Today it’s the turn of a Street Fighter character that hardly needs any introduction, the most instantly recognisable figure and the epitome of the arcade classic; he’s the loud, proud iconic Ken Masters! Here’s part four of our SFAF series, our interview with Christian Howard.
Chris has of course worked before on Street Fighter: Legacy, as well as with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins and starred as the leading man in British indie martial arts film “Warrioress”. With a developing talent for acting and choreography which now takes him around the world, he’s again taking the part of Ken upon his broad shoulders.
Now we get in-depth about Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, discussing the challenges in training for the role, his previous work, influences, inspirations, stunts and lots more, he even reveals the ‘Ken Masters workout’ for us! So let’s hear what Chris has to say on being Ken as we close in on tomorrow’s release of the highly anticipated, all-new, exciting Street Fighter movie series!
Hi Christian, great to have you with us! So let’s start with when were you born and where do you come from?
Hi Raj, I’m glad we could get this going! I was born on the 4th of May 1984, in Sunderland (near Newcastle).
What is your height and weight?
I am 5’ 10” (1.77m) tall and weigh 84-85kg.
How did you first get into the martial arts? How old were you?
When I was in school, I started going to martial arts clubs in Essex where I actually grew up when I was around 13 years old. Prior to that, I would mainly be watching Jackie Chan movies, trying to flip around!
Which martial arts did you practice?
I did kung fu and I went through all the belts, ranks, gradings and so on. Where I first trained, they had a mixed system which included tai chi and wushu, I used to compete in forms and sparring competitions, then I started karate, tae kwon do and capoeira in an effort to expand my awareness of different styles. I always watched a lot of action movies, I wanted to learn as much as I could from different arts without being restricted.
Who would you credit as having most influenced you in the martial arts?
Other than Bruce Lee bringing kung fu to the wider audience with his amazing screen presence and energy, for me I’d say, it was Jean-Claude Van Damme that really inspired me to train. He had these great abilities that weren’t so far-fetched so as to be impossible. With those great splits and wonderful kicks -that made me realise that if I trained hard enough, such goals would be attainable for me too. The layout of his films involved seeing a guy get trained up and, with effort and persistence be capable of becoming victorious. I would sneak the VHS tapes of “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer” off my older brother!
Jackie Chan was also a huge influence for all the flips and the crazy Hong Kong choreography , I wanted to be doing flips and tricks but there weren’t many people doing that in my area but I had some friends who also loved martial arts movies so we taught ourselves the basics by watching Jackie and Van Damme! I spent a long time trying to perfect my jump split kick a la Van Damme making sure I got it right. I Actually choreographed and doubled for JCVD on a movie that Joey Ansah and I were directing the action for called: UFO/Alien Uprising. It was a dream come true to be working with one of my childhood heroes and it was good to see him in action, his abilities are still hardwired into him, he’s got great control and emotional reactions to being hit in fights which is one of the most important things when it comes to making a fight scene look good.
Who else do you most admire in the martial arts and action movie industry?
I’d also add Mas Oyama, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais. Scott Adkins is a reliable, nice, down to Earth guy with amazing skills. He’s a machine with a great physique and image. In “Undisputed 2”, he had a fight with Silvio Simac where he did an inverted front somersault, and I asked him ‘how much practice did it take to do that?’ Especially as he was at his biggest and heaviest playing Boyka again. He answered that he’d never actually done it before, and that he literally had to pull it out of the bag on the day. This is often the case with filming schedules where you aren’t always afforded the time to practice as much as you would like and Scott’s do or die attitude inspired me to pull off my Tatsumaki in SFAF, I had never completed one like that before but I realised that I’d just have to do it or it wouldn’t be in the scene! I grew up on the big 80’s action heroes, like Sylvester Stallone, JCVD, Arnold Schwarzenegger and wanted to be in awesome shape like them.
Looking at some of your previous work, you played Finvarrah for example in the action/martial arts movie “Warrioress”, can you tell us about it?
My first stunt experience was with a team called First Strike, where Joey and I became great friends, we worked on various shows and films, including a scifi TV show called Star Hike, I first met Cecily Fay on this. She thought I could be the romantic lead in her passion project feature “Warrioress” which she was developing, so I got to play a leading man for the first time, and although it was really about the women, I got to choreograph and perform some cool fights! It took a while to complete -luckily, we had the tirelessly enthusiastic Ross Boyask directing, always willing for any shoot come rain or shine!
