By Scott Tre
In the world of Mixed Martial Arts, concentrating in a single form of combat isn’t enough. One has to be versatile and well-schooled in many different disciplines. A combatant that specializes too much in a given style could find himself at a disadvantage in the ring or the cage. He who fails to adapt, evolve, and capitalize on any given opportunity will eventually die an unceremonious death. That same philosophy holds true in the entertainment business. You can’t be a one trick pony. The stars that shine the brightest and the longest are the ones with many shades and layers to their onscreen persona.
Michael Jai White is a master of many styles. He is not only an expert martial artist and action star, but a classically trained actor and screenwriter. In recent years he has taken a more hands on approach with the direction of his career. The dynamic Blood and Bone displayed his martial arts prowess in a way that none of his previous films had. Black Dynamite cast him in an entirely different light, showing his comic timing to be every bit as formidable as his fighting skills. Michael recently took time out of his very busy schedule to share with me his plan to take the film industry by storm. As I listened to him speak with ease and confidence, I was quickly convinced that he will accomplish all that he has set out to do.
Scott Tre: You seem to have everything that modern audiences would want in an action star. Why haven’t you been cast in more leading roles in big budget Hollywood films?
Michael Jai White: Hollywood has changed over the last number of years. A lot of the studios are run by people who are just kind of corporate. They’re not necessarily real moviemakers. They’re not really the fan base. It’s kind of formulaic. A lot of the people who run studios don’t even read the scripts anymore. They have recognizable names and they throw the packages together. My thing is to kind of create it for the people. If I build my fan base based on people who love the genre then it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a matter of time when you have your audience and it grows every time you put something out, so that’s what’s been happening with me. So I didn’t want to wait for the studio system to understand. I just wanted to take things in my own hands and if I’m serving the fan base, then they’ll give back.
Scott Tre: About six months ago I interviewed Ben Ramsey (click here to read the interview) who I know you’re already familiar with. He said he thinks part of the reason why you don’t get as many roles as you should is because a certain segment of Hollywood finds you intimidating. Say like in The Expendables, it would be hard for you to be cast alongside other action stars and not have you upstage them. Do you agree with that sentiment?
Michael Jai White: Well, I would hope people didn’t think that way. I would think that the more strength that my character would bring would just heighten the strength of the whole piece. I can’t speculate on other people’s thoughts, but I’ve heard that kind of idea before. I know I’m trying to do my own thing. Even though there’s that ensemble idea, I’m not quite sure if I actually fit in that ensemble anyway, to be honest with you.
I feel like my best work is yet to come. I’m kind of building towards something that I’ve intended for some years now, to step up the genre a bit, fusing drama and action in a kind of a way that it hasn’t been seen in action movies in quite some time. I want to take my best attributes and work with them. I’ve turned down a lot of movies in the past that I feel were just kind of comfortable being the status quo. I don’t want to do that. I really want to step it up. I’m blessed to have my own projects that I’m putting together that I feel I can do that with. To expect the studios to understand it, that would be expecting a little bit more of them than I think they understand. I mean, they understand dollars. When I show that, very much like Tyler Perry, that there’s an audience out there, that’s basically starved for a better type of action movie, character driven type stuff, then they’ll wake up.
Scott Tre: So it seems that, unlike a lot of stars and a lot of Hollywood executives, you don’t condescend to your audience. You expect that they can rise up to the level that you’re trying to reach.
Michael Jai White: Oh yeah. God no, I feel like the audience is a lot more sophisticated than they once were. A lot of studios, I think that they are years and years behind. Using the Tyler Perry reference, Tyler Perry could have never existed coming out of the studio system. The studious would not have known his appeal. Actually even when he did his deal, they thought it was gonna come in much less than it did. Tyler and I basically share an audience. It’s almost like I can’t hold it against people who don’t know any better. I know I am connected with the people out there and I understand the fan base and I understand what the consumers want, but I’m not gonna wait for someone to give me that opportunity. I’m gonna create my own. Very much like in the Tyler Perry vein, you put them together and things just start to move. Money talks and you know what happens with the rest.
