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Giant Li (Robot Kick)

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*Here is an interview with Jet Li from the magazine GIANT ROBOT (issue 12). Kick ya ass!!



Text: Martin Wong / Eric Nakamura

Photograph: Pryor Praczukowski


People who complain about today's lack of heroes have never seen a Jet Li movie. Li's first film, The Shaolin Temple, was so popular it transformed the crumbling old monastery into a tourist attraction. The Chinese government had to issue a statement asking students to stay in school and not go to the temple to become a disciple. After a brief detour in San Francisco, Li jump-started his Hong Kong film career as the legendary Wong Fei-Hong in the Once Upon a Time in China series. Reviving the traditional martial arts movie genre throughout Asia, he proceeded to play swordsmen, stuntmen, bodyguards, and copsÐall with fists and feet of fury and a heart of gold.


Although Li has taken on Hollywood as the villain in Lethal Weapon 4, most American moviegoers still don't know that he could kick Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo, and Chris Rock's collective asses blindfolded. (He had practice in Fong Sai Yuk 2.) They think he's just another ÒOrientalÓ villain to waste like Fu Manchu or Ho Chi-Minh.


But it really doesn't matter to us how people receive Jet Li in his first American flick. He is an unbelievable martial artist and a massive star throughout Asia who we've been trying to interview for years. As we hung out with him at the Giant Robot loft, we discovered that he's articulate and philosophical as well. His lethal weapon is his mind.






Jet Li as Wong Fei-Hong in Once Upon A Time in China. From top: The Wong Fei-Hong pose, Jet gets a woody.




Jet Li's bad hair-do in Lethal Weapon 4 (he has a tail!)


GR: Why did you take the role of the bad guy in Lethal Weapon 4?

JL: Because I am an actor! You know, I've played a lot of heroes in Hong Kong. So when Richard Donner called me and said, "Okay, I have a script for you," I flew over from Hong Kong and asked him, "Why do you think I should play a villain? I always play the hero." He said, "I saw all of your movies. You are baby-faced and your mouth is very nice, but when you change your face the feel is very serious, very dangerous."


GR: Was it difficult playing a villain?

JL: I never think that a villain thinks, "I am the villain." In real life, the bad guy never thinks he's the bad guy. He just thinks, "I need to do that. It's my job."


GR: How does it feel to all of a sudden be the guy who loses?

JL: That's nothing! I've played a lot of heroes. I killed a lot of people. I killed a lot of American people. I killed the French people. I killed the Japanese people. I kill lots of people. I always win. That's in the movies. It's in the story. If he kills me, it's nothing!




GR: Where did you grow up?

JL: I grew up in Beijing. When I was 11, I won a martial arts championship in China. I travelled in about 45 countries doing demonstrations. GR: Did your parents start you off in martial arts?

JL: No, at that time in China the school would send children to special schools: "You and you: Learn how to play the basketball. And you: Learn how to swim. You: Learn how to play table tennis. You have to learn martial arts." I said, "Oh. What is martial arts? I don't know. Tell me and I'll learn."


GR: Was it easy for you to learn?

JL: In table tennis, you play the same thing for two months. For a kid, it's very boring. If you swim, you swim. Every day, you swim. That is very boring for children. Martial arts is more interesting. You have hundreds of styles: monkey-style, tiger-style, short sword, hard, longer, many kinds. So today you're learning this. Tomorrow you're learning this. Different. Very interesting.


GR: Who teaches you today?

JL: I teach myself.




GR: When you were growing up, did you know you were going to be in movies?

JL: I remember 1973 when Bruce Lee died. In 1974, I did a kung fu demonstration in Hong Kong. One of the bigger movie managers came up to me and said, "Hi, you're pretty good. Want to become a movie star?" I was 11. Every year, I starred in Hong Kong, they'd look at me and say, "You're still too young. Why don't you grow up fast?" I ate a lot every day, but it could not help me grow up faster! So until I was 17, I waited.


GR: Were you surprised that the Shaolin Temple became a tourist attraction after the movie came out?

JL: Yes, I know. When I shot the movie there, no monks lived there. Only one guy. Ten years later, I saw five miles away, stores, restaurants. Five miles! I don't think, not only for me. The movie is always the group. They made the good movie or the bad movie. Everybody does the good stuff, but the people focus on the main actor. I think everybody worked very hard and the movie is very good. So not only Jet Li made the temple very famous, a lot of people did it. But no people know their names, they only know Jet Li. They remember Jet Li. They can think that, but myself, I do not think that. I always think I work with everybody.




GR: Do you like being identified with heroes from Shaolin Temple or like Wong Fei-Hong?

JL: They are different heroes, from Shaolin Temple and Wong Fei-Hong. Different. Wong Fei-Hong, his character and his story, is more information for the 1980s young Chinese people. They need to keep Chinese good things, but at the same time, they need to learn the outside, the American, the West's good things. Put them together. More inside thinking. Shaolin Temple is just, My father died, the bad guy killed my father, now I learn kung fu and kill the bad guy! Wong Fei-Hong is more deeper. China just opened 20 years ago, so a lot of young children and teenagers think Americans are the best! That in America, everything is great and for outsiders nothing is great. All bad! We made it very clear to young people's thinking, we told them that anything has great and bad. We need to learn the American good things and keep the Chinese good things.


GR: Was it hard to reprise the Wong Fei-Hong role for Once Upon a Time in China and America?

JL: No, it was very easy. When you've played a character many times, when you turn back you cannot think I just make Wong Fei-Hong movies. You make them one person, not Jet Li. I put a lot of my ideas in that character.




GR: Can you use wushu out in the street if someone attacks you?

JL: Very interesting, ah? The martial arts, the style and wisdom is all Chinese history. 5,000 years ago people learned martial arts. They fight with animals first. One person could not fight with the tiger, so we need three people to kill the tiger. That's martial art. Wu is this. [He punches.] Shu is this. [He makes the slit neck motion.] How to kill. All the people ask me, "I want to learn martial arts." I ask them back, "Tell me what you want to do first?" "I want to learn martial arts to make the movie, not have special training." "I want to learn by myself." That is special training. What you want to do? You tell me first, and I'll tell you what type of training to do. Of course if you trainÐnot only martial arts, but all kind of sportsÐfor sure, your body movement is very fast. So when you're on the street, fighting with the people, for sure you're better. The basketball player is faster than you because they move every day.


GR: Is your style still wushu, or are there a lot of other styles incorporated with it?

JL: I think it's wushu. For sure, it's change, change, change. Because with time it grew up. You cannot keep the old style still very old. This time, you need to learn this. Later, you need to learn that. Martial arts grew up. In the beginning, it was your head behind your hands. But it's not good-looking. The camera cannot see you! So we change. Anything changes, because the world continues. When the world moves, we need to change.




GR: Can you still enjoy movies even though you are in the business?

JL: The work is your work. The movie business is a circle and your friends do the business. You have dinner and say, "Titanic is amazing! How could they make that?" Or, "That movie is bad! Wow, they put a lot of money in it." We just talk business. Maybe when you write a magazine, people say, "This magazine is no good. This magazine is better." You see the people, they're your friends, and everybody works in a big circle. You talk about business in the circle. So you say, "This summer, which movie is best?"


GR: Do you want to do any movies that have no martial arts someday or no guns, no nothing? Would you like to be in a drama?

JL: Two things, in a dream, I want to do no action, wonderful story. That's what I dream. But in real life I cannot do that. Film movie is a business. We pay the money to see the Jet Li movies because he has a special background, training in the martial arts. I want to see the martial arts, how difficult he can do that. Nobody else can do that. So I pay money to see that. Now he just tells me the love story. Oh, I can watch Robert DeNiro instead! They're disappointed. So I thought maybe American people will think your character can play this action movie. Not only Americans, Asia, Middle East, other countries. They don't know your culture. They just want to see action. Good guys and bad guys fight. It's very difficult to change your image.




GR: Who do you like working with?

JL: It depends. I always think the story is most important. You need to find a wonderful story. Then you need to find the right people to play the right characters. I never say find the people first, then create the story. You need to find the script first.


GR: Do you read a lot of scripts?

JL: No. I create stories. Bodyguard from Beijing, Taichi Master, Fong Sai-Yuk.... My producer and I hire the writer. You need the right script. It's very difficult. You can have many cuts and use a lot of money, but if the story's not good, nobody will like it." If the budget is smaller but it has the right script, everybody likes it. Full Monty, everybody liked it. The story was interesting.




GR: Where is your favorite place? China? Hong Kong? The United States?

JL: Favorite place? Every city has a different culture, a different style. In Europe, there are older buildings. Great! There's American style, Hong Kong style. You cannot think coffee is better than water or lemon tea. It all depends. What do you want? What do you like? An average thought: San Francisco is better than Los Angeles. People go, "Yeah, L.A. is too hot! The traffic is too bad!" But Los Angeles has Universal. It has Disneyland! San Francisco doesn't have that, so Los Angeles is better. Some people say New York is better because in New York you make a lot of money. There's business in New York. It's like water, coffee, and lemon tea. What do you want to do?


GR: So where are you going next?

JL: I don't know next until I work there. Don't think too much about the future. Don't think too much about past tense. Not good.

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