I was a skinny boy with long hair back then and hadn’t really done any heavy weight training, a far cry from how I look today. There were a lot of adventures shooting with no budget, but everyone mucked in to help. We went to Guernsey to film, shooting in real old WW2 bunkers, there are glorious cliffs that I was keen to climb on but I dropped one of Cecily’s swords and had to climb down on a retrieval mission! We were very keen to bring it all together and make it work, there were some dangerous stunts in there; that I hope come across! I learned a lot about problem solving on that project so it was a good experience all round really.
You worked in India and served as fight choreographer on the Bollywood film, “Force”, with Vidyut Jamwal [the star of Commando: One Man Army], what was that like?
Yes, with him and John Abraham, who put on a lot of size for that (I did a bit of doubling for him as well). I was doing two different fights in the movie working under Alan Amir. Alan’s worked on some of the biggest stuff coming out of Bollywood like “Dhoom” and “Dhoom 2”. Joey had worked with Alan before on a film called Knock Out (2010) starring Sanjay Dutt.
Joey suggested me to Alan to work with him on ‘Force’. It was a really interesting experience it was something else, a real baptism of fire, sink or swim! I was there for just over a week completely on my own as the only Westerner out there and I was coming up with things on the spot, which is normal there. I mean, if you can handle that type of stressful environment, anything else is easy!
Vidyut is incredible, in great shape and has a lot of great skills so I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He did phenomenal stunts in “Commando One Man Army”. He could really handle the action and anything I asked of him, whether it was tricks, wall flips, butterfly or 540 degree kicks; so I tried to incorporate a wide range of moves. He’s really impressive and a great guy actually, it would be great to work with him again.
Now onto “Street Fighter”, how did you get involved in the short film “Street Fighter: Legacy”?
Joey and I used to live together, we shared a flat, and back then as unemployed actors, we were playing Marvel vs Capcom 2, religiously every day, and really enjoyed it. Then Street Fighter IV came out and we started playing that. This was about the time “The Legend of Chun Li” was released and we were both excited about it, since we had seen the first film in 1994 which was a real let down and thought ‘any Street Fighter film has got to be better than that’!
When it came out, it was a huge disappointment; it was hardly anything to do with Street Fighter. Joey suggested that Street Fighter could developed into a series which could follow the characters, so we noted down some of these ideas and put them to Capcom who unexpectedly replied back with some interest. After going to meet them in the US we put together a proof of concept film with a Ken and Ryu fight, adding some characterisation and story with Jon Foo playing Ryu. It did really well on YouTube, put us on the radar and just proved to us that we could surely make something substantial here.
Looking back, did you ever think that you’d someday be playing Ken, your favourite character from the game?
Well, I never imagined it! Ken was always my favourite character; from the moves he had, to the bravado, representing everything that was larger than life and ‘Californian’ 😉 I never thought I’d actually be playing him myself someday in the future though, it’s crazy!
Had the negative reputation of the previous two “Street Fighter” films proven to be an impediment to get backing to make “SF Legacy” and “SFAF”?
Yes, a lot of faith was lost, there was tons of resistance and lots of negotiations, which did make it difficult doing it ourselves. However Joey’s business acumen, very strong will and persistence was a huge asset!
Now onto Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, what can fans expect? How will it differ from the previous big screen adaptations?
The main thing we’ve aimed for and hopefully it comes across, is that it’s a real character-driven story; no matter what action is shown or who’s fighting who. It’s more about investing in characters and we’ve tried to give everyone their just time. Hopefully it comes across like a drama that you can get involved in. The casual viewer will probably be surprised at the level of detail and character development that’s there. It’s not just about who’s doing fireballs and fancy kicks.
What kind of training was involved in preparing for it?
Well, I’m quite a contrast to how I was in “Warrioress” -a young boy and skinny as a rake! When we knew “SF Legacy” was going to happen I tried to put on some size and not disappoint people and make it look like cosplay. My brother was very much into weight training when we were younger so I was always asking his advice. For me it was about eating more than I’d ever eaten before so I put on as much size as I could for “Legacy” –I was a lot stronger but jumping etc was harder.