Scott Tre: Yeah, we know the saying. You’ve been appearing feature films for what, over twenty years now? Yet it seems like you are just beginning to show what you’re really capable of both creatively and physically. Was that a calculated move on your part?
Michael Jai White: Absolutely calculated. I don’t expect people to get me completely early on. I knew this was about a marathon, not a sprint. You know usually, especially being a black actor, they’re used to you fitting on one shelf. I can’t just say say “Hey I’m multifaceted.” I have to show I’m multifaceted. I can’t expect people to get it until I’m showing what there is to get. Now, I wouldn’t hold it against people who just kind of say “Okay, he’s that guy that does action stuff.” Well before that action stuff I was that actor who does all those dramatic roles. Now people say “Oh, he’s that funny guy who did Black Dynamite” or “He’s the comic relief in Why Did I Get Married?” So I started to confuse people, but they are only just now seeing part of what I do. I just directed a movie for Sony. I’ve been writing for years and I’ve sold screenplays. I intend on really stepping into what I truly am. I’m starting to do that now. I wouldn’t hold it against people who kind of wrote me off. They don’t know any better.
Scott Tre: Will there ever come a time when you retire from acting and focus solely on writing and directing?
Michael Jai White: I think there might be. I don’t think acting is enough to sustain me. I don’t just think as an actor. I never have from day one. I’ve always thought about it as a filmmaker. I think about it as a producer, as a writer. I think about the whole the thing. I enjoy the business on a whole level. I know right now there’s a lot more that I want to say as a performer as well. I’m very excited to be able to start to bring a very interesting diversity of roles to the table, so it’s a really good time for me. I would definitely like to run my own studio. I’d like to pretty much be known for being able to make great movies at a modest budget that sell globally. I know I’m going to do that. It’s no other choice. I’m definitely going to get that done.
Scott Tre: Wow. That would really be amazing if you could do that.
Michael Jai White: Well it’s gonna be done. It’s already started. It’s like you plant the seeds and you build from that. I’ve done movies in the past just to break into that overseas market, to become viable overseas. But that’s just one little part of the whole plan. I’ve been doing movies in China, Japan, things that people don’t even know I’ve done in this country. I’ve got affiliations with a lot of entities. It’s all part of a larger chess game. So it’s basically like what Tyler Perry has done with his audience. Since he knows his audience so well, he is able to minister to that audience. Well my audience happens to be global. It’s taken a bit more time, but my audience is starting to see what my intentions are. I’m really trying to create something that’s going to be quite broad and I plan on it being rather sustaining. But it’s not something that’s done overnight. So things are going as planned. I certainly don’t mind not having this meteoric overnight rise. That’s not what it’s about. I feel better sustaining something that I feel has been rooted. If anything, I’m happiest about building a reputation within the industry as a solid performer, a solid business person, and a person of character. That lasts to your epitaph. I’ve got projects that people come away with feeling very positive about. It’s kind of about enjoying a fun journey. So things are going quite well and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Scott Tre: How did you land the job of directing Never Back Down 2, and what drew you to that project?
Michael Jai White: I feel it’s about how you present yourself and your character. I feel that there are others who have seen my past work, people who are in the studio industry who felt confident in my abilities to helm that project. So they believed in me, and not because of what school I graduated from or anything other than what they have seen as a result of my work. That’s what I mean. That lasts long. That’s something that’s a total character thing and its people believing in you. I was not in a hurry to get somewhere just out of ego or what have you. The people I’ve worked with and worked for know who I am and they know I won’t attach myself to anything that I feel doesn’t have value, and it’s not about a money thing with me as well. It’s about the principle. Fortunately there are people who wanted to deal with a person like myself. Personally, I like to deal with very principled people as well. So it was just basically a great union and it’s been a great process from start to finish. I have to thank Steve Burch and Peter Nelson, two executives from Sony who really believed in me and they stood by me. They gave me that opportunity. For that I am very grateful and they’re happy as well.
Scott Tre: The fight scenes in Blood and Bone were amazing. They had a really old school feel. Do you really think that you’re capable of outdoing what you accomplished with that film in terms of the fight choreography?
Michael Jai White: Of course! Any day of the week! That’s not even close to what I can really do. Not to be bragging or boastful about it, it’s actually hard for me to watch Blood and Bone knowing how I would do it differently now. I think my best work is definitely coming up. The movie I just completed, I think, honestly, is the best MMA movie to exist with Never Back Down 2. I mean I do things that I haven’t done in Blood and Bone in that one. And basically the movies I have coming up, it’s really beyond what’s been done in Blood and Bone. I have a lot of styles that I’ve done over the years, so my philosophy is whatever character I play, there will be a different fighting style with that character. In Blood and Bone, that was a fighting style that fit Bone. But now I have some other movies in the works where I’m gonna really be able to display a lot more advanced fighting skills, so I’m looking forward to that stuff. I think the fan base is gonna really be surprised with the other stuff I’m getting ready to do.
Scott Tre: With Black Dynamite you showed a side of your persona that I think it’s safe to say none of your fan base really knew existed. Were you apprehensive about doing a comedy at first or were you gung ho about it?
Michael Jai White: I wrote it. That was my concept. I created Black Dynamite so I was never apprehensive about it. That’s just one other facet. I’ve been playing these different character roles, which is something I enjoy doing. Still, acting wise, I’ve not done my best roles yet. Not even close. The traditional roles like, say, that have been reserved for Denzel Washington, the dramatic roles. I haven’t played those roles yet, and that’s the thing that’s closest to my character and closest to my sensibilities and my training. I started out as a dramatic actor on and off Broadway in New York. These are where my sensibilities are. I’m a father, husband and very much an intelligent black man in this society. I have yet to play close to who I am, which will then be my best role. Because right now, the character roles have put me in a position to where I can truly do what I was trained to do, which was act. It’s kind of funny that I have not played myself yet.
Scott Tre: Ben Ramsey mentioned that, that there’s a lot of sides to you that people don’t know exist, particularly the comedic side.
Michael Jai White: Right. I’m playing that one side of me. Actually the most comfortable I’d ever be able to play is like, say, if I played a cop role, a dramatic role, that would be the most comfortable role yet. I look forward to those days. I really believe that I’ll kind of redefine who I am in that comfort level. If you think about it, 90% of actors usually play themselves, which is their easiest way to act. I really haven’t had the luxury of playing myself yet. I look forward to it.
Scott Tre: What’s the biggest difference between working with someone like Tyler Perry and working with someone like Ben Ramsey?
Michael Jai White: It’s kind of spooky working with Tyler, because he and I think so much alike. Like, we can finish each other’s sentences. I don’t know if I would compare the two. Ben is definitely somebody who really lives within the action genre and the kind of heightened reality genre, and Tyler’s totally romantic comedy and that type of stuff. And he’s getting deeper into the drama. Those are two remotely different types of directors.
Scott Tre: If a major studio were to give you two hundred million dollars to make a movie and gave you complete creative control, what kind of movie would you make? What would be the ultimate Michael Jai White star vehicle?
Michael Jai White: If I had two hundred million I’d make like ten movies out of that (laughs). I would definitely make the Paul Robeson story. That would be my drama. I’d make Black Panther. I would do something with Black Panther that would make you forget about Batman. I guarantee you, if I got a chance to do Black Panther, everything would change. The genre would change. Those two things, then there’s actually an action comedy I would do. I think it would shake up the industry a bit. I’ve got some things up my sleeve that I’m anxious to get done. I kind of keep tight lipped about it until time presents itself.
Check out more great interviews, and articles at Scott’s Introspection Section: