Jet Li's remarkable journey as a martial artist began at age eight, with government sponsored training, competitions, and demonstrations that eventually afforded him the opportunity to tour America and meet Richard Nixon (the President jokingly suggested the boy become his bodyguard). Li's transition into filmmaking led to such martial arts classics as the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy, The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk I and II, and Fist of Legend. Li first forayed into American action cinema as the baddie in Lethal Weapon 4, followed by Romeo Must Die, The One, Cradle 2 the Grave and two collaborations with Luc Besson: Kiss of the Dragon and Unleashed. Though he had to turn down the role of Master Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Li won the pivotal part of Nameless in Zhang Yimou's Hero. Jet Li's Fearless is the star's self-described "final martial arts epic"—that is, his last period film to focus on martial arts (he will continue to employ martial arts in action films). During his stay at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Li discussed with me his new film and his career philosophy.
Groucho: I want to ask all about Fearless, but first I want to ask about your planned collaboration with Jackie Chan and what you can tell us about those discussions.
Jet Li: Yeah. Jackie is a friend of mine. We've wanted to work together and make films for fifteen years. Finally, I hope that that is real! (Laughs.) I think next April we will shoot a movie in China.
G: There's a rumor that you might play the Monkey King of folklore in that. Can you—do you know what part you're going to play yet?
JL: Of course I know, but I can't tell you.
JL: I need the producer or director—
G: They want their chance to announce it?
JL: No, no, no. They will announce [when] they think it's the right time.
G: About Fearless, though, do you see it as more of a biography or more of a legend?
JL: The Master Huo Yuanjia—he's the real person in China. But I just keep us in real...this guy's background and start[ing] the Chingwu school and mak[ing] the rule why learning martial arts—how to use martial arts in your life—the spiritual, the mental...the philosophy. But the story is made up, and quite close to my personal life. I put in the same feeling. I grew up with martial arts until today: forty-two years old. So mated them everything together and make this story...
G: Do you think that—now that you've delivered this sort of last word in wushu philosophy—you'll have a harder time finding projects that mean something to you?
JL: Yeah. It's hard to find a story to put in my ideas, all of my belief and my philosophy together. This is the perfect story you can make of them together, and tell that belief—personal belief. And [it's] really difficult to find the other stories. And also this talk [is] very deep. If you watch many times, [it's] already deep, very deep already. Yeah.
G: Are you satisfied to just make entertainment, or do you always have to have a meaning?
JL: You need a balance. I think you need a balance, if you'll only be the actor in movies. And some studio movies...you're just the actor. You show—you do your best, for performance, for the character, for the director. [It may] make sense for the story, but it doesn't mean I agree what the character does in the movie.
G: In this later phase of your career, you've grown so much as an actor, and I wonder what directors helped you grow most as an actor, and how?
JL: I don't think there have [been] directors, but my life—when I grew up—you meet different kind of people, you work in a different culture, in a different country, you understand life more. That will help you play different kind of characters. It's very, very helpful...
G: You mentioned that Huo Yuanjia's story reflects your own life and career. What aspects of your life and career are like his in the film?
JL: Like this character—if you've watched the movie already, you know he's tried to start growing up and learning martial arts: he wants to learn the best fight, he wants to beat up everybody, he wants to be the number one. And he doesn't care about the others who are injured, who got suffering, physically suffering. He doesn't care. He only wants to know, "I am the number one in the world, in China." Because he's a teenager [he] only thinks about that. And then he's quite successful. He never loses—the physical part he never loses. But he starts to become an ego-head and more aggressive. And that's why he loses—made a big mistake, and loses [his] family and he's killing people; he's got to go to the hell in the middle of the movie. And I think—of course, this overdoes the drama. But in life—like when I was eight years old when I started in martial arts—everybody told me, "You need to get the champion[ship]." I tried very hard to get champion. I got five champion[ships] in a row—I thought, "Yee!" You know, later on, "I'm quite special. I'm better than everybody." And then one day I make a movie and become a well-known Asian martial arts star. Then you believe—you become self-centered—everything is "I'm special." Until life—it's not just like a mountain; more ocean: up, down, up, down. Because up, down, up, down, you don't need to think about it. Until thirty years in, you think about it: "Mm. In my life, a lot of people have helped me." A lot of directors, a lot of coaches, my mother, my family, a lot of friends helped me—that made me Jet Li. Even the reporters, even the audience—if they love me, they support me, they make me. It's not just myself, myself. I've got to start thinking what I can do for them. Close to 40, you think about it more. Especially when I hear the tsunami—almost dead, the whole family, in the Maldives. Now you more appreciate the life. You want to share more love [and] information with people. The biggest amount of vision making this film is because in 2003 I heard of very bad news in China...a quarter million committed suicide in one year. And I thought it's very—suffering. And that's why I made this movie—to try to tell the students, teenagers: be strong. You need to stand up. Be strong. Fight yourself. The biggest enemy is yourself. Fight...and do your beliefs. Don't give up...
G: You said that good wushu has a flavor to it—a particular character. It's individual. What's the flavor of the wushu in Fearless?
JL: I always think wushu, in the physical part of wushu in movies, just the material can help each character. If you play the master, you need to learn the personality of a master. Then you can put the different kind of form, physical form for the Master. If you play a cop, or the tough guy, Mafia, whatever, you need to think first. You need to understand the character, the personality. Then you put a different move for the character. Because we are not a martial arts demonstration. We need to use the material to tell the story, to help the character. But this time we talk about the martial art—martial art is the story. Then we use his form. More than physical—not just the physical. You need to show his emotion. You know, in the beginning you can see he's all the moves. He doesn't care about—he doesn't look at the others. He'll beat up you—whatever, you're good or bad—he just wants to show "I'm the best." So later, he cares about the others; he changes his form, changes his movements, physically, his heart, everything. You can, through the physical part...show his belief inside. I think that is the most difficult part for an actor, or action actor, or for the...action director. A different angle: what different emotions move to show their inside...
G: You've had a fruitful working relationship with Luc Besson. I wonder why is it that you two work together well: what makes you compatible as artists?
JL: I think there are two kinds of movie business in the world: when it's a studio movie and when it's an independent movie. I think in Europe, or in Asia, [it's] quite close to independent styles. You have an idea and you talk with the producer and they both discuss—this is more exciting—then they decide, and then they do it. Right away, then they do it. And maybe years later, you can see the movie in a theatre. But some movies, it can't. Like you say, Jackie Chan's movie: we're talking about fifteen years. Even this story, we're going to shoot next year. But four years ago, I already knew the story. We were already there. But we needed an investor to prove—to invest the money to make the movie. So quite difficult, quite a difference. Which of them first? I think your independent film, you believe some story first. You don't worry about it too much—
G: What'll sell—
JL: The business—in the future—successful or not. You do your stuff first. But on the other side, they calculate it first.
G: They want to be number one!
JL: No, no, no. Not the number one—the money number one.
G: Yeah, yeah. That's what I mean.
JL: Then they decide to do it...Thank you very much.
[For Groucho's review of Jet Li's Fearless, click here.]