Action superstar Jet Li shows his softer side in Unleashed
Action superstar Jet Li shows his softer side in Unleashed. He plays "Danny the Dog", a man who has been trained from boyhood to be a killing machine. He befriends a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman), who shows him love and kindness for the first time. The role is a departure from what we've come to expect from Jet Li. His character has many warm and funny scenes. Jet is cognizant of his stature in the action world, but seems to be really looking for more depth in his roles.
Were you happy to show that you have some depth that maybe you weren't given credit for before?
Jet Li: Yeah, that's why I make this film. A few years ago, I talked to Luc [Besson], and he gave me some idea making another action film because it had worked before. I didn't like all the ideas. I say sounds like familiar. I want to do something I never had a chance to play. I had one message, say "violence is not the only solution." Then two days later he gave me the idea, "What about you play dog, save by the music?" I go "Dog save by the music. Okay, cool" Then we start to find a writer to work on this movie and I like it very much. I try very hard.
This is your second movie with Luc Besson. Did you have more input on the script or were you able to work with him a little more on this?
Jet Li: We're like brothers when we work together. Whatever idea I put, he receives. I say that he's my personal computer. The button I push, he comes up with a lot of ideas. I hope I can work with him again. When I start working on this movie, I already say next step, next movie, third is a family movie for children, light comedy. I saw the script. It's pretty good.
Can you talk about Danny's fight movements and how you choreographed that?
Jet Li: I find a wonderful acting coach from London. She's a professor who flew over here and worked with me two months before the shooting. We needed to study to forget who Jet Li is. Danny is only mentally around 8 or 10 years old, so we need to forget a lot of information to make yourself empathy. Then we did research, we watched a lot of different kinds of dogs in the supermarket. We start to slightly build up Danny's world. Then we tell Woo-Ping [action choreographer], what kind of martial arts can we use to help him? You know, different personalities use different kinds of martial arts. Usually I play a bad guy, I have a bad guy style, and cop has a tough cop style. Usually, I have a Jet Li style with signature moves or something. But this time we try to do just like a dog in the beginning. Dogs, they didn't talk a lot, they only just use their eyes to show emotion, so when they fight it's very concentrated, simple. Look at you and punch! Punch! Punch! (makes sounds depicting a fight) until he feels safe and then go to the second one. That's how the martial arts were designed for this person.
How was it different filming these action scenes, which were very gritty as opposed to Hero, which was more artistic?
Jet Li: First of all, we needed to find a different choreographer that have the special ability. We have three good guys—Yuen Woo-Ping, Corey Yuen and Tony who did Hero -- so when we did this film, we called Woo-Ping and convinced him to do this because he knows how to do it. But the martial arts you use in the film is the best way to help the story and the character. In the beginning Danny just fights like an animal but once he grows up, once he understands a little bit of life through Morgan's character, he slightly controls his body. By the end of the movie, he's totally in control. He knows he doesn't want to hurt people. He wants to stop the fights.
Talk about the acting challenge. Do you foresee a time when you do a film that doesn't have any martial arts action?
Jet Li: This kind of question [I've been asked] ever since the first day I started making action films. The truth is that whether the studios are in Asia or America, they are a business. They look at you and you've already proved you can do action films, so you do action films. Until one day you prove that you can do the other, more than action, then they will give you a different role to play. Myself, I think I want to do a film without action, that's the dream. If I'm the studio president who's in charge of the studio, I'd give drama to Tom Hanks, comedy I'd give to Jim Carrey, action film give to me, why take the risk? Until one day you need the proof. That's why I always try to prove myself. This movie didn't work in the States. When we sent it to the studios, nobody wanted to make it. So that's why I brought it to Europe to make this film. Try to find a little bit of opportunity to prove I can do more than just fighting.
Do you foresee producing a lot more of your own films?
Jet Li: When I come here and I start making a lot of English films, the audience, especially the younger audience, they think "Jet Li…oh cool! kick ass!" At the beginning, I was very happy, but a few times later I consider that that's the only message I can give to young kids? Bruce Lee…kick ass….Jackie and I look like all Chinese people. So I hope that I can give more than just that. That's why I want to make this film so that younger people see violence is not the only solution. Look at Danny. He's physically very strong — he can knock out 20 people in a few seconds — but he's an animal. He doesn't care about the others in the beginning. That's the difference. Animals are selfish. They only think about themselves. Something cooler than action, cooler than martial arts, is love. Morgan shows love, all the family power, to this character.
Morgan told us that he didn't really help you that much with the acting.
Jet Li: I never want to make a movie with him again! (laughter) He told me I should say that, but he didn't tell me the details, or how to act, how to do it. But he made the set, and made everybody believe Danny's world, because every morning he walk to the set, open the door and he already like this — where's Jet? Where's Pamela? Where's director? Tell me what's next scene to do. Usually, movie set-up, people are joking around. But when he comes in, quiet right away! So it gives me the chance to concentrate that I'm not Jet Li, I'm Danny. He made me believe every day I saw him, I thought that's my uncle, that's my father, I want to hug him. I feel that's the way I can breathe and take some risks. Yeah, he showed me everything.
Can you talk about Kerry [Condon], because you have a great relationship with this young girl?
Jet Li: Yeah, she's very genuine. She just has the truth coming out from her heart, so I think that helped a lot. Everybody tried their best, except for Bob [Hoskins], who behaved very bad.
In the martial arts movies of the ‘60s and 70's, most of it was focused on different fighting styles. Contemporary movies are not like that. You'll go see an actors' style but not a martial arts style. Do you think that's better for films?
Jet Li: Every human being has two legs and two arms. I can't create more than this. A lot of movements we already did, but the new thing for action film is the drama, is the story, and the character. If you like the character and the story, even the same punch you thought it is different. Like a love story, you know, you make a thousand love stories with man and girl, so it's how to make it touch your heart. That's the power of the story. I think with martial arts, the best way to use it in the film is the material, how to help the character, help the story.
Last time we talked to you, you wanted to do the Monk in Central Park. Is there any progress on that?
Jet Li: I still work on that and tonight, I'll meet with the director Wong Wing. He will direct this film. We still discuss. A lot of studios want to buy it, but I make this movie from my heart. I don't want to change it to business action. In the beginning, they thought there was no action, so they didn't want to make it. So I bought it back. I want to keep the original thing.
You have another film you're working on with director Ronny Yu?
Jet Li: Yeah, right now it's Ronny Yu and Woo-Ping, a Chinese movie.
Are you going to make any more films in European cities?
Jet Li: I can work anywhere, like this in the Europe. I don't have the chance to work here because no one wants to make it since it's too risky for the investor. But some movies I make in China. Next year, maybe I'll make some studio movie and I want to make the next step to make some family comedy to prove that I can do comedy; make a movie for children and for my daughters also.
How many children do you have?
Jet Li: Four children.
What is the age range of your children and are they into martial arts?
Jet Li: No…they're girls. They don't want to learn martial arts. They are 17, 16, 5 and 2.
Have you seen Ong-Bak? What do you think about the new generation of martial artists like Tony Jaa?
Jet Li: Yeah, because a friend of mine bought the rights. That's why two years ago he showed me. He said "C'mon, if you like this guy, we can promote this movie together. I think he did a wonderful job but it's not new! In 1980's, Sammo Hung is the star who started that kind of action films, just kicking people's heads and right away, you see the power. You feel sorry for all the stunt men. They show they try really, really hard. In the 1980s, all the Hong Kong movies look like that, but in the 1990's, we don't want the stunt man to get hurt and then we grow up and do different kinds of styles. Because people in the past fifteen years didn't have the chance to see that kind of hardcore fight, suddenly this guy come in and show all the powers and all the genius move. I like him. He's very good.