The world of stunt performers and cinematic martial artists knows no bounds. Whether they hail from the English-speaking world or the Far East, we’ve had the pleasure and privilege to speak with countless members of both groups here at KFK, and today, we sit down with Pakistani-born martial artist and stuntman Umar Khan.
Once he saw Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1989 cult classic “Kickboxer”, Umar knew what his calling was.
Fast forward to 2016, and he’s lent his skills to such pulse pounding action films as Isaac Florentine’s “Close Range”, the new “Rush Hour” TV series, and the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War”. On top of that, he’s also currently doing pre-viz work for the English language remake of “The Raid”.
Today, Umar sits down with KFK to share his incredible stories in the field of martial arts and stunt work!
Hi Umar, it’s great to connect with you and we hope you’re keeping well? Thanks for taking some time out to share with us.
Have you taken a look at our site and what do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK)?
Yes, I have, I find it to be very informative and professional. I like the name Kung Fu Kingdom, it has a nice cling to it.
Thank you! Now let’s kick off with some basics: When and where were you born?
I was born on June 7th 1982 in Lahore, Pakistan
What is your height and weight?
I’m 5’9” (1.75m) and weigh 10st 8lb (67kg).
How did you first get into the martial arts? How old were you?
I was around 7 years old when I saw my first martial arts film, “Kickboxer” with Jean-Claude Van Damme. I had no idea what martial arts were at that time but I instantly knew when I saw the movie that martial arts were something that I wanted to do, so I started training on my own by watching Van Damme movies.
Wonderful! So, what was the first main style you trained in and what different arts have you studied and trained?
The first main style I trained was Taekwondo, I later moved on to styles like Wushu, Boxing, Muay Thai, Judo, Wrestling, Sambo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Capoeira, Wing Chun and Escrima
That’s quite a mix! So, who would you credit as having most influenced you in martial arts and who would you consider your heroes or inspirational figures, a top 5 perhaps?
Military strategist, philosopher and the author of “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu. Expert swordsman and rōnin, Miyamoto Musashi. Creator of Jeet Kune Do, philosopher and filmmaker, Bruce Lee. Action choreographer and multiple-time world wushu tournament champion, Donnie Yen. Action icon, Jean-Claude Van Damme (as he was the first one I saw doing martial arts on film).
Excellent choices! Moving ahead now, how did you first get started in stunt work and fight choreography?
I started off like any kid by mimicking the fight scenes from the different action movies I saw. Later on, I developed an interest for fight choreography so I started to choreograph my own fight scenes with my friends. During my years in elementary school I used to borrow the school’s camcorder to shoot my own “fight movies”. I used to handpick my co-stars (based on their height, look and skills), do location scouting, direct, choreograph and act in the films I made.
In 2002, a friend of mine who knew about my big passion told me about a shoot that was taking place nearby, they were looking for people with fighting skills, basically stunt guys and I went there and showcased some of my martial arts skills and got the part.
So, you were really going after it from an early age! Looking ahead, one of your first credits is in the television series “Person of Interest”. How was the experience of appearing on the show alongside the series’ leading man, Jim Caviezel.
“Person of Interest” was actually my first gig in America and it got me into the SAG-AFTRA union. I got the part after being in L.A. for about 4 months, I was playing the role of a French Legionnaire and the TV Show was shot in NYC in early 2014. Working with Jim Caviezel was a great experience as I was familiar with his past work and great performance in ”The Passion of the Christ”.
Excellent! You also served as fight choreographer for the mini-series, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – District Voices”. Can you describe the experience of making it and how did it relate to “The Hunger Games” series?
It was a Television mini-series produced by Google and Tool of NA to build up hype around the upcoming movie at that time “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”, I landed the role as an Elite Force Peacekeeper after sending in my demo reel, the producers liked it and invited me to do rehearsals, while I was there, the director, Ben Tricklebank chose me to also choreograph the fight scenes for the episode I was in.
You also recently did stunt work on and appeared in the role of Sesma in “Close Range”. How was your experience of making the film with Isaac Florentine?
I’ve known Isaac for a while now – we were introduced through a mutual friend, Soke Tamas Weber, who has been Isaac’s Sensei since the 70’s and a friend of mine for about 15 years. I was in Sweden at that time when we started talking about doing a film together, it took 5 years until the right opportunity came, it just had to come down to finding the right script at the right time. I was in Texas when I got the call so I took the next flight and we made it happen. It was a great experience to finally be working with Isaac, he’s a great director with an incredible eye for action.
Nice introduction and solid first project there! You will also soon be seen as a stunt performer in the upcoming “Rush Hour” TV series. How did you get involved with it and can you tell us a bit about what making it was like?
