Sometimes you get a chance to simply sit down and talk with an actor; no timetable, no handler, and every question is fair game. Darren Shahlavi was kind enough to sit down with me for that style of interview, and over the course of our 20 minute conversation we covered a huge number of topics. Shahlavi has started to hone his craft and play increasingly larger roles in films and TV, and his hard work is starting to really show. Shahlavi stars in Ip Man 2 (read my review here) as the main bad guy, Twister, who is a Western boxer visiting Hong Kong. After screening the film just moments before, I was able to interview him and you can see the results after the jump.
Darren and I covered a lot of ground, but among the topics were his fighting background, how he got his first big break and then landed his role in Ip Man 2, if he would ever fight in MMA, who influenced his as a kid, what it was like to worth with his heroes, and future projects. So, without further ado, here is the entire and incredibly candid interview.
So this is your first time in Austin?
DARREN SHAHLAVI: Yeah, first time in Austin.
What do you think so far?
SHAHLAVI: I love it. I’d heard of the Alamo Drafthouse about 10 years ago. I used to rent movies at a DVD shop called Black Dog Video in Vancouver from Kiele Janice who’s helping out with this festival. I’d heard that she moved out here. I mean all these different news sites and stuff that’s going on here, you think, “Wow.” This is kind of outside Los Angeles and it’s really a hub for film fans. Now filmmakers with Robert Rodriguez and all these others that are making movies here. I thought, “Wow, I’d love to be down there one day… with a good film.” It feels really good to be here with a movie I’m proud of and I can help push something people really appreciate and I hope people really like it.
I enjoyed it a lot. Ip Man kind of hit me in the face. I watched it before coming here. But I had only heard about it here and there because it never saw a US theatrical release. Just DVD.
SHAHLAVI: Yea, Ip Man was just released on DVD a couple of months ago. So Ip Man 2 is going to be in theaters January 28th. So it’s pretty cool that Well Go USA is giving it a good release. We’re pretty happy about that.
You mentioned during the Q&A that you have a lot of reverence for these older Hong Kong action films and that you used to watch them on video when you were young. Now, because of your position in the movie business, have you gotten a chance to see some of your old favorites on the big screen?
SHAHLAVI: Yea, you know that’s the great thing about these kinds of festivals. We watched Snake in Eagle’s Shadow yesterday, and Yuen Woo-Ping made that movie about 35 years ago. I spoke with his producer, who’s a friend of mine yesterday, and he was saying he thought Yuen Woo-Ping was 33 years old when he directed that movie. And I watched it when I was a kid. So to see it at the Paramount theater with this whole cast of characters from Fantastic Fest screaming and cheering, it’s quite something. When you watch it as a kid alone, and you appreciate it and you love it. To watch it as an adult knowing how hard it is to make these pictures and seeing it with an audience is really quite something. It was quite a thrill.
Speaking of Yuen Woo-Ping, he gave you your first big break?
SHAHLAVI: Well, he gave me my first lead role in a movie. I’d done a couple of supporting roles and stunt jobs in films. But Yuen Woo-Ping hired me as the main bad guy in a film called Tai Chi Master Part Two. Jet Li was in the first movie, and Yuen Woo-Ping directed the sequel and because Jet was doing Lethal Weapon 4, he couldn’t do part two. So they hired Wu Jing and me as the bad guys. I didn’t even really know I was going to be the mean bad guy, I just knew I was going to fight. I understood a bit of Cantonese and I could understand that Yuen Woo-Ping was asking the producer about me, you know, “Am I good? Can I fight, can I move?” and I said, “Listen, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do. I’m a big fan of yours, I’m a good martial artist, I work hard, and anything you want me to do I’m going to do it for you. I’ll do the best I can. Please just give me a chance.” And he gave me a chance. And he also, 14 years later, recommended me for Ip Man 2. I was up for a role in Fearless with Jet Li that I didn’t get. It was a small role, and he said it was too small of a role. I was up for a role in True Legend that he directed, and I didn’t get it. They wanted a big wrestler. I was really upset because I felt, “Well, he’s the first guy that gave me my first break and I would love to do another movie for him but he just won’t hire me.” But he recommended me for Ip Man 2. I saw him yesterday and we’re going to talk about doing something else together very shortly. But as a fan, growing up watching his movies, to be given a break by one of my heroes and then to be recommended by him to work for Sammo Hung, Wilson Yip, and Donnie Yen was really quite thrilling.
What is your fighting style and background?
SHAHLAVI: Well, I started off with Judo, then Karate, then kick boxing. I started with Judo but I wanted to kick like Bruce Lee, then I wanted to fight like Jackie Chan, and I wanted to move like Sammo Hung. I wanted to have the fast, lightning kicks like Donnie Yen and be able to do the splits like [Jean-Claude] Van Damme and be able to knock people over like Steven Seagal. And these guys became my…teachers in a sense. I watched their movies and I learned from them. I studied their movies. So I’ve gone from doing movies with Donnie and Sammo, straight to doing movies with Steven Seagal. I would love to do the next Universal Soldier with Van Damme. There are talks about different things happening but I watched these guys’ movies so my experience in martial arts is what Bruce Lee said. “Absorb what is useful and discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” That’s what I try to do. I want to kick like Hwang Jang Lee, and I want to move like Jackie, lightning fast like Bruce and the kicks like Van Damme. You learn from all these guys. They’re all predecessors of mine and I try to not only learn from them but hopefully get a chance to work with them at some point. That’s the hope.
You have a lot of reverence for Bruce. You even mentioned that you mirrored his fighting style by fighting unorthodox with your dominant hand forward. Why didn’t you follow in his footsteps in terms of fighting technique?
SHAHLAVI: Well, Bruce is from Wing Chun and then he started Jeet Kune Do. I started as a south paw because I watched Bruce Lee in his movies and he was a south paw. I didn’t know that that was not the right way to fight. I didn’t know that we’re all orthodox as a right handed person. As a right handed person, I always had my right foot forward just like Bruce Lee. It made sense to me because my right is my fastest and my most powerful. So why am I going to put my left foot forward and lead with my slower left and double up and cross with my big right. I found that being southpaw was natural for me because I watched Bruce Lee and I watched Rocky. Stallone in Rocky, he’s a southpaw. So I watched Bruce Lee and Rocky. I copied my heroes on the screen. That is where I get everything from. They were my masters, my sifus, my senseis, as much as Dave Morris, Horace Harvey, the guys that were my real martial arts trainers; Ronnie Green, a six-time world champion Thai boxer. I studied Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Jackie Chan.
You’re a pretty big guy. I know Yuen Woo-Ping harps on being flexible, but the bigger you get it seems the more difficult it is to stay flexible. How do you balance that aspect?
SHAHLAVI: Well it’s hard to stay flexible if you don’t stretch. Tom Platz, who is a body builder that is well known for having the biggest legs ever, could bend down and touch his toes and do the full splits and so can Lee Haney. These body builders, if they stretch right they can be the biggest guys you’ve ever seen but they can stretch and they can do all the stretches everyone else can do. I think if you train the right way, as long as you stretch, you’ll still be flexible. I don’t think that it takes away in any way from your training if you stretch the right way. I think there are people that don’t appreciate the value of stretching and all those different exercises. I think it’s very important. Yuen Woo-Ping absolutely wants someone that can perform all of the different movements and so does Sammo because you have to be able to help them do what they do best which is show you at your best ability. They want someone that can fight, that can move, and kick high. It helps them show what they can do.
You mentioned that when you got the role for Ip Man 2, you were originally just going to fight Donnie, then Sammo, and then…
SHAHLAVI: Well, I didn’t get a script. All I knew was that I would be fighting with Donnie in Ip Man 2. I was on my way to the gym with my portable DVD player with a copy of Ip Man. I got a phone call from Mike Leeder, who’s a friend of mine and a journalist, producer, and casting director. He was casting the movie and says, “We’re looking for the main bad guy for Ip Man 2,” and I said, “Oh, shit. I’m literally about to watch part one.” So he tells me to watch it and let him know what I thought about being interested in playing the bad guy. I called him back two hours later and I said, “Fuck yes! Please get me on this movie.” Donnie and Sammo as the action director; I didn’t know I’d be fighting Sammo at the time. I just knew I’d be fighting Donnie, and then I learned I’d be fighting Sammo, and then I learned I’d be in an extensive scene with both. So, for me it was like payback for all the times I had been crying, pushing, and working so hard in my career and nothing was happening. Finally I get a chance to work with these guys but also learn from them as well.
Donnie, on screen, has a great smile constantly. Is that 24/7?
SHAHLAVI: You know, Donnie smiles a lot. Donnie’s a really nice guy. But number one, he’s a big star now. He really is a movie star now. Five years ago he wasn’t. He was the successor to Jackie and Jet, but now I believe he is the number one martial arts movie star in the world. Forget anybody else. Donnie Yen is the biggest martial arts movie star in the world. He’s someone we should all look up to and he knows where he is, and he’s happy where he is because he’s worked so hard and deserves to be where he is. So when I was with him in the ring, doing those fight scenes, and he’d be sitting down, smoking his cigars. This is his role. Ip Man is his movie. He made it his own. He rightly so has the career that he deserves now.
Any attempt to learn the language of the directors you work with?
SHAHLAVI: [Speaks a few phrases in Cantonese].
So you know a little bit?
SHAHLAVI: I can be directed in Cantonese. If you spoke Cantonese you could direct me… for movements. Tek means kick, Faan ying means reaction. So I can be directed in Cantonese. But, for some reason when I’m doing these movies, most of the crew speak Mandarin. [Laughs].
How difficult was it to pick up?
SHAHLAVI: It was pretty easy. I mean, when someone is telling you to turn, you learn basics. We I started studying karate with my sensei Dave Morris in England; he would have us do pushups counting in Japanese. So ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku… so we learned the basics of the Japanese language because of our martial arts training. So I took that example that Dave Morris set and applied it to my martial arts learning in Hong Kong. So whenever I was directed, I would learn and I would listen and be able to be directed in Cantonese.
No real aspirations to fight in MMA?
SHAHLAVI: Oh hell no. No. I’d get the shit kicked out of me. There’s no denial. If they put a UFC guy in front of me and said, “If it goes to the ground, you have to stand up again and fight,” then I’d fight them. If I knew it was just kicks and punches, yes. But you get me on the ground, you win. I mean, listen. I can kick well and kick fast. If I hit you it’s going to hurt. But those guys, what they do is much different from the martial arts we learned when we were kids. I mean they are all around martial artists. They’re taking Bruce Lee’s example and applying it. And I can’t. I have broken wrists right now; I’ve got a broken ankle. I can’t fight like that. I learned because I loved the movies. And there is more of the UFC style coming into films, which is great. So I’m learning it. I did the motion capture for EA’s new MMA game. I was one of the four guys that did all the motion capture. I did all the kicks and reactions. But ground work? Blah. These guys are going to beat me hands down, obviously. I don’t know if I can take punches and kicks like they do, and I don’t even know if I want to find out if I can. I’m perfectly happy making money in the movie business.
SHAHLAVI: Well I push to be in good films and good TV shows. I don’t really pick and choose. I pick and choose what I will read for, and I’ve kind of gotten to the point now where I’m being offered stuff. So after this movie I did the Steven Seagal movie, and of course I accepted it right away because Lauro Chartrand is the director and he’s a guy that I know, even though it’s his first film as a director, I know he’s going to do a great job and he did. I’m so happy and proud of him. So I knew that that movie would be great because of our director and it’s Steven Seagal. He wants to make a good movie and push beyond what he’s done in the past. Aladdin Curse of the Jinn, it was a good script and the producers were great. We’re shooting it in 35 millimeter instead of RED cameras. They’re spending a lot of money to make sure the movie looks good. I want to do martial arts films. I might be doing one with Mark Dacascos in November. It’s not a signed deal but that’s what I want to do. I want to work with Van Damme.
What does it mean to you to see Sammo, at his age, still active and directing fights, and also stepping in front of the camera? Do you see that somewhere in your future?
SHAHLAVI: Honestly I think I would be a good fight director. I’ve directed some fight stuff before, but only my fights. I don’t know how I could be a fight director for someone else’s fights. That’s the tough job that you have to remember. Sammo is so incredible at choreographing these fight scenes for himself, but for other people too. I’ve tried choreographing fights for other people, and you’re limited by their limitations. It’s difficult. I did a film in Germany a couple of years ago. No, two movies in Germany where I was the fight choreographer. And I was literally given extras that I had to teach how to take reactions. As soon as I threw a kick they were scared of being anywhere close to me. They were telegraphing all of their movements and I thought, “This is not easy.” If you’re going to be a fight director you need good stunt people around you… and Sammo has a team. Jackie has a team. I’m surprised Van Damme doesn’t have a team; and Steven. But they are known for their specific movements and techniques that they can do on pretty much any stunt guys who would do the reactions. What Sammo, Donnie, Jackie, and Jet do, really is a big dance. It’s a… dance of death; because if you move the wrong way, you’re going to get hit pretty hard. So, you learn. I learned from them. I’d love to try to continue the tradition that my masters that I worked for in the past have done. You know, Donnie’s doing it. Donnie is a great actor, action director, action star, choreographer, film director; he’s doing everything. If I get the chance I want to try to do that. You’ve got to be creative in this business. But I need people to believe in me first. I’ve got to make my name as an actor and that will give me a chance to do that.
Yea, it’ll open windows.
SHAHLAVI: I hope so.
Who do you look forward to working with? You’ve mentioned Van Damme.
SHAHLAVI: You know what? Van Damme, I met him 15 years ago when he did a movie called The Quest in Hong Kong. He had me come in and read for a role. I was living in Hong Kong and I read for the one of the Turkish boat captain. And Van Damme wanted me for that role but I was too young. The producer, Moshe Diamant, wanted me to play an Italian fighter, but there was no Italian fighter in the script. So I wasn’t hired. But I was so young anyways; I was around 19 years old. Then I met him around four years ago and he was doing a movie that he was going to direct. He wanted to hire me as a Mexican fighter… he’d seen me in I- Spy fighting Eddie Murphy. But it didn’t happen; I guess the movie had fallen through even though they had started building the sets. But I don’t know. Maybe you’ll see me in the next Universal Soldier.
SHAHLAVI: Jackie as well. I’m up for a role in Jackie’s movie, but they keep changing the scripts. “We want you as the main bad guy. No, now we want 50 black guys as the bad guys. Now we want a girl as the bad person.” They don’t know where they are and the script is changing. But I would say top of my list right now, Van Damme, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. Oh, and Tony Jaa. I think I’d be good in a Tony Jaa movie.
Have you had a chance to see any other films here? Are you a fan of horror or the different genres?
SHAHLAVI: I want to see The Dead. A friend of a friend directed it. And yesterday, when I got picked up at the airport, the director of Red, White, and Blue was getting a ride with me. So I was thinking about seeing that. But I’ve got to leave tomorrow because I am going to start filming this TV show.
SHAHLAVI: Yea, and I was wanting to stay until Wednesday, but I’ve got to get back and I’ve got two meeting setup in LA that I have to attend. Then go straight to Vancouver to do wardrobe and start shooting that TV show. But next year I’ll come down and hopefully I’ll have a film here. We’ll see.
So what does it mean to you to have your name up on the posters and lights for Ip Man 2?
SHAHLAVI: Well, it’s a realization of a dream. Ip Man and his influence on Bruce Lee, and Bruce Lee’s influence on my own life, and Donnie Yen’s influence in my life.
It’s a big circle.
SHAHLAVI: It’s a big circle. It’s a joy to me because all the hardships, the girlfriends I’ve broke up with, the wife that I lost by pursuing my career. All the shit I’ve been through, it’s all fucking worth it to me. My family’s great and everybody’s happy and healthy and my career is good. But personally, I had to sacrifice a lot in my own personal life. And I regret that. My sister… I didn’t see her grow up because I was living elsewhere. She was in England and I was in LA or Vancouver. I didn’t see her grow up. I wasn’t a part of her life. I fucking regret that. But, in a sense, when you get a bit of pay back in your career, you go, OK, now, as soon as I finish this TV show Human Target, I can afford to go back to England for my sister’s birthday. I can spend more time with my family because the hard work is starting to pay off a little bit. So that makes you feel good. But as far as answering your question, seeing my name next to Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen? Dude, in China, they put my face on the poster with Donnie and Sammo. In Malaysia, it was Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Darren Shahlavi. For me it’s like, “are you fucking kidding me?” That’s… ridiculous.
Are you going to frame it and put it up on your wall?
SHAHLAVI: Oh hell yeah.
As you can see, Darren was incredibly honest and has a lot to say about where he has come from and where he wants to go. Personally, it’s refreshing to see such an honest guy working in the business and I can’t wait for audiences to see his fight with Sammo and Donnie on the big screen. We will keep you up to date on any big announcements in the future for Darren’s films, but look make sure to look for Ip Man 2 in theaters on January 28th, and go out and watch Ip Man on DVD and Blu-ray available now.