Since then, Joey and I basically kept up the training over the years while working on other projects to get to the level we needed to reach. It was harder for some of the other guys like Mike Moh, he put on a lot of muscle in the short time frame he was given, he did really well to match me. So basically, I was weight training and doing gymnastics several times a week so that I could be in my best condition ever.
Were you asked to do any complex or difficult physical moves?
We stayed true to the game, and didn’t want to deviate from it too much whilst keeping it exciting. The last thing we wanted to do was crazy flips which were illogical, there had to be a cause and effect reason behind the move. The Tatsumaki was a real challenge, I perform various 540 and 720 degree kicks, but Mike really had them down because he’s got a taekwondo background, so I had to step up to the plate! We had tried various things like wires and so on, but they didn’t look nice and we felt people would’ve been disappointed to see that. So it was the adrenalin on the day, knowing it simply had to be done ‘otherwise Ken wouldn’t be showing his Tatsumakis’! paid off. Mike’s got great kicks and control, we took a few knocks each and our brains got rattled a few times, but it was all fun.
Did you have a stunt double?
Given our limited resources, neither Mike, Joey nor myself had a stunt double. Mike injured his ankle early on as you may have seen in the behind the scenes video, but in true Jackie Chan style he soldiered through it, we all wanted people to know it we as the actors were really doing the action you see. I know Daniel Craig in his first Bond movie was keen to do a lot of his own action but it takes a lot out of you take after take and I can understand using stunts where appropriate, they are trained for the really dangerous stuff. In SFAF, you can see it’s actually us doing all the somersaults and flips which was good fun, but there are risks involved. When I was younger, I might have been more reckless, but with experience I consider the shot and its value more before putting my body on the line for multiple takes.
In SFAF, much of the deeper training background is covered, can you touch on these esoteric aspects?
I was very interested and I would research those elements including the flow of chi /qi (energy) and meridians. You hear of legends like Mas Oyama and Miyamoto Musashi, doing some incredible feats. In SFAF for example, rather than saying ‘it’s a fireball because they’ve got magical powers’, how would you relate that to martial arts? If ‘qi’ became tangible, how would it look?
If Shaolin monks, they can do things like handstands on their index fingers for real, then why should we think with limitations? To do the Hadoukens, Shoryukens and Tatsumakis a fair bit of character development is necessary to harness and control the chi/qi. There are parallels between Star Wars and Shaolin monks including the dark and light sides of Hadou. We thought long and hard about all these details and it’s all in there if the viewer wishes to look for it, SFAF works on many levels.
What was it like working with:
Akira Koieyama —his screen presence is phenomenal. He transformed into this highly respected Master Gouken, there is a lot behind the eyes and it comes across so well. He’s got a martial arts background so he definitely stepped up to the plate, he’s also goofy, likes joking around, and the majority of my scenes were with him and Mike.
Mike Moh – I didn’t meet Mike in person until we got out to Bulgaria for filming, but the report was instant and we had a really good laugh together, this was really important for the Ryu and Ken dynamic, and I feel it comes across on screen that we have become really great friends in real life too. We helped each other every step of the way. He’s genuinely one of the nicest guys I know, a good actor and very talented physically. He had a big task to build up for the role and really got on with business when it mattered most.
Joey Ansah – having worked together for so many years, we got into a mind reading space where most things didn’t even need to be said, we just knew what needed adjusting or fixing. Neither of us had any real days off while filming so we definitely had to keep each other going when the going got tough and time was running out. An inexhaustible passion for the project that was unwavering throughout.
What is your favourite fight scene in the movie?
Well, as you might probably guess I have a big battle against Ryu: Mike and I really drilled the choreography down, as it had to be something substantial. So, we were thinking of things that we hadn’t seen done in action before. I look back now and wonder how we did it and there’s also the emotional element, you are on the edge of your seat thinking ‘who’s going to win here?’ All the fights have good emotional content and flow.
Was there anything unexpected or unpredictable that happened on set?
Considering the physically demanding work involved, it was lucky that no one was seriously really hurt.
