I finally got to interview Gary Daniels last week, after years of loving and touting the entertainment value of films like Bloodmoon (1997), Full Impact and Heatseeker. Mainstream audiences probably know the kickboxing star best from his appearances in The Expendables as "The Brit" and the Jackie Chan classic City Hunter, where Daniels and Chan duked it out as various characters from the Street Fighter video game franchise. If you haven't seen it, check out the clip and get back to me. Daniels' latest film, Forced to Fight, is one of his best: Daniels stars as a former tournament fighter who goes back into the ring after his brother (Arki Reece) gets in trouble with a criminal played by Peter Weller. Unlike most other action movies, where the hero gets back into his old line of work like it's no big deal, the world of underground boxing takes its toll on Shane, who battles with a variety of cage fighters and his own resentment towards his family for putting him in a position to destroy himself just to protect them.
I called Gary Daniels to talk about the most interesting role of his career, the truth behind underground fighting tournaments, and the stories that spring from a career in martial arts movies with Jackie Chan, Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvester Stallone.
CraveOnline: I’m an enormous fan of all your films.
Gary Daniels: No way. Are you serious? And you still want to talk to me? [Laughs]
Sir, I saw Bloodmoon on cable back when it came out…
Back in the day…
I was enthralled. The fight choreography was amazing.
Yeah, we had a good guy. That was a Hong Kong film. We just shot it in America. It was a Hong Kong production company, Hong Kong director, action director, and when you work with the Chinese you know you’re going to get the best when it comes to fights.
But let’s start with Forced to Fight. This is one of the better-written roles I’ve actually seen you play.
That’s actually why I took the project. I get offered a lot of basic martial arts, MMA cage-style scripts and they’re all so basic and the same-same-same-same-same. What attracted me to this script was the family drama. There was a lot more to it. There was the family drama. There was the mentality of the ex-fighter having to get back in the ring. We had that arc of him delving back into that world. It was a much better script than 90% of the action martial arts scripts that I had been sent recently. Like I said, I turned down a lot of these MMA ones because they’re so typical and stereotypical, but this one had a little bit more, and while there’s a lot of fights it’s really the family drama that attracted me to it.
What I love about this movie, I’ve seen a lot of movies where a character is forced to go back into the ring, or forced to go back into a life of crime, but I’ve never seen one who really outwardly resents it the way that Shane does.
[Laughs] Well he’s forced to fight! You can see in the film, he’s a family man, he’s trying to run a business and raise a son. That’s his priority, and getting back in the ring is the last thing he wants to do. For those reasons that you see, he’s forced back into it. I think it’s a good premise, actually.
A lot of action movies deal with the idea of these underground fighting tournaments, to the extent where I’m surprised they’re not on every street corner. Are those real? Has a shady guy ever walked up to you and said, “I’ll give you a thousand bucks…?”
You know what, I never have, and I’ve spent an awful lot of time in Asia, in Hong Kong and Thailand. Never. Never. I mean, I’ve been involved in kickboxing fights, which are not sanctioned by any major organizations, but it’s not an underground “anything goes” kind of event. I mean, there have rumors of them, but I’ve actually asked about them when I’ve been in Asia, these kind of things. Never, ever, have I come across these kinds of illegal fights. I think the nearest thing they have nowadays would be “smokers,” MMA smokers that they have in small bars. They’re not really sanctioned by any governing body. But there are rules, there’s a referee, fighters wear gloves, it’s never denigrated to this type of “no rules, no holds barred” kind of event. [Laughs]
What is it that makes a great fight scene, in your eyes?
Well, it starts with somebody with a great vision. An action director with a great vision. Somebody who has had a lot of experience in different systems of martial arts. Somebody who’s not married to the idea of, “it has to be based in reality.” I worked in Asia a lot, earlier in my career. You worked with really creative guys in the Hong Kong film industry. I was very fortunate to work with Jackie Chan back in the early 90s. I was on that show [City Hunter] for like four months, and I would go to the set almost every day, even if I wasn’t working, just to see how they worked. It was like film school for me, actually. I watched how these guys worked. They have a team of guys and everyone works, giving their input, but obviously Jackie, the one who performs it, has the final say. But these guys are so creative, and then when you would come back to work in America, a lot of the times you hear on the set, “Oh, that’s not realistic. Oh, that wouldn’t work in a real fight.” For me, that’s a lot of rubbish, because it’s not a real fight. It’s a film. It’s entertainment. So what really makes a good fight, getting back to your question, is somebody with vision, but also that person has to have control of the fight scene. Meaning, he has to choreograph it. He has to pick that lenses that are going on the camera. He has to pick the camera angles. And he has to have the ability to go in and edit the fight. I’ve choreographed a lot of my own fight scenes, but I don’t get to call the shots on the camera angles or the lenses that are being used, and never do I get to go into the editing room. So you don’t get your vision unless you have that complete control, that complete say.
Have you ever had the opportunity to direct a film yourself? Is that something you’d want to do to get everything exactly how you want it?
Totally. That’s the next step. That is exactly what I want to do. I actually co-wrote a script a couple of years ago for an action script I wanted shoot in the Philippines, but was difficult raising money at the time. But no, definitely. I’ve done some action directing on a lot of my films. I would have loved to direct this one, except… [Laughs] Actually I think it’s a natural evolution for both actors and D.P.’s, they want to get control, get that directing credit.
Would you want to star in that movie as well?
That’s a good question, actually. The one I wrote, yes, I was going to star in it. It was one I’d set to star in. But I don’t have to. But the thing is, the most important thing is it’s a project you totally believe in, and that you totally believe you can bring something unique to. It can’t be just a project that’s thrown at you to be directed for the sake of directing. It’s got to be something you totally believe in, that you can give 100% of yourself to it, so you’ve got to find that project first. Once you find that project, then I guess I would decide should I be in this, or decide to just direct it.
Can you tell me a little bit about what might be in that film, story-wise, or would that jinx it do you think?
I would love to do a family drama. I really would. I would love to do a family drama. It wouldn’t have to have any fighting in it. I want to direct characters. I want to direct actors. I want to direct emotions. I really think a family drama is something that more people can relate to than just punching and kicking.
Going back to something you said earlier about fights not needing to be realistic, and I’m really glad that you brought up City Hunter, because that’s a great unrealistic fight.
[Laughs] Yeah. Sure is!
That is fight is legendary now. That is how I discovered YouTube, was through your “Street Fighter” fight.
Oh really? [Laughs] Bringing those old films to the new generations…
Street Fighter was still kind of new at the time. Were you aware of characters like Ken and the various characters Jackie Chan was playing?
Actually, I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. But once I got hired and got out to Hong Kong, I started going to arcades and having a look. [Laughs] Actually, when we were shooting the Street Fighter scene, Golden Harvest would have the games and Jackie and I would play each other. He’d kick my ass every time. [Laughs] He was very familiar with the video games. They weren’t my thing.
I loved that you were in the first Expendables. I was bummed that you were playing one of the bad guys, but I was thrilled that it took the combined efforts of Jet Li and Jason Statham to take down just one Gary Daniels.
No, it was great. It was a great experience to work on that film. Unfortunately quite a bit of it was cut out that we shot. There was a whole subplot how Steve Austin and myself and Eric Robert’s character [were] not getting along with the Spanish general’s soldiers. There was kind of a subplot going on there. A lot of it got cut out, unfortunately.
Why were you not getting along? Was he too evil for you, or was he just a jerk?
