At the age of eight, a young Virginia native named Jon Valera began his journey into the world of martial arts. Guided by his father along the way, Jon soon entered the world of martial arts competition, a decision that would take him across the country and, indeed, the world. During this process, Jon had the chance to meet and train with numerous stunt professionals, and at their suggestion, ventured to Hollywood where, before long, he joined their ranks as a professional stuntman – even becoming a member of the renowned stunt team, 87Eleven Action Design!
During his twenty-five years in the business, Jon has done stunt work and fight choreography on countless action movie hits, including “300”, “The Expendables”, “Man of Tai Chi”, “Atomic Blonde”, “xXx: Return of Xander Cage”, “John Wick”, and the recent “Creed II”.
Jon’s latest gig is the definition of unique – serving as fight coordinator for James Wan’s underwater superhero adventure, “Aquaman”. Today, Jon sits down with KFK to share stories about his life in martial arts, his humble beginnings as a professional stuntman, and translating all of that into the incredible action sequences of “Aquaman” – along with a tiny pinch on his next superhero project, Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey”!
Hi Jon, welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom! It’s great to connect with you and we hope you’re keeping well.
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks a lot!
Fantastic. BTW, what do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK)?
It’s awesome, man!
Appreciate it Jon! Now let’s kick off with some basics like your beginnings in martial arts. What different disciplines have you studied and who would you say have been your major influences?
I started when I was about eight years old in American Freestyle Karate, which is based on Shotokan Karate and Taekwondo. Because I also competed a lot, both nationally and internationally growing up, I got to meet a lot of other people and cross-train in a lot of different disciplines with them.
As far as influences, my father was one of my big coaches in competition, and he really pushed me far. Also, I grew up following guys like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen, and emulated them a lot as a kid.
They’re the greats, for sure! So, how did you first get started as a stuntman?
Well, that came out of competition, because a lot of the other guys that I would compete and train with were already stuntmen. I grew up in Virginia, but they would invite me to come to L.A. to train with their friends and kind of see how the business worked. And one thing led to another, and that was really how my stunt career began.
That’s great networking there. So, what would you say is the most daring stunt you’ve performed in your career?
Well, as stunt people, we know what we signed up for, so stunt work always has to involve a lot of safety and preparation. However, anything dealing with wires is always some of the most daring stuff I’ve ever done. You have a lot less control when you’re hanging from wires, especially if you’re doing a fall. The wire-riggers don’t really control how you land, they can just control how soft your landing is. So you have to be very conscious of where you are in the air and how you’re coming in to land. I also did a fire burn on “We Were Soldiers”, which was the first time I was ever lit on fire, so that was pretty nerve-racking.
I can imagine. On that note, what would you say is the worst injury you’ve ever experienced, and how did you work around it? I hope it didn’t involve fire! (both laugh)
No, fortunately not! My worst injury actually didn’t come from any particular project, believe it or not. It actually came from doing a wire gag for a show reel with some other stunt guys. I hit a wall while doing the wire gag and fell to the floor, and ended up fracturing my skull in two places and crushing some bones in my left hand. It did definitely shape my thought process for approaching stunts from then on, because you can’t just be gung ho and jump into anything. Safety has to be a big, big part of coordinating any stunt. Fortunately, the recovery from that injury wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. My neurologist said it would be about a year before I was fully recovered, but I have a really strong will, and I came back in about four months.
Way to go, to bounce back like that! On that topic, what are some of your personal favourite projects that you’ve worked on as a stuntman?
Well, “Aquaman” is definitely one of my favourites that I’ve worked on! I would also have to say “300”, “The Wolverine”, and “Ninja Assassin” are personally some of my proudest films that I’ve worked on in the past. Also, season three of the Netflix show “Frontier”, which I did with Jason Momoa, is another of my favorite projects that I’ve worked on as a stuntman.
Some contemporary-legendary action movies there! Looking ahead now, having worked as fight coordinator on James Wan’s “Aquaman”, what can you share about how you became involved with the film?