I was heading up the second unit for all the travelling shots and far off locations like the river gorge and waterfalls. While I was setting up the shots I wanted at the waterfalls not every one was possible because the poor crew had to lug the heavy equipment up treacherous paths while trying to be as safe as possible. The last shot I needed was on top of a cliff with Ryu firing off his Hadouken over the trees, we had worked our way down to the foot of the fall finding there was no real place to do this.
The only option was this steep slope adjacent to the path with the base of the falls on the other side if we could get to the top of the slope we could get the shot. So we set the camera up and started climbing, our runner Sasho was first up, me and Mike close behind, from the top I just heard him say ‘I’m not sure if this is stable enough…’ and as soon as he said it this huge boulder twice the size of a person came tumbling down the slope! It narrowly missed Mike and myself. Everyone got out of the way in time, but the boulder just wiped out the camera out at the foot of the waterfall leaving a big crater in the ground. Just imagine, this was the last shot and we had all the footage on that camera. We dreaded for what happened, and when we got back to the camera, we found it was shockingly still intact, but the tripod was destroyed. We were just so thankful that no one got hurt and that we didn’t lose any footage!
There is so much scope for “Street Fighter” moving forward, what are your thoughts?
We see Ryu and Ken move on into the world having been trained under the Ansatsuken lineage, learning that it’s not the only hardcore martial arts style out there . That there are others with special abilities and challenges. We’re following Ryu and Ken on their pilgrimage (junrei) and hopefully with the right support, more time and bigger budgets, we’re going to be seeing more of our favourite Street Fighter characters.
Moving on…what are some of your top martial arts movies?
- Enter The Dragon
- Armour of God
- Operation Condor
- Fist of Legend
- Police Story
- Black Dynamite
Which martial artists/actors would you most like to work with in future?
I’d like to work with Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa, or Vidyut Jamwal, on a buddy cop movie, a la Rush Hour, we’ve had the link up with China and the USA, why not India and the UK?
What is a typical workout for you? Is it mostly martial arts and flexibility training, do you combine weights?
My training’s definitely changed over the years. If aesthetics are a priority, I would do more weights, three days a week and gymnastics twice a week while working on flips and pad work a couple of times per week, to practice kicks and punches. I’ve also always had fairly strong legs, from playing Football and American Football, my brother played a lot of rugby when he was younger so we became training partners to help me bulk up. For SFAF I was squatting around 220kg, and getting all my lifts strong.
For kicks and explosive jumps, it’s necessary to do leg training including weighted plyometrics, and jumping squats. When it comes to gymnastics, I wouldn’t always have the most perfect form, but I’d always have enough power in my legs to drive me through a particular movement. Leg training isn’t a problem for me, but it took time to bring up my chest as bench press wasn’t my friend! It’s good to mix with other martial artists who can teach you what you need to know at the time -it’s good to be able to trade off skills that way.
Could you give us your “Ken Masters workout” please? Several people including your co-stars on SFAF have remarked on your wide shoulders, what training tips can you offer for shoulder development for other budding Kens out there?
(Laughs) Every morning, 30 minutes of cardio before eating helps me get abs, weight training in the mid-morning and then later practicing gymnastics. Diet is also important, and I’m not the biggest of eaters but for SFAF I had to be more aware of what I was eating. For example, I would get the protein usually through chicken, tuna, salmon, and the occasional Nandos meal, at least I could still select chicken and rice from the menu! I’ve got good shoulders from doing handstand push ups which are good for balance and working the stabilizing muscles. Dynamic Olympic lifts and presses also give you a full body workout.
What’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
I worked on a short film a few years ago in Belfast –a very low budget chase scene in an old factory. They wanted us to run out onto this fire escape walkway section which was on a second storey doorway and they wanted us to jump off it. I asked if they had crash mats, and they ended getting us these airbags used in construction, the type that don’t release air. I did the jump once and the airbag bounced me right back up to the second floor before I went back down again. I said, “I’m only doing this once whether you capture the shot or not!” That was a hairy moment because it was all concrete underneath which could have seriously damaged my legs if it went wrong. I don’t have problems with height so hanging off stuff is not a big deal, I trust my own grip and I do rock climbing and bouldering so I have a strong enough grip.
What’s one of your favourite moves or techniques that you just love to perform?
I’d say regular spin hook kicks, or jump spinning hook kicks are preferred techniques; staple moves which come from the days of watching those Van Damme films!