[Laughs] No. I’m talking in the film, not in real life…
No, it was just the Eric Roberts character. We were like these Special Forces, ex-CIA, whatever you want to call us. We didn’t agree with the policies of the Spanish soldiers. We didn’t feel they were good enough at what they were doing, so we wanted to take over looking for [the general’s] daughter, and they wanted to be in control of looking for the general’s daughter. So there was just a conflict brewing in the script, which was working pretty well, but stuff happens in films. Things get cut, and if it’s running too long they’re not going to cut Stallone’s stuff or Jason Statham’s stuff. They’re going to cut out the lesser actors’ stuff! [Laughs] So unfortunately some of our stuff. But I had a great time on it. Stallone was great to me. And yeah, it was great fighting Jason and Jet at the end of the film. Jet wasn’t very happy with it, but it worked out okay at the end.
One movie I was fascinated to discover of yours was called Riot. You starred in that with Sugar Ray Leonard. That’s such a weird pairing. What was it like acting and fighting opposite Sugar Ray Leonard?
He is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. One of the nicest guys you will ever meet. We got along so well, and he was like a kid in a candy store. You know, he’s a Bruce Lee fan. I think it was his first movie. I don’t think it was his only movie, it was his first ever movie, and he was like a kid in a candy store. He was just having such a great time. [Laughs] And you know, for the choreography, they wanted to keep with him his Sugar Ray moves from the ring, so he just did his boxer thing and they let me do my martial arts, so we had that contrast. It was a lot of fun. He was such a nice man. A really, really nice man.
You’ve made so many films. Do you have a favorite of your own that you would recommend?
Well, you know obviously I’m known for doing martial arts films, but if I had to tell you the truth, one of the favorite films I ever worked on is a lesser-known film, because I didn’t fight in it. It was a film called Spoiler, which was a futuristic thriller. I didn’t do any fighting in it, I actually got beat up in it a lot. It was a wonderful story. I love the film. I really enjoyed working with the director. I don’t think it did really well because a lot of buyers, they were saying, “Why isn’t Gary fighting in this film?” A lot of the buyers, they buy my stuff wanting to see me fight and in that film I didn’t fight, it was just a straight acting job for me. It was a fantastic script, and I love the film. It’s called Spoiler.
I actually haven’t seen that one. I’m going to go find that.
Aha! See what I’m saying? Lesser-known? [Laughs]
I host a podcast, and my co-host and I are both big fans. And we have a theory that, like in Heatseeker, you yourself are really a cyborg.
There’s no one who can do the stuff you do. You have to be a cyborg.
My secret is out! I don’t drink water, I drink oil. What can I say? [Laughs] I’m a machine. I wish I was a machine, then I wouldn’t start feeling my age so much. [Laughs]
What is coming up for Gary Daniels, sir?
I have a couple of projects on the go, actually. I just got back from Vietnam where I was promoting a film I shot in Thailand last year, a fantastic film. It’s a crime thriller, but I had a straight acting role in it. The director was such an intelligent, incredible filmmaker. He was the writer, producer, director on it. It’s a film called Angels. That will be coming out soon. I’m sure when, but I love the film. It’s a great film. Really proud of that one. It looks beautiful and just a very intelligent story, some great performances in it. Dustin Nguyen is the lead actor in it. I don’t know if you remember him from “21 Jump Street,” but he’s the lead actor. Great, fantastic performance in the film. So we just had a big premiere in Vietnam for that film, and it was a lot of fun.
I’ve actually been offered a film to go shoot in Vietnam for next year called Destination Saigon, so I’m looking at that project right now. There’s that project and another one I’m working on at the moment, I just shot some stuff up in Vancouver for it, with Eric Roberts and Jeff Fahey. That’s shooting in England early next year, finishing off that film. I’ll be over there for five or six weeks. So there’s a few things right now going on. I’ve just been contacted to do a film in India, actually. So I might be going over there. There’s a few things in the air. I don’t like to talk so much about projects that might be coming until I’ve signed a deal. [Laughs] There’s a project we were promoting in the American Film Market recently called Blackwater, which I’ve been asked to do. It’s about a special ops guy. So there’s quite a lot coming up next year. Looks like next year’s going to be a busy year.