Well, I’m actually good friends with Jason Momoa, and of course, we’ve worked together in the past on “Frontier”. He’s got such a big heart, and he came to me and said “Hey, I’ve got ‘Aquaman’ coming up soon, do you want to do it?” And I was like “Hell yeah, I want to do it!” (both laugh) I was also really close with the stunt coordinators on the film, R.A. Rondell and Kyle Gardiner, and they asked me to come aboard, as well. So working on “Aquaman” was really like training with your brothers for me.
Sounds like a better version of a class reunion! So, what interesting stories can you share about making “Aquaman” with Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, and director James Wan?
Jason, Amber, and Patrick were so dedicated to training for the film. Really, on any action film, the lead actors really need to be committed to training and prepping, and all three of them were totally committed. Jason is always training in all kinds of disciplines anyway, so he came into the film totally ready and didn’t need any big preparation. When Patrick joined the film, he was working in New York at the time, but he really wanted to get himself prepared to play Orm. So we had one of my stunt friends go and train with him and video tape it so I could evaluate where he was at physically. Amber also really wanted to make Mera her own character and not someone who needed to be saved, so she trained with myself and the other stunt guys a lot leading up to the film.
James Wan is just a great director to work with, as well. Both of us had our own ideas for the film, and he really collaborated with me a lot on what we wanted to do for the film with the stunts and the action. It’s always really great as a stunt professional to be able to run ideas with a director on a movie like “Aquaman” on stunts and fights, and James was a really fantastic director to collaborate with.
No doubt. So, what are a couple of the most memorable experiences during the making “Aquaman” for you?
I think it’s just being part of such a great team of stunt people, and we were on the film from January to October of 2017, but being with such a close group of stunt professionals made it a really fun experience. R.A. Rondell was the stunt coordinator for “The Matrix”, and he’s a legend in the stunt world, so everyone on the stunt team knew they were in really good hands with him. So working with him, Kyle Gardiner, and the whole stunt team was like just playing with your friends. Also, getting to make the film in Australia made it a really adventurous experience. All around, it was just a really fun project to work on.
That always helps! On the topic of the film’s stunts and action, what can you share about the process of designing them for a film like “Aquaman” which takes place largely underwater? What are the biggest challenges of this compared to working on dry land?
Well, there’s a lot more blue screen for all of the underwater scenes. The real challenge comes in filming the underwater scenes on a set, but mimicking what people look like underwater. Just because they spent their whole lives underwater, the Atlanteans are going to move around very differently than if they were on the land, so the big challenge was bringing that to life. So even just for scenes where the characters are talking, if somebody moves to the left, they have to do it in such a way that it looks like they’re underwater.
There’s also a lot of wirework for the underwater scenes, obviously, but there are also parts where Arthur is fighting humans, or fighting on the land. Because he’s so strong, there’s going to be more wreckage going on, so you have to be really prepared for that too. But fortunately, there were no real serious injuries on the film aside from the usual bumps and bruises.
Glad there were no fire-related injuries! Speaking of the film’s action sequences, one particularly notable one is the spectacular foot-chase involving Aquaman, Mera, Black Manta, and several armored henchmen on land. What can you share about the process of designing this particular action sequence?
Oh, that took months to put together! A lot of prep and rigging went into designing that scene beforehand, and then bringing it to life on set. It’s a crazy action sequence, but it came together beautifully, and we couldn’t have done it without the amazing stunt team we had on the film.
That clearly shows. So, given the uniqueness of this particular character among other superheroes, how closely does “Aquaman” fulfill its creative vision in terms of action, stunts and fights, in your opinion?
For me, I think one of the biggest things James really did well was in contrasting Atlantis and the surface world, especially when it came to the action. For anything underwater, it’s very superhero-like, but on the land, everything feels very real. Even down to how Arthur and Mera and the other Atlanteans just move around on land, and of course, even more so in the action on land. I think James portrayed the contrast of the two worlds and how the Atlanteans inhabit each one, really well.