What was your most serious injury?
I’ve been pretty lucky (touch wood!) so far that there hasn’t been anything major, I had the odd sprained ankle or busted elbow. I did tear some ligaments in my shoulder from trying to do the pommel horse in gymnastics. That took awhile to get over, it was frustrating not being able to train.
What do you like to do to recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity?
I love movies, usually watching films in the cinema helps me to unwind. I justify it by calling it research 😉
What kind of diet do you follow?
While training for the part of Ken I took supplements, whey protein, creatine and amino acids which worked well for getting into condition but I don’t want to take supplements all the time, I found If you overdo pre-workout drinks that get you worked up for training, you might ironically actually end up getting fatigued.
Which foods do you find work for you to remain at your most energetic, what’s the best fuel for your workouts?
A strong black coffee is enough to get me going and taking enough protein. For me these elements work pretty well.
What’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?
I do like to explore, I sometimes go out on my own and investigate. I did that in Bulgaria, I followed this ascending trail without any help, as a personal challenge just to see if I could do it. I remember doing that when I was working on a film in Wales, pushing myself unknowingly and 3 to 4 hours later, I was on top of Mount Snowdon!
If you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to possess?
My favourite is Batman, because his power is indomitable will power. That’s probably the biggest strength there is, the ‘never give up’, ‘never surrender’ attitude which is not something given, it has to be developed.
What do you like doing to relax, any hobbies?
I’ve got a background in art and design and I best communicate my ideas by drawing them out, so I do enjoy designing things (I storyboarded all of SFAF). I also like sports like football and basketball.
Jack Johnson, James Morrison, guitar, chilled-out.
I love the “Rocky” movies for their inspirational training and the characters, “Scent of a Woman” with Al Pacino, he delivered a phenomenal performance to win the oscar. James Cameron is one of my favourite directors, “True Lies” has a great blend of comedy elements and action. “Terminator 2” is probably my favourite movie, it’s an almost perfect film with a great story and meticulous attention to detail.
What in life do you really:
Travel, I want to see everywhere! As you know I went to India, I also lived in Japan for a month and picked up some Japanese (which was useful for Ken’s part!) I like to see other places and experience other cultures.
Oxford Street on a Saturday, too many people, too loud and too noisy!
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
Following on from Street Fighter: Legacy it’s got to be SFAF, this is something we’ve put our hearts and souls into. Having been involved from the very beginning in its design, choreography and everything else, it’s been a real passion project because we’ve put it together ourselves.
What are you really keen to accomplish in the next 5 years?
Onwards and upwards! Hopefully I’ll be doing bigger and better projects, I’d love to be involved in Hollywood sometime, doing some good work in front as well as behind the camera, being involved in different aspects of filming, maybe making my own films!
What advice would you give to a beginner who is considering taking-up a martial art?
Do your research, my brother and I decided on our styles when young. He karate, with its emphasis on punching, and me, kung fu, utilising more kicking. Any good club should give you discipline and purpose, try different arts to discover what you’re passionate about. Gaining as much as knowledge as possible can’t be a bad thing especially if you want to work in films for which you need to be very versatile.
What special message would you like to share with Kung-fu Kingdom readers and your fans who’ll be watching SFAF around the globe?
I hope I’ve done justice to the character of Ken, did I do good by you guys? Hopefully with your support we’ll be able to move Street Fighter forward! I like what Kung-fu Kingdom is doing, covering all the action.
What inspirational thoughts have helped shaped you up to this point?
Joey and I trained with the fighter Faisal Mohammed, a huge massive guy and after a couple of 3 minute rounds I just wanted to lie in the street in the rain to get my breath back! Faisal said you’ve got to be comfortable where you’re uncomfortable, and keep pushing yourself beyond what you think you can do. I think this applies whether its martial arts, weights, a competitive rivalry between you and another person or toward yourself: you can probably go further than you think you can.
If people would like to find out more about you where’s the best place to go:
Thank you Chris for kindly participating in this interview, it’s been an unexpectedly riveting and stimulating one covering so much ground! We wish you and the SFAF team tremendous success with the film which is releasing tomorrow!
Thanks Raj, no problem at all, it’s been a real pleasure!