I got a call from stunt coordinator Jeff Wolfe who wanted me to come in to do some acrobatic stunts in a scene, it was pretty demanding choreography with several different elements involved, no padding or wires, not to mention it was a “one shot” take but it went well having Jeff coordinate it with his background and experience.
Sounds great, we definitely look forward to seeing it. In addition, you’ll be seen later this year performing stunt work in the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War”. How was your experience of making the film alongside the cast of “The Avengers” franchise and can you relate one fun or unique incident?
I had a great time working with some of the biggest names in the industry, I was playing the part as Hero Merc and had a few scenes opposite Scarlett Johansson. I can recall one funny incident, I was about to do my lines and Scarlett was making these funny faces towards me, basically trying to get me out of character so I did the same when she had hers. We laughed about it, it was just one of those funny little incidents, she’s a great actress and a really nice person. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch were Second Unit Directing while Sam Hargrave was coordinating the stunts, it was a great experience working with the people that changed film fighting in Hollywood when they first started 87Eleven Action Design.
Sounds like “Civil War” is going to be immense! Moving ahead, in a recent interview, you mentioned that you’re involved with doing pre-viz work for the American remake of “The Raid”, and you also mentioned that there’s an Indian remake in the works as well. Can you tell us about these two exciting projects?
Yes, the remakes are based on the Indonesian martial arts film “The Raid”. I can’t tell too much about it at this stage since it’s still in development, I can tell you that we are in talks with the original producers of the film that gave us this amazing opportunity to make a pre-viz with our innovative technology and choreography, so at the moment me and my team are rehearsing for the pre-viz.
Definitely can’t wait to hear more about the Hollywood and Bollywood remakes of “The Raid”! What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
Last year, I was requested to choreograph/direct two pre-vizes for Tom Delmar, a renowned British Action Director making his directorial debut. We shot the pre-vizes with our technology and he was really impressed by them, so he put me in charge as the Second Unit Director and Stunt Coordinator on his upcoming features, “Killing The Seeds” and “The Masters Legacy”. It will be my debut as a Second Unit Director/Stunt Coordinator on a feature film so I’m super excited about that and deeply honored to have been given such a high position.
I’m in pre-production stage for another project that’s going to be shot here in the U.S. and Nepal later this year, an action thriller called, “The Man from Kathmandu” (Clear Mirror Pictures), which I’m both action directing and starring in.
Lots to look forwards to! Moving on now, who would be some actors, filmmakers, and martial artists you’d like to work with now and in future?
Directors Zack Snyder, Robert Rodriguez, Darren Aronofsky, Danny Boyle, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray and Action Directors Yuen Woo-Ping and Donnie Yen
Stellar folks there! Aside from JCVD, who else do you really admire in martial arts movies?
I admire Donnie Yen a lot because he brings an incredible charisma and diversity to his projects, he not only stars and action directs his movies but also choreographs realistic, creative and unconventional fight scenes with parkour chases in between. He’s also the one that started utilizing MMA in his fight scenes back in 2005. I also like the way he uses slow-motion for certain takes during his fights to showcase the power of techniques.
Can never underestimate his influence on the genre. So, what are your top 10 martial arts or kung fu movies?
“The Shaolin Temple”, “Shaolin Temple 3: Martial Arts of Shaolin”, “Fist Of Legend”, “Who Am I?”, “Gorgeous”, “Flash Point”, “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen”, “The Raid”, “Ong Bak”, “Tom Yum Goong”.
Great choices! Moving ahead to training now, what’s a typical workout for you? Is it mostly martial arts and flexibility training, or do you do you often incorporate weights with that too?
I wake up early in the mornings to go for a run. When I come back I do ab workouts and later on during the day I train martial arts and choreography with my stunt team (I train a lot of different styles of martial arts so I divide them on different days), I also do a lot of track and field, powerlifting, gymnastics, parkour, CrossFit and bar training in addition to maintain my speed, agility, power etc.
What’s your favorite exercise and what specific or special training techniques brings out the best in you?
I have a lot of favorite exercises, I do a lot of conventional and unconventional training and always come up with new training regimens depending on what area I need to excel in, that keeps me sharp and progressive. As I do choreography training every day, I create a lot of different, innovative techniques for film fighting. Creating something exciting and mind-blowing that hasn’t been done before is what brings out the best of me.
That’s really cool Umar. So, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
Jumping between two high speed boats with no wires or safety pads at 65 knots (75 mph) on a windy day!
Wo! Risky business there! So, what was your most serious injury and how did you work around it?
The most serious injury I’ve had was probably the knee injury I suffered while doing gymnastics many years ago. I walked on crutches for 6 months and was really feeling down. Luckily I met a physical therapist that gave me a few exercises to do to strengthen the knee and after about a week of doing those exercises I could run again, so I’m really grateful that I met him and for the advice that he gave me.
