The other day, we phoned up the 42-year-old American actor Michael Jai White to have a conversation about his new film Black Dynamite which he co-wrote and stars in. It’s a spoof ‘blaxploitation’ film which the very groovy film blog Ultra Culture described as “genuinely hilarious”, which is good because there’s nothing we like less than disingenuous humour. The problem with our Michael Jai White interview, right, is we didn’t have very long to talk to the Universal Soldier and The Dark Knight star (say: 20 minutes) and he’s a professional martial artist so we just talked about that instead because it’s really very interesting indeed. The way he talks about the discipline involved and the changes it made to his life made us want to move to some mountains in China to master the arts immediately. But we didn't, because we’re really excited about the new series of MasterChef.
Here is the interview:
Hello Michael Jai White. Where are you?
I’m in San Diego right now
Is that where you live?
No no, I came out here for a UFC event. I have some friends were competing and I’m doing some research for the movie I’m directing for Sony which has a lot of MMA involved in it.
What do you like about UFC?
Well I’ve been into fighting and martial arts of some form my whole life and I like the energy of it and the evolution it’s going through.
Do you see UFC as a kind of progression from martial arts? Seems like there’s more skill involved in martial arts?
I’d have to be honest and say it’s a regression from martial arts. I’m a traditional martial artist and traditional martial arts is not just the combative aspects. Tai chi or things like that are far more beneficial to you internally rather than just learning how to bash someone’s head in. Martial arts are kind of designed to make a complete person.
It’s a philosophy.
Yeah. The fighting is just one small aspect of the martial art, but UFC only concentrates on the fighting aspect.
Is UFC something you would do? Or are you too refined?
Well I actually do practice the fighting aspects. That part of it is something I’ve always explored and jujutsu was one of my first styles so having more and more people to do it with is great for me. I train with a lot of UFC guys and help them out. I coach some people.
What martial arts knowledge do you pass when you’re training UFC fighters?
Most UFC fighters, like 95% of them, don’t learn striking from its truest form. When you’re in martial arts you learn how to hold your wrist, you learn how to strike with your knuckles when you’re not padded up, so you have to learn how to use your body and your limbs and you condition those. You condition your knuckles to strike. That’s pretty much gone in most of the modern training. In martial arts you learn to strike something to break things as opposed to learning how to punch a bag. It’s kind of a different thing. And then there’s footwork and other aspects that are hard to develop when you’re developing everything at once.
Is it correct that the martial art you focus on the most is Kyokushin?
It’s pretty much the strongest style of karate worldwide. It’s a bit more Spartan than the traditional martial arts.
What do you mean by that?
It’s kind if like the Navy Seals of martial arts, really steeped in tradition.
Do you have lessons in tradition?
Oh yeah yeah, and I’m still very connected to the traditional stuff. In fact last Saturday, two days ago I had a 20 man fight. I fought 20 black belts full contact and it was like an endurance thing. I’m actually still limping because of it.
So what’s the tradition all about?
Well the thing about tradition is that it’s similar to a military organisation and there are aspects about traditional martial arts that you take with you for the rest of your life. There’s no one who doesn’t have someone to answer to. In martial arts schools it only goes as high as one instructor and that instructor is not subordinate to anyone else. With traditional martial arts it pushes you a little further than a business type martial art would, in order to achieve a black belt. You could train for 12 years and not become a black belt just like you could try and fail to get in the SAS. It should be something that is hard to achieve not something that you can achieve just by hanging in there, so that’s why I like tradition. It’s discipline. It focuses your mind and your will and propels you forward. With that discipline you can achieve anything, so it’s just a matter of really applying yourself and that comes from your mind.
So say you got a guy who did it for 12 years and didn’t get a black belt, would that be because of a lack of discipline?
Possibly. Sometimes there are certain physical things in traditional martial arts that you have to accomplish.
Can you give an example?
When you first get your black belt you have maybe a 10 man fight. You’ll have 10 black belts trying to knock you out to the point where you’re going to be fatigued and you feel like you can’t go on. And what’s gonna get you beyond that fatigue is gonna be your will power, so it’s about strengthening your will and galvanising that kind of will that is the biggest contributor for martial arts. There are less rites of passage now in today’s society, so any time you go through something you come out the other end stronger
So in films when you have one guy fighting six, seven or eight men, that does actually happen in real martial arts?
Well it can, absolutely. Because back when it was about life and death it was one stroke one kill. The body was a weapon.
Did you go abroad to do martial arts?
Absolutely. I trained in Japan and Beijing several times.
Did you go for months at a time?
Is it a monastic type of existence?
Absolutely. It’s wonderful. You learn so much.
What’s it like going away for months at a time to train?
You’re in solitude in so many ways. You can’t really speak the language very well or at all at first, so you get to know yourself. I think it’s one of those necessary things to develop as a person. I mean, many times in our lives we have our peers around us and have other things defining and helping define who we are and people live from event to event but it’s not until they spend time alone they really figure out who they actually are. Martial arts really develop you as a human being and as a citizen.
Were you based in the mountains or just in the city?
Different places at different times. Believe me, I’m not one of those guys who gets his strength from Kool-Aid or just gets off on just being up in the mountains. Sometimes I’d be like “what’s the point of this?”, but it’s something about being disciplined and following and learning and being open to learn stuff. There’s always a line you have to try and find where you say “well, what’s too much?” because you’d be there with people who have gone way over that line and kind of lose themselves.
Really? What kind of stuff would they be doing?
They’re just disciples who, if it wasn’t for this, they’d be a disciples somewhere else. It’s not the art form they’re practicing. It’s more about them, like if they were a radical Muslim. It’s kind of just about finding the balance, like the ying and the yang, then finding a place for it in your life.
Did martial arts change you as a person?
Absolutely, martial arts saved me. I mean, physically saved me on several occasions. But I’ve been on my own since I was 15 and I’ve had street fights that where pretty dramatic and saved myself and there were several times where I think I saved my own life but the discipline absolutely saved my life. I mean, I was born in Brooklyn and it was a really rough time. I could easily have gone a different direction.
We read that you’re a chess fan. Are they similar in the sense that they’re really tactical?
Oh yeah. Martial arts, on the highest level, are about out-thinking people. It’s far more interesting to play a person’s thoughts and personality than just blatantly striking them.
You kind of have to work out who they are?
Yeah. I mean, sometimes they really show you quite clearly who they are, but you have to be a really good listener.
Can you suss out what someone’s like from the way they fight?
Oh absolutely. Myself, I like to be a chameleon. I may represent myself one way and it becomes a chess game because what I’m presenting may or may not be the truth. Then it gets far more interesting.
Black Dynamite is in cinemas on August 13. Here is a link to a thing on Facebook.