In 1999, audiences across the globe were collectively blown away by The Wachowski’s sci-fi mega hit, “The Matrix”, a blend of eye-popping visual effects and reality-warping martial arts the likes of which the world had simply never seen before. When it comes to Neo’s exceptional talent in the latter, your thanks should be directed to a stunt man on the film by the name of Tiger Chen, the man tasked with training Keanu Reeves, and effectively bringing to life the combat skills of “The One”.
A stunt prodigy of the great Yuen Woo-ping, Tiger would continue as a stunt man throughout “The Matrix” trilogy, and numerous other action films in the 2000’s. Tiger would later begin making the transition from stunt man to action star, re-teaming with Keanu Reeves for the latter’s 2013 directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi”, along with serving as one-third of the titular gang of butt-kickers in the newly released martial arts ensemble “Triple Threat“, alongside Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, and a veritable motley crew of kung fu kings!
Today, Tiger sits down with KFK to share a look back at his work as a stunt man on “The Matrix” and other action films, along with giving a peak behind the curtain on “Triple Threat”, and his role in the soon releasing action bonanza, “John Wick 3: Parabellum”!
Hi Tiger, thank you so much for the pleasure of this interview. We hope you’re doing well?
Hi Brad, it’s my pleasure. I’m doing great, thanks.
Terrific! Well, let’s kick off with how you first got started in martial arts? What different disciplines have you studied or trained in?
I started traditional Chinese Wushu when I was eight years-old, and later on, I was on the Sichuan Wushu Team for a while.
On “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”
Definitely a lot of talent needed to compete in Wushu. Looking ahead at your career in stunt work, one of your early stunt roles was in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. What can you share about the experience of making the film with Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi?
Well, Ang Lee and Yuen Woo-ping had really different ideas for what they wanted in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. At the beginning, Ang Lee wanted there to be a lot more flying and wire-work, and Woo-ping wanted it to be a little more grounded. As an example, Ang Lee wanted the characters to fly right up to a rooftop, and Woo-ping wanted them to rebound their way up to the rooftop a few times, but in the end, Ang Lee decided to go with Woo-ping’s approach.
It was also Zhang Ziyi’s first martial arts film, so we had to train her for the film, but since she had been a dancer, she was able to learn pretty quickly.
On “The Matrix” and Training Keanu Reeves
Indeed, and “Crouching Tiger” has certainly stood the test of time. On that note, another of your most famous stunt roles was in “The Matrix” trilogy, where you served as Keanu Reeves’ martial arts trainer for the first film in the series. What interesting stories can you share about training Keanu for the role of Neo?
Well, when we first started training for “The Matrix”, Keanu was actually really stiff the first time I met him, he couldn’t even touch his knees.
We really had to work to develop his flexibility everyday, so we’d spent a lot of time just on stretching. He was screaming everyday, and he joked that I was trying to kill him! (Both laugh)
“The Matrix” was essentially the first American movie to really base its action on Chinese martial arts, and the Wachowskis didn’t want to rely on doubles. They basically said to Yuen Woo-ping, “We want Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and the whole cast to look like Tiger in the film”, and he said he’d need to train them for at least six months, so they gave us that time to train everyone for the film.
Well, that hard work certainly paid off. So, what interesting experiences can you relate about working as a stunt man on “The Matrix” trilogy?
Well, doing “The Matrix” trilogy was basically my full-time job while we were making them. The sequels were also filmed back-to-back, so it was the longest shoot I’ve ever done and I was pretty much living in Sydney, Australia the whole time, but it was a really great experience.
The chateau fight in “The Matrix Reloaded” was really different for me. We were all fighting Keanu with all these different kinds of medieval weapons, and the weapon I had I didn’t really know how to use (Both laugh). So, that was one of the times when I, and a lot of the stunt guys were training alongside Keanu, because none of us were experts with the weapons we were using.
On “Kung Fu Hero”
Talk about on-the-job training! Moving on, you also appeared in the role of ‘Ping’ in the 2012 film “Kung Fu Hero”. What interesting stories can you share about making this film alongside your fellow stunt man from “The Matrix”, Andre “Chyna” McCoy? Are you aware of any plans for it to be released in the West?
“Kung Fu Hero” really came out of “Man of Tai Chi”. China Film Group was the group producing “Man of Tai Chi” with Keanu, but they wanted to do a smaller project first to kind of lead into it, and that ended up being “Kung Fu Hero”.
It was my first movie where I was the lead, and even for the first few days on the set, I was still thinking it was all a dream. (Both laugh) We shot the film for about two months in the Yunnan Province, and maybe because I just had so much energy for it, no matter how long we were shooting and what kind of movement the director wanted me to do, I never felt tired the whole time. I already knew Andre “Chyna” McCoy really well from “The Matrix”, since he’d been Laurence Fishburne’s stunt man, and he’s a big martial artist with a lot of muscle, so we thought he’d make a really good villain. So I just called him up, and he said, “Yeah, sure, I’d love to come do a movie in China.” I’d heard a few times that they were going to release the film in the States, but so far, nothing yet.
