Since the early 90’s, Michael Jai White has done it all on screens both big and small. You’ve seen him as a supernatural assassin from the pit of hell, as a blaxploitation hero with his own catchy theme song, as a wrongfully imprisoned boxer forced to battle the Most Complete Fighter in the World, as an MMA warrior with laser-like focus, and everything in between.
Of course, Mike’s success in the film industry is a direct by-product of the discipline and mindset gleaned from his extensive martial arts experience. Over the course of his career, he’s emerged as one of the most respected and revered action stars of the martial arts genre, and had the chance to square off with everyone from Tony Jaa to ahem…Richard Nixon!
Now Mike sits down with KFK to share his life story as a martial artist, his career in Hollywood, along with giving some behind the scenes tidbits on his upcoming follow-up to “Black Dynamite”, “The Outlaw Johnny Black”, and his experience working alongside a motley crew of martial arts masters in the upcoming “Triple Threat”!
Hi Mike, thank you so much for taking some time out for us today. Hope you’re doing well?
Hi Brad, happy to be speaking with Kung Fu Kingdom. I’m doing great, thanks!
Fantastic! Well, let’s kick off with some basics, like where you were born?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York.
Your height and weight?
I’m 6’ 2” (1.88m) tall and weigh 16 stone (102kg).
So, what can you share about your beginnings in martial arts; how old were you and what different disciplines have you studied?
My first style was Japanese Jujutsu, I was about seven when I first started. After that, I went into Shotokan, and later on into Kyokushin karate. All told, I hold eight black belts, but Kyokushin is really the one that I’ve had as my basis for many, many years.
Solid start! So, who would you say are some of your biggest heroes or mentors in martial arts?
My biggest mentors personally are definitely Joe Lewis and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace! They’re the two fighters I’ve always patterned myself after, and I’ve been very fortunate to not only train with both of them, but also do seminars with them all over the world.
Such an honour I’m sure. Looking ahead at your career now, one of your big breaks came in 1997 when you portrayed the title character in “Spawn”, what interesting stories can you share about the experience of making the film, and of the extensive make-up process to play the character?
The thing I liked about doing “Spawn” was that it was an acting role for me. I wanted to establish myself as an actor before I started doing a lot of martial arts roles, because I thought people might have a hard time looking past that if I did it the other way around.
The makeup was pretty harsh. The first time we put that face on, it took four hours to apply, but we were eventually able to get it down to about two hours. When I was in the makeup chair, I’d put in a movie and by the time it was over, they were pretty much done with the make-up. The suit didn’t take that long, but it was hard to get into, so what we did was I would hang onto a bar, and they’d put the suit under me and basically feed me into it. We did the same thing to take it off, as well. It was pretty harsh, and it was REALLY hot! John Leguizamo didn’t have quite as long a sit in the make-up chair, but he was breaking out like crazy from his make-up. He also had to squat down to make himself shorter for the Clown, so that was pretty intense on him, but he was a trooper.
No doubt about that. One of your next big films was 1999’s “Universal Soldier: The Return”, in which you appeared alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bill Goldberg. What can you share about making the film alongside them and the amazing shape you got into to portray the villain, S.E.T.H?
I was actually in the first “Universal Soldier”, as well, in the Vietnam flashback, but you need the pause button to see me! Jean-Claude and I trained a lot together during the making of the first one, and I was just starting out at that point, but he was really gracious and we got along really well. Then, a few years had passed when I was the antagonist in “Universal Soldier: The Return”, so Jean-Claude had seen me in “Tyson” and “Spawn” and was really surprised to learn that I was the same guy from the first movie. Bill Goldberg was also a great guy to hang around with on the set, and he’s a really strong dude!
As for the shape I got into for the film, there’s actually a bit of a misconception about that. I was about 208 pounds for the film, which is about the lightest I’ve ever gotten for a movie. I really tried to trim down and get ripped for it, and that’s usually what I do for most movies as opposed to beefing up. I’d liken it to a fighter making weight before an upcoming fight, it’s about chiselling in, losing weight and exposing the muscles.
Nice bit of trivia there! On that note, one of your next big roles was in the Hong Kong film “Silver Hawk” with Michelle Yeoh in 2004. How was the experience making the film in Hong Kong with her?
I’d always wanted to work in Hong Kong films, because I really felt that they understand the art of a fight scene in all aspects, so “Silver Hawk” was kind of like my crash course in learning how they did it. When I started directing movies in particular, I really drew off of that experience and everything I learned about how they shoot action in China. There’s no waste and they trim the fat out of everything. Michelle Yeoh was like my big sister on the film, she was inspirational and so humble, she was just great.
Nice to know! Speaking of shooting in China, you also filmed a fight sequence with the late David Carradine (RIP) for “Kill Bill: Volume Two”, which was deleted from the film but was featured on the DVD release. What can you share about working with Mr. Carradine and Quentin Tarantino on that scene?
David and I had been friends for a long time before that, and he’d actually really wanted to play Pinball in “Blood and Bone” but it didn’t end up happening. I’d also known Quentin before “Kill Bill”, and we used to joke around and talk in the kind of accent that was often in the dubbed voice of old kung fu movies. So when we were filming that scene, I thought he was kidding at first, but he wanted me to speak that way. It was originally part of a much larger sequence that he’d changed, but he still wanted to leave the fight scene in. Ultimately, it didn’t make it into the movie, but that wasn’t something I protested over because it just didn’t fit anywhere in the movie.
Was still great to see it on the DVD. Looking ahead, you made a really big impact as George “Iceman” Chambers in Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film with Scott Adkins as Boyka and director Isaac Florentine?
I’m super proud of Scott in “Undisputed 2”, and I feel like I had something to do with putting him on the map with that film. I worked with him on his boxing technique, and I really encouraged Scott to show off everything he had in the role of Boyka. Originally, the producers wanted my character to be a martial artist, as well, but I felt it was important to show an arch in the character, where he’s a boxer, and he has to humble himself and learn a little about martial arts. I didn’t think it would’ve been as good of a movie if you had me in the ring doing the same kinds of techniques as Scott was.
Isaac is the most passionate director I’ve ever worked with. I can’t wait to do another movie with him, and we have one in the works.
Sounds awesome -can’t wait to hear more about that! On that note, you’ve also said that while “Undisputed 2” was underway you hit upon the idea for “Black Dynamite”. How was the experience making “Black Dynamite”?
It was very rewarding to realize “Black Dynamite”. When you come up with a concept like that and go out on the ledge and think “Okay, I think this is funny, but I don’t know if the world will think so”, that’s a wonderful feeling. I wasn’t known as a comedian, but there were reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the Huffington Post saying it was one of the funniest movies they’d seen in ten, twenty years. So that was really gratifying.
Making “Black Dynamite” was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie set. The atmosphere was just wonderful, everybody was always in a great mood, and actors who weren’t scheduled to shoot would hang around on days that they weren’t working. It was like a party everyday on the set.
It certainly has an infectious vibe! You also made a memorable appearance as the crime boss Gambol in 2008’s “The Dark Knight”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film with director Christopher Nolan and the late Heath Ledger (RIP) in his unforgettable portrayal of The Joker?
“The Dark Knight” was the biggest budgeted movie I’ve ever worked on, and it was a great experience. Working with Christopher Nolan was cool, because being a fan of the movies that he had done, I went in thinking that he was going to be some kind of eccentric genius, and he was the most down-to-earth, regular guy you could ever wish to meet, and it was the most relaxed set you could imagine. Heath Ledger was a great guy to hang around with, as well. People have this idea that he was some kind of method actor, but he only went into character when you yelled “Action!”, and he’d just go right back to his very laid-back demeanor after that. He’d also try different approaches with his Joker voice and ask your opinion about it, and I voted for that Tom Waits gravelly voice he came up with. Making that movie was almost as much fun as “Black Dynamite”. In fact, I actually showed Chris and the DP, Wally Pfister, some clips of the “Black Dynamite” concept on the set, and everybody on set stopped working and were checking out “Black Dynamite”! (Both laugh)
Nice to know “Black Dynamite” made his first blip on the radar on set of “The Dark Knight”! Looking ahead, you would later appear in the title role in 2009’s “Blood and Bone”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film and the amazing end fight with Matt Mullins? Is there any kind of return for Bone in the works?
