fo­cus so much time in the gym devel­op­ing our mus­cles and our tech­niques, our stretch­ing and flex­i­bil­ity, but we for­get to think about how to fo­cus; how to train the mind and our thoughts. I think this is some­thing that’s miss­ing in mar­tial arts in gen­eral nowa­days—es­pe­cially if you look at MMA. fight­ing. It's all about the phys­i­cal, not enough about the men­tal. I don't think teach­ers teach stu­dents enough how to live con­sciously in the mo­ment.”

“So it's some­thing I de­vel­oped as I got older,” he ex­plains. “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 just be that phys­i­cal per­son.”

The fa­ther of four sons, Gary has al­ways put fam­ily first. De­spite a pas­sion­ate de­vo­tion to his film ca­reer, the ac­tor en­joyed fa­ther­hood so much that he largely avoided the trap­pings of Hol­ly­wood in fa­vor of spend­ing his per­sonal time with his boys. Part of his mo­ti­va­tion in this was to en­sure they were pro­tected from the kind of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence he ex­pe­ri­enced in his own past.

“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… I can re­mem­ber my brother and me, five or six years of age, just cry­ing and so scared, run­ning out of the house. Then my par­ents di­vorced when I was ten, and my mother re­mar­ried a guy who hated me. He beat me grow­ing up, and tried to stop me from do­ing mar­tial arts. But that pushed me into my mar­tial arts. I stud­ied when I was eight years old, and be­cause I couldn't stand to be around fam­ily, my bed­room be­came like my dojo, 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 used to go to Chi­na­town in Lon­don,” he re­mem­bers. “There was a store there where I could buy all my Bruce Lee stuff, I’d save up my money from my pa­per round. Then I’d go to see two Chi­nese movies ev­ery Sun­day af­ter­noon, all in Chi­nese. I couldn’t un­der­stand a word, but I was just en­am­ored 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 and spit­ting the bones out, their whole cul­ture was just so dif­fer­ent. I don't know why I was so en­am­ored, it at­tracted me so much, and then I would have to go home and deal with that. I think it did push me re­ally deeply into mar­tial arts, it was my es­cape.”

Mak­ing Movies

Hav­ing played in his first Viet­nam-based pro­duc­tion back in 2015—Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s drama Quyen— Gary is cur­rently here to ex­plore the po­ten­tial for co-pro­duc­tions.

“Viet­nam is an un­tapped ter­ri­tory, it’s fresh,” en­thuses Gary. “There are Chi­nese pro­duc­ers com­ing here, some Amer­i­can com­pa­nies that are start­ing to talk co-pro­duc­tions here, I know the Bol­ly­wood film in­dus­try is now start­ing to move into Viet­nam. I’ve been talk­ing

to a lot of the film­mak­ers here, 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. The growth po­ten­tial here is tremen­dous, and I think we'll see Viet­nam in the next 10 to 15, 20 years boom­ing in the film and en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try.”

While this means new op­por­tu­ni­ties for home­grown cin­ema, Gary is cau­tious about the po­ten­tial for Viet­namese cin­ema as an ex­port. “When the Viet­namese make films,” he ob­serves, “they make them for the Viet­namese au­di­ence only. They're not mak­ing them for an in­ter­na­tional mar­ket, so they bud­get it for what they know can be made back from Viet­nam. Ac­tion films are pretty much the most pop­u­lar films in the world, but ro­mance, drama, com­edy, they're lim­ited cul­tur­ally, so if these are made in Viet­nam it’s dif­fi­cult to sell in­ter­na­tion­ally, be­cause there are dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ties 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!”

“In Viet­nam, they’re not mak­ing films for the Westerner,” he notes, “they’re mak­ing them for the lo­cal men­tal­ity, so it's kind of dif­fi­cult for me to watch some of the Viet­namese films. I saw a film years ago called Clash with Johnny Tri Nguyen and Ngo Tan Van—I thought it was a tremen­dous ac­tion film. And then there was an­other one they did,

The Rebel, which again 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 wasn’t the tar­get au­di­ence for that, but I heard it did ex­tremely well here. With Tam Cam I saw the use of all the CGI. and the most mod­ern tech­niques, so you can see they’re devel­op­ing, they’re push­ing for­ward.”

Film­ing pro­duc­tions that fo­cus on mar­tial arts sto­ry­lines has given Gary a unique per­spec­tive on the film in­dus­try in Asia. “The film in­dus­try is dif­fer­ent in ev­ery coun­try,” he ex­plains. “Hol­ly­wood is re­ally the top, we have unions to pro­tect ac­tors, crew, cam­era, direc­tors, and you get treated very well. Every­thing is done so that you can make the best movie, and re­ally, a lot of ac­tors are spoiled, they have great trail­ers, driv­ers, every­thing, but it all comes down to what hap­pens in front of the cam­era, that’s the most im­por­tant thing. A lot of for­eign coun­tries don't ad­here to that. You will have ac­tors on set twenty hours a day some­times, and 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, and ac­ci­dents hap­pen. 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. But the one thing that you do no­tice in Asia is that the crews here, ev­ery­body does work so hard, and I have so much re­spect for them for that.”

“As an ac­tor, purely as an ac­tor, you don't re­ally want to be hired as a lo­cal,” he adds. “If I'm hired out of LA, it means they fly me over, I’m put in a ho­tel, I’m paid a per diem, you get treated a lot bet­ter. Even when I did the Jackie Chan film in Hong Kong, be­cause I was from Hol­ly­wood, I got treated so much bet­ter than the lo­cal Western­ers, the gwailo, you know? They don't get treated well, they get paid re­ally bad, the food they get is bad. 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.”

Now as a ma­ture ac­tor, how­ever, Gary is find­ing him­self more at­tracted to roles that are less re­liant on his mar­tial arts skills and more on his ca­pac­i­ties as a dra­matic ac­tor. “That's def­i­nitely where I see my­self head­ing,” he con­firms. “As an ac­tor, you want to spread your wings. You don't want to just be known for ac­tion. When I got in the film in­dus­try, of course I was known for fight­ing and ac­tion, but the more time you spend in act­ing, the older you get in life, the more ex­pe­ri­ences you have, the more you feel you have to bring to char­ac­ters. Life is the best act­ing class in the world, so the more ex­pe­ri­ences you go through in life, the more you want to bring this to your char­ac­ters. Un­for­tu­nately, ac­tion movie char­ac­ters are of­ten writ­ten very one-di­men­sion­ally. When you’re work­ing in in­de­pen­dent films, very rarely do writ­ers re­ally get into the char­ac­ters and the char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. 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,” he ad­mits. “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. But I don't re­ally worry about that, be­cause I don't worry too much about what other peo­ple think about me. I just want to be happy and I 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 be­ing happy in that mo­ment.”

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