Triple Threat is a martial arts high voltage operatic action crime thriller starring a phenomenal array of quick elaborate skill fighters from around the world. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with a veteran of over a hundred films and counting, Michael Jai White. I first remembered him in the unusual comic adaptation Spawn (1997), then underrated 2 Days in the Valley (1996). And of course more recent Black Dynamite (2009) but there is so much more to this acutely talented tough guy with a heart of gold and strong feel for comedy. Amongst a broad chat, we discussed such things as terrible racism he’s encountered, the strongest screen opponent who just happens to be an Australian and how close he came to appear in Black Panther.
Triple Threat director Jesse V. Johnson speaks highly of you.
MJW – Absolute genuine great person, we collaborate well. Look forward to working with him often in the future.
What’s the difference playing the villain?
MJW – You get to do stuff you wouldn’t normally achieve, I balance it out as I prefer the good guy (laughs). I did enjoy being bad in this.
If you take the action out, it is still a great film.
MJW – Thanks, I always like to be part of action spectaculars that don’t have to rely on the action purposing towards story.
How much rehearsing goes into the fight choreography with Tony Jaa and the boys?
MJW – Really not much, one day only. We are like dancers who have been moving in sequence our entire lives so it’s all about running the combinations to performing it while keeping ourselves in tune when it comes to day of filming.
Asian actors are often smaller than you, do you change your way of punching, kicking?
MJW – Pretty much, I am kicking or punching downwards so I watch my speed and power due to hitting someone around 100 pounds lighter than me (around 45 kilos). There has to be more control but at least the little guy can hit me full blast which looks good on screen and I react accordingly.
Do you pull your punches constantly or adapt to your opponent?
MJW – I must pull my punches or it’s not fair, I am a much bigger person than these guys especially. Most famously, I always think of (how) Dolph Lundgren mistakenly broke Sylvester Stallone’s ribs with a punch in Rocky 4, almost caving in his chest cavity.
What’s your worst injury on a movie to date?
MJW – When I was doing the Mike Tyson movie, I got my arm caught in a rope pulling out a shoulder muscle, luckily I haven’t been injured excessively. During Mortal Kombat: The Series, I also pulled a muscle but that’s it on set. The fighting can be hardcore on screen at times but I tend to do more than that just working out. It’s kind of a vacation on set at times.
Was playing Mike Tyson (1995) a turning point in your career?
MJW – Acting alongside George C. Scott was amazing to my profile and a life lesson. Mr. Tyson being one of the most recognised people on the planet, if I had’ve sucked, I don’t think I would’ve had a career. It was integral moving forward.
What main challenges occurred in the jungle of Thailand during Triple Threat?
MJW – Peak heat of April in Thailand is the hottest when chasing people through the jungle in full costume or gear on. Then spotting strange bugs I didn’t grow up around.
You do a lot of projects annually, how do you choose roles?
MJW – Never like doing same movie twice – a character I have not played is always interesting. But Triple Threat, it was working with those legendary martial artists – was hard to say no to. As far as action goes, you don’t get much better. Every day we hung out but many may be surprised, many martial artist professionals are not into partying with the exception of Michael Bisping who can toss them back. Personally, I have never been drunk or smoked a joint in my life. I’m the boy scout of the group.
Why did you become an actor, do you enjoy that comedic romance side?
MJW – In theatre off Broadway plays establishing myself as a dramatic actor far before any action, by design I wanted to be accepted as a legit actor first. I continue to participate in more mainstream than action now. The full spectrum writing, producing, directing and acting I enjoy equally, especially lighter roles.
Is comedy harder than action in your opinion?
MJW – Comedy is easy. In fact any serious movie you have ever seen me do, there was a comedic take I probably did (laughs). It’s hard for me not to see the humour in all things. This may be confusing to people who see me as a maniacal killing machine but I am a closet comedian. My 18, 11 and 10 year old children actually went public recently to say they have never seen me mad or lose my temper. My wife is the one who gets angry, I’m just the goofy dad but still I evoke fear, which is bizarre.
Who is the strongest colleague on screen?
MJW – Easily the strongest human being I have ever encountered is Nathan Jones on Never Back Down 3: No Surrender. Having to do an arm bar on your fellow Australian countryman and with my entire body weight, I couldn’t straighten his arm. He’s unbelievably solid and a little unpredictable at times. I was ready to duck at any time because he might forget some choreography at times so I was on alert to move as he did groin punch me.
Have you ever had to deal with racism along your journey?
MJW – Absolutely, I have dealt with inherent racism in the Hollywood structure. Nowhere in the business world do you hear, ‘we are looking for a white male lead,’ or such things as, ‘we’re going black on this,’ those are above board conversations. I’ve had a particular executive tell me word-for-word, ‘with your sense of comedic timing, your action status, you’d be as big as Tom Cruise – too bad you’re black.’ I’ve heard several things like that. Back in the day, I’ve had executives ask me to find ‘the white meat’ (I am in shock hearing this and tell Michael this is terrible). I know Shane, it’s not like my manager or own representatives were not on board with this. Instead of getting angry, I looked at it as ‘Wow’, I need to understand their mindset so I can eventually change it which is what I’ve done because I’m a lead in several movies. I have been part of films which provides the only international value, I don’t let it discourage me. More so an education to the shocking racism in our business so I did what I could to circumvent it.
Well done Michael, you’re a top-notch talent and racism is as prevalent.
MJW – Thank you Shane, happy to announce to that coming soon, I have a film named Send It, about a kite boarding champion. I play the role of the adopted father of the child in a role I got – not for any other reason for what they felt I could bring as a character – not ethnicity, this is why I didn’t get mad but chose to be an example. I am proud of the film, I don’t buy into the negativity all round behind the scenes.
Are you making a movie down under at any point? You recently worked with Australian film royalty Mel Gibson.
MJW – I really like your country but have only done martial arts seminars and conventions. Got along famously with Mel on Dragged Across Concrete, I consider him a friend. He’s such a talent, a surreal guy, energetic and fun to work alongside, it was like I’ve known him my entire life.
Would you consider directing a Triple Threat sequel?
MJW – No not me, it’s a popcorn movie. It is what it is, I like it, but not the type of thing I want to direct. I want my own personal stamp on things. If I had’ve directed it, I would have turned it into a comedy plus Jesse is the man, he’s on fore directing this.
Your opinion of blockbuster, Black Panther?
MJW – Very proud of Black Panther, I met with director (Ryan Coogler) about one of the prominent roles but he quickly ascertained the huge persona I’ve already established, it may be hard for Chadwick Boseman’s elite character would beat me up in a fight. I agreed with that. It’s better to serve the movie, someone like me might provide distraction rather than an asset. I loved the film more than ever.
What’s next for you?
MJW – Two action oriented films, I start shedding weight in preparation like a prize fighter, including roadwork to be slender before cameras roll.
Triple Threat (Rated MA – 96 min) is out now on Icon Films Home Entertainment and VOD streaming.
Shane A. BassettSydney Unleashed is one of Australia’s premier entertainment publications exploring the latest in lifestyle trends. From Sydney’s finest restaurants, cafes and bars to the hottest in gadgets, products, and home entertainment, Sydney Unleashed is your one-stop lifestyle platform.