Funny story, “Blood and Bone” was actually finished ten days before I started on “Black Dynamite”, and they both shot at several of the same locations. So a lot of times, I’d be doing meetings for “Black Dynamite” while we were on lunch on “Blood and Bone”. It was great to have Matt for the final fight of the film, because it’s a challenge a lot of times to find the right opponent for an ending fight, especially when I’m fighting someone like Bob Sapp in the middle of the film. Matt is about my height, and we put him in a suit to hide the size difference a little, so it looks like I have less of a size advantage and Matt can really show off his agility. As far as Bone’s future, we have a prequel in the works, which in my opinion is better than the original.
Will be watching out for that. Another collaboration you had with Matt Mullins was in Kevin Tancharoen’s fan film “Mortal Kombat: Rebirth”, which served as the basis for the web-series “Mortal Kombat: Legacy”. What can you share about how those came about, and filming your fight sequence with the late Darren Shahlavi (RIP)?
We did “Rebirth” for about $7,000, and we did it with the intention of jump starting the “Mortal Kombat” movie, but Warner Bros. decided to do it as a web-series, and it’s kind of up in the air where its headed at the moment. Darren, of course, is very missed. I’d worked him, Scott Adkins, and Matt Mullins previously on “Metal Hurlant Chronicles”, and he brought everything he had to “Mortal Kombat”, he was a true friend.
Darren’s very much missed. You later moved into the director’s chair with 2011’s “Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown” and its sequel “Never Back Down: No Surrender” in 2016. What interesting stories can you relate about making the films and directing for the first time?
I felt very comfortable in the director’s chair because we were transitioning very naturally from the first one. I rewrote a lot of “Never Back Down 2”, and “Never Back Down 3” is pretty much my story, so I was very heavily involved with the writing of them, as well. We had a much lower budget than the first one, so I really sought to bring them a little more down-to-earth. I also wanted them to be a little bit like an inside look on the MMA world and tell a story of one that’s often told among MMA fighters; where certain fighters become known and start to lose who they are and veer away from the principles of martial arts.
My proudest moment from the films is in the third one with Stephen Quadros’ character, where you believe that there’s racial tension between our characters because he has a Confederate flag tattoo, but by the end of the film, they’ve become friends and cohorts because they share a common goal. I wanted the audience to see these two form an alliance in spite of that tension and seeing that Stephen’s character maybe grew up with certain beliefs, but progresses beyond that without putting it under a microscope and getting it across with more subtlety. So that’s something we conveyed in “Never Back Down 3” that I was very proud of.
Nice! A very multi-layered approach to storytelling there. On that note, you also appeared as the title character in 2014’s “Falcon Rising”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film with director Ernie Barbarash, fight choreographer Larnell Stovall, and Capoeira mestre Lateef Crowder?
“Falcon Rising” was something I’d been wanting to do for quite a while. John Falcon is a character who is very tangible because there are so many veterans that are our true-life heroes who are going through their own personal hell like him. Larnell is always great to work with. He’s like my little brother, and we use to train together years before he was where he is now, so I’m really proud of what he’s become. Lateef and I are also gym buddies, and “Falcon Rising” was our first project together, so it was great experience to do a fight scene with him.
Oh yeah, Lateef is one of a kind with his Capoeira. You’ve also appeared in the role of “Bronze Tiger” on several episodes of the CW series “Arrow”. What unique stories can you tell us about working on the show alongside Stephen Amell?
I really enjoyed the experience of working on “Arrow”, and I have a lot of respect for Stephen Amell. He has a great work ethic, and he earns every dime that he gets. He works tirelessly and does as much as he can without his stunt double, in freezing cold temperatures, and he never complains at all. He has that very Steve McQueen old-school work ethic, and I have a ton of respect for him.
He did get himself into ridiculous shape for the series. Speaking of which, you were also seen alongside Tony Jaa and Dolph Lundgren in 2015’s “Skin Trade”. How was it making the film with such legends of action as Tony and Dolph?
Dolph and I were also connected fraternally through both of us being Kyokushin practitioners, and we’ve had the same manager for many years now, but I first ran into him back in 1992 on the set of “Universal Soldier”, so it was fun to have a similar “Universal Soldier” reunion on “Skin Trade” as I did with Jean-Claude on “Universal Soldier: The Return”. Tony and I go way back, and I consider him one of the best martial artists in the world, and in every sense of what a martial artist is. He truly personifies that.
Most certainly. So, who are some people working in martial arts films that you’re a big fan of?
Donnie Yen is maybe the best guy doing martial arts films today. He’s always stepping up and evolving and innovating. For Jackie Chan, I’d challenge people to do this – look at Jackie Chan’s work in retrospect, everything that he’s done, and imagine him with Bruce Lee’s facial expression. Even though he’s one of the biggest action stars of all time, because he’s always done comedy, I think people fail to fully realize the magnificence of Jackie Chan, and I think that’s tragic. If you imagine Jackie with an angry look on his face, and then look back at the intricacies of every movie he’s done, you realize that he’s the best on-screen martial artist ever.
That’s a very insightful observation on Jackie’s career. So what would be some of Michael Jai White’s favorite martial arts films?
I’d definitely have to say “Enter the Dragon” and “Way of the Dragon” are among my all-time favorites. Bruce put so much attention to detail into making the fights feel real and embodying the character that the audience lives vicariously through them. He made such an impact on martial arts films and the world overall, even the sounds he makes are synonymous with martial arts.
Absolutely. So who would be some actors or martial artists you’d be interested in working with?
I’d love to work with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and definitely Donnie Yen.
Legends all around! Moving onto training now, what’s a typical workout like for you? Is it mostly martial arts and flexibility, how much do you add in weight training?
It depends on what I’m getting ready for. If I’m not preparing for a movie, I usually like to train about two hours a day, five days a week between martial arts, running, and conditioning. I really like sprinting because you’re pushing every muscle in your body at one-hundred percent. As far as flexibility, I actually should probably stretch more! As long as I’m warmed-up, I can do a straddle split, because I’ve done it for so long. When we were shooting “Never Back Down 3”, there’s a scene where I go into a split, and right before we filmed it I realized I’d not done a split in over a year, but it didn’t end up being a problem.
Real skills die hard! So, what would you say is the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
That would be on “Exit Wounds”, where I fall off of the helicopter. That was a lot of fun, because I was climbing up a rope ladder and being flown over the building as the helicopter took off, and I hadn’t really had the chance to do a stunt like that before.
So, what was the most serious injury you’ve ever had, and how did you work around it?
Fortunately, I haven’t had any bad injuries yet, but I got very sick for about two days during “Never Back Down 3”. I think it was food poisoning, and on top of that, it was about 103 degrees in Thailand, and we were doing the scene where I call out Braga right before the end fight. So, I’d have to get up as much energy as I could to do the scene, and as soon as we cut, I’d basically collapse because I was so weak. I dropped about eight to ten pounds just from losing fluids, and if you look closely, you can see that in the movie. Fortunately, the next day was the off day, but I spent that entire day sick. On top of that, the kick that I finish Braga with in the final fight was the first time I’d ever thrown that kick, it was something I’d come up with as we were filming for the end of the fight, but I’d never done that kick before in my life! (Both laugh)
Cool to capture that first! Can we capture your stance on nutrition briefly; what kind of diet do you follow, do you take supplements?
Usually, when I’m getting ready for a movie, I’m trying to drop weight, so I try to lower the carbs and increase my cardio. I try to eat pretty well anyway, I don’t drink a lot of soda or things with a lot of sugar and whatnot. I don’t take supplements, I think if you eat well, your body will take care of itself.
Simple as that. Moving onto fun and leisure, what’s one geeky or unusual thing about you that people don’t really know?
I don’t really like to swat at insects, I just try to take them out of the house. I don’t really believe in destroying any living thing unless it’s trying to hurt me. I also have a very goofy sense of humor, and I try to do it with a very straight face. I think that’s something people get a little thrown off by, it’s my sense of humor.
Cool! So, if you could be a superhero or have a particular superpower, what would it be?
I think being able to fly. As with a lot of other super powers, I can also see a lot of ways that it would screw your life up if you had it. A lot of people have let fame go to their heads and it wrecks their life, imagine if they got the wrong kind of super power! (Both laugh)
Very interesting almost ‘zen’ way to look at it. So what are some of your hobbies outside of martial arts?
I like to shoot pool, and play the piano.
Everything but country. I’m as passionate about rock as I’m am about R&B, if someone looked at my playlist, they’d have a hard time pinning down my musical tastes.
Favorite movies (non martial arts)?
Some of my favorites are “The Princess Bride”, “Almost Famous”, and “Say Anything”. I really like Cameron Crowe’s movies, he’s one of my favorite directors.
So what are some things in life that you really; like and dislike?
I really love learning, and there’s opportunities to do that everyday.
I don’t like people not taking the opportunity to listen to other people. There’s such an opportunity for growth to just hear the opposing side’s argument. Its like the age of ignorance right now, where people just want to be right at all costs, and they miss such opportunities to grow.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
My relationship with my wife. What we have is extraordinary, and it makes every aspect of my life magnified, as a husband, father, martial artist, everything.
Many might benefit from your go-to manual on that subject! So what are you really keen to accomplish in the next five years?
I just want to continue to doing with what I’m doing now, and really establishing the brand of my production company, Jaigantic Studios.
Exciting! Looking at some of your upcoming projects now, you recently launched a “fanpaign” on Indiegogo for the follow-up to “Black Dynamite”, “The Outlaw Johnny Black”. How did “Johnny Black” first come about?
Well, when I did “Black Dynamite”, we announced at Comic-Con what some of our intentions were to do three different films in the Blaxploitation genre. One being a “Shaft” or “Superfly” type of thing, and that was “Black Dynamite”, one being a Western, and a third being a take off of “Blacula”. With “Johnny Black”, it’s an homage to Westerns of the 70’s specifically, which was something I wanted to capture and put out for a contemporary audience.
We shot the trailer in one day as a proof-of-concept, and I chose to open it up to the fanbase first before producing the movie outright. I wanted to do something to give the fans a chance to have some direct involvement in a fun movie like this, and it’s not dependent on the audience’s money. We’ve got a lot people involved with the film that are just coming out for the fun of it, like Michael Bearden, who is Lady Gaga’s musical director, and as you can see in the trailer, we’ve got people like Martin Kove and Josh Barnett who really just wanted to be a part of this labor of love. So, I wanted to invite the audience to be involved in it and be able to follow the process of it from the beginning to the end, as well.
A lot of times with crowdfunding campaigns, they get the money together, and then you don’t see them again until the final product is put out. With “Johnny Black”, it’ll be an ongoing thing, where we’ll be doing some limited giveaways and things like that, and it’s my way of thanking the people who made “Black Dynamite” and “Blood and Bone” into cult hits and bring them into the process of “Johnny Black”.
Respect. So, how is “Johnny Black” connected to “Black Dynamite”? Is the idea that Johnny Black is an ancestor of Black Dynamite’s, or are they connected in some other way?
Well, there is a connection between them. It’s a little like Monty Python, where you had “The Holy Grail”, then “Life of Brian”, and then “The Meaning of Life”.
Intriguing approach to the world of “Black Dynamite”. On that note, you’ll also soon be seen in the highly anticipated ensemble film, “Triple Threat”, under the direction of stunt veteran Jesse Johnson, alongside such legends of martial arts as Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen, Scott Adkins, Michael Bisping, Celina Jade, and Jeeja Yanin, with Tim Man serving as action director. What interesting stories can you relate about making the film with such an incredible cast?
Oh, making “Triple Threat” was just one of the joys of my life! Tony Jaa and I are already like family, and to extend that family with Iko Uwais was amazing. I was already a big fan of his, and I’m a bigger fan having met him. He’s one of the best choreographers and one of the most talented martial artists in the world. We had a great time doing the movie, and I can’t wait to work with those guys again.
Can’t wait to see everything that “Triple Threat” has in store! So, what special message would you like to give Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world right now?
I want give them my thanks for all of their support and I hope to keep honoring that trust they’ve placed in me. It motivates me to do all I can to deserve it.
Respect. Well, as we prepare to sign off, where’s the best place to go for people to find out more about you and your upcoming projects?
Perfect! Well, this has been a multi-faceted interview and a genuine pleasure. Thanks for the privilege, Mike. We look forward to all the action movie innovations you have coming up in the future.
My pleasure, Brad. Thanks for having me here on Kung Fu Kingdom!
We hope you enjoyed this interview. So, what are a few of your fave flicks and fight moments from Michael Jai White – excited to see him kick butt in the upcoming “Triple Threat” and “The Outlaw Johnny Black”? Let us know in the comments below, join in the conversation and share this on Facebook and follow us on Twitter also Instagram. (Check out our other interviews for more FU-packed DYNO-MIGHT!)