SF Weekly spoke to Chan about taking on more dramatic roles, his love-hate relationship with the Rush Hour franchise, and how he handles his anxiety around the English language and global terrorism.
A long time ago, I already knew I’m not young anymore. I cannot continue to do these kinds of comedy things, and a true action star or a big comedy star, how many are left today? The audience gets tired. By the time you do part 1, 2, and 3, they change to something new. But nobody’s tired of Robert De Niro, because he can still do everything: comedy, serious movies, drug dealers, and police roles. Then I said, “Yes, I want to be an Asian Robert De Niro.” So for the last 20 years I’ve been planning. Of course, Rush Hour was very successful, but I cannot just do 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.So I’ve been choosing some movies you don’t know, in Asia, like Little Big Soldier, where I was always hiding and pretended to die, and how can Jackie Chan pretend to die? He’s a superhero. After, I chose The Karate Kid, then immediately I made Chinese Zodiac. Then Dragon Blade, which is serious. Then Kung Fu Yoga, a comedy with Bollywood dancing. Then I chose The Foreigner. But the movies came out slowly, because I wanted the audience to slowly, slowly accept, “Oh, Jackie is not the action star. He’s an actor, but he knows how to act.” So for the last few years, I’ve been choosing appropriately.
Speaking of stunts, of those we see in this movie, which was the most challenging to film?
I think this kind, like in The Foreigner, is not really difficult for me, because the director, he doesn’t want me too Jackie Chan action. I play an old guy, 70 years old, and because he has a special background, with training by the navy seals, the fighting is a different kind of martial arts. It’s a technique, a special skill, so it’s a real fight. I think most challenging for me is the English, because I have to remember all the dialogue. And you have to speak perfect words and remember when he finishes, when he finishes, when’s my turn, and what’s the dialog meaning. When I understand the meaning, when I understand the story, the heart, a tear automatically comes out. It’s not an eye-drop. It’s real, from the heart.
Speaking of English, I was reading that one of the things that makes you less of a fan of the Rush Hour movies is that you don’t understand American humor.
After Rush Hour, I said, “Finished.” The fight is not as good as Chinese fights. All the comedy, I just don’t understand. Then after the movie finished, I told my manager I will never come back to the U.S., because it’s not my market. I speak no English. They have so many rules. If it’s a 5-to-10-minute fight scene, I’m shooting three months. But in the U.S., one-and-a-half days to two days. You cannot do this. I’m so angry. I say, “You want to make a good movie or you just want to make a movie on schedule, on budget?”
If they are on budget, on schedule, they’re satisfied, so I said I’m done, and then I go back to Hong Kong. Suddenly, I get a phone call that Rush Hour is so successful, and I’m like, “What?” But when I came to the premiere, I still didn’t understand why the audience was laughing so hard. In the theater, when I say, “What’s up, nigga,” the whole theater was “Haha,” boom, boom, boom. I just turned around, like “What’s so funny?” It’s just a different culture.
But now that your English is better, do you get it?
Now, I still don’t understand. Some of it, yes, but when they speak so fast, I still don’t get it. Like two weeks ago, I was doing premieres for The Lego Ninjago Movie. I was in the theatre and saw the audience keep laughing, and I was thinking, “They speak so fast.” It’s just not my language. Then after Rush Hour was so successful, they made part 2. I listened to them, whatever, and then I slowly trusted them. “OK, I’ll follow your culture if you teach me what I’m doing. Then I do my action sequence. You teach me the American humor. You teach me to say it, and I’ll say it.” It’s just difficult.
Did you always know you had dramatic talent, or did you develop it over the years?
I think I developed it all those years. I’ve been making films for 57 years, from a child actor, when I didn’t know how to act, slowly learning, learning, learning, until now. I thought it’s about time to act in some dramas.
The Foreigner story feels so topical with xenophobia on the rise today. Can the film help us better understand and accept foreigners?
I think The Foreigner, this kind of person, is all over the world. Just like me, 40 years ago, when I came to the U.S. and spoke no English and was without a lot of friends. I was just hiding, and when people talked to me, I just nodded my head. At that time, even if they bullied me, even if I knew how to fight, I’d just let them beat me. I think Quan is this kind of person. He was so tough when he was young, but now he’s hiding in London, in his restaurant. I know there are so many of these kinds of people, no matter whether they’re Chinese, Korean, Americans in China, they’re living the same thing. I think if everybody respected everybody, that people would be very happy to live in every country.
I read that the London bus explosion stunt in the film sparked panic among locals, who suspected it was yet another terrorist act. Are you as anxious about terrorism?
I think, “Why?” I just don’t understand why the people are doing so much hurting people with these things? Anytime I see not only these terrorist things, but also tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, everything, I think, “Enough natural disasters. Please stop the human disaster.” But every time I watch these things, I really want to be a superman to fly around the world to save the world and save the people, to suck the water away, blow the fire away, stop it all. Why can’t people live with each other, respect each other? Why accept hate? Why not accept love? These days, I hope people get it with this movie, after they see it.