On “Man of Tai Chi” – Keanu Reeves’ Directorial Debut
Hopefully, it’ll be released stateside in the near future. As you mentioned, you also would subsequently re-team with Keanu for his directorial debut, 2013’s “Man of Tai Chi”. What memorable stories can you share about making the film with him as director?
Well, “Man of Tai Chi” was something that we spent about five years developing, and for a long time, nobody believed me when I told them I was making it with Keanu Reeves. It came about when I decided I wanted to transition from stunts to acting, so I came back to China and began writing a script with some friends. I showed Keanu the script, and he suggested that we do a rewrite, so we actually rewrote it a few times. Then, Keanu decided to take it to a screenwriter friend of his, Michael G. Cooney, and as we continued developing the film, Keanu got more and more sucked into the story, and he decided to play the villain, Donaka Mark, and after that, he decided to direct the film.
The experience of making “Man of Tai Chi” was also much harder than “Kung Fu Hero”. It was Keanu’s first time directing, so he really put everything he had into it, especially with the action, so we did sometimes twenty or thirty takes for a lot of the fight scenes. Sometimes, I’d go home at the end of the day feeling like I was too tired to get out of bed the next! (Both laugh)
On “Kung Fu Traveler”
No pain, no gain, as they say. More recently, you also appeared in the sci-fi film “Kung Fu Traveler”. How was your experience with making this film?
“Kung Fu Traveler” came about from CCTV-6, which is like China’s HBO. They wanted to do a project that was a mix of sci-fi and martial arts. A lot of Chinese martial arts films are period movies like “Ip Man” and “Once Upon A Time in China”, so they wanted to do something that was more futuristic and involved time-travel, so it was a good experiment in trying to bring those elements together.
On “Triple Threat”
Martial arts and time-travel, great combination! Time travelling forward then, you’re also one of the main stars in “Triple Threat”, alongside a huge ensemble of martial artists, including Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, Ron Smoorenburg, Celina Jade, Michael Bisping, and Jeeja Yanin. What stories can you share about making the film with this rather special cast?
The concept of “Triple Threat” was actually something I came up with. I had an idea about doing an Asian version of “The Expendables”, and I thought Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais would be great for it. So, I contacted them, and they were both really enthusiastic, and we began developing it from there. Fortunately, it only took a year instead of five like “Man of Tai Chi” did! (Both laugh)
When it came to the making of “Triple Threat”, there’s so many great martial artists in the film, so the challenge was really more on the action director Tim Man in helping craft a different style for each character. Of course, Tony and Iko are also fight choreographers themselves, so they both had a lot of input in designing the action.
As far as the sequel, we’re already talking to Arclight Entertainment about the second one. We want to bring in more fighters from all across Asia, and have more villains. It’ll be a very different story from the original, as well.
The film also sees you have a rematch with Iko Uwais of “The Raid” films after your previous appearance opposite Iko in “Man of Tai Chi”. What can you share about filming your fight with Iko in “Triple Threat” here?
Well, it was definitely very different compared to “Man of Tai Chi”, because at that point in the film, he’s trying to fight me, and I’m trying to avoid him because I want to fight Keanu. In “Triple Threat”, we’re really going at each other, and it’s actually my personal favourite fight in the movie
On “John Wick 3: Parabellum”
It is a high octane bout, no doubt! You’ll soon also be seen with Keanu Reeves once more in the upcoming “John Wick 3: Parabellum”. How was it making the film with him, director Chad Stahelski, and such well-known kung fu royalty as Hiroyuki Sanda, Mark Dacascos, Yayan Ruhian, and Cecep Arif Rahman?
Well, I play a Chinatown gangster in the film, and a whole bunch of us go after John Wick now that he has a contract out on his life. I worked for about two weeks on “John Wick 3”, one week on rehearsal and one week shooting, so unfortunately, I didn’t really get to interact with those guys, but it’s got all kinds of great action and I think it’s better than the second one, so I’m very eager for people to see the movie this summer!
Well, “John Wick 3” sounds fantastic, and we’re definitely eager to see it soon. So, what other projects do you have in the works now after “Triple Threat” and “John Wick 3”?
You’ve got quite a bit going on and this sounds superb – keen to see you play Huo Yuanjia! Well, as we prepare to sign-off, Tiger, what message would you like to share with KFK readers and your fans across the globe?
I just want to say thanks to all of my fans around the world for all of their continuous support, and we’re all really excited for you to see and hear what you think about “Triple Threat”!
Well, we’re definitely recommending all action and martial arts fanatics to see it. Tiger, it’s been an honour and a privilege to have you with us. We look forward to hear about the progress on your upcoming projects!
Thank you, Brad, it’s been my pleasure to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom!