We speak to Stockport-born, now Vancouver-based, Darren Shahlavi about working with his all time heroes Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung on Ip Man 2, and the joys of being a bad guy…
How would you describe up your role in Ip Man 2?
Well I play ‘The Twister’, Taylor Milos, which I know it’s not a very English name. He’s an English boxing champion that goes to Hong Kong for the world title. (There’s actually a scene that we shot but unfortunately it didn’t make the movie, where I fight another Western champion to win the title. You’ll see it as a deleted scene on the DVD.)
I’d describe him as a very ignorant, arrogant boxer from England. I based him on the old geezers from a Guy Ritchie movie – what would they have been like in their early thirties, in their prime, if they’d been a boxing champion from London. What would a tough guy like that be if he’d gone out to Hong Kong. This is pre James Dean, pre Elvis, pre Tyson or Brock Lesnar or Don King, and I saw him as very much a self-promoter. So he’s happy if people love him, he’s happy if they hate him. – he really doesn’t care as long as he gets bums on seats and the crowd riled up! He’s a bit of a showman and a bit of a dick really, but he doesn’t think that about himself.
You seem to be quite often cast as the bad guy? Do you enjoy it, or would you like to play the hero for a change?
I just played my first ‘properly good’ guy in a movie called Aladdin and The Curse Of The Jinn (aka The Last Jinn) and believe it or not I play Aladdin! It’s more like an adult version of Aladdin where the genie is evil, and it’s a TV movie made for the SyFy channel and will probably air in April.
It was a lot of fun, and of course it’s nice being the lead in a movie, but there’s a lot leeway for enjoying yourself when playing the bad guy. You’ve got a lot more creative freedom, and I think the best bad guys are the ones that believe they’re heroes anyway. So if you play a bad guy that thinks he’s the star and heroic, who can’t see there’s anything bad about what he does, it’s a different way of approaching the role and you can have a lot more fun.
You don’t have to worry about looking handsome – you can just play it and enjoy your role. I think I have a lot more fun as the bad guy than the good guys get in their roles.
How was it starring opposite Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung? They are two legends for any martial arts fan – and you get to fight them both!
Listen, you know I’m like you in that I was a kid watching movies growing up. The first action film I saw was Enter The Dragon, and I the first scene has Bruce Lee fighting Sammo Hung and I thought, this guy Bruce Lee is incredible, everything I’ve heard about him is true – but look at that chubby guy he’s fighting! He moves really, really well.
Back when I didn’t know whether I was going to be an actor or a stuntman I thought this guy was amazing, and then I saw other movies he was in. So I said to Sammo when I first saw him in Shanghai that I didn’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know who Sammo Hung was. And I grew up being a fan of Sammo and a fan of Donnie.
I went to a seminar that Donnie Yen did in London 20 years ago. So I was 17 years old, borrowed some money off my mum, got on a train from Manchester to London, and I took part in a seminar he was doing. And at that stage he’d been in In The Line Of Duty and Tiger Cage, all those movies. He wasn’t yet a huge star, but he was big in martial arts. And I loved Van Damme, but this guy Donnie Yen had a great physique and he kicked so fast, and I loved kicking.
So I went down there and took part in a seminar and learned so much. He was the first actor I’d ever met, and I said to myself I’m gonna be in a movie with you. So when we were working together I told Donnie about this and said, it took 20 years but I wouldn’t have it any other way or in any other film, I was so thrilled to be there. It was a dream come true, not only with Sammo but Donnie too, both of them together in the same film – it was quite a trip. I’m still pinching myself to be honest with you.
That brings me on to my next question. I believe you got into martial arts at an early age – what was it that got you interested in martial arts?
I think it was that these martial artists I saw on screen, certainly Bruce Lee, were superheroes – but with no apparent superpowers other than really physical abilities that any human can achieve with hard work, training, dedication, proper nutrition and the right exercise. These were real powers that are attainable for everyone.
You had Bruce Lee, with that intensity and everything he had; then you had Jackie Chan playing the underdog, a completely different character; and then Sammo, a guy of that size doing everything he does; and Donnie, look at his speed. As a kid growing up you couldn’t help it as a little boy being influenced by that stuff, and having so much energy as we did. And I’m so lucky that I found a way to divert all my energy into martial arts.
I’ve got friends that way back then said to me, you’re really lucky knowing exactly what you want to do with your life, you want to be an actor, do martial arts movies. And I didn’t really think about it until recently, but for the past 20 years I’ve been doing I’ve always wanted to do and I’ve never had my mind elsewhere or thought about doing anything else – it’s just a tribute to really connecting with martial arts films and the actors that play in them. There’s that saying about finding something that you truly love and do that, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. And I’ve not… well, actually I have done some shitty jobs – but it’s been pretty good!
So how did that passion translate itself into your career? I believe most of your early appearances where in Hong Kong action films?
