With Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear being released in just a few days time and it being one of the most anticipated action/martial arts movies of the year, we just had to find out a little bit more about the people who made it happen! One of them, Jawed El Berni, plays the character Lucas in the movie and using our budding ninja skills we managed to locate and speak to him to find out what it was like working with some of the world’s renowned action elite! A dedicated stuntman and actor for many years, he truly impressed us with his level of knowledge, commitment and willingness to give us a glimpse into his unique life as a diverse performer in the stunt world. Let’s meet Jawed!
Let’s get a little background if we may. Where do you come from, what’s your age?
I was born in Paris, France, in 1983, I am 30 now.
What is your height and weight?
I’m 6ft (1.83m) and my weight varies between 12st – 13st (77kg – 83kg)
Can you tell us about your martial arts background?
I was five years old when I saw “Way of The Dragon” with Bruce Lee. I got inspired by him and I gave karate a shot about a year or two after that for two years. Later I did Yoseikan Budo followed by a year of French Savate. Yoseikan Budo is a mix between karate, judo, western boxing, full contact, some self-defence and weapons. I did that for four years. (I also trained bo staff, and a bit of Kali double sticks a bit later on!) My sensei then was Eric Iannetta. He was the one who gave me the basics and helped me get deeper into the philosophy of the martial arts and self defence. He also taught me the nunchakus. It was in 1999 that I met Alain Deselle, my main teacher in Muay Thai, Wing Chun, and JKD (Jeet Kune Do) whose instructor was Carter Wong, a direct friend of Bruce Lee, he’s well known in Hong Kong. He also learned from Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, Jessie Glover, Taki Kimura, Dan Inosanto, so what I learned from him was influenced by them.
Later I did capoeira, (I went back to it lately in HK too) a bit of judo, western boxing in Sydney Australia in 2007. In 2008, I wanted to learn traditional Muay Thai, so I went to practice it in a mountain camp in Thailand for 3 months. It was intense, with morning, afternoon and evening training which included lots of running along with my own physical conditioning exercises. I fought a couple of fights too getting paid the amateur rate. I drew upon the sources of JKD, Wing Chun, Benny Urquidez’s kickboxing style and used those against my opponents. I adopted and used the “weapons” I learned, against Muay Thai fighters with timing and speed. Psychologically and physically it would be a shock because they were not used to it.
So Jawed, how did you get involved in Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear?
I heard there was a casting going on in Bangkok, Thailand. There was an interesting character called Lucas, who has a dialogue and a fight in a dojo with the main lead character, Scott Adkins. I did the casting then got a call back from director Isaac Florentine and got the part! A month later we were shooting in Bangkok.
How was it working with Scott Adkins?
About Scott, I would say he’s very skilled, talented and competent. The fight we had was quite a traditional, grounded, karate style. Scott is very accurate, precise and flexible in his technique with fine balance. He’s totally aware when it comes to his kicks and punches and has a lot of control, he really knows what he’s doing! Most of the fights he does himself, there weren’t any wires used either.
What kind of training was involved in preparing for your role?
Well the fight choreographer, Tim Man, assisted by Brahim Achabbakhe, helped coordinate all the moves. They had already planned the physical action. I simply followed their advice. It wasn’t difficult, but still needed to practice of course. It consisted of traditional karate postures, which actually helped building up my character, a traditional karate guy. Isaac Florentine the director made it easy too, it was easy to follow his directions because he was clear and definite in what he wanted for Lucas (my character in the movie).
Did they ask you to do any complex or difficult moves?
No, not so much! When it comes to movie shooting they don’t really want to take too much risk, there is always a ‘safe zone’ depending on the production and the stunt department. In Ek Tha Tiger, (a big Bollywood movie) I had a couple of nice stunts to do, one of them was riskier, resulting in a small accident but nothing serious. The set was really safe regarding all the stunts, thanks to the action director Mark Rounthwaite and his assistant Steve McQuillan.
I also did “Fighting Fish” where I play the lead, (Mike). Here, time was limited: there are always script, time and budget considerations. They don’t audition for everything that you can possibly do! You just have to follow the script and do what’s asked and required of you. Sometimes it’s frustrating because you know you can do much more, more tricky moves for example, but you don’t want to make other people’s work harder than it is already, so you keep it to yourself, and you have to respect the time and budget considerations at hand!
What was it like working with director Isaac Florentine?
It was great! You can feel his passion for the martial arts, for Bruce Lee, for the traditional ways of fighting too. He has an amazing view and eye for action. He was really intense at times, which would keep the cast’s and crew’s spirits and motivation up, we just felt his passion and wanted to follow it! He was really smooth, sharp, keen and aware. He is a nice and humble person to know and work with.
What was it like working with Kane Kosugi, the son of the legendary Ninja warrior himself Sho Kosugi?
Really great guy! Lucky to be surrounded by guys like this, he’s a real gentleman, a sensible and humble guy. Actually he surprised me with his martial arts skills when I watched the movie! He’s got a real positive energy. He has been practicing martial arts since he was a child. You’ll see in the movie that he’s not just an actor; he’s a real martial artist.
On to your views about other martial arts actors, what do you think about Jackie Chan?
Huge inspiration for me, I’d always have to get whatever magazine he was featured on for example! He made me want to get into stunt work, Parkour/Free Running and acrobatics! One of my dreams as a growing kid was to work with him. It is still there somewhere!
And Donnie Yen?
I like what he does, he’s an inspiration. I like the way he showcases action! I like to watch his fight scenes. The hits look and sound mostly realistic. The film Ip Man for example is great! As is Flash Point, the end fight with Colin Chou, I guess has been an inspiration for many. I also liked his earlier movies like “Drunken Tai Chi”.
What about Tony Jaa?
I think he came in at the right time, from stuntman to actor, to showcase Muay Boran, and give a fresh twist on the arts. Now he has legions of fans all over! I actually played a part in his movie Tom Yum Goong 2!
I like his presence on screen, seriously underrated. I would like to see him in bigger roles. I see him as a martial artist first, but I think he’s a good actor too.
I was in The Mark Redemption with him. Gary is a really nice guy; he’s got a good energy, respectable. He’s also underrated, I would hope to see him in bigger things! He trains a lot, and is in fantastic shape for his age. People can’t believe the moves he can pull out at his age!
What are your top kung-fu movies?
Who would you say are the top five martial artists that have influenced you the most?
Bruce Lee, Alain Deselle, Christophe Carrio (his books about conditioning) and I used to watch a lot of Benny “The Jet”, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao and Buakaw (Thai fighter) fights, Miyamoto Musashi (through his “The Book of Five Rings”) – I always looked-up to those guys!
Who would you most like to work with and why?
I just finished working on a Hollywood film called “Outcast” starring Hayden Christensen and Nicolas Cage. I play a role in it with a one-on-one fight against the lead actor Hayden Christensen. The movie is directed by Nick Powell who worked behind the cameras in movies such as Resident Evil: Retribution, The Bourne Identity and The Last Samurai. I always liked Nicolas Cage, so it was cool being in a scene with him. But to stay in the martial arts world, I would definitely think of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen …but really, I’m happy to do my best with each project that I’m involved in and it doesn’t have to be with someone renown, just with people who know their stuff!
What is a typical workout for you? Is it mostly martial arts, flexibility training, extending your abilities and perhaps gym workouts that you do?
I’m training with Hollywood stunt people right now, including self defence, weapons and unarmed combat. I do a lot of Parkour, conditioning, endurance and explosiveness training. I do different things on different days. I do circuit training, boxing on mitts, boxing, kickboxing, punch bag and shadow boxing. Sometimes I practice the Wing Chun (chi sao = sticky hands). In Parkour, I work a lot on the basics, on precision, coordination, balance. For strength it depends, sometimes just body-weight exercises, sometimes working out with weights if I have to bulk-up for a movie. It also depends if I want to focus on my techniques to be faster, more explosive and flexible. Core training: you need a strong explosive core, it’s all interconnected. When you land a big jump, you need a strong core and legs. The aim is to become a better weapon, to have the capacity to do whatever is asked on the movie set for example. So basically, moving without limits, kicking with maximum extension while maintaining fluidity.
What’s your favourite exercise and what specific or special training techniques do you like that really work for you?
Usually when I workout, I look for what can make me better as a martial artist/performer. I really enjoy Parkour: It’s about control and balance. It is good to be facing your fears once in a while and do something that at first glance you don’t think you can do. Breathing also influences your bodily condition and expression tremendously and enhances your abilities. So there are some specific training techniques for that also.
What’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
There was a jump I did from balcony to balcony followed by a narrow downward dive. It was an awkward, risky move, there was a mat for safety, but I was confident in my ability to do it. In Malaysia, about a year back, I had to run, collide with and go through glass. I’ve done some jumps in the movie Ek Tha Tiger, one on which I twisted my ankle as I landed on a moving pickup truck. Apart from that, it’s usually safe. I take risks, but calculated ones. Overall though I find that under control, with awareness, you can almost annihilate the risks!
What was your most serious injury, how did you work around it?
The ankle fracture on the Bollywood movie Ek Tha Tiger! Even though I always study what I’m going to do, when you’re tired, trying something new, not fully focussed, these mishaps can happen! All in all, I’ve been pretty safe and lucky so far! You have to listen to your body and observe carefully. If a body part is swollen and broken, you have to minimise the use of that body part, you need to rest, or work on the other available body parts, whilst not moving the injured part: icing it, resting, elevation and simple common sense measures. Just being very careful with your body and taking care of it. I don’t believe in “no pain no gain” as a definite truth. At a certain point it can work, but I believe you can gain without hurting yourself or even working too hard. Take the smart approach, get to know your current mental and physical limits and play with them and push them if you feel like it. Follow your gut instinct. If your body is not following anymore, you simply need to rest, watch your diet and sleep -within a day or two, it will come back even better!
What do you like to do to relax and recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity? Something you can recommend for those leading a physically demanding lifestyle?
Stretching! I like to be in nature, in parks, near trees and travelling. Sometimes, simply reflecting and listening within. Sit in a park and be one with yourself in meditation, just be in the moment, feel yourself as a fluid expression of nature. Witness your body and mind getting refreshed and energized. Even though I grew up in the city where there is a lack of greenery, I think you need to relax into the natural rhythm of nature. The mind needs something new, to avoid getting stale, to stay fresh. You don’t have to do anything crazy or specific, just pay attention and listen to yourself and your surroundings, it may sound kind of abstract and spiritual but it’s part of my lifestyle and it is simple -it enables me to continue to do what I love to do and to keep a good balance!
What kind of diet do you follow? Which foods help you keep at your energetic best?
Nothing particularly fixed, I just eat whenever! I am always absorbed in what I’m doing and I sometimes I forget to eat! I don’t eat too much oily or fatty foods, today I don’t eat too much white rice, or drink soda or alcohol. I am careful about eating chicken as you don’t know what animals are fed or how they are treated these days! There was a time when I was recovering after injuries where my tendons had become hard after jumping on concrete. It was taking too long to heal, so I thought I should change my diet. I would cut out sugar and dairy, I would be careful not to snack and just eat when I’m hungry. I ate eat a lot of vegetables and reduced meat, in three weeks, the pain was gone! Fatigue and the wounds were healed. As for drinks, I drink water, tea, coffee occasionally, juices as natural as possible, not milk though as I don’t think our bodies are made to digest milk! I also sometimes eat dark chocolate, rest, drink water, do deep breathing techniques, stretching of the body.
What’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know?
Well, I think I am far from being a geek, but I do have some special tricks when it comes to editing films!
If you could be a superhero, who would you be and what power would you most like to possess?
Wow! Well, I wouldn’t want to be Superman, cause that would be kind of boring, but actually I think I would like to fly. I do like watching Batman and Spider-Man movies.
What do you like doing to relax, any hobbies?
I love being on a movie set, I like chilling out, spending time with family, having interesting conversations with friends. Reading books and articles, sharing videos on the net, watching movies, cinema, I like poker too! Believe it or not I’ve won multiple poker tournaments in the past. I think 10% is luck and the rest is pure psychological observation. I always find connections with my martial arts philosophy to many things in life, feeling people’s intentions. I like bringing people together to work on an idea or project. I coach people in martial arts and Parkour for example, I like to motivate and assist them in their own personal transformation to make their strengths eclipse their weaknesses!
What dislikes do you have?
Basically, I am against all kind of abuse, whether it is towards human beings, animals and nature in general.
What are you most grateful for in life?
I would say the foundation I got from my parents: that is, to be loyal and my education. Despite whatever struggles I had in the past, (I still have a long way to go) I am happy that I’ve walked the road that I have in the martial arts and movies. Sometimes, people had told me in the past that I was too much of a dreamer, and that my dreams may remain dreams, and that I will grow-up to face reality. Now, what I do is reality. I’m glad I’ve stayed loyal and true to the vision I always had. I’m also grateful for my health. If I were to write a Newsletter for Kung-fu Kingdom someday, I would suggest readers to make out a list of the things they’re grateful for, [a gratitude list] and also about the benefits of maintaining a positive outlook and energy on life.
What are you really keen to accomplish in the next five years?
Well, for now I am taking things one step at a time. I’m very happy I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing people in the industry. Some are recognized, others work behind the scenes. I would love to be consistent and evolve in what I already do. I would like to continue working on interesting projects with passionate, creative and talented people!
What advice would you give to a beginner who is considering taking-up a martial art?
Listen, pay attention! Learn to visualize things you want to produce or reproduce, this has helped me a lot. I would imagine myself doing a certain move or technique until it is perfect in my mind first (whether it is for martial arts or acrobatics, or parkour). Visualize yourself doing the move perfectly, and then apply and repeat as much as you can to mirror what you conceived before in your mind. Don’t be impatient and don’t give up if you don’t see quick results. If you get stuck somewhere and feel like you are not improving anymore, change side, change techniques, change timing, and/or go one step back and review your basics. Consistency is key. That works in pretty much every field.
What special message would you like to share with Kung-fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world?
I’d like to really thank everyone for reading this interview on Kung-fu Kingdom! Whatever significant work or projects you’re involved in, stick with it and don’t procrastinate in making your ideas and dreams become a reality! If you’re into action and martial arts movies, do check out “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear”. I really hope you enjoy it, as, thanks to a dedicated team, great direction and choreography, we gave this one our all and didn’t hold anything back!
Name a warrior-wisdom quote has helped define you up to this point?
Here’s an ageless one: If you think something is impossible you have already made it impossible.
Thank you for your kind participation in this interview Jawed, we wish you all success with “Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear” and your latest projects, keep in touch!
Thanks Raj! Was really a pleasure speaking with you, and of course, I’ll be glad to!