When 43-year-old Jet Li walks into a room, you donít know whether to bow or stretch out your hand. Itís that kind of respect that Liís career demands, though perhaps being in America has made him completely oblivious to the hoopla of celebrity. His non-threatening demeanor and brotherly smile add to his larger-than-life persona. So as much as you try, and as welcoming as he is, itís hard to forget that Li is considered a legend to billions of people around the world.
Born in Beijing, Li studied the art of Wushu (a general term for martial arts). By the age of 11 he had won his first national championship, and by 17 he was being offered starring film roles in China. After a successful career in Asia that included over 25 movies, Li made his Hollywood debut in 1998ís Lethal Weapon 4.
It is the realness of his stunts, and the skill and discipline required to fight, that have fueled a continuing fascination with Jet Li within the Hip Hop community. This combination of Hip-Hop and marital arts has facilitated Liís transition into Stateside cinema with movies such as Romeo Must Die alongside the late Aaliyah, and Cradle to the Grave with DMX.
Following such a sensational career, fans will be sad to know that Liís latest martial arts epic is actually his last. Itís also his most ambitious crossover film to date. In Fearless [subtitled in English], Li brings his craft full circle, depicting the real story of Master Huo Yuanjia, whose life is somewhat parallel to his own. Directed by Ronny Yu, Fearless depicts classic brilliance in its action sequences, plot, and in Liís dramatization of Yuanjia.
We spent some time with Jet Li while he was in New York to discuss his career decisions, upcoming work with Jackie Chan, and the challenges of being an Asian actor in Hollywood.
AllHipHop Alternatives: How long are you in the States for?
Jet Li: Two weeks. Itís very busy!
AHHA: What makes Fearless different from all the other martial arts films youíve done?
Jet Li: Fearless is based on a true story of a martial artist. He is a philosopher from the last century. He changed peopleís mind on martial arts. Before him, martial arts was about fighting; about killing each other. He turned it into sports. Iíve been learning martial arts for 35 years, and I believe was he says.
Martial art is not just about the physical. Action films usually focus on the physical - they beat on each other and have competition on who is stronger, or they fight for revenge. Sometimes it is good but itís just one part of martial arts. This story talks about the whole idea of martial arts - how to control your martial arts instead of letting martial arts control you. You can use it in the right way. This is also my last Wushu movie.
AHHA: Why is this your last movie?
Jet Li: Everything I believe I put in this movie. Both the physical and mental parts of martial arts are in this movie. I wrote it. I found the producer for the film. I knew what I wanted to make.
AHHA: That would explain the similarities with the character in this movie and your real life. What do you plan do to now?
Jet Li: Yes. He died at 42 years old; I made the movie at 42. I am still making movies. Iím living my normal life and doing things that I believe in. I just finished a movie a few months ago. Itís a about the FBI fighting with the mafia.
AHHA: So youíre still going to do action movies?
Jet Li: Yes, but it is not my belief. Itís not a philosophy. Itís not traditional martial arts, and the movies wonít talk about martial arts. Itís just physical; action movies with martial arts in it, but not pure martial arts. Itís entertainment.
AHHA: Are you and Jackie Chan working on a script?
Jet Li: Yes, next year. Unless it changes, we are scheduled to make it next April.
AHHA: Are you going to be doing comedy?
Jet Li: I donít know. I canít talk about it!
AHHA: What do you think of Jackie Chan?
Jet Li: Heís great. Many people know Jackie Chan. He has done a great job in the last 30 years. He does different kind of action films and different types of characters.
AHHA: How do you prepare for a movie like Fearless?
Jet Li: The story was in my head for many and many years. We had a 90-day shoot. It was 60 days fighting for this film. Itís a lot of work.
AHHA: Why did you cross over to English movies?
Jet Li: I think every actor in the world wants to make Hollywood movies. You learn a lot from making Hollywood movies. And in Hollywood movies you need to speak English!
AHHA: What do you want to achieve in Hollywood?
Jet Li: I just want to do my job and do my best. In Hollywood, you need to prove yourself. You need to prove you can do something and then they will offer you the role. If you do not prove yourself, then they wonít offer. So thatís why I keep working here and in China and in Europe Ė I change it a lot. I work around the world.
AHHA: What do you think of the stereotypes in Hollywood for Asian actors? Iím sure youíre always offered action roles; would you like to do more drama?
Jet Li: In studio movies, it is different. You are just one kind actor. They believe that one way [action genre] you can make it happen. So you need to prove you can make it in other ways. Itís difficult for actors to make a change. My philosophy is never to complain about the system. I want to create what I believe. I want to change it. If you cannot change it, then you go somewhere and do something different. That the business.
AHHA: What was your experience like working with DMX?
Jet Li: I will only say that he is living in his own world.
AHHA: What was it like working with Aaliyah?
Jet Li: We worked together seven years ago. She was very charming. When we worked together, her mom and her brother were always with her. We had the same acting coach. We had a wonderful time. That is why I did the video to Try Again for her. I never did that before. She gave me leather pants as a present that I wore for many years. Itís like the loss of a family member. She is in many people hearts. If you love Aaliyah, then you know she is here. I believe she is always around us.
AHHA: Why does everyone, regardless of background, love Jet Li?
Jet Li: I am honest. I love the work and I bring a lot of the world to them. From generation to generation, I try to show martial art is physical. It does not mean good or evil. It really depends on who is using it. It is a nice way to help people. Martial arts is nice. Do not hurt people. I want to share my physical strength and my beliefs. And I smile! Not just in the movies, in life I smile a lot! Iím like a friend.
AHHA: Many women think you are sexyÖ
Jet Li: In Asia, a lot of actors and actresses are sexier than me. I donít know why, but in the States, suddenly Jet Li becomes sexy! I really donít know!
AHHA: What do you find sexy about a woman?
Jet Li: When you feel warm and you want to be close to her. That is sexy. It gives you the feeling that it is safe. It is all about love. ĎPrettyí has no definition. Everyone has their own opinion on what is pretty.
AHHA: Who should we be looking out for as the next Jet Li? Is there someone coming up in China we should know about?
Jet Li: I think it depends on the audience. The audience is the true master; the true boss. They make things happen. When they like someone, they will always support that actor or that filmmaker. They will smell it. Then they will find a way for that person. It may take a few years but someday they will find it. For example, look at my career. I made many movies in Asia already. People begin to know me from the movie store [renting martial art films] and then the studio smelled it. They found Jet Li. The audience will create the future.