Absolutely. Jetting ahead now, you’ll also serve as fight choreographer for another DC superhero film, the upcoming “Birds of Prey”, your thoughts?
I can’t share too much, unfortunately! (both laugh) All I can really say is that it’s a movie with four badass girls carrying the film, so that’s going to be a really fun project!
Definitely looking forward to “Birds of Prey”. So, what other projects do you have in the works after the release of “Aquaman”?
“John Wick 3: Parabellum” is the next one I have coming out. I was actually in New York and Morocco finishing it up right before I came aboard “Birds of Prey”, and that’ll be coming out in May. It’s really different from the first two, so I’m really looking forward to it coming out next year.
Most definitely, “John Wick: Chapter 2” set the bar really high – keen to see what the third film entails! Looking at training now, what is a typical training session like for you these days?
I train a lot with my brothers at 87Eleven Action Design, and especially being a fight coordinator now, I like to cross-train in a lot of different disciplines these days. Lately, I like mixing up a lot of Judo, Aikido, and Jiu-Jitsu, but also, just basic kicking and punching is my bread and butter.
Great to keep the training FUdimensional and well-rounded! Looking at fun and leisure now, what’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know?
(Laughs) Well, I’ve always been a martial arts nerd, first and foremost. But in what I do now and learning a lot of different disciplines, it’s kind of made me into a “movement nerd”, you might say. When you do fight choreography, you mix movement from so many different sources, including dance, and that’s something I study and follow quite a lot, as well. I guess you could call me a movement nerd!
The broader world of anatomy; that’s a brilliant and geeky interest for sure! A very apt question for you now – if you could be a superhero or have a particular superpower, who and which would it be?
(Laughs) I actually talk with my friends a lot about that, what superpower we’d all want to have. And it’s a hard one to pin down, for sure. But, I think I’d want to fly.
An evergreen, popular choice! So, what are some of your hobbies outside of martial arts?
I like a lot of other sports like tennis and baseball. I’m pretty athletic, all round and again, that’s thanks to my Dad.
I like the slow jams and R&B.
Favourite movies (non-martial arts)?
“Braveheart” is one of my all-time favorites. Also “Heat” and “Point Break”, those are right at the top for me.
Classics! So, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
I would have to say my family. I’ve lived a pretty good life, and I’ve traveled all over the world, from competing and doing stunts, but I reached a point in my career where I wanted to build a family. So having my two daughters and building my family is my proudest accomplishment, I would have to say.
Definitely something to be proud of. Well, as we prepare to wrap up, Jon, what are some warrior-wisdom quotes that have helped shape you into who you are today?
One thing I’ve always stood by and I’ve told students and other stunt performers a lot is, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it”. Those are words I’ve always tried to live by, and I try to pass on to any newcomers that I work with in the business.
Solid. So, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers, and Aquaman and superhero fans around the world right now?
I just want to thank everyone who goes to check out “Aquaman”. For martial artists who see the film, I’d just want to let them know that what we used here is a blend of so many different disciplines and movements, and that’s the best way to approach everything, whether it’s martial arts, or anything else in life.
That special blend. Thank you so much for your time today, Jon! It’s been a true privilege and a pleasure to hear the stories of your life in stunts and designing the action of “Aquaman”, both on land and under the sea. We also greatly look forward to “John Wick 3”, “Birds of Prey”, and all the other exciting projects you have coming up – in the meantime, we wish you the best of success with Aquaman!
Thanks Brad, glad to share everything here today with Kung Fu Kingdom!
“Aquaman” is currently causing a storm in (the seven seas and) theaters around the globe and if you’re an action-fight fan, you’ll definitely want to check out the moves Jon and the film’s stunt team have stirred up! Excited to see it; what waves of impressions surf to mind? What favourite aquatic or otherworldly epic action-adventures can you remember at this magical time? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram.