Johnny Tri Nguyen talks MMA in Vietnam, his banned movie Chinatown and why he’s always the bad guy

Hearing Johnny Tri Nguyen talk about his grandfather, the “White Crane of Ca Mau,” so named for his long sleeved shirts to hide metal arm and shin guards, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. The story sounds a lot like a Hong Kong movie script and involves a grudge fight on a sampan, Cambodian hitmen practicing black magic, a jerry-rigged flame thrower, and a debilitating “one finger to the eye” finishing move.

But that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, coming from a Hollywood stuntman turned Vietnamese movie actor/producer/director/writer. His body of work includes stunts done in TV shows and films such as Mortal Kombat, Spider-Man and Jarhead. He’s starred in a number of Vietnamese films and foreign language films, and most notably had a part in the Hollywood action flick Cradle 2 the Grave, with a fight scene opposite Jet Li. Leaving Vietnam at the age of 9, Johnny and his family landed in Beaumont, Texas (“It was too cold for my mom”) before settling in California. A devotee of martial arts, Johnny’s first break came when a friend called about a TV series looking for martial artists. So began his career in the movie industry.

We’re at Johnny’s dojo, Lien Phong (“Connecting Winds”, the style of martial arts originated by his grandfather), a peaceful shaded oasis in District 7 which contrasts with the raw, explosive action that takes place here. The rhythmic thwap thwap of two dozen jump ropes from the nearby training area provides the soundtrack for the interview. Clad in a tight fitting training shirt that shows off a body most 20-year-olds would envy, Johnny talks to Oi about his full circle journey in life and the movie business.

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In your career, you’ve done it all – stuntman/actor/writer/producer. Which do you prefer?

JTN: As a stuntman, I loved doing things that were illegal to do outside of movies – shoot guns, fight, drive fast, jump from crazy places. You can make as much as the actors, except for the famous ones. But it was missing a creative element, so I took acting classes and got a few small roles, mostly where they needed an actor who could also do action.

Writing is something of a love/hate relationship with me. Sometimes when you create something good, it’s really satisfying. When you can’t find a resolution for something, it’s very frustrating. Producing is the same. Now that I’ve written quite a few scripts that are ready to be produced, I’d like to stick with acting and action directing. For one movie that’s a lot of work already.

How come you always play the villain?

JTN: In Vietnam, the bad guy is always the white guy. But in the States, good guys are always the white guys. So whenever they wanted an Asian gangster, or a North Korean soldier, they called me. [laughs]

You were making a name for yourself in Hollywood. Why come back to Vietnam?

JTN: I came back in 2000 for the first time as a cameraman for an independent Vietnamese film and got the chance to travel in Vietnam. I loved the weather, the humidity, and the beautiful, cinematic scenery. Vietnam is full of life.

In 2004, I was hired to do a movie in Thailand, playing the lead villain in a Thai movie. It was really close to Vietnam and I always wanted to shoot a movie here. Back in 2000, there was no movie industry in Vietnam at all. But in 2005, it was kind of starting and I wanted to tell a Vietnamese story. So we wrote a script called The Rebel and got my brother to direct it. It was a big success, but not in terms of the box office. I think we made 20 prints for the whole country. But people who saw it, loved it. It made us proud of our work so I stayed and kept on working.

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Your most recent movie, Chinatown, was famously banned here this summer after failing to pass the censorship board on multiple occasions. What happened?

JTN: As a filmmaker, you don’t want anyone to touch your materials. I’m sure Leonardo da Vinci didn’t want someone telling him to draw in the eyebrows on the Mona Lisa. With Bui Doi Cho Lon (Chinatown), we had a director’s cut which we absolutely loved. So it was really a shock when we got the paperwork saying we had to change the movie. Even with the first notice, we knew it was going to be a movie that wasn’t our vision. We made quite a few changes and shot more scenes. We had to somehow put police  in the movie. But it wasn’t a police story! This was a gangster movie. But it wasn’t enough.

What are you working on now?

JTN: We just finished shooting a comedy with myself and the number one comedic actor in Vietnam called Teo Em. I have a feeling it’s going to be really funny, a road trip comedy that hasn’t been done in Vietnam.

So, not another action movie?

JTN: We’re not crazy enough to do another action movie after our last one was banned! You can’t really ban a comedy. I hope! [laughs]

Okay. We have to talk about the body. Every other Google image of you is shirtless. What’s your workout regimen like?

JTN: [laughs] It’s quite normal! I just train with my fight team. I don’t just stand there and point. That’s the best way to know when they’re tired, when to pick up the pace. It’s an intense workout. I also do weights once or twice a week.

Do you diet?

JTN: No! I eat anything. I just had a big giant pizza yesterday. Your body is like gas tank. If you drive a lot, put a lot in. If not, cut down. I don’t want to walk around like a male model with a six pack all the time. Dieting is not fun. Life is about fun, it’s about enjoying things.

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Tell me about last weekend’s MMA (mixed martial arts) competition, Meeting of the Warriors.

JTN: I was one of the organizers and fight team leader. I wanted to have a competition where our guys from the Lien Phong dojo could participate. I feel MMA is really watchable and enjoyable because of its diversity. Anyone with a martial arts background can join and it’s unexpected, full of drama.

When we started Lien Phong last year, no one around town was really doing MMA. I wanted to get more people involved, more MMA gyms and clubs to grow the sport. So I partnered with Saigon Sports Club and we picked about 20 guys with the most experience to compete.

Some people say MMA is too violent. What do you say to that?

JTN: It can be, under certain rule systems. It can be borderline sport and combat when you allow anything. We don’t want it to be that way. We kept the rule system to pro am/amateur level with safety in mind for the competitors. MMA in the UFC [UltimateFighting Championship] is bloody mainly because of elbows, so we put Muay Thai elbow guards on. In 10 fights, there was no blood. I don’t think Vietnam is quite ready for the full UFC experience, especially if it might lead to a negative response which wouldn’t be good for the sport right now. It can still be exciting without the blood, though.

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Were you too pretty for the UFC?

JTN: I retired from competing when I was 26, when the UFC just started getting popular. I was doing stuntwork and making good money. If there was no stuntwork, and the UFC had gotten popular earlier, who knows? But there are a lot of handsome UFC guys, come on!

What does Lien Phong mean to you?

JTN: I have a big apartment in the city, but I usually stay in a puny room here at the dojo. That’s fine by me. There are about 10-12 people living here, most of them my fight team. All these guys want to train and get good. That was me when I was young. My body’s not the same conditioning-wise but mentally I love the competition and that feeds my spirit. It’s a happy place for me.

For more info on Lien Phong, visit www.lienphong.vn

Image of JTN by Ngoc Tran and others provided by Lien Phong