If there’s one thing the “Ip Man” movies have been really great at…actually, it’s a lot of things! But among them is recruiting incredible martial artists for the role of each installment’s respective antagonist. 2015’s “Ip Man 3” did exactly that with Max Zhang, who assumed the role of the film’s breakout character and rival to its titular hero, Cheung Tin-chi. 2015 proved to be quite a year for Mr. Zhang, who also made an equally memorable villainous turn in the mega-hit “SPL 2” A Time for Consequences”, opposite Tony Jaa and Wu Jing, channeling an electrifying charisma and mesmerizing Wushu skills in both roles.
Indeed, Max’s portrayal of Cheung Tin-chi proved so popular among fans of the “Ip Man” franchise, the character was given his own spin-off, “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy”, which sees the former adversary of “Ip Man 3” reassess his mindset and priorities while trying to raise his young son. Of course, with a supporting cast that includes Tony Jaa, Michelle Yeoh, Shi Yan Neng, and Dave Bautista, our antagonist-turned-protagonist, certainly has plenty to keep him on his toes as much as the audience on theirs.
Today, Max sits down with KFK to share experiences from his beginnings in martial arts and the film industry, including a look behind-the-scenes at the making of “Master Z”, a glimpse at one of his early roles in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, and much more!
Hello Max, ni hao? It’s great to connect with you and we hope you’re keeping well. Welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom and thanks so much for taking some time out to speak with us!
Hi Brad, I’m doing fantastic, thanks. Happy to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom today.
Awesome. Well, before we get started, what do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK)?
Kung Fu Kingdom sounds like a place where people who love kung fu gather and talk about all things kung fu, kind of like a family!
On martial arts beginnings & influences
That’s definitely the idea! Okay, well let’s go ahead and kick off with your beginnings in martial arts. When did you first start training and what different disciplines have you trained in?
My father is a martial arts enthusiast, and we practiced for fun when I was little. I watched Jet Li‘s “The Shaolin Temple” when I was nine, and my father decided to send me for wushu training with a professional team when he realized my passion. Two years later, I became a professional wushu athlete. We trained in sword, spear, blade, staff, Tai chi, Xing Yi Quan, Bagua, drunken sword, etc. I placed first in several competitions.
So, who would you say are some of your heroes in martial arts that most inspire you to perform at your best?
Like many kung fu fans, I too grew up watching kung fu movies. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Sammo Hung were very influential during my childhood, in connection with movies and kung fu. Most kids who watch kung fu movies long to be the heroes in them!
On “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”
Likewise! Looking ahead now, one of your early roles was as a stuntman on Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film with Ang Lee and the legendary Yuen Woo-ping?
While shooting “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, I once asked director Lee about the difference in TV and moviemaking. He answered, “A movie screen is a lot bigger than a TV screen, what do you think the difference is?” I replied, “People can see things clearer?”, to which he said “Right, so every single detail in your performance is apparent to the audience.” It sounds kind of self-explanatory, but after I had thought it over, it was quite fascinating. It’s like every transition on your face and body, even the tempo of your breathing, can be felt by the audience. That’s such a huge distinction between TV and movies.
I hadn’t known director Yuen for too long when we met on “Crouching Tiger”. There was one night when he asked me to go get my head shaved. It was the default hair style in Qing Dynasty, which was the setting of “Crouching Tiger”, so most male actors had their heads shaved. When I arrived at hair and makeup, I got cold feet when the stylist asked me to get ready, and I then ran to director Yuen and asked if I could be spared from shaving my head.
On “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy” with Michelle Yeoh, Dave Bautista & Tony Jaa
I’d have been nervous about shaving my head, too! Looking ahead now to “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy”, what interesting stories can you share about making the film alongside major stars, Michelle Yeoh and Dave Bautista, and filming your fight sequences with them?
I first worked with Michelle in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, but this was our first time collaborating as actors. I really admire her fighting skills and work ethic. There was a scene in “Master Z” where we fought hand-to-hand, and her entire arm got really bruised up because we needed to put power into our strikes. But she had zero complaints and was super determined. I thought that was so amazing of her.
Undoubtedly, Michelle’s kung fu is awesome, as I’ve seen her movies even before I got into the business. When we were fighting, she put a lot of trust in me, and she would also adapt to my tempo and speed. I’m very thankful that she believed in me.
Whenever I went up against Dave, he seemed almost inhuman. He’s like a mountain! I kept thinking how is it possible for me to defeat him, given my physique? The funny thing is that for such a big, majestic guy, he’s very easy-going and a really gentle soul.
Such great observations. On that note, you also appear alongside the incredible Tony Jaa in the film. What interesting stories can you share about working with him and filming your fight scene together?
This is my second time working with Tony after “SPL 2: A Time for Consequences”. He has plenty of experience so we’d fight without reserve, so we were able to just kind of go at it with each other. We would discuss beforehand the speed and strength each shot would require so we’d have better control of our movements. Tony is a really good friend. I was actually sick when we were filming our fight, and he helped me with massages and different exercises. We share some similar life experiences, so our friendship is kind of interesting!
Tony’s a very gentle soul himself. Another of your co-stars in “Master Z” is 32nd Shaolin disciple Shi Yan Neng. What interesting stories can you share about working with him and filming your fight scene?
Shi Yan Neng and I had a short fight on a roof in “Master Z”. On the first day of shooting, I noticed that he was sweating profusely. When I asked him about it, he said he’s nervous because it’s his first day fighting with me. I thought that was kind of funny.
(Laughs) Complimentary we’re sure, and clearly it turned out well. On that note, are there any plans to continue the story of Cheung Tin-chi following the release of “Master Z”?
I’m not sure and I haven’t given it much thought. I’m more focused on the now. But of course, if the audience likes it, there is a possibility.
On playing heroes & villains
We’d certainly be down for it! Looking ahead now, you’ve played both heroes and villains. Which role has been your favorite so far?
For me, there isn’t a huge difference between heroes and villains in a story, as long as their motivation and emotion move me. A couple of my favorites are Cheung Tin-chi, Ma San (“The Grandmaster”), and the warden in “SPL 2”.
Max’s favourite martial arts movies
On that topic, what are Max Zhang’s Top 5 favourite martial-arts movies?
I would say my Top 5 are: 1. “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, 2. “The Grandmaster”, 3. “Police Story”, 4. “Eastern Condors”, and 5. “Tai Chi Master”.
Fun & leisure
Great choices all round. Moving into fun and leisure now, what’s one geeky or interesting thing about you that people don’t know?
In my spare time, I like to shoot and edit videos, add soundtracks, effects, etc. Just recording life and memories with my family.
Cool. So, if you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to have?
The superpower I’d most want is the ability to time travel; to be able to go into the past, present and future. As for superhero…I think as long as my daughters see me as their hero then that’s enough for me! (Laughs)
Well said! So, looking forward, what other projects do you have on the horizon.
After the recently released “The Invincible Dragon”, there’s “Assassins and the Missing Gold”, and “Escape Plan 3: The Extractors” with Sylvester Stallone. Hope audiences enjoy them!
Max’s warrior wisdom & message to KFK readers
We’re looking forward to seeing all of them. So, what warrior-wisdom quote or philosophy has helped you become who you are today?
“Do what you wanna do, and let them say what they wanna say.”
Simple mindset, great. Well, as we prepare to sign off Max, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world right now?
I am so happy to have people know me through kung fu movies, and I hope you like them! Kung fu is not just about fighting; it’s also about getting in touch with ourselves through kung fu, and overcoming ourselves AND our obstacles, to grow and mature.
Couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much for the pleasure of this interview today, Max. It’s been a true pleasure to speak to you. We wish you all the best of success after “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy”, and all the upcoming action projects you have coming up for 2019.
Thank you Brad, it’s been a pleasure to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom today.