Talk about stunts, and Jackie Chan lifts his shirt to point to a few scars. "And I've broken just about every bone in my body," he adds with a proud grin, wearing this statement as a badge of honor. Considering his background, it makes sense he would consider this an entry on his resume, since the Hong Kong action star got his start in the business at the tender age of seven, studying mime, acrobatics, kung fu and Peking Opera at the Chinese Opera Research Institute indentured under master Yu Shan Yuan for a punishing 10 years.
After making his name as a martial arts actor working with directors like John Woo and Lo Wei (who directed Bruce Lee's first two films) in Hong Kong, Jackie Chan made his transition to American movies in 1980's The Big Brawl - but it took another 15 years before he was really accepted in the U.S.
Now his hits include: Rumble in the Bronx, Mr. Nice Guy and Rush Hour, and is set for a sequel with his co-star Chris Tucker next year.
In Shanghai Noon, the Wild West meets the Far East when acrobatic Chinese Imperial Guard Chon Wang (Chan) comes to America to rescue beautiful Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) and he's forced to team up with a partner he doesn't trust (Owen Wilson) and face the meanest gunslingers in town. While he depends on action to do most of the talking in his movies, he doesn't have this luxury when doing an interview, but does his best with his limited English skills.
All your action movies seem tongue in cheek. Is this deliberate?
I always mix comedy with action but I really want to try acting without both. Suppose there is some other movie that I really want to work with, like Farewell My Concubine. But my company says, 'we'd rather you spend six months making an action movie' because they think drama is only for localised audience. I say OK because I am under contract but if I cannot make these kind of movies then I produce the ones I do make so I have more input and I can make them funny.
When did you get into this action comedy genre?
I found out a long time ago there were so many children who watched my movies and I started getting letters from fans saying they like this, they like that, but this is too violent and they don't like this because their children can't go see my movie. So I slowly change to more comedy, not serious. Even when I do action, I hate violence but fighting is like dancing so you make sure the audience forgets all the fighting with a laugh. Then later on, I watched American films and I say, 'OK, they have big explosions. I have no explosions. They have more gunfight. I have no gunfight.' Everything I watch has Bruce Lee kick high and I kick low. I wanted my movies to be totally different than some other people. American movies also use more technology and special effects and I use none. I'd rather do a very natural, basic, traditional movie, between Superman and normal people!
Growing up in China, what did you know about cowboys?
When I was five years old, I was already wearing cowboy hat and cowboy things. I'm a big fan of cowboy movies. I love John Wayne and there was a very famous movie called High Noon and we called this one Shanghai Noon. I like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Kirk Douglas. I really liked the cowboys when they were camping too. They get down from the saddle to do the cooking with all the beans. I really went out to buy beans after I saw those movies, I will never forget. I still like beans!
Now that you are older, is it tougher to do these movies?
I keep doing my kicks and in my movies, I do whatever I can do. Before, I could jump off a building, now I cannot. But I jump off a bridge! I'm very lucky I have good, traditional training and my foundation is good for all these stunts. Even now I am fortysomething, I still feel like I'm thirty.
It's been twenty years since The Big Brawl. Why did it take so long for Americans to accept you?
I don't know. When I make Big Brawl, I do the same action, same movement and I think at that time it's not the right timing and maybe the audience is not ready yet. They still like this kind of boom one-punch or tough guy thing. Why Jackie keep kicking this guy? This guy is still standing there. It makes Jackie's punch have no power but I don't want to show violent things so I do fast up and down and that was just not the right timing back then. So I went back to Asia, made Asian films and then the Americans brought me back for Rumble in the Bronx then the studio says, 'wow you have a market here now' so they bring me back to make Rush Hour and keep bringing me back.
Do you feel accepted now in Hollywood?
I think in Hollywood they really welcome everybody if you have talent, no matter who you are. Look at Schwarzenegger and others like him. Because of my English problem, I always choose the script that has my character be from outside of town, like the Hong Kong policeman who come here in this movie and Rush Hour. Then the situation has culture comedy and that works.
Do you choreograph all your action films?
I enjoy action movies so I really studied them like if you liked computers, you'd study them. One day I did a test where I put my movie in one video monitor and Die Hard on the other and put them in my office for students to watch. Nobody watched my movie, only Die Hard. Why? Because Americans have great effects, great photography and my movie had great action but no effects or photography to support me. I also found out that sometimes I am boring with the punching and kicking when I turn off the music and just watch my reaction. But then I watched Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and they come out and dance on a table and use a chair or a pool and come off great. That's the rhythm I wanted, so before I do fights, I sit down with all my crew and break it down so it has rhythm. Later on I just follow that Jackie Chan formula and create more!
How long does it take you to train for a movie?
Because I was seven years old in martial arts school, I was training every day then and right now every day when I'm not traveling, I'm doing three-hour training with all my boys, kicking, punching, step jogging and always looking at a lot of documentary footage. It is basic training but I am not watching diet. I just ate steak and ice-cream, but tomorrow will jog for twenty more minutes!
What documentaries do you watch?
Lots of National Geographic, which helps me on location. And Science network helps me a lot with new technology things too. I also watch a lot of magazines to help me find props. Now I watch Buster Keaton movies because I want to be him; a lot of action, no violence, all clean. I am proud of what I am doing right now. I make action movies with very little violence and there are very few American movies with no 'f' word except mine. My films have no 'f' words and no sex. That is the basic rule and I just keep learning.
Exactly how many scars and broken bones do you have?
I can't count anymore. I almost died in Yugoslavia. There I broke my finger, my wrist, my ankle and I've been cut, burned, teeth gone, shoulder out, ribs cracked. All kinds of things. Every day I get up and my back hurts so this is why I have to do a lot of exercise to get my body soft again. In the 80s, I used to think I'm the best so I will do this stunt nobody else can do and I almost killed myself many times. I almost killed my stuntmen and now I look back I see it was stupid. You don't have to do crazy things and that is what the Americans teach me. Use special effects. Use computer graphics. Now I use a mat when I fall and make sure safety comes first. Now I'm more clever.
August 3, 2000