In conversation with martial arts film legend Gary Daniels
“Talking about movies, it really saddens me that people believe so much of what they see,” says Gary Daniels, one of the world’s most accomplished action heroes and the star of countless martial arts films—the kind you’ll surely have seen on late-nite TV. “I hear a lot about martial arts actors—this guy’s such a badass, such a great fighter, I saw him in this movie doing this and that. It’s kind of a pet peeve for me; you’re not a good fighter because you can fight in a movie, it just means you’re a good athlete. What you see in films is choreographed, practiced, rehearsed. Done over and over again until you get it right, so the camera angles can make it look right.”
That observation goes a long way to explaining the seeming disconnect between the aggressive, formidable figure Gary presents on camera and the relaxed, mild-mannered gentleman he appears to be in broad daylight. Despite the imposingly heavy muscular build, it’s hard to imagine that this now 54-year-old action star and kickboxing champion would willingly squash a bug. An actor who is as deeply affected by Asian spiritual wisdom as he is by its traditional fighting disciplines, Gary is the first to admit that his calm demeanor is something that he has consciously cultivated.
“I think there are two sides to everybody,” he muses, “I think all human beings have everything inside of us. We all have love, hate, jealousy, rage, and passion. It’s just, what do you choose to bring forth at any given moment? So it’s about learning to live consciously, and that’s a battle I’ve faced all my life. As a youngster, I was really into Marvel comic book heroes, and then when I saw Bruce Lee, I was like ‘wow, here’s a real superhero and I want to be like this guy’—so it was automatic, and I went straight to the martial arts, and my goal immediately as an eight-year-old was to get involved in action films. That was a natural path for me. But I had a very bad temper, and I did use fighting to solve problems. You know, we focus so much time in the gym developing our muscles and our techniques, our stretching and flexibility, but we forget to think about how to focus; how to train the mind and our thoughts. I think this is something that’s missing in martial arts in general nowadays—especially if you look at MMA. fighting. It’s all about the physical, not enough about the mental. I don’t think teachers teach students enough how to live consciously in the moment.”
“So it’s something I developed as I got older,” he explains. “I was very conscious of my weaknesses mentally. Having a bad temper, how it can affect your sporting life, how it can affect your personal life, your family life—having a bad temper is a very negative thing. so I consciously had to learn to think about my thoughts, learn to control my temper, and not just be that physical person.”
The father of four sons, Gary has always put family first. Despite a passionate devotion to his film career, the actor enjoyed fatherhood so much that he largely avoided the trappings of Hollywood in favor of spending his personal time with his boys. Part of his motivation in this was to ensure they were protected from the kind of domestic violence he experienced in his own past.
“My brother and I saw my parents fight, I saw my mum attack my dad with knives, Dad knocked my mum out, pots and pans were constantly being thrown… I can remember my brother and me, five or six years of age, just crying and so scared, running out of the house. Then my parents divorced when I was ten, and my mother remarried a guy who hated me. He beat me growing up, and tried to stop me from doing martial arts. But that pushed me into my martial arts. I studied when I was eight years old, and because I couldn’t stand to be around family, my bedroom became like my dojo, my temple, my sanctuary. I had bricks and metal bars, all these things that I would train with in my room, which was full of Bruce Lee posters. This is what I think drove me into that world, it was my fantasy world, Bruce Lee, martial arts, oriental culture.”
“I used to go to Chinatown in London,” he remembers. “There was a store there where I could buy all my Bruce Lee stuff, I’d save up my money from my paper round. Then I’d go to see two Chinese movies every Sunday afternoon, all in Chinese. I couldn’t understand a word, but I was just enamored watching them. And then I would go to a Chinese restaurant and I would sit consciously near a big Chinese family at a big table and just listen to them, watch them eat, chewing their food and spitting the bones out, their whole culture was just so different. I don’t know why I was so enamored, it attracted me so much, and then I would have to go home and deal with that. I think it did push me really deeply into martial arts, it was my escape.”
Having played in his first Vietnambased production back in 2015—Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s drama Quyen—Gary is currently here to explore the potential for co-productions.
“Vietnam is an untapped territory, it’s fresh,” enthuses Gary. “There are Chinese producers coming here, some American companies that are starting to talk co-productions here, I know the Bollywood film industry is now starting to move into Vietnam. I’ve been talking to a lot of the filmmakers here, they all talk about how they want to improve the industry, move it forward, take it to the next step. But to do that, they’ve got to start doing co-productions with Western countries or with China, start bringing in more foreign actors, crew. The growth potential here is tremendous, and I think we’ll see Vietnam in the next 10 to 15, 20 years booming in the film and entertainment industry.”
While this means new opportunities for homegrown cinema, Gary is cautious about the potential for Vietnamese cinema as an export. “When the Vietnamese make films,” he observes, “they make them for the Vietnamese audience only. They’re not making them for an international market, so they budget it for what they know can be made back from Vietnam. Action films are pretty much the most popular films in the world, but romance, drama, comedy, they’re limited culturally, so if these are made in Vietnam it’s difficult to sell internationally, because there are different sensibilities around the world. But when it comes to action films, a punch in the face, an explosion, a bullet in the head, it doesn’t really need any translation!”
“In Vietnam, they’re not making films for the Westerner,” he notes, “they’re making them for the local mentality, so it’s kind of difficult for me to watch some of the Vietnamese films. I saw a film years ago called Clash with Johnny Tri Nguyen and Ngo Tan Van—I thought it was a tremendous action film. And then there was another one they did, The Rebel, which again looks beautiful, a really nice film. But other than that, I watched a film last year called Tam Cam, which Ngo Tan Van directed. I wasn’t the target audience for that, but I heard it did extremely well here. With Tam Cam I saw the use of all the CGI. and the most modern techniques, so you can see they’re developing, they’re pushing forward.”
Filming productions that focus on martial arts storylines has given Gary a unique perspective on the film industry in Asia. “The film industry is different in every country,” he explains. “Hollywood is really the top, we have unions to protect actors, crew, camera, directors, and you get treated very well. Everything is done so that you can make the best movie, and really, a lot of actors are spoiled, they have great trailers, drivers, everything, but it all comes down to what happens in front of the camera, that’s the most important thing. A lot of foreign countries don’t adhere to that. You will have actors on set twenty hours a day sometimes, and you get tired. When you’re that tired, it’s hard to act, to be, to emote, to find what you need to find inside. When you’re doing fight scenes, fatigue comes in, and accidents happen. But in Asia, it’s not just the actors, it’s the crew. They’re working ridiculous hours over here. And that’s detrimental to the film, which is what we’re all here for. But the one thing that you do notice in Asia is that the crews here, everybody does work so hard, and I have so much respect for them for that.”
“As an actor, purely as an actor, you don’t really want to be hired as a local,” he adds. “If I’m hired out of LA, it means they fly me over, I’m put in a hotel, I’m paid a per diem, you get treated a lot better. Even when I did the Jackie Chan film in Hong Kong, because I was from Hollywood, I got treated so much better than the local Westerners, the gwailo, you know? They don’t get treated well, they get paid really bad, the food they get is bad. If I’m going to work here as an actor solely, it’s better to be known as an import than to be known as a local.”
Now as a mature actor, however, Gary is finding himself more attracted to roles that are less reliant on his martial arts skills and more on his capacities as a dramatic actor. “That’s definitely where I see myself heading,” he confirms. “As an actor, you want to spread your wings. You don’t want to just be known for action. When I got in the film industry, of course I was known for fighting and action, but the more time you spend in acting, the older you get in life, the more experiences you have, the more you feel you have to bring to characters. Life is the best acting class in the world, so the more experiences you go through in life, the more you want to bring this to your characters. Unfortunately, action movie characters are often written very one-dimensionally. When you’re working in independent films, very rarely do writers really get into the characters and the character development. I want to do family dramas—I mean, I’ve raised four kids, and I’ve been through some family dramas!—and that’s something you want to bring to your characters, because otherwise it gets boring.”
“But again, because I’m known for action, the buyers that buy the films, they want to see Gary Daniels kicking ass,” he admits. “That’s what they want to see. I’ve done a couple of straight dramas and they just don’t sell that well, because I’m not kicking ass in those films. It’s kind of frustrating, but you become a victim of your own success. But I don’t really worry about that, because I don’t worry too much about what other people think about me. I just want to be happy and I love my life. That’s always been raising my sons and being with my sons; I’m happy when I’m in the gym; I’m happy when I’m training. It’s about living in the moment for me, and being happy in that moment.”
Images Provided by Ngoc Tran