I started going to judo when I was seven years old. My dad was taking my much younger brother and his friend to judo and they would come back so filled with energy and excitement I thought I have to go and try this out.
So I did, and our judo class took place immediately after a drama class, in the same little theatre. There were these black curtains all the way round and we’d just put the mats down for judo. So sometimes we’d get there a bit early and the actors would be just finishing their rehearsals for a play they were going to put on, and I’d get a glimpse of them performing. So as a kid of seven, eight, nine years old I was seeing actors and what they were doing and then I was doing judo.
So when I saw Bruce Lee I combined the two together and when I was in my class doing judo I was pretending to be Bruce Lee, I was acting. So I discovered both these loves of mine at a really, really young age and they’ve stuck with me ever since.
I’d reading Combat Magazine since I was a kid and when I was about 15 years old I decided I’d try and contact (writer and martial arts film expert) Bey Logan. I called the magazine and they’d told me he wasn’t working there anymore. So I said that I had some uncut Bruce Lee footage that nobody had seen and that I had to get this to Bey because no one had seen this and I knew he was looking for it.
So a woman there was kind enough to give me his cell phone number and I spoke to him and told him I wanted to be a star in action movies. He gave me a lot of advice, and said he’d try and help me. Actually I think I was the first in a long line of people who contacted him to try and get into films! But he called me up and said he was going to be producing a movie in Malaysia, and for me to get to Malaysia as he wanted to do a film with me as the lead. So I went out there, and unfortunately the money had fallen through, but his partner at the time Mark Houghton – a Hung Ga kung fu master from Coventry who lived in Asia – was working as a stunt coordinator, offered me a chance to stay on and work for him, and learned a lot about fight choreography.
Then I moved back to England for a little while, then I moved to Hong Kong and started working there. I just sent all my pictures out to all the companies, and then I got a call from Yuen Woo Ping’s producer saying they were doing another Tai Chi Master movie, Tai Chi Boxer (aka Tai Chi II) and they wanted to cast me as the bad guy.
They hired me and I went to China and did that movie, and then worked for Seasonal Films on Bloodmoon with Gary Daniels. Went to LA, did a bunch of the sort of lower budget action films and then I started to get a bit unhappy with the work I was getting in America. You know, you have to be a name to get the really good roles, so I contacted Mike Leeder back in Hong Kong, and Mike was involved in casting some films, nearly got me in Fearless and a few other projects. And I said to him, I really want to get back out to Asia and do something with substance and get a chance to fight again, keep you eyes out in case something comes up.
So he called me later and said, I’m involved in casting this role for the bad guy in Ip Man 2. The bizarre thing was I was on my way to the gym with my portable DVD player, and I’d put on Ip Man to work out to, and I said Mike, you’re not gonna believe what I have right now in my DVD player! So he said let me know what you think. So I started watching and called him right back and said, dude, anything I can do to get on this movie let me know. So that’s how it all happened…
I really wanted to get back out to Asia and do movies and work really hard. I was getting frustrated with the stuff I was doing in American films. You know, you really need to have a name and a bit of value in the business there. In Asia it’s different: they don’t really have casting breakdowns where they go we want someone who’s 6ft, blond, blue eyes, this kind of ethnic background. In Hong Kong, if they want a Westerner, it’s just that. They want a Westerner with a good physique, good looks who can act okay.. If you an throw some kicks and have a good look, have some sort of presence on screen, they’ll give you a role. It doesn’t really matter what your ethnic background is.
It seems to be easier for me to get work out there, and thanks to Tai Chi Boxer and I Spy and stuff I was able to get this role.
So how do productions compare between Hollywood and Hong Kong compare, having worked on blockbusters like Watchmen and 300?
I was on 300 and Watchman, but I’d been pursuing my career as an actor and it was very difficult as I was married at the time. It was hard being in a relationship and having to bring home the money, and the marriage didn’t work out, I ended up in a bad divorce that was very difficult for me to deal with. I’d got to the point where I was thinking it wasn’t easy to pursue my career as an actor – so I quit acting for a while as I was getting a lot of calls from friends saying, look you can make a lot of money doing stunts for a while instead of struggling as an actor.
I worked for Brad Allan on The Chronicles Of Riddick and Chuck Jeffreys, who was my co-star in Bloodmoon, got me on Blade: Trinity. And I did these movies, and I was on the stunt team on 300, and I made more money in three months working on 300 than I made in 15 years as an actor. So I thought, you know I’ll continue doing stunts for a while, for two years, made enough money that I could afford to go back and be an actor, and say, no, I’m not going to do this role; really start getting picky and choosy about what roles I take and then try and build a career with some money behind me, so I don’t have to just do certain things just for the money.
And that was how this came about. I could afford to really sit back and be selective about what I audition for and accept. That’s when I dedicated my time and my energies to training and getting back into shape, and that’s how Ip Man 2 happened for me. It was just perfect timing…
And what was Sammo Hung like to work with as a fight choreographer?
Working with Sammo as an action director, it’s like working with Yuen Woo-ping. He’s somebody that you know is a master at what he does, and you’d never have to question anything he’s saying. It always makes sense.
I’ve never seen anybody command a movie set like he does. He knows exactly where to put the camera, what lens to use, dolly tracks, steady cam, handheld, whatever it is; how to move the camera over the action; you see the fist coming over the shoulder, the fist the other way; he moves the camera around; even operates the camera sometimes… I’ve never seen him go, well that’s not working, let’s try this instead.
In America all the directors don’t really know how to shoot action. Sammo always knows exactly how it’s going to be shot. It’s like he has this vision of the movie inside his head. I’d look at him and think he has a little movie theatre up there and he’s watching it right now.. At lunchtime we’d stop and there’d be an editor with a mac, and Sammo would be telling him exactly how to cut it and how it would work. And if he was missing a shot or wanted something else he’d make sure we had that. But he commands a film set, the actors and the crew.
So there’s the difference between American movies and Hong Kong action directors like Sammo Hung. They make sure they have enough time to do the movies, because a Yuen Woo-ping or a Smmo Hung or Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen have to have enough time to do the action because their careers depend on it. I felt a big responsibility because I was told when I got there, we’re trying to better Ip Man 1, and Sammo Hung won the best choreography at the Golden Horse Awards for it. So I’m thinking, shit, here’s what I really hope in my head, that he wins for Ip Man 2 – which thank god he did, right?!
They always make sure they have enough time to shoot. The end fight with me and Donnie was 10 days. My fight with Sammo was about 6 days. In America we’d have a couple of hours to do a fight. It’s not the ideal way of working. Hollywood is still not getting the idea that you have to spend a lot of time to !get the best fights on screen, and none of this ‘shaky’ nonsense!
A lot of people, even martial art film fans, don’t necessarily realise how experience Sammo has as an action director…
Oh, absolutely. Listen, when Bruce Lee first went back out in Hong Kong, he was in touch with Sammo, and they had something of a falling out, I understand, because Sammo was in Thailand working on another movie and Bruce wanted him to work on his next film, and he was furious that he was unavailable! Bruce knew he had to have Sammo help him with his choreography and with his fights.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Sammo was still just 19 or 20 when he made Enter The Dragon, and he was still known as the top guy in Hong Kong. He was always been ‘Dai Gor’ or Big Brother. It’s quite remarkable to think about the career this man has had.
Who has been your favourite on-screen opponent?
Man… this is going to sound obvious but it has to be Donnie and Sammo. Not just because of who they are, but because of the film, the story, the character that I played, and because of their characters. Because I’m a boxer fighting a Wing Chun martial artist, so there’s a real clash of styles. I’m a boxer fight a Hung Ga master, so again it was a really interesting fight. You know, fighting Eddie Murphy was great, you know boxer against boxer. Fighting Gary Daniels, where we are two martial artists, fighting Steve Seagal. It just doesn’t compare to fighting Donnie Yen playing Ip Man, and fighting Sammo Hung.
You know, I’d love to just list a whole lot of people and say they were all wonderful, but Donnie and Sammo? There was one point where Sammo was the action director he’d shout action or cut, and we’d finished some of the choreography and he was moving around the ring, and he started doing a Bruce Lee impression, and he didn’t say cut. And I started doing the same thing. So here’s me and Sammo moving round the ring, both doing Bruce Lee. Hell, there was me as a kid, seeing him and Bruce Lee doing that, and all these years later here I am pretending to be Bruce Lee opposite Sammo – you can’t beat experiences like that!
You know, right after this I worked with Steven Seagal and it was a bit of a let down, because we didn’t have the time and he didn’t have the enthusiasm of Sammo. So it’s really their commitment that made me up my game, put me on my toes and made me give my absolute best performance. It made me work my hardest, and everyday I was going back, sitting in a bathtub thinking what a rewarding day I had. So that’s my answer, Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen.
So what other projects have you been working on lately?
Right after Ip Man 2 I literally flew from Shanghai to Romania, did Born To Raise Hell with Steven Seagal, playing the bad guy in that. It’s out already in England. Then I did my first starring role in Aladdin and The Curse Of The Jinn, which was a lot of fun but I’d have liked to have done more fights. But I think we might do a follow up, then we will be doing a lot of fights in it. Then I did a couple of guest appearances on some TV shows. I’ve just finished a movie with Steve Austin called Hangar 14, I play an Italian American gangster, a very different character for me.
Actually I’ve just signed with Warner Brothers to do something very exciting but I can’t talk about it till next week.
(It turns out that Darren has signed up to appear on WB’s live-action web series of Mortal Kombat as British bad guy – of course! – Kano, alongside cast members Michael Jai White and Jeri Ryan. According to Darren who’d just finished shooting his scenes ‘the footage looks amazing!’ The series will be released in late March, early April.)
Thanks to Darren Shahlavi for his time, and to Louise from Cine Asia for organising the interview.