We should probably recommend him to other stunt guys we talk to! So glad you able to find him and recover. So, what do you like to do to recharge after a particularly strenuous period of physical activity -what do you suggest to those leading a physically demanding lifestyle?
Swimming, ice bath, sauna, steam room, full body massage and eating healthily is the best and fastest way to recuperate your body after hard training sessions.
Great suggestions, thank you! So, what are a couple of your favourite pieces of gym, exercise or training equipment that you absolutely love using and would recommend to others?
The Elevation Mask, weight vest, Vibram Five Fingers training shoes, bar, ab wheel, TRX (Total Body Resistance EXercise).
What kind of diet do you follow?
The Paleo Diet
Which foods do you find work for you to remain at your most energetic and are the best fuel for your workouts?
I eat only once a day and when I do eat it’s mostly chicken, tuna, eggs, nuts, fruits, a lot of vegetables, fresh orange juice and soya milk.
Do you take supplements, what do you recommend?
Yes, I drink protein shakes in-between my workouts.
Moving on to fun and leisure now, what’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?
I’m very goofy and like to make jokes, only my family and close friends know that side of me
If you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to possess?
I’d probably choose Superman, flying is an ability that I would want to have if it was possible
Ever popular! What are some of your hobbies?
Travelling, hiking, rock climbing, scuba diving, canoeing and skydiving
Favourite movies? (non martial arts)
I have a lot of favorite movies that inspired me in different aspects of filmmaking, here are a few of them. From a storytelling perspective, I like “Crash” – Director Paul Haggis really did something original and depicted a reality of how things are usually misunderstood because of our differences and the lack of wanting to know the unknown. I enjoyed Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” because it favoured a person living in a nation with a caste system to have a chance at something beyond what he was “supposed” to be.
I’ve always been fond of history and the development of the different ancient cultures and societies and of course action design so I would add “300”, “Gladiator” and the TV Shows “Spartacus” and “Marco Polo” to the list.
When it comes to the acting aspect of what kind of roles I would enjoy depicting, I would say Denzel Washington’s role in “Training Day”, Gerard Butler’s role in “Law Abiding Citizen”, Jeremy Renner’s role in “The Town” and of course Boyd Holbrook’s role in Netflix’s “Narcos”.
Action choreography wise I loved the choreography in Donnie Yen’s “Flashpoint” and Gareth Evans’s “The Raid”. They did a great job with being original and different from a lot of martial arts movies, and I’m actually in talks with XYZ Films (the original producers of The Raid) to make a previz for the American as well as Indian remake of “The Raid” using our concept so I’m excited about that.
Last but not least I’m very fond of movies with great storytelling rather than the multimillion dollar budget special effect movies. Independent films are high up on the list as well as innovative ones, “The Wrestler”, “Black Swan” and “The Revenant” to name a few…
Great films all round! Looking ahead now, what in life do you really:
- a) Like? Love and respect.
- b) Dislike? Dishonesty and fakeness.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
Following my childhood dream by coming to America and working in the business that I wanted to work in for so many years and establishing my own stunt team.
Brilliant work! So, what are you really keen to accomplish in the next 5 years?
Start a family and creating my own productions that I can star in and direct.
Awesome things on the horizon! So, can you share a warrior-wisdom quote that has helped shape you up to this point and molded you into who you are today?
“I would rather live one day as a lion than for a thousand years as a sheep…”
That’s poignant! So, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your growing fans and followers around the world?
Stay true to yourself, every person is unique in their own way, don’t try to be someone else, there is already that someone else, so try to be you. Spend your time wisely to discover your own talents and abilities, try to improve yourself all the time by learning new things and seeking who you really are and how you can apply that to the characters you play.
Try to be a new improved version of yourself every day and remember that things will happen when they are supposed to happen. Many people do only one thing in life and that is the only thing they’re good at, when someone does two things, that person becomes special in the eyes of the people who do just one thing. When a person can do more than two things and do them well, then that person becomes supernatural for most people, but it shouldn’t be that way.
We as humans were not created to only do one or two things, we have abilities that are endless and if you just take the time to discover them you are going to be amazed with what you are capable of. Don’t be scared or hesitant, if you want to have something you’ve never had before then get ready to do something you’ve never done before, period!
Wonderful – thanks for sharing that with us! Well, as we sign off for now, Umar, where’s the best place to go if people would like to find out more about you?
Thank you so much for your kind participation in this interview, Umar! We wish you all the best going forward and we’re look forward to seeing your work on the two remakes of “The Raid”, keep in touch!
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with KFK today!